Government Shutdowns as Class Activity

On two occasions this semester, faculty at my institution had to grapple with the possibility that if the government shut down, all civilian faculty would be furloughed for an indeterminate amount of time, while our students continued to come to class. So we had to create contingency plans for our students to mitigate learning loss as much as possible. Before the first shutdown threat, I created a meta-activity for my students in HH200: The Historian’s Craft, the first of our sequence of seminars for our history majors. I constructed an activity whereby over the course of 7 or 8 class days, they would research every single government shutdown that has happened in the United States and then write about each one. Then they would put their writeups and their collected metadata into a TimelineJS timeline and build themselves a digital project.

As it turned out, the government did not shut down either time the possibility loomed. But I decided that we were going to do the shutdown project anyway, under my supervision but otherwise just like they would have done during a shutdown: no out-of-class work, only working on it during our normal meeting time. I wanted to do this for a few pedagogical reasons:

  1. I wanted to see how they did research online. This has been an interest of mine for a while now, and I was curious to see if these history majors went about research differently from my freshmen. (Largely, they don’t.)
  2. I wanted to force them to think with specificity about causality, context, and contingency. I asked them to identify all the relevant Congresspeople, as well as the reasons for the shutdown and the way the shutdowns were ended. Many of them expressed repeated surprise about how the government works (or worked) and what kinds of things would hold up an entire government’s budget approval process. This project complicated their understanding of what a democratic government looks like and how it functions (or doesn’t function).
  3. I wanted to help them move from a specific event to a broader understanding of principles and themes. Each of them worked on one or two shutdowns, providing all the information I asked of them in a spreadsheet generated by one of the students. Once the spreadsheet was filled out, before we made the timeline, I asked them to look at all the information and identify trends or surprises. They did a really good job of coming up with continuities and contrasts across the entire 50-year swath of shutdowns.
  4. I wanted to see if they could follow directions and edit themselves. Once they had put all their information into the spreadsheet, we talked about how to regularize data (e.g., do you call Tip O’Neill “Tip O’Neill,” which is how everyone refers to him, or do you call him “Thomas O’Neill,” his actual name?). And we talked about why these kinds of questions are more than just a flip of a coin—choosing how to represent things is important. Additionally, TimelineJS is extremely user-friendly but you do have to follow the directions precisely in order for the timeline to populate.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. There are some inconsistencies, of course, but the students worked hard and came up with a fairly detailed timeline! Here’s the final result.

Where Do Circulars Go?

The circular is a staple of State Department communications in the nineteenth century–a document written with the intention of its being circulated to many different people in a region. (Spare a thought for the poor clerk who had to write out each copy of the circular!) Since multiple copies of circulars were created, they often show up in multiple people’s papers or official correspondence with the State Department. It can sometimes be fun to see whether the clerk got a little sloppy with their copying by comparing multiple versions of the same document.

Circulars allowed consuls and other officials to communicate pressing information such as declarations of war; changes in treaty status; new alliances or agreements; and many other things.

Circular from William Eaton, July 23, 1801.National Archives and Records Administration. Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Tripoli, Libya, 1796-1885.

For instance, in this circular, William Eaton, consul at Tunis, announces the blockade of the port of Tripoli to his Mediterranean comrades. Notice the range of locations this one document encompasses: it’s about affairs in Tripoli, written by the consul at Tunis, on the stationery of the consulate at Leghorn (Livorno). This copy of the document is located in the National Archives, in a collection of consular dispatches from Tripoli, so we can logically conclude that this copy is actually the one belonging to James Leander Cathcart, the erstwhile consul at Tripoli. We can also guess this based on the fact that he or his clerk wrote the dispatch number at the top of this document. (Notice the two different handwritings between the document on the left and the one on the right–I happen to know that the one on the left is Cathcart.)

We may even be able to go so far as to say that the Leghorn stationery indicates that Cathcart superintended the writing of this circular. He fled to Leghorn after being evicted from Tripoli, and it’s very possible that Eaton visited him there and they cooked up this circular together. (A copy of this document, not on the consular stationery, also appears in Cathcart’s letterbook which is held in the Library of Congress, bolstering the case for coordination.)

We can make some guesses about where circulars go based on where they end up in the archives. But those records are spotty at best. Consuls might not have even kept circulars they received, and if they did, they may not have sent them back to the State Department, presuming that the original author would send a copy there.

We can’t assume that a consul always sends circulars to the same places, of course. It could be that a circular only pertains to part of that consul’s knowledge network, so he doesn’t send it where he knows it’s irrelevant. But by and large, I suspect that if a consul took the trouble to draft a circular, he sent to as many people as he could think of. I’ve always wished we could know more about those networks.

And that’s why I was so delighted to run across a source that can help us with this question, at least for one particular consul: James Simpson. He was the consul in Tangier before and during the First Barbary War. Of the four Barbary consuls, he wrote the fewest circulars–but he did historians of the future a huge service because on one of his circulars, he included a list of where it was sent.

In this circular, Simpson relays the surprising news that the Emperor of Morocco has declared war, and thus Simpson has been forced to vacate Tangier. On the back side of the circular, he includes a list of posts to which he sent the circular.

At first glance, the list doesn’t seem too surprising. There were a few places on here that I couldn’t quite decipher–shout-out to my colleagues BJ and Ryan for their help in handwriting analysis! And there’s one that I can read but I don’t know where it is: St. Michaels. In the absence of other clues, I concluded that St. Michaels might be Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. If you know of a St. Michaels in Europe or the Mediterranean that you think it might be, please give me a holler!

Once I had the names deciphered, I plotted them on a map. A few interesting things emerged.

First, Simspon sent this circular to only the western Mediterranean, but he knew of ports in the more eastern Mediterranean that would have been interested in his news. His list doesn't even include ports such as Syracuse or Valletta, Malta, which he would certainly have known about because the American navy had been going in and out of those ports for a year now. He also doesn't include places like Rome or Venice or Constantinople. This is surprising because Simpson's presence in Tangier was a safeguard for American vessels traveling through the straits of Gibraltar, which they all had to do eventually no matter how far into the Mediterranean they went. So I would have thought he would send the circular to every Mediterranean port. But he didn't. I don't know why.

Second, I realized as Ryan and BJ and I were talking about this data that a few of the places on Simpson's list had no American consular presence. (They're the red dots on the map.) So a consular circular didn't necessarily only go to other American consuls. The places he sent the circular to mostly make sense--e.g., he sent one to Stockholm, Sweden, a nation with which the American navy had been cooperating for most of the war. And he sent one to Port Mahon, which was a major stopover port for vessels in the Mediterranean. (I'm sure there's an interesting story about why the United States doesn't have a consul there; sometime maybe I'll try to find out.) But there are dozens of other places Simpson could have sent the circular to that didn't have U.S. consular representation--and that fact makes me think that he had some kind of other connection to these ports. Someone he knew in those places needed this information.

And third, it's interesting to see, written out, the multiplier effect. Simpson specifically asks the consuls in London, Dublin, and Lisbon to send the circular through their own networks, rather than doing it himself. The United States had no consular representation in Portugal except for in Lisbon, so again here he's asking that they break out of the American consular networks to spread the news. On the map, I marked in yellow the other U.S. consulates in England and Ireland that might have received the circular based on his request, but again, we have to assume that they spread it not only amongst American consuls but much more broadly.

So, can we ever build a full network of consular communication? No, definitely not. But this one small circular from James Simpson gives us an interesting window into his world and his knowledge networks that may tell us a little bit more about the diplomatic and consular processes more broadly.

Farewell to Consolation Prize

This afternoon, we held a party at RRCHNM to celebrate the past of Consolation Prize and the future of R2 Studios. I wrote out a little speech which sums up a lot of how I feel about the show and what it has meant, so I thought I’d post it here.

Thank you all for coming to our R2 Studios open house and celebration of our OG show, Consolation Prize. As many of you know, Consolation Prize was launched in September 2020, during the first full semester of the pandemic. The Center had made a podcast many years ago called Digital Campus, doing podcasting before podcasting was cool. I remember listening to Digital Campus on a few road trips. But it had been a while since the center had been in the business of podcasting. An external partner reached out about the possibility of doing something with us, and we had the idea to make a podcast. That project eventually didn’t pan out because we were concerned that the Center’s lack of experience with podcasting would make our grant application non-competitive. How do you get the podcasting experience necessary to be competitive? Well, you make a podcast! So Mills very graciously gave me the green light—and the time of a number of people at the Center—to pilot a brand-new podcast, different from anything we’d done before. That podcast was Consolation Prize.

Consolation Prize had an ambitious goal—to be a highly produced, deeply researched narrative podcast…a thing that no one at the center had the least bit of experience with. It also had a very niche premise: that consuls, low-level diplomatic officials, were important enough to the history of the United States that they were worth making a whole show about.

Even though I read everything I could get my hands on about making a podcast, we still went into this with a lot of room to learn. Very, very few other shows exist that do what we wanted to do, and sound like we wanted to sound. So we were kind of flying blind on some things. We got some really helpful advice from a consultant after the first few episodes, which led to our now-maybe-familiar description: “Consolation Prize is a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls.”

Over the past two seasons, a lot of things have changed and improved. For one thing, we got a real studio space, which I’d invite you to check out after the speechifying. We also got a lot more comfortable with sound and story. We learned how to find interesting stories, how to ask better questions, how to articulate our ideas in a more focused way. Over two seasons, Consolation Prize went to six continents and three centuries. We did legal history, religious history, art history, economic history, military history, gender history, and of course, diplomatic history. I also counted up the number of different voices you hear over our 33 episodes, and it’s over 100, between me, our team, our expert guests, and our voice actors. Getting to talk to so many amazing historians was definitely a highlight for me. And yeah, I definitely called in a LOT of favors to get voice actors on a shoestring budget. So shout-out to many of you in this room whose voices have been heard on Consolation Prize, whether you agreed to do it eagerly or with a significant amount of arm twisting.

I’m really proud of our core team, made up of me, Deepthi Murali, a postdoc, Megan Brett, a graduate student turned graduated student, Kris Stinson, a PhD student, Jeanette Patrick, a classified staff member, Andrew Cote, a former adjunct, and our two great interns, Brenna Reilley, an undergraduate intern on Season 1, and Frankie Bjork, a graduate intern on Season 2. Consolation Prize has truly been a team effort from Day 1, and I’m so proud of that.

But all good things must come to an end. This is my last month at GMU, so continuing the show would be complicated. But I had already decided that the show needed to come to an end. It’s time for the studio and the Center to move on to bigger and better projects, which will hopefully build on the lessons we’ve learned from Consolation Prize. It has truly been my privilege to be the showrunner for Consolation Prize, and the head of studio for R2 Studios, and I’m delighted to be leaving the studio in such capable hands.

Searching for Irena Wiley

In our March 29 episode, Consolation Prize featured the work and life of Irena Wiley, a talented artist who took her art all around the world with her husband, U.S. diplomat John Cooper Wiley. In the episode, we noted that Irena Wiley traveled with the USO in the Pacific after her husband’s death. In her visits, she drew portraits of wounded and sick servicemen in the U.S. forces. She then gave these portraits away to the servicemen to send back to their families. She deliberately chose not to keep notes on whose portraits she drew, or even to keep preliminary sketches of them, so there are no records of who she created portraits for.

Irena Wiley in Vietnam. Photo owned by Gold Leaf Studios.

We would like to find these portraits and hear the stories of the servicemen Irena Wiley encountered on her trips with the USO. We don’t know a whole lot about where she went, but here’s what we do know.


We believe Irena Wiley traveled in Vietnam, Guam, the Philippines, and Japan on a tour in 1968, but we don’t have any hard evidence at this time.


  • Wiley was in the Da Nang area from August 1-7, 1969. Her presence is recorded in the III Marine Amphibious Force Command Chronology. We assume this was only one stop on a much longer tour.


Wiley was in these locations at some point before July 1970:

  • Bachelor Officer Quarters, Saigon
  • Pleiku, 4th Infantry Division
  • DMZ: Quang Tri
  • Phu Bai: 3rd Combined Action Group Headquarters
  • Cam Ranh Bay
  • Clark Air Base (Philippines)
  • Okinawa

These locations were recorded in a Vogue article about her travels. No dates were given in the article. This is almost certainly a non-exhaustive list.

If you know anything about Irena Wiley, or you have a relation who may have encountered her, please reach out! You can reach the show at, or you can find the show on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or you can even leave a voicemail at our website,

Please share this widely. I appreciate so much any info you can share.