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

Ivory Towers, Power At Play

Roll for Initiative, Doctorate

Or, Do PhDs roll Twenties?


Wow. This L.A. Times story — a version of this much better reported year-old piece by Scott Jaschik at InsideHigherEd — describes a colossally bad idea on which ETS (Educational Testing Service) is trying to sell graduate admissions deans.

Put very briefly: ETS has come up with an additional form for graduate school applicants (and paying customers of the GRE) to give to their recommendation-letter writers. The form asks recommenders to rate the applicants on “a scale of 1-5” on their abilities in “knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity.” (1) These ratings are then put through some kind of algorithm to produce a “PPI” score (Personal Potential Index), which purports to measure the applicant’s “non-cognitive” qualities. These, in turn, will supposedly enable admissions folks to determine whether or not the applicant is likely to complete graduate school, like, ever. (Only 57% of admitted students actually do, you see).

I won’t get into all the ways that this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. But to quickly run down a few objections: don’t most schools already require similar rating forms in their grad applications? how can “knowledge,” “creativity,” or “planning” be non-cognitive? how would a prof. know about a student’s “resilience,” anyway? does ETS have data that backs up the correlation between PPI and grad school success?

(Other arguments against this are left as an exercise for the reader).
Continue reading “Roll for Initiative, Doctorate”

History and Historians, Ivory Towers

O Historians!

How Crafty? So Crafty

Duke it Out
Remember when we were talking about how crafty historians are?* Well, other, smarter people have been having the same great idea. Let me fill you in…

Michèle Lamont, author of How Professors Think, has been guest-blogging over at Crooked Timber, and in between trolling the philosophers**, she’s got a post up comparing the cultures of evaluation amongst historians and economists. Her discussion is not much different than the previous bit in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but the comments are worth a whirl, if only to massage our collective disciplinary egos. My favorite so far is this:

“But—in my limited experience with them—I also think historians respect a strong, clear writing style … That stylistic aspect of the particular craft ethic would also further buttress skepticism about theory per se, etc.

Oh, you — little ole us, concerned with narrative and skeptical of theory? Too kind, too kind. But now we’re blushing.***

The economists … come off less well; almost as poorly as the philosophers, in fact. Apparently an intense devotion to mathematical formalism and the appearance of rudeness don’t win you friends among sociologists and political theorists. Who knew?

In a related story, now economists are admitting that what they do is really sociology. Arguments about how useful a rigidly quantitative approach to human life is aside, I would say this is an example of irony trending toward self-parody. Who else but a practitioner of a relentlessly colonizing system of thought, known for their naive working assumptions and bold claims about eternal human nature, could be startled by the fact that the field’s mission-creep means that it’s started to occupy ground already well-tilled by others? I expect soon they’ll be announcing that they’ve invented a form of punctured spheroid that can be attached to an axle for easier locomotion.

* Also: man, I’ve been at this about 3X longer than I thought I would be
** Which, incidentally is a great name for a prog rock band.
*** At least I am; though nothing in the post or comments settles the debate over whether its historians’ writing or evidentiary care that make for their craft. My impression from the comments — the one I’ve cited aside — is that these folks mean we value our evidence and argument, not coruscating verbiage.

Image cite: Okinawa Soba, “Two Award-Winning Flickr Photographers Duke It Out,” Flickr, CC License

History and Historians, Ivory Towers

Shake and Bake History

Drive Chain...ge

Or, Driving Changes

Not so long ago*, Kieran Healy over at OrgTheory did some interesting riffing on an idea in Jon Elster’s new book about Alexis de Tocqueville. He put together a list of different innovations in social theory, grouping them by how they characterize the relationships between different basic elements. His recipe is as follows:

Take a few basic kinds of institutions, structures or practices that can be identified across many different social contexts. There are markets, say, and there is politics. There is ritual. There are hierarchies. There are networks. There is culture. And so on. (Not all of these are the same sort of thing; that doesn’t matter at the moment.) Identify the basic features of each. Now, pick one of these and show it underpinning a setting usually taken as governed by one the others.

For example, you can say Politics is really Markets. This is Public Choice Theory. Because the market form is such a dominant feature of contemporary societies and of talk about them, applying the “x is really a market” trick to any given x is by now ubiquitous not just in theory but also often as a matter of common interpretation and even public policy, facts on the ground notwithstanding.

Healy goes on to spin out a half dozen or so such formulations, with reference to the works of particular sociologists or schools of thought, e.g. Markets are really Politics; Markets are really Culture; Organizations are really Ritual; Markets are really Hierarchies; etc.

Now, I think Healy means this partly as a dig at the vagueness of most social theory, but also as a pragmatic method for developing research heuristics, insofar as you can generate new approaches by substituting terms. I think a similar kind of simplified grouping could be pretty easily done for historical works; and switching around the basic elements might prove similarly useful.

The middle sign in the equation, though, isn’t “is” — it’s “drives change.”** The first term is the agent, the second term (implicitly) what you consider to be the main object of historical work.

For example, one way to characterize the debate between the two recent synthetic works in my field (Howe and Wilentz) is to say that Howe thinks Culture drives change in Politics while Wilentz thinks Politics drives change in Culture. Likewise Mark Noll’s book on the Civil War would be Religion drives change in Politics.

This approach would work well for sub-literatures too — you could probably subdivide the vast literature on the history of capitalism into different categories of Capitalism drives change in x, y, z.

While this is all certainly reductive — and no doubt, unfair to all the nuance in the works I’ve just name-checked — I think it pays off especially well when you’re trying to decide what debates matter to you, and what camp(s) your own work falls into.*** For myself, I think I used to be in the Economics drives change in Politics, but now I’m the Ideas drive change in Politics camp, much to my chagrin.

What about you? Or does this scheme not work well for a quasi-untheoretical discipline like history?


*Er, I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while.

** Or, you know, some kind of less clunky formulation. Suggestions welcome.

*** Though, to be a bit defensive, I think historians’ oft-repeated claims of “nuance” are more performative than an actual barrier to useful reductions. Everyone has a favorite driver of change, even if you think other ones come to bear. If you don’t, you’re writing an list of facts, not a history.


Image cite: KitLKat, “Drive chain of steam lorry…” Flickr, CC License

Apologies for the poor visual pun.