On living your historical project

The last of the Triangle shirtwasit factory fire victims has been identified.  In the New York Times piece on the final victims, it was revealed that the man responsible for identifying them, Michael Hirsch “became obsessed with learning all he could about the victims after he discovered that one of those killed, Lizzie Adler, a 24-year-old greenhorn from Romania, had lived on his block in the East Village.”

I often think that I am luck to live in one of the places that I am writing about.  This is not a luxury allowed to all historians, and might not matter to many, but because much of the work I do is trying to figure out how people responded to a certain set of facts, framed in a certain way, at a particular time, I think a lot about how physical space impacts perceptions of what’s read, and what’s written.

National Library of Ireland, Interior.  It looks much the same today,
only with more women, more laptops and fewer moustaches.

In New York, hints of the city’s past come through in small but unmissable ways.  The New York Public Library feels timeless, insofar as when I am in the Rose reading room, I can look up and imagine the room filled with all of the people from previous times who studied there.  However, New York has expanded so much since my period (1840s and 1850s) that you have to look hard to see the roots of that city.  The smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island is a bit late, but evocative of a time of medical paranoia about foreign populations.  The Merchant’s House Museum and the Tenement Museum attempt to resurrect the past, but much of 19th century New York is buried under or obliterated by later incarnations of the city.

In Dublin, the project is somewhat easier.  The reading room at the National Library of Ireland has a similar feel, and not only because the library gift shop likes to remind people that in ye olde (and apparently entirely masculine) times, the library was there.

Postcard of UCC (then Queen’s College) c. 1900

At the moment, I’m resident in Cork, a city, unlike New York, that feels old.  The chapter I’m currently writing is about Corkonians’ reactions to the famine, and the intersection between their visercal experiences of starving (either personally or through the bodies of the dying in the streets and surrounding towns) and the experience of reading about that suffering in the press.  Cork City’s nineteenth-century architectural memories are literally laid bare – few  Celtic-tiger construction projects here to obscure the city’s most recent expansion, with the building of the University in the 1840s.    So, faced with a walk home past Victorian and Edwardian row houses, much time spent in a truly Victorian university, it becomes easier and easier to find myself trying to imagine what those 19th century Corkonians thought when they read about “another death by starvation in Skibereen” or of the hundreds of deaths at the Cork workhouse.  The sons of the better off of Cork and its surrounding environs were exactly the kind of people who would be expected to donate to local relief efforts.  Some of them, even, might have been the sons of the much-maligned landlords who expected rents when their tenants had no food to eat, let alone to sell.

Living here makes me want to try harder to imagine their experiences, to make like Simon Morley from Time and Again and by trying hard enough to imagine the past, actually having access to it, for even a brief moment.  But that is a romantic view of history.  I hope, in my time here, to travel to some of the oft-mentioned places in the Cork newspaper articles on the famine – I hope also to continue thinking about the ways in which the place of our writing impacts the way we (I, at least) think about my subject.

Quick note on the Irish election

I was watching the party leaders debates on TG4 last night (as Gaeilge!) and was struck by two things.

  1. The fetishization of Irish land that all of the major party leaders express (Sinn Fein was not represented – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour were the only debaters) strikes me as very similar to the way that land was talked about during the famine.  If only (leaders at both times said) Irish land could be maximized, the current economic problems would either go away or be largely mitigated.  I can’t think of a time (and I’ll admit, my recall of early modern or even pre-1800 Irish history isn’t as good as it could be) when Ireland has reached this magical maximization of land use.  I wonder if its not something that’s easy to invoke, because of its misty-far-off possibility.  
  2. American tourism is another big key to saving the Irish economy.  As an American, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the actions of another country invoked as a significant column of any kind of reform.  Perhaps immigration, but even then the American debate is about what Americans can do to defend the border, not what Americans can convince Mexicans and Other Dangerous People ™ from entering the country illegally.

Also, Enda Kenny is pro-puppy.

Monasticism paying off

Ireland, surprisingly, is rather wet and cold.  All to the good, as I am in no way tempted to go outside and do anything.  I have been playing around with IBM Manyeyes, a data vizualization program that requires users to make their datasets public, but is quite robust and doesn’t require learning R, or SPSS or python.  I became interested in social network analysis after an AHA panel on the topic, and because as a part of my research I’ve been tracking what newspapers or authorities are cited as part of articles relating to the famine.  I am generally interested in what sources get cited again and again, by a number of papers, because that might indicate the ‘power’ of some narratives about the famine (where power=repetition) over others.  The London Times Irish commissioner, for example, is frequently cited by newspapers from Britain, Ireland and America, while the Dublin Evening Mail is frequently cited by rural Irish papers, and only occasionally by other papers.  It is my impression, from reading these papers, that the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution are frequently used, but only as cited gobbets, among many block quotations from provincial Irish newspapers.
At any rate, network analysis gives me a visual means of testing these assumptions, and is also, for a more data-y History nerd, just fun.

So, anyway, here’s the first stab at my citation analysis.  I’ve not yet tabulated all of the references from the Indian papers or any of the New York or Cork ones, so this is mostly the British papers. 


On Friday, I am headed to Ireland for four months.  The purpose of the trip is to fill in the cracks in the research I’ve already done, and hopefully get two chapters written in the process.  I’ve packed my computer, my ipod, my ipad and some DVDs.  I am somewhat upset that I can’t bring the small-terror-that-is-called-dog.

What is essential for your research trips?  What have you packed that you’ve regretted?

A quick note about sexism, psychology, activism and history

So, my father happens to be a psychologist, and because of this, I happen to be more aware of trends in psychology than I might otherwise be.  Over dinner tonight, we were talking about institutional sexism, and I was pointed towards a few articles that seem to echo many of the claims made by gender theorists about how gender effects perceptions of individuals’ social value and utility.  One argues that among men who demonstrate some gender bias, sexist jokes were more likely than not to prime listeners to discriminate against women – in this study discrimination was measured by inclination to fund charities that benefited women. (More than “just a joke”…)  The other uses social psychology tools to make an argument for why things that are gendered female are valued less  than things that are gendered male. (Glick and Fiske in Revisioning Gender.)  I am still working my way through these, but on first blush they seem to confirm a lot of what gender theorists (and others) have been saying about perceptions of gender norms and discrimination.

The contention that “sex is the primary category by which people automatically classify others” (Glick, Fiske) seems a lot like the claim that we need to think about issues of gender when pursuing projects of social justice, to think about how gender intersects with other categories (race, class, age), how the negatives in those categories are feminized or masculaized and how that gendering denotes value.  For instance – women who exhibit aggressive behavior “are penalized for being successful in domains that are considered to be male, and are disliked and interpersonally derogated as a consequence.” (Madeline Heilman, Sex bias in work settings project description) Similarly, the notion that sexist jokes are bad for perceptions of and reactions to women is a common-place assertion for people (wonderfully demonstrated in many ways at Shakesville) who talk about rape culture and how it is perpetuated.  In fact, a lot of what psychologists of gender are saying seems to sync with what activists and gender theorists have been saying for awhile.

At the AHA before last, at a panel on the history of emotion, the suggestion was floated that historians and psychologists might benefit from working with one another.  I think that we might add activists to the mix, both to give us more tools to de-center the oft-poorly-reported evo-psych stories that perpetuate tired gender stereotypes without much cause, but also as a means of connecting the people who are approaching the same problems from different perspectives.  This is not, by the way, an argument for “science justifies arguments that other people have been making for awhile, but only with the addition of science are those arguments valid.”  Also, the discussion of how certain disciplines are valued and gendered is an important one, but for another day.  I know that my work has  benefited from social scientific and psychological work on philanthropy and social obligation, and this brief foray into psychological studies of gender suggests the same is true for other fields as well.   Perhaps this is already happening – in which case, I’d love to hear about interdisciplinarity in action, but if it’s not I think we (wearing my academic hat) need to make a better effort.