Category Archives: garden-variety history

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

Stanley Fish and saving the world one book at a time

Stanley Fish has a challenging column in Sunday’s New York Times: “Neoliberalism and Higher Education“. As the contents of Cliopatria (my new blogging home away from home, now that Revise & Dissent is being shuttered), and indeed much of the academic blogosphere, attest, the trend of market approaches to the running of universities is on a lot of minds.

Fish’s own philosophy of the academy is largely orthogonal to neoliberalism: he exhorts academics to “stick to your academic knitting”, to “do your job and don’t try to do someone else’s”, and to leave off “trying to fashion a democratic citizenry or save the world”. Critics of neoliberalism, naturally, see such a perspective as backing up the power of university administrators (i.e., furthering neoliberalism in the academy). But Fish has also argued that “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever”, that the humanities (including his own field of literary theory) are intrinsically worthwhile but will not contribute to the saving of the world or other political ends. That is not a persperctive that meshes well with the instrumental approach of neoliberalism.

As I explained in my first post to the now-defunct Revise & Dissent, my view is something along the lines of: if you’re not trying to save the world, what’s the point? Nevertheless, I mostly agree with Fish when he says we should not (in the name of academic freedom) erase the distinction between political action and scholarship (much less teaching). How, then, ought academics try to save the world? The most viable approach, I think, is through careful choice of what topics to apply the methods of ones discipline to.

Take the work of historian of science Steven Shapin. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), Shapin explores the complex ideas of what it was (and is) to a be a scientist in the modern world. Despite media images where the academic scientist predominates, most scientists in the U.S. have been working in industry since the rise of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s (and a large proportion were doing so even at the beginning of the 20th century). But the working life of the industry scientist is hardly the caricature of scientific management (squashing out the creativity and freedom that is a natural part of science) that has been circulating at least since the work of Robert K. Merton.

Although it’s not explicit in the book, Shapin’s work is a response to the trend of running universities like businesses. Successful businesses that revolve around original inquiry and research, Shapin shows, are a lot more like universities (pre-scientific management) than is generally appreciated. The implication is that, if universities are to be patterned after businesses, the appropriate examples within the world of business (as opposed to distorted ideas of business research that adminstrators might have) are actually not so foreign to the cherished culture of universities that opponents of neoliberalism in higher education seek to defend.

In his preface, in defense of his tendency in much of his historical work to address “the way we live now”, Shapin says this:

“I take for granted three things that many historians seem to find, to some degree, incompatible: (1) that historians should commit themselves to writing about the past, as it really was, and that the institutional intention of history writing must embrace such a commitment; (2) that we inevitably write about the past as an expression of present concerns, and that we have no choice in this matter; and (3) that we can write about the past to find out about how it came to be that we live as we now do, and, indeed, for giving better descriptions of the way we live now.”

In thing (3), I would replace can with should. Scholars have a moral responsibility to make their work responsive to the needs (as the scholars themselves see them) of the society that supports them.

The End of the History of Science?

I went to a handful of interesting talks at HSS this year.

The first was the tail-end of a session on astrology (Kepler’s, in particular), which underscored the importance of the social and political forces that were driving–and have been written out of–the Scientific Revolution. The need for better, more accurate astrological advice for kings and emperors was the reason people like Kepler and Tycho Brahe had the support to do their work, and to a large extent astrology was why they were doing astronomy. Disagreements over the scope and validity of astrology also were part of the under-explored dynamics of intra-Protestant theological politics that buffeted Kepler and Tycho from patron to patron. The situation with early modern alchemy, driven more by practical than mystical concerns, has similarly been neglected in the big-picture accounts. Neither astrology nor alchemy figure much into Peter Dear’s 2001 Revolutionizing the Sciences or Steven Shapin’s 1996 The Scientific Revolution, supposedly the two main post-“social turn” Sci Rev reevaluations.

The next good talk was Stephen Weldon’s on Francis Schaeffer and his influence of modern American Protestant attitudes toward science. Anyone trying to understand the Intelligent Design movement and the reasons it has been considerably more successful among non-Fundamentalists than the Creation Science of the 1970s and 80s was, needs to know about Schaeffer.

But the most interesting session was The End of Science. It was nominally organized around John Horgan’s 1996 book The End of Science. Unfortunately, Horgan phoned it in on this one, delivering a talk that basically consisted of his 2006 Discover magazine article (which I blogged about a year ago when I first discovered Horgan’s work). But between Horgan and Andre Wakefield’s talk on “The End of the History of Science?”, discussing the disciplinary fate of history of science as something set apart from garden-variety history, there was plenty to rile up the crowd (as much as historians can get riled up). Wakefield was celebrating the facts that (unlike in the bad old days of Sartonian handmaiden-to-science history) one no longer needs to understand the science one does the history of, and that history of science is being absorbed into the disciplinary structure of straight history.

One of the striking things about HSS is how little one historian has in common with the next. There were up to 12 sessions going on at once, so you could stay within your temporal, geographical and disciplinary areas of interest (and probably within your historiographical approach, as well). One of the things meetings like this make apparent is the degree to which collegiality and networking (along with university press editors) drive careers in history of science (and in history more generally), rather than peer evaluations of intellectual output. It’s all about the parties and receptions after the day’s talks are over.

More scholars calling for Wikipedia involvement

After Roy Rosenzweig’s June 2006 article on Wikipedia in The Journal of American History, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past“, I predicted a large-scale change in the way scholars—humanists in particular—view Wikipedia. Things started slowly; Marshall Poe’s September article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Hive” was the next major piece, and other interesting viewpoints continued to trickle in until the Middlebury College ban.

But lately, calls for involvement and reports of classroom success have been coming in rapidly. Recommended reading:

I’m working on my own piece for historians of science, and I’m trying to kick the inflammatory rhetoric up a notch. I probably need to come up with a catchy title, though. Unfortunately, garden-variety historians and English professors have already melted the obvious Dr. Strangelove snowclone. (What’s up with that? That’s history of science territory!) Maybe I could go with the other Strangelove snowclone: “We must not allow a Wikipedia gap!”

By the way, any suggests for improving the above article would be greatly appreciated; I’ll be submitting it soon.

Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)

Today, my department’s Holmes Workshop speaker was Josh Greenberg (aka, Epistemographer): an historian/STSer/hacker, formerly of the Center for History and New Media, now the “Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship” (how rad a title is that?) at the New York Public Library.

I’ve been following the CHnM for a while now, and I had read about their flagship project Zotero, but I never realized what a revolutionary vision they have for this thing. Zotero is a Firefox plugin that does citations. It was initially conceived as an open source replacement EndNote (the only selling point for which, from what I hear, is that it’s not quite as bad as Word for footnotes).

In his introduction, Josh had an insightful comparison of “Finding vs. Searching”, basically the difference between an organized hierarchy of information (e.g., early Yahoo!, library stacks, and bibliographies), in which serendipitously finding things is the great benefit, and using the ubiquitous search boxes of the modern internet (e.g., Google, online library catalogs), with which you are searching for finite results in an undifferentiated database where anything outside the search parameters is simply invisible. (By random coincidence, he had randomly included this picture by me as an icon of the finding mode; hooray for unattributed syndication!).

Part of the goal of Zotero is to harness the best of both the searching and finding modes by adding a Web 2.0 social element to the citation program. This summer, the developers will be launching a Zotero server that will archive a user’s citation database so that it can be accessed from anywhere and retained in case of hardware failure. The upshot is that, unless the user opts out, the citation database will be used (sans private information, if desired) to create a sort of for scholarly material. Zotero will be useful enough to be used on its own, with the aggregate social aspect as icing that brings the potential for scholarly collaboration and recommendation to a new level. You can find other bibliographies similar to yours to see what like-minded scholars are reading that you aren’t, and you might be able to find other scholars you didn’t know about with similar research interests. In future versions, you’ll be able to share your marginalia, your original sources (interviews, photographs from archives, etc.), etc.

What makes Zotero cool today is the ability to automatically pull citation data from a large and ever-growing list of online sources. So you do a search on your local library catalog, and with one click you import the metadata for that source to your library. Then, when you want to cite that source, you have a wide range of output options (MLA, Chicago Style, EndNote, etc.). What sold me is that it even does export in Wikipedia citation template syntax. I never use the cite templates, because it’s usually easier to just type in the references how I want them. But with Zotero, I’m going to start using them. For the Wikipedians reading this, I recommend trying it out (make sure you get Beta 4, from the Zotero website; the one straight from Firefox is out of date and doesn’t have the Wikipedia support). It’s under heavy development and improving rapidly, but it’s already a very helpful thing.

Digital Campus podcast: "Wikipedia: Friend or Foe"

GMU’s Center for History and New Media has a new podcast that launched a week and a half ago: Digital Campus.

It’s “A biweekly discussion of how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums”, and the first episode is on Wikipedia.

The intro music is worth listening to. After that, I recommend skipping to 17:33, when the Wikipedia discussion begins.

What you would be skipping includes:

  • Vague speculation about Windows Vista
  • Banter about the value and limitations of Google Docs
  • Hand-wringing about a recently granted overly broad patent for Blackboard Inc.

Wikipedia topics include:

  • Mills Kelly explaining why he is using Wikipedia as the “textbook” for his Western Civ course this semester
  • The similarity between constructing knowledge on Wikipedia an in scholarly venues, as revealed by those pages “hidden” behind the articles
  • How Citizendium’s name is crappy, and how in the end scholars are going to have to “roll up their sleeves and just get involved with the main Wikipedia” to set things straight
  • How scholars write for themselves and their peers too often, when they should be engaged with and teaching their students about the “enthusiast communities” like Wikipedia
  • What Wikipedia could do better to work with the professional community
  • “Specialized wikis for specialized topics in specialized communities” and the ways Wikipedia (and it’s pitfalls) may overshadow the wiki technologies
  • Friend-or-foe conclusion: “sometimes unreliable, sometimes stands you up, but good friend”

Overall, it’s pretty good.

(via T. Mills Kelly at edwired)

Wikipedia as a source

Yale Daily News ran a story on Wednesday, “Profs question students’ Wikipedia dependency“. I guess it’s a disturbing sign that I thought angry and vindictive thoughts about the student, freshman John Behan, who created a number of fake articles. I used to think that kind of thing was funny, and I feel like I should still (in principle, at least; Behan’s work didn’t even rise to the level of BJAODN). The article focuses on one fake in particular, “emysphilia” (turtle fetish). But as it turns out, emysphilia (Behan’s “most successful” article) was deleted rather quickly; its only traction came from syndication on It’s unclear whether anyone besides people with direct knowledge of the hoax and the Wikipedians voting to delete it even read the article; it’s not something one would just run into on without searching for the non-existent term.

The YDN article goes on with some quotes from professors about how Wikipedia is not an acceptable academic source. The headline for the page 6 continuation is “Inaccuracies make Wikipedia an unreliable academic source”, which is a pretty mediocre summary of what the faculty actual say about the subject. One prof makes reference to the “rigorous editing standards of hard copy sources”, compared to an anecdote about a Wikipedia article (with accurate, referenced information) giving the wrong first name (James Boswell instead of John Boswell) for a source. Unfortunately, the professor failed to take any action; I just tracked down the article I presume he was referring to, which it took 5 seconds to correct. (I have my own share of anecdotes about contradictions between a hard copy scholarly source and WP where it’s the hard copy that is wrong, but I digress.)

Like most stories about Wikipedia as an academic source, the Yale story misses the point. Another professor hits on the legitimate basis for excluding Wikipedia as an academic source: it’s an encyclopedia. 5 years from now, Wikipedia is going to be more accurate than any general print encyclopedia (at least on topics that traditional encyclopedias actually cover). And for random contradictions between a book source and a referenced Wikipedia article, Wikipedia will be the correct one more often than not. But it still won’t be an acceptable academic source, except perhaps as a place to point readers for peripheral background information. Because it will still be a tertiary source.

This issue has been in the news a lot since the Middlebury College Wikipedia ban and the Chronicle of Higher Education story on it.

Here’s a similar blog post about the issue, from a clear-headed historian.

The Patahistory Manifesto is here

Dave Davisson of Patahistory (and the History New Network’s Revise and Dissent group blog) has finally put up his Patahistory Manifesto. All in all it’s a good fun romp, but it’s a little to esoteric for me (as I’m sure my own manifesto is for most people).

Some bits and pieces I liked:

…Syllabi and textbook intros are littered with historian’s hopes that their writing and teaching will somehow transform the learning of history into something fun! They then proceed to write and talk about war, disease, starvation and oppression. Only perverse and idiosyncratic minds (the current state of the historian) want to learn more about this miserable past. Where are the jokes? The songs? The dancing? Where is the can-do spirit of enthusiasm? Must every optimism be overshadowed by the evil humanity commits? Isn’t play also part of the human condition?…

…Historians simultaneously disdain popular histories and yearn for popular success. Patahistory is the reverse. It disdains success and yearns for popular histories….

…Patahistorians are deliberately aware of creating the future. Students look to historians for their cultural metanarrative. They accept or reject current events based on the history they are taught. Creativity and imagination are primary tools of the Patahistorian. The Patahistorian of today helps create the metahistory of tomorrow….

But I think there is some tension between Dave’s patahistorical vision in the first two quotes and the third one. I whole-heartedly endorse song-and-dance, jokes and enthusiasm, and the goal of creating popular histories. But the manifesto suggests that the way to do that is to embrace the historical topics that consumers want. History of pleasant things, genealogical history… he fails to mention the overwhelming popularity of (and scholarly disdain for) military history. These may be cultural dead ends.

If we patahistorians (and here I’ll jump on board) are going to take our roles as creators of the future and authors of the cultural metanarrative seriously, we shouldn’t be turning to the subjects and issues of interest to the history consumer… we should be turning the interests of the consumer to the subjects and issues that can help us move forward culturally. The current range of info- that our society derives -tainment from is one of the parts of modern culture we should be trying to overwrite. Instead of turning history toward the established ruts that happen to be popular, we need to create new genres, new mediums, content that is better than docudramas, family histories, and war films.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t just try to replace current types of popular history, we should aim to take over/replace the modern sitcom, TV drama, feature film, pop song. We want a culture that fundamentally, metaphysically values history and reality (including, as the patahistory manifesto rightly celebrates, future history and potential reality) at every level, from education to entertainment.

Cultural change in the modern world

My manifesto post got picked up by OU’s patahistorian David Davisson for the latest History Carnival. From there, I happened upon a Crooked Timber post by John Quiggin on “the traditionality of modernity,” a clever way of saying that, contrary to common historical intuition, cultural change is slowing down… and fast.

In a nutshell, technology-induced mass/global culture tends to make major cultural changes less, not more common. Elements of this include:

  • The standarization of written language following the printing press, a trend that is rapidly become panlingual (“it’s expected that during the 21st century the number of language in the world will go from 6,000 to 300”).
  • The permanent fixation of/on the foundational pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe or The Beatles (a dubious contention, but maybe “Marilyn will, inevitably, fade, but never be replaced on her pedestal”).
  • Globalization, reification and simplication of many previously local traditions: styles of food, artforms, forms of national government (or the beginning of the end thereof, with the EU and global economic institutions).

I’m still not sure how much of this I buy as a general statement, but some of it at least is true, and some of it is lamentable. Whatever truth there is to this technology-leads-to-cultural-hegemony thesis, it’s obviously somewhat more complex, and I think somewhat more positive, than the general tone of discussion at Crooked Timber. I won’t particularly mourn the death of 5,700 languages, despite whatever profoundly different ways of thinking such languages might or might not enable. There are more than enough socially constructed boundaries of thought to hamper communication and exchange (e.g., academic disciplines, nationality) , and subcultures proliferate mightily in the modern world, providing ample breeding ground for new ideas and traditions while retaining the ability to swiftly reconnect to mainstream culture (or other subcultures) when necessary.

My course with Jean-Cristophe Agnew ( The American Century, 1941-1961 ) has been great, and it provides a jumping-off point for assessing this cultural hegemony idea. The premise of the course, which I’m increasingly convinced of, is that those two decades (give or take a few years) formed the basis of American culture since that time; nearly all the significant shifts of the later 20th century had their origins then and cultural events from the period are still frequently relevant today. This period, along with the turn-of-the-century rise of the even-nebulous “modernity” (which I studied with Ole Molvig last semester, incidentally) were singled out in the Crooked Timber discussion as periods when it seemed cultural change was especially rapid compared to today, and I would generally agree.

But I also think we’re seeing the beginning of the reversal or supersession of the homogenizing trends in American culture that have been in play since the 60s. Widespread television broadcasting and the other biproducts of defense research from WWI and WWII are finally being overtaken in cultural significance by the Cold War research legacy of computers. Along with this comes “the long tail,” the massive diversification of cultural products that is just beginning. The hit for music and the blockbuster for movies (the things that make radio and theaters so lame today) are both dying economic modes; they’re being replaced by niche-centric media such as digital music stores, Netflix (which apparently has a superb recommendation system that facilitates discovery of movies both new and old that escape mainstream attention), and other “new economy”-style retailers that make niche-content profitable again.

Mainstream media is not likely to die completely, and its current troubles only make it even more homogenous and derivative… witness current trend of mergers in news agencies, the fact that half the shows on network TV are Law and Order spinoffs (some day I’ll write a post about the pernicious political effect those shows must have), and the fact that the only truly good blockbuster from last year was not from Hollywood, and even it followed the current formula of sticking to established franchises and/or well-worn classic plots. (Neo-noir comic book male-fantasy shoot-em-up with computer graphics… seemingly the least original movie possible.) But again, I see some silver lining to retaining and even enhancing a cultural baseline as a backdrop for the vibrant long tail of culture. The key is to improve that cultural baseline (the point of my recent manifesto), but I think there is more hope for that project now than at any time since the rise Cold War culture. The fact that these issues regarding the interplay technology and culture are becoming visible means we needn’t feel trapped by any technological determinism; now is the time to determine the shape of mass culture for the next century.

This is, of course, a very modernocentric (is there better word this?) view. What about all the full-blown culture(s) being obliterated by the shift to modernity? I don’t know how to answer that… I’ve never been too enthralled by anthropology and the idea of culture for culture’s sake. The modern/post-modern long tail world will make it easier preserve parts of traditional culture, but transitions to modernity will still entail a lot of suffering; the results of the current world picture look a somewhat more promising than the fruits of 50s and 60s modernization theory, even though not much has fundamentally changed (besides the end of the Cold War).

Alas, that’s probably enough of an incoherent rant for one night.