Joseph Spillane

Welcome!  I’m currently Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida, where I am also an Associate Professor in the Department of History, and an affiliate faculty of the Criminology program.  If you’re interested in any of my published books, check the “Books” section of this page.  Students interested in advising should stop by the home page of the CLAS Academic Advising Center.  If you’re interested in learning more about History at UF, you can go the main department page.  Students interested in my courses should go the the separate Courses page (see the menu bar at the top).  Currently enrolled students can get much more course information through the University of Florida e-learning system (Sakai).

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Today is the official publication date for my latest book, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform.  Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll be posting news and reflections related to the book.  Here’s the cover:

CoxsackiecoverThe photograph on the cover was taken by the well-known artist Ben Shahn, during the course of his preparations for a mural to have been painted for the under-construction Rikers Island Penitentiary in New York City.  This photo shows teenage prisoners at the old New York City Reformatory.  Shahn was granted permission to take the photos from NYC Corrections Commissioner Austin MacCormick, who had taken a great interest in the proposed project.  MacCormick, and the mural, help frame the first chapter, “The Reformer’s Mural.”

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Is Seeing Believing?

Former students of mine will recall occasional references to the blogging done by filmmaker Errol Morris at the New York Times.  Here’s a slightly delayed link to the first part of a fascinating two-part post.  I can’t write more without compromising the post.  Just one clue:


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Declines, Crashes, and Seeing in Time

My history and policy students have been spending some time discussing the manner in which we “see in time”–the connections we make between past, present and future.  These connections become all the more important when they are part of decision-making processes in the policy universe; indeed, that’s why Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May titled their classic work on policy and history Thinking in Time.  Of course, while they’re largely hopeful that “a little thought can help,” we see plenty of examples of decision-makers adrift, largely unable or unwilling to stop critical events from leading to catastrophic outcomes.  This week’s discussions of the eurozone crisis include this account from the BBC, which begins:

“Fear is coursing through the corridors of Brussels. It has been there for some time, usually unspoken or understated. It is now in the open. It is the fear of losing control of events. It is the realisation that most ideas have been tried and still the eurozone crisis deepens.”

In class, I mentioned that it put me in mind of Liaquat Ahamed’s recent Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Penguin, 2009), which examines the four central bankers whose decision-making set the stage for the financial collapse of 1929, and then compounded the initial financial crisis into what would become the Great Depression.  It’s a compelling read, though students of history and policy may also wish to view his discussion of the book (with a much closer eye to comparisons with the present financial crisis) from the Aspen Ideas Festival:

The Bankers Who Broke the World

Crashes remind historians that policy-making sometimes becomes, at least in the short-term, unmoored from the predictable bases of ideology, institutional practice, and the like.  As Ahamed himself writes, “Nothing brings home the fragility of the banking system or the potency of a financial crisis more vividly than writing about these issues from the eye of the storm.  Watching the world’s central bankers and finance officials grappling with the current situation–trying one thing after another to restore confidence, throwing everything they can at the problem, coping daily with unexpected and startling shifts in market sentiment–reinforces the lesson that there is no magic bullet or simply formula for dealing with financial panics.  In trying to calm anxious investors and soothe skittish markets, central bankers are called upon to wrestle with some of the most elemental and unpredictable forces of mass psychology.  It is the skill that they display in navigating these storms through uncharted waters that ultimately makes or breaks their reputation.”
All of which brings us, currently, in our class to another product of troubled times–the declinism genre.  Adam Gopnik’s recent review in The New Yorker (“Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat”) covers several new entries into a field given shape back in 1918 with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.  Gopnik’s not particularly a fan of the genre.  Where Ahamed shows us the elemental and unpredictable, and the great difficulty of seeing forward (much less using the past to see in that direction), Gopnik’s declinists are pretty darn sure of what they’re seeing.  Here’s one (Thomas Friedman), also from the Aspen Ideas Festival.
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Scuttling Between Past and Present

History and Public Policy students will surely find this piece from Sunday’s Gaurdian of interest.  In it, historian Andrew Davies attempts to contextualize the recent English rioting by reminding readers that “we have been here before.”

Scuttler Photo

The Ancoats scuttler Alexander Pearson, pictured in 1892. Photograph: Staffordshire Record Office

Andrew Davies is currently Senior Lecturer in Modern British social history at the University of Liverpool, and the author of The Gangs of Manchester.  When it comes to describing the “scuttlers” of late 19th century Manchester–violent, brawling gangs of young men–Davies knows whereof he speaks.  What’s fascinating about the Guardian piece is the attempt to speak directly to a contemporary public stirred to attention by disturbing public violence.  Davies won’t find many to disagree with him when he draws “a stark parallel with present-day responses to gangs” in describing the manner in which “scuttlers were routinely demonised by politicians and sections of the press. Victorian gang members were derided as ruffians, brutes, barbarians, savages and ‘juvenile terrorists’.”  What’s likely to generate more comments (indeed, they have–check the comments that follow his piece) are his twin policy assertions: first, that stiff punishments and deterrence did not work and, second, that the more “forward-thinking” and ultimately successful policy response was greater investment in “new facilities for education, training and recreation for youths” (most especially sports clubs).  Here Davies suggests that these lessons from more than a century past could and should be applied in the contemporary context.  Students (and others) interested in more might check out this interview with Andrew Davies conducted by Julie-Marie Strange for the Journal of Victorian Culture (August, 2010), which really raises the question of “doing history” beyond the university.

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