Hurricane history

As I am writing, hurricane Harvey is still happening.  At the moment (the evening of August 27th, 2017) it seems poised to swing out into the Gulf, pick up energy, and swing back to deluge inland Texas again (as an aside, I saw someone on twitter claim that Hurricanes are powered by cold, therefore climate change is “not a thing.”  Hurricanes get their power from warm, moist air, often found over oceans.  NASA has a great primer on the mechanics of hurricanes here.)

I don’t want to take attention away from the rescue efforts that are taking place in Texas, but I did want to get some thoughts down about why hurricanes are simultaneously forecastable and unpredictable, and why that tension makes them a particularly fraught kind of disaster.

Hurricanes are easy to forecast.  They are large, and (mostly) easy to follow, predictable weather events.  The Galveston Hurricane (1900), which is in the running for deadliest recorded hurricane in American history was predicted by Cuban meteorologists (their prediction was ignored by American meteorologists).  Katrina (2005) was forecast.  Sandy (2012) (which resonates particularly with me, because I am from NJ and lived in NJ at the time) was forecast.  With some variation of strength and landing points, meteorologists know that hurricanes are coming, and where they will make landfall.

I think that for people who are unfamiliar with the Atlantic and Gulf seaboard, hurricanes feel like disaster-lite.  They are not tornadoes, which can appear, seemingly in seconds, and wreck damage that is so extreme that the most common comparison is a runaway freight train.  They are not earthquakes, which seem to strike capriciously.  They are not fires, which – often being caused by human negligence – are almost impossible to predict.  For people who do not live in hurricane country, hurricanes seem like easy disasters.  “Once you know they’re coming” – backseat disaster pundits say – “just get out of the way.”

Despite the confidence of forecasts, damage from hurricanes is incredibly difficult to predict.  Some  damage comes from storm surges (where the barometric pressure of the hurricane – basically, the weight of the water – physically pushes the ocean onto land).  This is what happened during Sandy, and during the Galveston hurricane.  Some damage comes with gale-force winds, which drive the sea onto and over coastal spaces.  Some hurricanes hit in places where natural defenses against flooding are insufficient.  Most spaces are at the intersection of these hazards. This is what happened during Katrina, and seems to be what is happening with Harvey.

This uncertainty is why one of the dominant themes in oral histories of Katrina is that, having survived previous hurricanes, many people of New Orleans thought that Katrina did not seem to pose that much of a risk.  If previous evacuation orders resulted in minimal damage, there was no incentive to leave.  However, the more significant predictor of failure to evacuate  is access to capital.  Evacuation requires a car.  It requires access to money to buy food.  It requires confidence that work will be cancelled the next day.  It requires a financial cushion that means that loosing material goods to looting can be recovered from.  Put pithily: people with social, political and economic capital can afford to evacuate; poor without, cannot.

This is why there are so many people pleading in Twitter for rescue.  This is why so  many people sheltered in place.  This is why so many people trusted government officials when they said that a few inches of water wasn’t dangerous.  This is why so many people where surprised when a few inches of water became a few, several, many feet.  Hurricane damage is unpredictable, and the people who are most subject to that unpredictability are the people who have least.

American hurricanes have a long history.  While individual storms seem capricious, in the last century and change, patterns have begun to emerge.  They are worth attending to as we face the midst, and aftermath, of the latest deadly storm.

What do we do about archival violence? (#DH2017 talk)

I’m in the process (after the book manuscript is submitted!) of revising this into a more formal paper.  But in the meantime I wanted to put it out in the world.  (The slide deck is here: Also, this includes the story that I didn’t have time to tell.  Again.  Some day I will give this talk and get to the story.

Data is fraught with peril.

I want to do two things today. The first is to talk about how archives enact epistemic violence on some of the subjects they preserve. The second is to talk about how DH methods, combined with insights from scholars who study marginalized people, can be used to undermine the inhumanity of that data.

This is both about not accepting the epistemologies of historical actors, and being critical about how our own work can enact violence. (I’m echoing stuff from alternative histories of dh yesterday.)

In the 1840s, Ireland had a famine. One million people died. One million people fled. You only need to know this because the vast majority of these immigrants sailed for New York.

The Atlantic crossing from Ireland could take more than a month, and the ships were rife with typhus and cholera. Irish immigrants’ experience of ships was deeply corporeal. New York City’s experience of them was as potential liabilities.

In response to the thousands of immigrants arriving in New York in the nineteenth century the city passed a law requiring that the master or captain of every ship originating outside of the state of New York commit funds in case immigrants became sick and were cared for in city institutions.

Some ships paid. Others sold their obligations to brokers. In New York, immigrants were transformed into sickness futures. Because of this, it was important for the city to produce data on them.

Simultaneously, when immigrants occupied public spaces in New York in ways unacceptable to bourgeoisie New York – either because they were ill or because they were simply the wrong kind of bodies – they were extracted and incarcerated – most often in public health institutions.

There, clerks recorded more information – name, age, profession, nationality – but also the names of the people who referred immigrants and, most importantly for nineteenth-century Americans, the ship or broker that was obligated to cover the new inmate’s fees.

They were then medically assessed.

Some were diagnosed with recognizable diseases. But the most interesting category, the one that tells us to question the conditions of production of this data, is that of “recent emigrant.” This diagnosis covered twenty percent of all Irish inmates.

After they were diagnosed, these inmates were distributed throughout New York’s public health system. Some were sent to the hospital. Others were sent to the workhouse. Still more ended up in the most dismal spaces,

described by one Almshouse administrator as “constantly filled with paupers, and at various periods numbers have had to occupy the garrets and cellars. The dead House recently erected had to be opened for their admission. The Chapel also has been converted into sleeping apartments and shanties [have been] built.” (we are going to spend some time in the garrets later)

I want to close this section with a quotation from Friederick Kapp, a New York City official who described this era of immigration as one in which “the emigrant is not a subject, but an object…they appear as a numerical quantity; they seem to have no individual existence, and the student of contemporary history does not take the trouble to study their individual motives, misfortunes and aspirations.”

I should say here that, in making the claim that the quantification of people, particularly aboard ships, transformed Irish immigrants from humans into some other kind of object in the eyes of the state is not original. I’m drawing on the work of the exemplary historians of slavery Marisa Fuentes, Jennifer Morgan, Stephanie Smallwood and Sowande Mustakeem. I am NOT (because that is a terrible meme) comparing Irish immigration to the heritable slavery that people of African descent were subject to. I am saying that something about entry into the New York public health system rendered – in the eyes of dominant groups, at least – Irish immigrants other in a process that was related, but very, very different from the middle passage, and that we can do something both with and against that violence.

Why does all of this history matter? I want to suggest three reasons and then expand on the last.

The first: as DH practitioners, we have to contend with the kinds of work that historical data creation enacted upon marginalized people and with the work that historical data producers thought they were doing. For my data, this means that I need to think about, for example, discrepancies between what we know about immigrants and what is revealed in the data, and what kind of explanatory power those discrepancies have.

The second: unfortunately, we have no archival records that describe the internal mechanisms of Bellevue. These processes were largely invisible to us, and remain largely archiavally invisible. But in looking at how thousands of immigrants moved through this system, we can start to see the institutional forces pushing on immigrants.

Finally, and this is what I want to close with, we can use quantitative methods to identify particular moments of contingency. Put another way, we can identify variables (each of which signifies one stage in immigrants’ passage through the almshouse) which significantly predict or are correlated with some other stage or experience, and then drill down into those moments, and imagine the ways in which immigrants within this system might have exercised agency.

An aside: this data consists of a lot of categorical variables. I used logistic regression. I can talk a bit about this in the Q and A.

I wanted to explore why immigrants ended up at particular places within the public health system. The models I built suggested that immigrants’ age, gender and profession did not significantly contribute their ultimate site of incarceration.

Several things:

Being diagnosed as a “recent emigrant” was correlated with being sent to marginal spaces (garrets, shantytowns on the Bellevue grounds, Blackwell’s Island where I suspect they were being used as labor to build new asylums)

Flipping the model around and looking at what ultimate sites predicted about diagnosis revealed that having been sent to the garrets of Bellevue meant that an inmate was likely to have been a recent emigrant. So if an immigrant was in the garret, they were likely to encounter other people who had been incarcerated for their immigrant status.

Being diagnosed as “recent emigrant,” was also significantly predicted by who was doing the sending. Two officials in particular, Moses G. Leonard and the Superintendent of the Out Door Poor (a man named George W. Anderson), were significant in predicting whether the person they were sending to the hospital would have been diagnosed as an emigrant and whether they were sent to the garrets.

Other diagnoses that would seem to do similar work of signaling the unsuitability of an immigrant for public spaces in New York – like destitution – were not strongly associated with any particular individual.  So we know that for an immigrant in New York, encountering these men was more likely to result in this immigration diagnosis, and likely to be sent to the Bellevue garrets.

So all of this is interesting (I think) but I want to take a stab at making this human.

On February 27th, 1847, John Conway and two children, Mary and Margaret disembarked in New York, having left Sligo (in Ireland) a month before. John might have been May and Margaret’s father. He might have been their grandfather, uncle or other distant relative. These three left Ireland alone. They were either not bonded to the ship, could not provide the information, or refused to provide it. (I found them on the manifests) Four days after arriving in New York, all three were sent to Bellevue. The men who dispatched them were George W. Anderson, the Superintendent of Out Door Poor, and the Alderman of the 12th ward, which in 1847 was everything north of fourteenth street. All three were classified as “recent emigrant” and all three were sent to the garrets. We don’t know how they felt about Bellevue. We do know that they would have found a community. In the garrets with them were other families, most of whom were also “recent emigrants.” They might have met the McClahey family, all of whom arrived on the Thetis from Belfast on February 25th, were sent by the same men that dispatched the Conway family, and were classed as “recent emigrants.” They might also have encountered Thomas McDonal, a laborer who had been on the same ship as they had from Sligo. Bellevue’s garrets, then, became a space of potential community, where families from across Ireland might share common cultural parlance, if not the same history.

This is a story we can tell because of the data. These are stories we need to tell if we are going to work with historical data designed to strip people in the past of their humanity.

A few thoughts at the start of the job season

I was cleaning up my desktop recently, and stumbled upon my ‘jobs’ folder.  Since new jobs are just beginning to appear, I thought I’d share a few things:

  • I was seriously on the market for five years.
  • The first time was in 2010.  I applied for seven jobs. I think I had two dissertation chapters written.  I had one campus visit.
  • My committee was divided about whether it was better to defend with no job (because then I would be finished) or wait.
  • My second year on the market I applied for thirty-three jobs, finishing fellowships and postdocs.  I had two campus visits.  I received a finishing fellowship.
  • I defended in February of my third job-market-year.  I remember feeling sort of empty, and I did not have an offer at the time of my defense.
  • My third year on the market I applied for forty-eight jobs, fellowships and postdocs.  I had one campus visit for a one-year VAP.  I was offered and accepted the VAP.
  • My fourth year on the market I applied for seventy-seven jobs, fellowships and postdocs.  My one-year VAP meant that as soon as I arrived at my institution, I had to start writing letters.  Post-defense letters are very different from ABD letters.  This was probably my hardest year on the market.  I had four campus visits, including for a two-year postdoc at the institution where I was VAP-ing.  I was offered and accepted the postdoc.
  • My fifth year on the market, I applied for fourteen jobs.  I had four campus visits, three offers, and accepted a TT job at the place I work now.  They let me defer for a year to finish my postdoc, which was generous, and helped me make progress on teaching and on my book.
  • Every August, I have residual job market anxiety.  Even now that I have a TT job, this time of year prompts general panic and malaise – I had five years to train my body to react this way.
  • I was well-trained, but I was also lucky.  The field I was hired in (digital humanities) was growing in my job market years three to five, and I happened to be pursuing a sideline in things DH.
  • I also have lots of structural privilege.  My partner and I do not have children, and we have the economic flexibility to support my move for a one-year gig.  We had the funds to maintain two residences when that one-year gig became a three-year gig, and the funds now to maintain households on both coasts.  It’s not easy, but it’s more feasible for me than it would be for people with children, dependent family members, or social networks that bind them to a place.
  • I also had a support network in my hometown that would have meant that had I not gotten a job, I would have had time and resources to recoup, plan, and find a new path.
  • My markers of race, gender, sexuality and class mean that it’s possible for me to safely (if not happily) live in a lot of places in this country.  Not everyone can do that.

I think that it is worth making these processes visible.  Getting a job, in this market, is hard, and largely a matter of luck and social capital.  I hope that we who are in TT jobs can remember this as we shepherd undergraduate, M.A. and PhD students through.  I also hope that stories like mine (one of the lucky ones) will do something to work against the idea that the academy is purely meritocratic.  Good work is good work, but there are a lot of people doing good work and not getting jobs; and a lot of people doing good work who are not getting jobs because they have the wrong kind of social capital.  Landing a TT job is not evidence of moral or academic superiority; not landing a TT job is not evidence of inferiority.

Open(ish) letter to the University of Chicago

This morning, I received an alumni survey from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  At the end, there was a section for extended comment.  Since I indicated in the survey that I highly valued my education, the connections I made, and the mission of the institution, but that I had no plans to give in the future, I thought I should explain myself.  Here’s what I wrote:

I used to donate to the University of Chicago, in large part because I received an excellent education that prepared me for graduate school, and for my own career in academia.  In the past few years, four factors have kept me from giving, and will likely keep me from giving for the foreseeable future:

1) President Zimmer’s salary in comparison to other major research universities – since 2011, President Zimmer’s salary has been among the top 15 highest base salaries paid to presidents of private institutions.  While being a university president is certainly a role that requires skill and expertise, Dr. Zimmer’s salary suggests an institutional emphasis on administrative prestige, rather than on the support of students.

2) Safe spaces – earlier this year, the University published an ill-informed (with regards to the theory of safe spaces) and, from the perspective of a faculty member, misguided statement on the place of safe spaces at the University of Chicago.  There were a number of very thoughtful critiques of this statement, but for me it signaled a fundamental disregard for students who fell outside of dominant categories.  Put simply, by dint of their race, class, gender, gender presentation and sexual orientation, some students experience the world as safer (both in terms of discourse and in terms of physical safety) than others.  That the University of Chicago would ignore these disparities, and criticize some of the student-led structures that push back against it was, for me, unconscionable.

3) Rachel Fulton – I took undergraduate classes with Dr. Fulton.  She was an excellent lecturer, and fundamentally shaped the way I approach my own teaching.  She is absolutely entitled to her political opinions, but I was shocked that the language she used to describe women in some of her posts (this in particular – and even more shocked that no one in a position of power at the university thought that it would be good to disavow those ideas (I’m not, by the way, calling for Fulton to be fired).  In this case, the university seemed more interested in studied non-action than it did in reassuring students that one faculty member’s thoughts about women’s sexuality, appearances and students’ sexuality in general did not represent the institution as a whole.

4) Unionization – the arguments that are being offered against graduate student unionization this week further undermine the value of a University of Chicago education.  Lawyers for the university have argued that graduate students do not teach for the benefit of undergraduates, are not assessed on the quality of their teaching, create more work for tenure-track faculty (presumably detracting time from their own research) and are just there to learn to teach(apparently at the expense of undergraduates).  I don’t believe this to be true – it reads as classic anti-union rhetoric – but if I take the university at its word in these proceedings, then I must conclude the University of Chicago cares only for training graduate students, and not for either faculty or undergraduates. If I take the rhetoric that the university disseminates about the value it places on education and research at face value, then I  must conclude that it is more important to defeat a graduate student union than it is to be consistent in values.

In sum, the actions of the University of Chicago in the past years suggest to me a fundamental disregard for undergraduate education specifically, and higher education more broadly.  I do not recognize the institution that I attended from 2002-2006 in the institution of 2016-2017.  I see no reason to give my money or support to a University of Chicago that seems so alienated from the views it has historically espoused, which drew me in as a student, and which supported my own education.

Diagnostic tools – or – the pretty visualization is not the end

As the semester and my first graduate digital history class wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about building DH things for investigation vs. argument.  There’s a lot of good work on tools-as-theory, and whether a digital thing can be a satisfying argument, and an upcoming conference on argumentation in the digital humanities – so I’m not the only one.

I also just finished writing 1-2 pages – maybe 1,000 words – based on a diagnostic tool that it took me over a month to build.  I’m hoping to spin what it tells me out into a longer article in future, but for now I thought I’d share it here, with some commentary on how I made it, what it told me, and why it is not an effective argument.

One of my book chapters is on a group of enslaved and free people in Richmond who raised funds for victims of famine in Ireland.  The First African Baptist Church of Richmond raised just under $35 in 1847. While the amount per congregant was low (the church listed thousands of active members, but many of them were not able to regularly attend because of their enslavement) the donation itself was relatively unique in the church’s history.  This was one of the first times that this congregation raised funds for people not connected with the church.  I have a much longer argument on the political work that this donation did, but I wanted to be able to make some concrete statements about congregants’ experiences in the 1840s.

This was helped by the church minute books, which recorded the names of baptized, excluded and restored members (there were a lot of exclusions for adultery in the 1840s) as well as the names of the men and women who owned the congregants who were enslaved.  So I built a network (using Gephi, which benefits tremendously from the recent update) that showed only relationships characterized by slavery, to see if any white Richmonders were particularly over-represented. (made with sigma.js and the Gephi plugin created by OII)

While some men and women owned more than one congregant, by and large this network was fairly diffuse.  Congregants obviously shared the religious and physical space of the church, but their relationships outside of the church did not seem to be conditioned by their enslavement by particular men and women. (There is an excellent and robust literature on enslaved people in urban spaces, resistance and community building, which I won’t recap here – but suffice it to say that scholars have charted many other ways of relating beyond ownership by the same person, and I assume those modes were at play in 1840s Richmond).

As I put together the database of congregants, I realized that many and unusual names (Chamberlayne, Poindexter, Frayzer, Polland, among others) recurred among both slaveholding and enslaved people.  So I made another network, this one assuming that people who shared a surname had some kind of relationship (this is not a 100% defensible assumption – some of the more common names might have been happenstance).  With those kinds of connections, the network (which includes all of the same people as above) becomes much more dense, with clusters that signify relationships based both in slavery and (most often coerced) sex.

It’s interactive!  It’s dynamic!  It’s a network!

It is not an argument.

At best, this is a tool that lets me locate an individual and see connections.  It relies on two kinds of relationships (and likely overstates the certainly of genetic relationships or previous ownership based on shared surnames).  It helped me to write two pages about the density of connections among black and white Richmonders, and bolster claims about the broader relationships that the First African Baptist Church was embedded in.  It remains an investigative tool.

I think it could be helpful, which is why I am putting it on the internet, but it does not constitute argument.  It does not even constitute analysis (that happened behind the scenes in R).  It did take – from the start of transcription to now – over a month to build.

Was it worth it?  Well, I was able to see connections among the 800+ congregants mentioned in the minute books from 1845-1847 that I would not have been able to see just by reading the names.  I was able to place individuals in a broader social context.  I wrote two pages.  I think that work like this can be tremendously generative, but either happens behind the scenes and only lives on a researcher’s computer, or is presented as the end of an investigative process. This is firmly in the middle of the investigation, but I suppose that has value too.

Quick note: Timeline of famine philanthropy

I’m sitting down to tackle my introduction, and wanted to say something specific about the timeline for famine philanthropy. Tableau helped to track the total number of donors by organization.  This is a better measure than the total amount of donations – at least until I go back and standardize British pounds and U.S. dollars, but it gives a good sense of time timeline of relief.


Teaching reading notes

When I was in college, a friend of mine made a joke that he couldn’t read novels without a pencil in his hand, because he was so used to note-taking his philosophy books.

My father is a professor, but I don’t remember ever seeing him read a work of fiction, and always remember him having a manuscript to work on in his spare time.

One of the goals of the historical methods class at CSUF is to teach students how to be history majors, and a part of that is teaching them how to read scholarly texts.  My friend and my father come to mind because they, and I, treat academic reading as the default form of reading, and (at least in my case) can forget what it was like to learn to read for argument and scholarly conversation rather than for information.  I have acute memories of feeling like I was reading in the wrong way in college, but not of learning what the right way was.

I’m hoping to help my historical methods students skip, or at least speed through the uncomfortable confusion stage of this (which is not to say that discomfort can’t be productive, but that the feeling that you’re missing something that everyone else gets isn’t really productive).  So I made a reading worksheet that’s based on the notes I took for my grad comps.  I’ve been filling one out for each of the readings we have this semester, and it’s helping me to ground my thoughts about a text.  Hopefully it does the same for the students, and models a way to take reading notes.


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Teaching theory in history (part two of some) – or – In Theory podcast meets Typhoid Mary

Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways.  Big theoretical concepts can help us  see historical events in new ways.  This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in.  We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event.  We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time.  Theory helps with that framework.

Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory.  Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.”  It is excellent.  You should listen to it.

I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom.  I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy.  This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory.  However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days).  This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.

How it worked:

First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory.  As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.

Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.

Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.

Fourth: For the next class, students were assigned chapters from Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary.   Each chapter takes a different perspective on Mary Mallon (the first silent carrier of typhoid fever, colloquially named “Typhoid Mary,” and imprisoned by the state of New York until her death).

Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.

Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.

By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways.  Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to.  Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.