Yaks, Yurts and Sheep Dung

THE MAIL

To the Editors of The Crimson:

In its issue of Wednesday, May 4th, The Boston Globe printed a front-page account of Professor John K. Fairbank's valedictory lecture in History 1711. Since the Globe story impugned both my competence as a slide-projector operator and my loyalty to Chairman Fairbank--and since I am told that some members of the Harvard community read the Globe--I would be grateful to the Crimson for printing my heartfelt rebuttal.

The Globe's reporter made two untrue assertions: First, she reported that Fairbank's effort publicly to "exorcise Jim Thomson's phobia about sheep dung" related to my mishandling of a sheep-dung lecture-slide back in 1958 when I was his teaching assistant. Second, she reported that I was not even present at the Chairman's valedictory lecture.

In response:

1) The reporter got the sheep-dung story all wrong. What had happened, back in 1958, related to my then lofty position of audio-visual aide in Fairbank's famous course, "Rice Paddies." That meant that I ran the slide projector in the last ten minutes of each lecture. Fairbank would give me a box of slides he had selected and arranged; I would then show them.

One morning the subject was the nomadic life of Mongolia--therefore endless slides of yaks. yurts, camels, and the like; also, toward the beginning, a picture of multiple mounds of dried sheep dung which, Fairbank explained, the Mongols used for fuel. Imagine my consternation when, several slides later, there appeared on the screen a precise duplicate of the sheepdung vista. Fairbank once again patiently explained the significance of the mounds, but added to the audience of 300, "I am frankly at a loss as to how to account for Mr. Thomson's infatuation with sheep dung." I was, you see, the innocent victim of one of Chairman Fairbank's notorious practical jokes.

It was therefore, to "exorcise" the trauma which that occasion had produced in me that the Chairman, on the day of his retirement, graciously performed a re-run of that scene 19 years ago. Such is the greatness of the Chairman's heart and his concern for even the least of his followers!

2) Far from being absent from the valedictory lecture, I was indeed present--but also mouselike quient, awe-struck by the continuities of history.

Sincerely, James C. Thomson Jr.   Curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism