Quick note on language and westward expansion

I’ve been writing/learning to write history for a bit now, but I don’t think that I’ve ever been as aware of my language as I am this semester teaching American history.  I find myself, more and more, using North America in my U.S. survey, in part because the borders of the United States shifted so quickly in the 19th century that what counted as outside of the United States one year mightn’t be the next.  But also, I think that orally centering North America reminds students that United States history does not consist of the inexorable filling of the borders we have today.  If I weren’t already worried that I too-often reference cultural products that my students can’t relate to, I might ask them to think about how this Douglas Adams quotation, which actually describes Adams’s concerns about humans’ ideas about their place in the universe, can apply to our understanding of American westward expansion:

“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think that there is a tendency, especially after the American Revolution, to think about a United States shaped hole in north America that is being slowly and correctly filled by the new American nation.

Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.

On the embargo question

I’d been waiting to start this until my dissertation abstract was actually available through Proquest, but I’ve recently learned that it might take as few as 8 and as many as 20 weeks (~2-5 months) from the time NYU submitted the darned thing, which was three months after I submitted final revisions, to appear.  That’s between 5 and 8 months between my final version and the world of accessible-via-Proquest.  This, frankly, seems like something worth throwing into the debate about embargoing.  I embargoed my dissertation – largely because of some truly horrible stories I’d heard from people who found their work used by more senior scholars, or in more cases, had found that the archival road-map laid out in their dissertation had been used by someone else to publish more or less the same argument before they’d been able to get a book contract.  I know that there are many and varied reasons not to embargo, and I’m toying with the idea of asking Proquest to lift it, but as a junior, untenured scholar, the risks seem to outweigh the reward.

That being said, as an advocate for the digital humanities generally, and as someone who has benefited from open-source dissertations particularly (an aside – what I’d really like to see is for the AHA to have some mechanism for young scholars to make their dissertations widely available, and to work with acquisitions editors to create a culture where an available dissertation is almost never an impediment to a book deal.  The former, because I find it frustrating that my only venue for dissertation publishing is through a for-profit company) I’d like to make some of my work generally available to a wider audience.  It seems like conference papers are a good place to start.  For one, this is intellectual work that’s already been put out in a public space (though attendance at conferences and particular panels obviously varies), and for another, a lot of the material I’ve presented at conferences over the years has been excised from the dissertation, or changed so much as to make it truly different work.  In that spirit, I’ve created a new page here – one at which I’ll post selected delivered conference papers that aren’t a part of anything that’s currently in process or out for review.

I’d also like to say – both in this post and at that new page – that I’m happy to share my dissertation with anyone who wants to see it.  Just e-mail me and ask.  I know that this is far from the spirit of true open source access to academic work – but for me it’s a start.

Archival gem (on stereotypes)

I took a trip down to Charleston today to look at the records of the Charleston Hibernian Society – the body that collected donations for famine relief in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  All told, these men took in approximately $15,000, and letters to the English consulate in New Orleans suggest that still more donations were made directly to British representatives in America.  Sadly, the 1886 Charleston earthquake seems to have destroyed the minute books between February of 1847 and early 1857, so there was less than I’d hoped for.  Nevertheless, I’ve come away with a list of members of the Charleston Hibernian Society to crosslist (and hopefully map) against the list of donors I’ve already assembled.

I also came across this delightful budget from February of 1847 –

The Treasurer Reports having paid the following bills:

Hayden & Gregg for Lamps                           $         3.38

To Patriot for Advertising                                          17.50

G W Black for Building Drain                                    157.22

Stevens & Betts for Spittons & Spade                     4.62

Stephen Jones for Repairing fence in yard             3.37

And for 1 Doz Porter                                                  3.25

Aside from whatever was going on with that drain (G.W. Black was admitted to the Hibernian Society at the same meeting that bill was submitted, and seems to have been related to other members of the society, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was getting some kind of kick-back), I very much appreciate that a dozen porters could be bought for the same price as lamps or fence repairs, and that whoever bought those beers saw fit to charge them to the Society.  The treasurer’s books also featured several remittances for whiskey.

(Live(ish))blogging the survey

First, a long digression:

I got to sit down with reps from Gale today for about five hours to talk about all of the tools they have for teaching.  Among some other fun things, we were able to test drive Artemis, which will eventually aggregate some? many? of Gale’s primary sources (or, what Gale markets as primary sources – a lot of things that aren’t sold as primary sources, like literary criticism, could still be useful in 20th century U.S. history classrooms, for instance), and what they’re calling “term clusters,” which is basically an interactive pie graph that shows the frequency of words that abut your search term.  It looks like it will be a pretty useful and robust search engine once everything is integrated, though like any archive it’s limited by what Gale’s editors acquire, how they subject index what they have, and (particular to digital archives) how well it’s been OCRed.

We were challenged to think about how we’d use Gale resources in the classroom, and there was a lot of talk about how having a not-infinite-but-still-pretty-vast universe of possible primary sources would challenge students to think more creatively about their topics, and how the analytic tools like term cluster will help students identify trends that they might not otherwise have seen.

Two thoughts:

1) Sometimes an infinite, or seemingly infinite universe can be a great thing.  When a student is working on a year-long senior thesis, having millions of pages of documents to draw from could be really productive.  But, there’s also something to be said for well curated small collections of primary sources, especially for introductory courses, where students aren’t sure how to even approach analyzing a primary source, let alone picking one about which they can make an argument that will sustain them throughout the paper writing process.

2) I’m always struck by the ways in which online databases or search engines try to replicate the functionality of a physical library.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that looking in the metadata for a book’s subject, and then looking for the subject headings that immediately follow and precede the one you’re interested in is like browsing the shelves at a library.  I’ve heard similar things about the serindip-o-matic tool, as a way to replicate the lucky happenstance of coming across an unforeseen or mis-filed document in a brick and mortar archive.  I love the serindop-o-matic, and I’ve been doing the proximity subject searches since college, so I’m not saying that these are bad tools or workflows, but I wonder about how effective it is to try to replicate the research experience of a library online.  On the other hand, we know how to research in libraries and archives, and it doesn’t seem so wise to reinvent the research wheel if we don’t have to – but browsing by proximate subject heading, or looking for high frequencies of words that cluster around any given search term will never the same as browsing the stacks.  Finding a document through serindip-o-matic (which I love, by the way – I think that it’s a fantastic tool, and I’m not sure that it’s makers would characterize it as replicating the eureka in the archive experience, I’ve just seen it described that way) will never be the same as coming across a mis-filed pouch of heroin, say – or perhaps more likely, an archivist who knows you’ve been pulling stuff on one subject getting you something related that you hadn’t thought to ask for.

At any rate, I’m not sure if, or how I’m going to be using Gale’s, or anyone else’s online databases for teaching in the future.  For this imminent semester, I’ve settled on the Major Problems in American History reader, because I really like the interpretive essays, and find the transcription and gobbeting of documents by experts in the field, of say, colonial American history, to be far superior to anything I might do on my own, even drawing from a near-infinite corpus.

But as to the point of this post, I’ve been thinking that it might be a useful exercise in my own pedagogical development, and possibly a useful contribution to the conversation started on the Junto blog last week about teaching the survey, to periodically check in about this, my first time teaching U.S. to 1877 on my own.  Consider this the first post of that project, and if I’m really systematic perhaps I’ll go the digital document reader route next semester and compare notes.

Google map engine and Charleson donors

Although the Google map engine API is meant for businesses, there’s a lite version for non-business map geeks.  I like this tool because it’s easy to embed a lot of data into the map.  Here’s a quick version of the Charleston famine donors map that I’d previously made just using Google maps and dropping “pins” in places where donors were located:

All of these donations were printed in Charleston newspapers, and when I first started mapping them I was struck that (1) many of the donors printed in Charleston papers didn’t seem to live in Charleston and (2) how many of them were slaveowners.
The new map is here.

Quick note: Henry Street, New York, 1847 – a particularly philanthropic street?

Building on the patterns I’ve been trying to track in famine donors, I also noticed today that of the thirteen individual donors from New York City, nearly a quarter lived within a few blocks on Henry Street.  I don’t know what it’s about, or if it’s just a random happenstance but I’ve got a whole other list of NYC donors and I look forward to finding out!

Henry Street via NYPL

On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

One more opinion on open sourcing history

I’ve just recently gotten on twitter, and I’m mostly using it to track what other history/digital humanities people are saying about the world.  It’s not surprising (though new to me) that there’s a lot of great linking and sharing about history going on through twitter, nor that a lot of people who are inclined to be “twitterstorians” are also interested in the relationship between history and digital humanities, so that’s a lot of what’s been cycling through my reader recently.

Something that’s come up with fair regularity is how historians might go about open sourcing their work.  I first came across this idea via Timothy Burke’s project to collect and make public his reading notes but within the last month there’s been some more discussion about exactly how we might go about open sourcing our notes, as people in the sciences are starting to do.  Caleb McDaniel outlined some of the possibilities, as well as the pitfalls of making our notes available, as I think some scholars are already using blogs to do – to quote Tim Hitchcock, quoted in another recent twitter discovery, his Historyonics blog is there to “upload bits and pieces that he would not otherwise publish in any other form.”  While what those bits and pieces are certainly changes over the life of a project, in the early stages – for me at least – I tend to post random things I find in archives that tickle me, or seem odd, or just interesting.  As the project progresses, I try out ideas, or illustrations, or maps, and by the end, I usually feel up to talking about the process.  Rinse.  Repeat.  So ultimately for me, this space is basically a commonplace book.  Other bloggers’ mileage may vary.

I think that McDaniel is right that open sourcing the kind of work we do on projects is very different from open sourcing scientific work.  For one thing, much of the legwork – perhaps akin to collecting experimental data in terms of place-in-process and time – is finding archives and transcribing information.  While some people work from readily available and widely known archives, others work painstakingly to track a story or character across different manuscript collections, and sharing that work feels a bit like giving away the whole ballgame.  I’m sure that at least some of this anxiety comes of being a junior scholar with limited publications, and from the many horror stories I’ve recently heard about work being “scooped” from Proquest-published dissertations or conference papers, but I also know that it’s an anxiety I share

Because of these reservations, I was excited to read Kris Schaffer’s suggestion that sharing platforms might be used for pedagogy as well as research notes. The world of syllabi  already seems to be a very sharey one – facilitated by H-net lists as well as colleges and universities that post syllabi online – but one where attribution is tricky.  If, for example, colleague A were borrow a semester structure wholesale from colleague B who’s posted theirs online, there’s been no way for A to let B know that their syllabus is being used, to share changes A has made, or feedback on how certain things worked or didn’t work.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s no way for B to know that A has appropriated their intellectual property for their own uses.  There’s no way for them to report back that something didn’t work, or that they made vital changes.  I love the idea of using something like GitHub to share this kind of pedagogical stuff, because it seems to give us a way to do better what some are doing already.

In that spirit, I’m going to try and provide a running commentary here on my experiences teaching the U.S. survey for the first time this fall – what’s worked, what hasn’t, what I’ll be doing differently when I teach it again in the spring.  It’s a terrifying prospect to lay bare my possible future pedagogical failures, but it seems like a good exercise in both practicing what I preach, and in being really mindful of that teaching.