This is basically a synecdoche for one of my dissertation chapters.
I love sophisticated GIS methods, but I learn so much and have some of my best ideas just browsing Google Maps. If you’re not integrating maps into your research, even just a simple scan of the area you’re studying may give you surprising new insights.
Down at the bottom of this post I have an idea for a new type of conference that is probably more important than the rest. Here’s a link to that proposal.
When the #SHEAR2020 plenary panelists sat down and fired up Zoom last Friday, they probably assumed that they were about to do history as usual. Instead, they were sitting in the passenger seat riding a paradigm shift none of them could control and probably could not have anticipated. Closing the valve on the firehose of data on social media and reducing the infinite meanings it generates for billions of readers to scholarly understanding is too difficult a task for a blog post like this one. What I would like to do instead is meditate on some of the potential sources of this paradigm shift and what it might mean for the future of scholarship. I’ll lay it out right up front. I don’t think the future is terribly bright for the kind of history #SHEAR2020 wanted to promote.
History as Usual
In this paragraph, let’s practice history as usual. It’s important to understand what is at stake here, because issues of race, gender, and class roil beneath the surface of this controversy. If you can, please watch the panel before you form an opinion. As historians we are trained to regard the primary evidence, but it is not entirely clear that all of the scholars sharing their thoughts using the #SHEAR2020 hashtag have actually seen the offending session. If you don’t have time to watch the panel, or if you’re not a historian, I want to point you toward a couple of representative responses instead of rehashing the arguments. Prof. Rebecca Goetz’s detailed and interesting thread, here, represents the take closest to my own thinking and training. Prof. John Fea approaches the topic from the other side of the intellectual-political spectrum. While I disagree with some of his stances, Prof. Fea’s blog post on the plenary, which is rollicking the pundits in this very small corner of the historical profession’s social media universe as I write this, is a (mostly*) thoughtful analysis. For me, the bottom line is that a more diverse cast of scholars should have planned this event. The timing of this panel, showcasing this paper, was just astonishingly bad. The prestige of everyone involved took a hit this weekend. Time will only tell how significant the damage will be.
If history is centered on reflection–on taking the time to locate, read, and reflect on the sources in order to shape an argument–Twitter is centered on twitching, on limning our collective impressions and mashing them up into the fabric of reality.Journalists and pundits frequently describe the internet as an “echo chamber,” but the thing about an echo is that the original signal loses strength with each subsequent transmission. Opinion chambers on the internet amplify the signal strength with each subsequent transmission by freighting it with additional meanings. I was irritated by some of Prof. Feller’s arguments. I took notes and shook my head in disagreement. I was obviously not alone. The combined effect of this discomfiture, shared on Twitter and amplified with each subsequent retransmission, transformed Prof. Feller’s talk and subsequent comments from a tone-deaf and overly sympathetic reading of his biographical subject into a vicious display of white supremacy and patriarchy that deeply scarred the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and points to the inequalities which mar the historical profession as a whole.
I am not here to comment on the validity of Feller’s ideas or the response. Other scholars, eminently more qualified than me, have already done so. Nor am I emotionally qualified to discuss the response. I can only feel Professor Feller’s opinions using the emotional apparatus my background has bestowed upon me. I am white and male, Anglo, predominantly cisgendered, married, and–though I was a chronically-evicted high-school dropout who worked my way through ten years of GED, junior college, and undergraduate studies by washing dishes, building doors, and working at Wal-Mart–reasonably privileged. I strongly disagree with Feller’s ideas and have already left the academic workplace because of the class dynamic that empowers him to speak instead of others, but I did not feel personally attacked by the talk. Why should I? It is primarily through the cruel and overlapping effects of race, gender, and class that people feel threatened. I am here to try and think through what went wrong, and how we might do it better next time.
I may not be equipped by my background to feel threatened by their words, but I can reasonmy way to hearing the threat in what Feller and his counterparts in the session said. They were hurtful in their tone-deafness and–unfortunately, because I believe they are all good people whose work I deeply respect even in my occasional disagreement–representative in the aggregate of the injuries of race, class, and gender that have shaped higher education into a formidable estate of the American power structure. My own perceived goodness aside, it is easy to see how I can be emblematic of pain and oppression. This means that I must be extremely thoughtful before I speak. I need to do history as usual to avoid hurting people. But if that’s what Feller and the participants thought they were doing, it’s clear (as it has been for a tragically long time) that we need to figure out a new normal together. And if history as usual is no longer possible or acceptable, we need a new model for scholarship entirely.
SHEAR is already on the right track. Responding to critics, President Douglas Egerton writes:
Regrettably, the panel was…not diverse in the variety of ways—from gender to race to ethnicity—that SHEAR has come to expect and require in recent years. Newer generations of scholars have engaged these issues from multiple perspectives, including those of indigenous and enslaved people, and they should have been included in yesterday’s panel. In recent years, SHEAR has fostered this new scholarship—but yesterday’s audience would not have been able to see that. We should also have included early career scholars, or scholars from two-year institutions or in public history. Our own website includes a statement on diversity and panel submissions, and we failed in not living up to our own standards.
The voice in my head that agrees with the views of these diverse scholars screams out, yes! But would I be so quick to approve if their opinion was that I need to sit down and shut the hell up? This, I know, is what people who look like me in academia–again, even though I am no longer “in” academia–have both literally and figuratively told outsiders for as long as academia has existed. I grant that, and I’ll own it on their behalf. But once we accept the shame of this vile hypocrisy, what next? Can we figure out a way to share ideas with one another across the divides between us?
To begin answering this question, I think we need to ask another one. How much of myself is wrapped up in my work? Is my worth as a human being tied to my worth as a professional? When I started in graduate school (too many years ago to still be here) I learned through all of the frustrating class injuries that run like a current through the #SHEAR2020 debate that success in academia requires either deep financial resources or absolute dedication. As a former Wal-Mart associate, I did not have the former; so the best I could manage would always be the latter. I would choose enthusiastic, Stakhanovite devotion. This meant that I had to be always “on,” always trying (and often failing) to read and work a step or two ahead of everyone else for as long as I could, and it meant that academia would have to become the lodestar of my identity. Stop me if this sounds familiar.
I see the burden that friends and former colleagues from our state university carry to make a career. I carried it on my back for only three years, thankfully. An illness in the family made it impossible for me to practice the total discipline and absolute dedication it requires to succeed in higher-ed. Perhaps I didn’t possess the will, but thank goodness I didn’t care for teaching. I am a “scholar” now only to please myself. I pay the bills working in an office. In hindsight, I am exceedingly glad I left the field as a laborer. I am free now to study what I want, live in one place for more than a few years, and still get to travel to archives and conferences if I choose.
There was some kind of conference drama every year I was wrapped in the academic flag. It’s not surprising in a field where students are taught to expect senior scholars to behave like boorish dickheads; where they are taught whom to support to advance their career and whom to shun; taught to Google everybody before they meet them; to rehearse elevator speeches; taught, even, to wear a wedding ring to a job interview–or not, depending on their gender and who’s giving the advice. These tendencies exist in every profession, true, but the necessity of total dedication (or, again, a carefree reserve of generational wealth) means that pursuing membership in the group requires building an entire identity on an unstable and toxic foundation. It’s not a surprise that a group sharing these collective traumas and neuroses regularly erupts into conflict. It would be a surprise instead if a year went by without conference drama.
Unfortunately, “conference drama” may now include a Zoom call on a Friday afternoon in July. Unlike last year’s drama, too, there are no rituals distancing the aggrieved from their feelings. A group of us may have found common cause for complaint at a session tucked in the back corridor of a hotel conference center back in the hoary days of old (2014, say), but we had to retell the story to those who weren’t in the room. Like an echo, some of the sparkle of outrage dulled with each retelling until, finally, nobody cared to hear about it any more. If we wanted to keep the fight going after the conference, we would have to keep the outrage alive while checking out of the hotel, flying home, unpacking, and going back to work. And then what, blog about it? And risk drawing the ire of your committee? Not likely. Now, though, we sit through a session together and share the anger. We can watch recordings if we miss it. There are no rituals to distance us from our feelings, just an amplifier waiting for us to plug in our outrage and strum it for the world to hear.
One of those rituals used to be developing a work identity and a personal identity. When you stepped into a classroom to teach, joined a seminar, gave a conference presentation, went to committee meetings, and so on, you put on your sport jacket and played the professor. Back in your office, down at the conference bar, or on social media, you could just be yourself. This is just human behavior, of course. We all try to separate our work identities from our personal lives. In the treacherous world of academic politics, though–and probably other professions with a high personal cost–it was also a release valve, a way to save face by distancing yourself from conference drama. Now it’s not so easy.
People on Twitter used to pat themselves on the back in a self-deprecating way by saying that they were “very online.” Spending a lot of time in message boards or posting on social media leads to the deployment of a third identity: the networked self. This mode of “deliberative storytelling” depends on affective statements for maximum impact. There may be a lively community of cerebral communicators thriving on Twitter, but its participants don’t trend. Instead, playfully emotive posts gain traction and, like any community, people who wish to participate in the most important conversations taking place on the platform learn to deploy this kind of speech to make their voices heard. Now that so many of us are locked in, working from home in response to the coronavirus, we’re all very online. The lines between the networked self, the professional self, and the “real me,” whatever that might mean when I’m alone on a computer for most of the day, are blurrier than ever before. In the absence of separation rituals, the networked self is the professional self is the family self and so on, and deliberative affective storytelling–performing the self on social media, but mostly Twitter–is the only mode of communication available for more people than ever before. It’s no surprise, then, that outrage over conference drama could be amplified so quickly.
The dissonance originates, in large part, from the vast gulf between the norms regulating the behavior of the “selves” speaking on Zoom–the professional selves acting as though they are at a conference–and the networked “selves” watching and commenting from the other side of the webcam. Conference decorum, itself a terrible artifact of the power dynamics shaping the profession, prohibits people from expressing the pain and powerlessness they feel when their ideas cannot counteract those with which they disagree. This pain is even more acute if they believe the speaker’s ideas are damaging and hateful, as some of the ideas and postures arguably were in the plenary last Friday. Decorum does not prevent the expression of that outrage now, and the response has been swift.
I should stop here and acknowledge some important points. First, I don’t believe that I just casually discovered code-switching. I understand that there are many millions of people who must switch “selves” seamlessly, all day long, to survive in a society that is hostile to their very existence. Second, I appreciate that social media and other online forms of expression have been a valuable lifeline of support, sanity, livelihood, and self-expression for countless people living in this dangerously hostile society. What I want to suggest is that a fairly small community of people who have never had to share this experience as a community–a community which, until now, has enjoyed the luxury of using expensive rituals (like conferences at hotels with speakers on a dais) to separate its professional selves from the selves its members’ friends and families see–are now, all of a sudden, deprived of that luxury at the same time that many of its most prominent members are encountering social media for the first time and must learn to master it, during a period shaped by multiple global crises, to maintain their livelihoods and prestige. There will be casualties along the way.
If the internet is going to be its forum, history cannot continue as usual. The conference model–speakers on a dais, other speakers selected by a committee to respond, followed by questions from the paying participants in the room–is inherently unequal and radically incompatible with the internet. I’d like to propose a different model to share and critique scholarship.
Instead of attempting to replicate the conference setup using a video conference call, let’s never read a paper to one another ever again. Let’s never read our written comments to the author and the audience. Let’s just read papers and write comments during an asynchronous period–one week, maybe a weekend, whatever works–and let the moderator moderate those comments using a set of agreed-upon guidelines.
Let’s embrace democracy further by allowing any member of the organization to submit a paper to a topical cluster, blindly for the reading period, and allow members to vote on the papers they deem the best. At the end of the reading period, the authors of the selected papers could address the questions under their real names, while the authors whose papers were not selected as winners could use the questions they receive to strengthen (or trash) their papers while remaining anonymous. At the end of the process, all of the selected papers from the intellectual clusters could be published as open-access Proceedings with a DOI and everything.
To be truly participatory, scholarly organizations must be free to join; but, to avoid trolls, membership should only be open to professionals and students in the field. I think it would be possible to achieve the membership limitation with two methods of verification: a .edu email address for institutional scholars, and a verification form–like the essay questions on a facebook group–for independent scholars. Eschewing conferences and printed journals would significantly decrease the cost of running a scholarly organization, of course, making “free-to-join” much more sustainable. It is likely that an academic library or open-access scholarship initiative at a university would host the organization, its “conferences,” and the resulting Proceedings on the web. Perhaps there would be a way to pay the organizers and moderators, but even the finest academic journals with handsome printed editions rely on an army of unpaid academic laborers to do editorial work today.
I’m not convinced that history as usual is irretrievably broken. I’ve shared some of my thoughts on software-mediated thinking elsewhere on this blog, for example, and fear the consequences of abandoning old ways of thinking and working without taking the consequences into consideration. But if we are going to continue living and working online, we need new ways to advance scholarship that allow people to feel safe from harm–even the self-inflicted harm of the boorish and insensitive among us. Recreating a conference panel using video conferencing tools is unfair to the participants, who speak and think at a dangerous remove from their audience; and it is difficult for listeners, who take their anger or boredom or grief to social media, where it is amplified into a #scandal. Why do this to people? We can capture the strengths of the internet instead–its democracy, accessibility, and scalability–and use them to advance scholarship in a way that leaves fewer people out, brings more voices to the table, and maybe, if we’re lucky, re-establishes some of the much-needed balance between the many selves we need to deploy on a daily basis.
* ”Cancel culture” is a crude rhetorical device used to galvanize opinion more than generate thought. It is unfortunate that Prof. Fea uses the term in his post.
** This is a draft. There are a million variables I won’t think of, a thousand problems with this proposal. I welcome discussion of them all.
Bowes, John P. Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. (Publisher link)
Though settler colonialism has thoroughly re-shaped Native American historiography in the past twenty years, scholars still tend to view Indian removal as a discrete moment or era in American history–a tragic narrative beginning with the transition from away from the Civilization plan marked by the passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress in 1830 and culminating in the Cherokee Trail of Tears nearly a decade later. In Land Too Good for Indians, John P. Bowes argues that removal has instead been a central fact in the history of the American republic, rooted in the intertwining contexts of European colonialism and Native politics that preceded its founding, and enduring to the present. To advance this argument, Bowes examines the history of removal in the Old Northwest–the vast territory stretching from Ohio to eastern Minnesota. While many other scholars in recent years have studied the history of this region’s Native peoples, Bowes is the first in decades to take up the topic of removal for its own sake. In addition to shedding new light on removal in the North, Bowes along the way demonstrates the value of this kind of regional monograph in shaping the broader historiographical currents of settler colonialism and removal in the United States.
Bowes is sensitive to context in his definition of removal, arguing that the complicated process was shaped and mediated by the history of imperial violence in the region and the pervasive rhetoric of removal that accompanied this violence. The book’s two opening chapters explore these themes in depth. In the first, on violence, Bowes explores the imperial clashes that shaped the region before and immediately after the American Revolution, arguing that these conflicts contributed to a belief on the part of American settlers and policymakers that Indians were “savage agents of the British Empire” who could not abide peace . This violence contributed to a rhetorical tradition that linked peace, propriety, and prosperity for Americans in the region with the removal of its Native peoples. American lawmakers responded to this rhetoric by crafting policies and embarking on a series of punishing wars that achieved removal–the subject of the book’s remaining chapters–while the history of violence and ongoing rhetoric of removal continue to leave deep scars on American Indians everywhere. Bowes closes the work with a chapter on the aftermath of removal and its legacy in memory, arguing that the “American era is a removal era.”
By shifting the terrain, Bowes offers a powerful corrective to the historiography of removal. While the scholarship of settler colonialism has thoroughly unsettled historians’ understanding of early America, there is still much work to be done “on the ground” to understand how settler colonialism as a foundational American political philosophy shaped the nation’s culture and politics. Looking away from the South, where scholarship on the history of capitalism and slavery continues to unearth new layers of meaning in the region’s Native history, forces scholars to re-evaluate the many contexts that shaped Indian policy. That said, some of the scholarship from other regions may have bolstered the theoretical framework that gives this book its shape. Engaging Matthew Jennings’ work on the clashing “cultures of violence” that shattered Native political power in the early American Southeast, for example, might have supported the chapter on violence–especially as we learn more about the myriad connections that drew (and continue to draw) Native peoples together across the continent. Likewise, Ned Blackhawk’s unique treatment of violence as a unit of analysis suggests intriguing possibilities for the argument about violence that forms such an important part of this book. The rhetoric of removal, too, seems an extension–an important and valuable expansion, to be sure–of Francis Jennings’ “cant of conquest.” These minor historiographical quibbles neither blunt the argument nor detract from the contribution this book makes to the historiography of removal and American settler colonialism, however, and scholars of Native history, the early republic, or the Old Northwest will find this book a valuable addition to their bookshelves for years to come.
Before the U.S. Government built the Woodruff Dam and created Lake Seminole, the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers was a place of significance and power for many different peoples across the centuries. Today I understood that a little better when I saw this aerial from 1940 depicting the literal wedding of the waters in Chattahoochee, Florida. The sandy Chattahoochee empties north Georgia on the left in this picture; the tannic Flint empties middle and southern Georgia on the right. Half of the road crossing in the aerial still exists over the original river course, as you can see in the current aerial, but the whole country is radically different just a few hundred yards to the north. It’s still a beautiful waterway; but a vast, stately lake is about as different from the river in this old photograph as you can get while keeping your hair wet.
I think a lot about how places like this, where rivers come together or bubble underground, where they cascade over the fall line, or where they break into rapids, have been important to everyone who’s ever lived along their banks. The place where these mighty rivers came together was so important to the United States that it invested millions of dollars, expended the political capital to flood the surrounding country, and devoted itself to maintaining a concrete wall in perpetuity just to try and harness a little bit of that power and convert it into electricity. Think about how important such a place would have been in a world without a GPS to tell you how to get where you’re going. A world where water runs with the literal spirits of the earth and carries life or death in the current. This is why I study environmental history.
If you ever find yourself bored with the internet, tired of movies and music and magazines and books and so on, take a moment and think about the world of information available to Henry Perrine’s teenage children on a tiny, 12-acre island in the Florida Keys in 1840.
We had an abundance of books and papers, but only a monthly mail. This mail we generally had brought in a bushel basket & had our arrangements so made that for at least a week after its receipt our household duties should not seriously interfere with our enjoyment of it.
Hester Perrine Walker, 1885
A whole week to bask in the glory of the monthly mail! I spend less than a second with most of the things I see online. For young Hester, each piece of information must have been a treasure, a thing to be turned over and over in her mind and discussed again and again. It’s difficult for me to imagine as I go about my historian’s work of empathizing and visualizing.
We are blessed and cursed with information. Blessed by abundance, maybe we don’t take the time to really process the things we read and see. I know I don’t.
p.s. — in light of last night’s post, think about what it means that the first group of settlers in this extremely remote area decided to put down roots in a place they called “Indian Key.”
Even though millions of tourists and residents have traipsed across this peninsula year after year for well over a century, Florida still seems like a new place. Digging just a little beneath the surface, however, reveals a history as deep as the Roman past undergirding the streets of London, or the history of the Pharaohs looming over Giza in Egypt. The account of anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing below, for example, reveals the remarkable similarities between the mounds, middens, and channels the Calusa people left behind on Marco Island with the canals and houses where people on the island live today.
Cushing, a wunderkind anthropologist who took over the ethnology department of the Smithsonian at the the age of 19, “explored” the area in 1896 based on a second-hand account of the mounds and artifacts he heard from a British Army officer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. It didn’t take Cushing very long to find what he was after. Cutting through the very fist mangrove he encountered on the fringes of Marco Island, Cushing “dimly beheld, in the sombre depths of this sunless jungle of the waters, a long, nearly straight, but ruinous embankment of piled-up conch shells.” This led him to one of the most significant areas of Native settlement in the State of Florida.
“Threading this zone of boggy bins, and leading in toward a more central point, were here and there open ways like channels. They were formed by parallel ridges of shells, increasing in height toward the interior, until at last they merged into a steep, somewhat extended bench, also of shells, and flat on the top like a platform. Here, of course, at the foot of the platform, the channel ended, in a slightly broadened cove like a landing place…. In places off to the side on either hand were still more of these platforms, rising terrace-like, but very irregularly….”
“It was apparent that this had actually been a central court of some kind, had probably been formed as an open lagoon by the gradual upbuilding on attol-like reefs or shoals around deeper water, of these foundations or ramparts as I have called them….”
“Here… had been a water-court, around the margins of which, it would seem, places of abode whence these remains had been derived–houses rather than landings–had clustered… or else it was a veritable haven of ancient wharves and pile-dwellings, safe alike from tidal wave and hurricane within these gigantic ramparts of shell, where, through the channel gateways to the sea, canoes might readily come and go.”
– Frank Hamilton Cushing, “A Preliminary Report on the Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” 1896
Notice any similarities in the aerial photos of the island below?
There are similar examples all over Florida. Maybe I’ll share some more some time, unless I finish my dissertation on this subject–among many others!–before I get around to it.
Scholars, advocates, and social critics frequently describe data as a structure of power used against citizens and the powerless online. In their article in the most recent First Monday, Miren Gutiérrez and Stefania Milan invert big data, arguing that “Citizens, activists and professionals alike embrace innovative data-related practices at the intersection of the digital and the informational, embedding data and ways of playing with data in their activities.”
Data is undoubtedly used to oppress and exploit, but Gutiérrez and Milan show how it can be used to advocate for the rights of the less powerful, as well. Recent work in critical studies of neoliberalism–I’m thinking about Byung-Chul Han’s ideas, in particular, which are very nicely summarized in the Verso essay collection, Psychopolitics–paints a nearly hopeless picture of privacy in the radically transparent world that social media has wrought. While it does not occupy the same intellectual field, this research introduces a necessary critical counterpoint.
I always do this: “Oh, I’ll never have enough to say to make it to the page limit. I need to do more research!” So I gather more and more. And then I write well past the page limit with even more to say. In the end, it feels like I trained for a marathon and ended up running a 5K.
How many years of graduate school does it take to understand the “right” amount of research one needs to make an argument?
I’m reminded of an anecdote from a historian–and, sorry, I won’t find the citation right now because I’m in the middle of writing a literature review on web indexing–which basically goes like this:
Interlocutor: Hey, famous historian, how do you know when you’ve done enough research?
Famous Historian: Well, I read and read until I feel like I know what to say.
Which is to say that there isn’t a “right” amount of research to do to answer a question. Read until you know what to say.
I’m going to go and finish saying it now, page limits be damned. That’s what editing is for.
Working outside of the university, I’m not as ready to jump on the Bash Jill Lepore bandwagon as many #twitterstorians seem to be. Can we get past the Twitter hot take and engage her interview on its own terms?
Everyone’s arguments about historians engaging the public sphere through op-eds and teaching are valid, but they seem to ignore the context of the interview, which is mostly about publishing. In this context, Lepore is right. “Big” history books, the kind of Hofstadter syntheses Lepore is talking about, don’t have the cachet they once did. I think this is a good thing for scholars, but probably bad for civic culture.
It’s good for scholars because it means we’ve truly eschewed the sort of grand narratives that were en vogue at midcentury in favor of the complexity and ambiguity that followed from the late-sixties critiques aimed at this vogue. It’s probably bad for civic culture, though, for all of the reasons that Lepore mentions–especially the decline of the “fact.” When everything is too complex to sum up with a simple answer, like a math problem or popular science anecdote, it’s much harder to convince people to pay attention to the answer. What many readers seem to hear is that truth is relative to the observer, which doesn’t align with anyone’s moral compass. I think what readers often encounter, too, is a thicket of academic platitudes–like “the ways in which” or “to be sure.”
I think Professor Lepore is right on the money, therefore, to argue that scholars need to introduce complexity to the public with style. Thankfully, many are doing that in the past few years. The number of trade books I see on the general history shelves at Barnes & Noble penned by academic historians is growing. And it is exciting! Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store?
Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store? This is where they are most needed, because this is where the majority of intelligent but casual readers browse books. These are people, I believe, who are hungry for serious scholarship and complexity if the read is worth their time. Publishers and scholars should be reaching out past the booksellers to the big boxes serving the places without Barnes & Noble. Perhaps this will help restore historians to the town square.