History and Historians, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Triumphant Return! Et L’Affaire Cronon


It’s Been A While

As Spring threatens to return, I find my thoughts turning once more (as do those of so many rapidly middle-aging historians) to blogging. I know, gentle readers, that I’ve left you without terrible puns and alliterative link dumps for far too long; the Goose Commerce thread in your RSS reader is, no doubt, covered in dust, mites, and then more dust. And, may I say: that’s disgusting.

But awake! Or at least, don’t delete. I’m back! And plan to post at least weekly here until I lose interest again.1

So, to business…

As I’m sure you’re aware, the newest shiny debate in PastLand is L’affaire Cronon, aka the Wisconsin Republican party’s bizarre attack on one of my favorite authors, William Cronon (Mr. Nature’s Metropolis). The AHA has a full roundup on everything you need to catch yourself up

There’s been a lot of commentary, obviously, but for my own purposes the most interesting include those smart things said about the wider legal context of this attack at the egregiously inappropriately-named AmericanScience blog: Part 1, Part 2.

As for what the heck Cronon himself is up to, the best read I’ve seen so far is what Ben Schmidt, professional history’s own Nate Silver, has said over at the wonderful and informative Sapping Attention. I agree with all that Schmidt says2 : seems like the deliberative democracy shoe, consciously consensual and wholly impractical, is what fits.

While I admire Cronon’s position – especially given that he is ascending to a the highest honorific position within the guild, usually not a place that one achieves by making political waves – I can’t say that I agree with his theory of politics. I side with Martin Van Buren: we need parties, and partisanship, to make the system go; playing the center (ideologically, philosophically) is a fool’s game. Conflict is a feature, not a bug: because people just disagree, that’s why.

Which still leaves us with the problem of establishing and policing standards of discourse: so maybe Prof. Cronon has the right idea after all.

In any case, I look forward to making more of these uninformed comments in the future! Now back to actual work for a change.

Image: law_keven, “Do you think he’s alive???…..” Flickr, CC License

1.) Hey, if I’m nothing if not realistic.

2.) Save the bit about Changes in the Land being the better book: it’s good, but clearly, Nature’s Metropolis is in every way more interesting.

History and Historians

What If Historians Wrote the News?

Shit happened.1

Cf. Greg Marx, “Embrace the Wonk,” Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 2010); Chris Beam, “The Only Politics Article You’ll Ever Have to Read: What if political scientists covered the news?Slate, 4 June 2010; Conor Friedersdorf, “It Depends Who Writes the News,” True/Slant, 7 June 2010; Jonathan Chait, “A Sociologist Covers the News,” The New Republic, 7 June 2010; and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, trans. John Sibree, Philosophy of History (New York: American Home Library Company, 1902), §4:66.

Image cite: Frank Wuestefeld, “Shit Happens,” Flickr, CC License

History and Historians

Unduly Interested in Note-Taking

Or, Back of the Hand History

Worth reading the whole, delightfully meandering piece:

Historians are like reliable local guides. Ideally, they will know the terrain like the backs of their hands. They recognise all the inhabitants and have a sharp eye for strangers and impostors. They may not have much sense of world geography and probably can’t even draw a map. But if you want to know how to get somewhere, they are the ones to take you.
~Keith Thomas, “Diary,” London Review of Books 32, No. 11 (10 June 2010)

Balthus Van Tassel, “Sacromonte – Travel guide,” Flickr, CC License

History and Historians, Ivory Towers

The Golden Ratio

Or, Φ Upon Lesser Calculations!

If have any interest in the whole Library of Congress / Twitter development, you should go read Dan Cohen’s smart post on the topic:

Cohen’s post is largely about how to apply the key insight from William Press’s work on the efficacy of “strong” profiling to archival practice like the LoC’s acquisition of the Twitchive (Twarchive?). He comes up with what he terms a “calculus of importance” — but what I’m going to call Press-Cohen’s law, cause that’s more internet sciency — for best allotting collection and curation resources:

In other words, if you believe that the notebooks of a known writer are likely to be 100 times more important to future historians and researchers than the blog of a nobody, you should spend 10, not 100, times the resources in preserving those notebooks over the blog. It’s still a considerable gap, but much less than the traditional (authoritarian) model would suggest. The calculus of importance thus implies that libraries and archives should consciously pursue contents such as those in the Cambridge University Library tower, even if they feel it runs counter to common sense.

An perspicuous friend and colleague of mine wondered if a corollary to Press-Cohen’s law would make sense for research, as well as archive compilation. That is, “should a historian spend only 10 times as much effort pursuing the obvious characters and institutions (or historiographies), instead of 100?”

PF&C suggested that “standard disciplinary practice already says yes” — and I would agree, and even go further and say that it is probably worthwhile to make the use of such a ratio explicit (hence the post!).

Going to a known wells and looking from a new perspective needs to be part of our practice, but within limits (you should dig in lots of new places, too). The 100/10 ratio seems a pretty reasonable rule of thumb, in a world of limited time and resources for research.

What think you, yea historians of teh internets?

PS: Isn’t quasi-social science fun?

Image cite: fd, “Golden Spirals,” Flickr, CC License

History and Historians, Ivory Towers

Enthusiasm, Not Acrimony

Or, Thoughts?

Tony Grafton’s recent review of Louis Menand’s book The Marketplace of Ideas has caused a bit of a stir among the lumpen intelligensia, or at least it has within my very small circle of it.

While I can’t count myself among Prof. Grafton’s detractors — I found his takedown of Menand’s narrow and vapid pendantry useful, and if it was a bit florid in it’s defense of humanistic knowledge, well, then I’m more than ready to excuse a bit of overwrought prose and unfortunately romantic metaphor by a historian who has done so much to put the profession’s decline (as a job) in the limelight — I do certainly feel the frustration that accompanies incredibly limited job prospects.

Wasting years of one’s life in the pursuit of something no one values has a way of leaving a bitter taste, I suppose.

The several discussions I’ve had about Prof. Grafton’s piece, both on- and off-line — notable only in the lack of good-will, candor, and valid information coming from all sides — seem to bear that bitterness out. My hope is that with this post we might begin a new conversation, something more productive than the foaming wrath that Grafton’s and Menand’s overperformed erudition seem to have elicited.

That is, I want to talk about concrete resources for figuring out how to do something else beyond these damn three-letter degrees in futility, maybe even in a line of work with less pathological tendencies.

So, three sites to start us off:

  • Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo appear to have abandoned Beyond Academe, but it’s still offers some good primers.
  • Mark Johnson’s Sellout is of similar vintage, but with much more (and better organized) content; focuses on what humanities PhDs in general can do beyond the seminar room.
  • Finally, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes’s In the Service of Clio, updated regularly, offers non-depressing first-person profiles of historians working outside of universities.
  • I would also link to the Chronicle’s pieces on this topic, but as we all know, that newspaper is frakking depression itself.

That’s just a start. It’s a big internet, and all suggestions are welcome.

However, further commentary on Grafton, Menand, the horribleness of grad programs and/or humanities fields in general, etc will be immediately deleted.

Tyleringram, “Cute anyone?” Flickr, CC License