History for all: Public lecture series looks at World War I


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

History professor Jen Lynn will speak on “Visualizing Conflict: Memory and the Great War” during MSUB’s lecture series on World War I. Behind her, in the library lobby, are reproductions of posters from the World War I era.

Last year, when the Montana State University Billings Library presented a series of lectures marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, no one had any idea how many people would turn out for the Tuesday night presentations.

Brent Roberts, the library director, said they had a small classroom reserved, with room for about 35 people. Forty minutes before the first lecture was to start, it was obvious that would be too small, so Roberts started making plans to move into a classroom with room for 90.

And still people came streaming in, with the result that plans changed again and the lecture was held in Library 148, the largest classroom on campus, with a capacity of about 200.

The room filled up that night and attendance stayed nearly as strong for the next six lectures.

The professors who took part in the series, Roberts said, “felt like Mick Jagger. They felt like Britney Spears.”

So Roberts was receptive when Matt Redinger, the school’s vice provost for academic affairs, suggested another lecture series this year, commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

Redinger admits he had ulterior motives. A longtime history professor who became vice provost last year, he did not deliver a lecture in the Civil War series. He’ll make up for that on Oct. 21, when he lectures on “Propaganda in WWI.”

The series begins Tuesday night, again in Library 148, with English professor Brian Dillon lecturing on “If Memory Serves: Writers Who Challenge How We Think About World War I.”

The 11-part series will continue every Tuesday through Oct. 28, then resume during spring semester on Tuesdays Feb. 10 through March 17. All lectures will start at 6:30 p.m. The series, which has support from Humanities Montana, is free and open to the public.

As with the Civil War series, this new series involves teachers from a variety of departments. They include music professors Mark Fenderson and John Roberts, who will talk about, and play, “Music of WWI” on Oct. 28, and English professor and Montana Poet Laureate Tami Haaland, who will close out the lecture series with “Poetry of WWI” on March 17.

The music lecture, the only one not held in Library 148, will be in the Cisel Recital Hall. A complete list of speakers can be found here.

One repeat lecturer is historian Jen Lynn. She spoke last year on photographs of the Civil War era. On Oct. 14, she will speak on “Visualizing Conflict: Memory and the Great War.”

Lynn, who teaches European history and visual culture, said she will talk about, among other things, how Communists used anti-war images to press for societal change, while the right-wing groups used stirring pictures of World War I to fan the flames of nationalism.

She will also speak of a German sculptor who lost a son in the war and created art depicting life on the homefront, and of Dada artists who protested against war by focusing on images of disabled veterans.

Lynn said she really enjoyed speaking last year and is looking forward to the World War I series.

“It gives us a chance to get excited about our work and share it with the community,” she said.

It also inspires the community, apparently. After the Civil War series, librarian Roberts said, a donor who specifically mentioned how much he enjoyed the series made a sizable donation to the school’s campaign to renovate its 67-year-old Science Building.

Keith Edgerton, chairman of the MSUB History Department, said “this is what we’re supposed to do as academics” — reach out into the larger community.

“It’s free of charge,” he said. “It’s a great thing to do in Billings on a Tuesday.”

Edgerton, who talked about depictions of the Civil War on the big screen during the last series, showed up for his lecture dressed as Abraham Lincoln.

This year, on Oct. 7, he’ll be talking about a subject close to home: “Free Speech, Sedition, and Montana in WWI.”

He’s got a lot of ground to cover, including a discussion of how the state’s anti-sedition law became the model for a similar law later adopted by Congress. He’ll also talk about the anti-German hysteria that swept through Montana during the war, and how the war was used as an excuse to crack down on unions in Butte.

Among the outgrowths of that crackdown was the occupation of Butte by federal troops and the hanging of the radical labor organizer Frank Little, in Butte.

“Civil liberty kind of takes a back seat to national security,” Edgerton said. “You see this every time there’s a time of national stress.”

Asked if his lecture would include any costumes this year, Edgerton said, “I don’t know who I’d show up as. Frank Little with a noose around his neck? That would be in poor taste.”



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