How's my restoration?

In Newburgh, where I am now working for the Newburgh Historical Society, there are many people fixing up old houses.

Just across the street from the Crawford House (the society's HQ), the owner put up this sign, asking for input on paint choice.

Which paint color do you prefer? (I chose maroon).

It shows the kind of community spirit often demonstrated in places like Newburgh by those involved in restoration. It invites neighbours to feel invested in what's going on in their environment. Those improving a house are not just fixing up their own home, but adding something to the area.

Transient
Transient

Bravery, and historical pursuits

Recently on twitter, Maureen Ogle suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do. Vida's study of the under-representation of women in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If Harpers wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform. But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which prompted a range of replies, including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers. I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable uncertainty. We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it. This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers. I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write as myself, not as the platonic academic ideal.



Recently on twitter, Maureen Ogle suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.

Vida's study of the under-representation of women in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If Harpers wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.

But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which prompted a range of replies, including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.

I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable uncertainty. We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.

This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.

I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write as myself, not as the platonic academic ideal.

I like the way sparkling earrings lay...

I was reading a book for my work on missing persons, and I came upon an interesting comment by a New York detective of the 1930s: that when he found the body of a young woman with pierced ears,  he could assume she was foreign-born or the daughter of immigrants. He also mentions elsewhere—in relation to older cases—that ear piercing was something that had been more popular in the nineteenth century.*
Plenty of movies and photographs (and vintage stores, and grandmother’s jewellery boxes) show us that clip-on earrings were very popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, when pierced ears became standard once again. But why did the custom drop off? Was it precisely the association of pierced ears with immigrants: that the arrival of large numbers of people from southern Europe, who tended to pierce the ears of their infant daughters, made the practice seem declassé to the WASP middle classes? This is just my stab-in-the-dark guess; I’d be interested to know if any readers have more information. (It seems to have dropped from popularity far too early for blood-borne diseases to have been a concern).
We know that in the classical world, Greek sailors wore a gold earring that they could use to pay the boatman across the river Styx, and the Song of Solomon mentions earrings. There is plenty of evidence of some women in the early modern period in Europe having their ears pierced (some earrings still exist, and portraits show at least elite women had them). But like so many small details of women’s lives, particularly those relating to beauty customs, we have sketchy evidence even of recent generations.

*John Ayers, Missing Men, New York, 1932

#Twitterstorians beat the odds

Since the AHA (and my Cliopatria win), I've gained a bunch more #twitterstorian followers. I also got to meet a bunch more in person!

Here are some of those:

@polioandme - Elizabeth Kenny

@ChasingClaudiaK - Sarah LaVigne

@genghiskuhn - John Kuhn

@jhdavey - Jennifer Davey

@lcworking

@genealogydr - Amanda Forson

@tgplawson

@wrightallison

@medievalfacts - Tom Depue

@brandontlocke

@historybeagle - Lisa Smith

@awmarrs

@thomasdixon2011

@hballard1

@amwhisnant

@styce

@newburghr - Johanna Porr

@pierrepurseigle

@daelnorwood

@melinda_baldwin

@crystalfraser

@tmoens

As ever, you can add yourself in the comments. And please feel free to use the tag #twitterstorians when you're posting history-related stuff on twitter.

In which I muse upon the domestic arts...

Those of you who knit may be familar with two common styles: English (aka "throwing") and Continental. Recently, I encountered an interesting theory: that "English" knitting style was encouraged (I suppose at least in the UK) because of its palms-down, "ladylike" pose. This may be partly true, but I would also suggest that the technique is easy to learn, and produces even results, making it a good option for those who were only going to knit as a hobby, and for whom speed was not important. My historian's ear also perked up at the discussion, because of the implication that a ladylike posture was not valued in continental Europe, or indeed in Portugal (where they have a different style again).

My own knitting frustrations led me to the discussion. I have knitted since I was a child (sporadically), but with no great results. While I am an even knitter, I am so abysmally slow that I lose interest long before the project is done. To put it into perspective: championship speed knitters run at 100+ stitches per minute. Competent quick knitters are at 50+. I manage about 15-20. So everything takes forever.

Which brings me back to my curiosity about the speeds of knitting production, and particularly that Continental knitting is reputed to be faster than English. The "fast" option in the British Isles in fact seems to be "cottage" or lever style, in which the movement is streamlined by anchoring the right needle, in the knitter's armpit, in an attachment to a belt, or in the knitter's crotch (it's obvious why such a pose would not have caught on with Victorian ladies). Graceful it isn't, but damn quick. And for women in the Aran islands and elsewhere knitting for a living it was probably the fastest way to hand knit anything.

A couple of years ago, I discovered crochet (well, ok, I didn't "discover" it, I'm not the Christopher Columbus of textile arts). I taught myself (thank you, threadbanger!) and since then that's what I've mostly stuck to. Although it is the same basic concept: creating a fabric by looping and threading yarn together, it seems quicker than knitting.

Some beautiful crochet from the mid-19th century onwards have been digitised, showing some of the beautiful designs women used to make bags or cushions. As crochet, like knitting, shifted from being a manufacturing skill to a decorative hobby, it also became more generalised. Previously, different regions specialised in different crafts, and particular decorative motifs (part of the culturogenesis I research in urban spaces relates to the development of distinctive local costumes). The arrival of printed patterns made designs more general: you too can make an "Aran" or "Fairisle" sweater.

Along with the romanticisation of domestic arts that arose among middle-class Victorians, the low cost of labour (which meant an increasing proportion of the population could afford to employ the rest of the population as domestic servants), gave ladies free time to sew, knit, etc, as a hobby.

Domestic sewing machines (the Smithsonian has a fabulous booklet from 1929 online explaining the history of the sewing machine) and commercial dress patterns appeared in the mid nineteenth century, which made making one's own clothes (for the untrained seamstress) feasible. Although then as now, the amateur stitcher only made the occasional garment, not an entire wardrobe.

It's a romantic image of the woman sewing by candlelight to clothe her children, but before the machines arrived and sewing was by hand, most women did not make their own or their families' clothes. Rich women had no need (they used dressmakers) and poor women did not have the time. They repaired or altered clothes, and they bought second-hand or acquired hand-me-downs.Only professional seamstresses are likely to have made their own clothes.

I sew, but to make all my own clothes (let alone those for a husband and children) would take pretty much all my time. As in, it would only be possible if I didn't have to work. And it would still be more expensive than just buying them at a department store. (for me to buy the fabric, retail, for an outfit, can work out more expensive than getting the outfit when it's already been sewn together in a factory in some other country, where another woman's labour is being valued at much less than mine).

Perhaps because these are traditionally female crafts, the engineering skill is overlooked.

"I felt overwhelmed by the masses of circular creations that seemed to represent womankind's challenge to answer the riddle of pi in neverending cotton lace. It seemed odd to me that so many women could say that they are no good at math when they could create a perfect flat circle, or hexagon, or octagon, in lace pattern, no less.

Lace is a way of suspending holes within a stable fabric. So making a doily means a person creates pleasing, repeating geometrical pattterns with these holes, while at the same time making the number of stitches inrease by pi (3.14+) every time the diameter of the doily increases by the height of the average stitch's width.
― Sigrid Arnott

The mathematical and spatial ability in devising patterns can be quite high, as shown in the work of mathematician Daina Taimina, using crochet to model hyperbolic space.

The hours of work involved in making anything by hand mean those of us who do it (when it would be cheaper to just buy a machine-knitted sweater), are doing it for recreation - and perhaps to make something unique. But if anyone gives you a sweater they knitted this Christmas, remember that it probably took them hours each evening for weeks to make it.

For those of you on craftster or ravelry, you'll find me scampering round there as squirrelbythesea.

Where the Streets Have No Name (or, sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason)

A few people on twitter have asked me about my career, and how I came to be where I am. So here is a rather lengthy explanation. Next month will mark four years since I submitted my PhD thesis. I started in October 2004.

My work was on women in the interwar period, and their ideas of gender and modernity in Asia and the West. (Buy the book!)

I'm very proud of the work I did for my PhD, but it wasn't an area I wanted to continue to work on. I felt I had said all I could on that topic, and my interests led me elsewhere, towards urban history and a broader timeframe. Or to put it bluntly: different focus, different place, different period from my PhD. 

Rare is the person in history who seems to have made such a sharp handbrake turn in research interests. Those I can think of (Simon Schama, Cassandra Pybus, Alan Macfarlane), did so after their careers were well-established. Nonetheless, Richard Waterhouse mentioned in one of his books having colleagues who still regarded him as an "Americanist", even after he had spent over twenty years writing Australian history.

I covered my views - and trepidation - about changing areas in an earlier post. It remains to be seen whether my career choices (or rather, following my interests), will pay off. I've been told I've gone "too fast" (i.e. published too much, too soon). A friend was advised NOT to publish her doctoral book until after she landed a tenure-track job, so that it would count for tenure. I'll be finishing book two in the spring (with an edited volume on the side), and no tenure-track job in sight. 

MARCH 2008

I was awarded a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship at the National Library of Singapore. I moved in April. I wanted to study the city of Malacca, which had held a fascination for me since I first visited as a tourist some years earlier. I began researching how it had evolved as a colonial port. This research started with sources that were 400+ years earlier than my doctoral work.The fellowship was for six months, and gave me an office in the library, and a research assistant. I had a lot of fun, and it was a great opportunity. I studied Malay and started building up my reading ability of Portuguese.

OCTOBER 2008-SEPTEMBER 2009

That July, I was interviewed for, and offered a postdoctoral fellowship starting in October at the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute of Historical Research in London. There I expanded my project to incorporate Havana, comparing it to Malacca as two key port cities of early modern European expansion. I spent a great year with supportive colleagues, and worked on my side interest in the Pacific world, which was published in the Journal of World History this year. I had a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Asian Studies in Amsterdam, where I spent two months learning about the Dutch East Indies, and studying archives in the Hague.

OCTOBER 2009-NOW

The following May, I was awarded a two-year research fellowship funded by the Excellent Initiative at Ludwig-Maximilians University. I've been here since October 2009 (my fellowship ends later this month). This has given me the chance to get through all the research for my book, which has expanded to be a study of urban identity in colonial port cities. I have access to a wonderful library and it has been a good place to be based to complete my research.

I recently received (thank you, Gerda Henkel Stiftung!) a generous grant, which will enable me to finish my book, and will pay me a salary into the spring. This happy news came when I was only six weeks away from my last postdoc paycheque, so to say it was a "relief" doesn't begin to cover it. The uncertainty (indeed the pattern of the last few years of not knowing where I'll be going next until pretty late in the game) is wearing thin (though I must recommend the high-stress diet, seems to work wonders). The book is coming together and I look forward to publishing it.

INTERDISCIPLINARY! TRANSNATIONAL! UNHIRABLE?

Of course, all this time I've been applying for jobs. I never lifted my foot off in terms of writing apps, and when your job search is global, there is no off-season. After several years, it's pretty tiring. I look forward to one day not feeling like I'm working without a net. But my mobility has been my strength, thus far. Only the fact that I've been willing to go anywhere has kept me employed continuously. Friends of mine who have bound themselves to one country have not been so lucky.

My published work spans the 1500s to the 1960s. People who have encountered me, or my work, in different forums have described me as an early modernist, a nineteenth-centuryist, an Asianist, an urbanist, a gender historian. I suppose I am all of these, in varying degrees. But jobs seem to come in one of those flavours, and it's hard for me to sell myself as fitting into such categories, with disparate foci in my published work. Anyone hiring an Asianist would balk at my current project, and anyone hiring a historian of empires would look at my dissertation topic and think "What the...?". Urban/World are the labels I would use, though it's rather slim pickings for both of those at the moment.

I've spent longer working on my current book than I spent on my doctoral work, and more intensively too (the postdocs I have had have allowed me to focus fully on my research; during my PhD I was working various part-time jobs). I am at least as well up on the literature of what I'm working on now than on my doctoral area.

In general, I receive more interest from search committees in the US, especially those with world history programs, who look at my cv and think "wide teaching areas". While to hiring committees in the UK, where people tend to specialise more, the term might be (I'm guessing), "dilettante". The last AHA at which I had interviews was in 2008 (since then I've been interviewed by phone or straight to campus). If I'd landed one of those jobs, I would have had a mid-tenure review by now.

I am sure I am a better scholar, better teacher, than when I first went on the job market. I know my cover letters have improved! Nonetheless, I was wikijected this week for a job at which I thought I had a good shot. So, maybe my letter doesn't impress everyone. But I love what I do. I love history: reading about it, writing about it, sharing knowledge of the past with others. I've been lucky to have the chances I've had so far, and check in next year to see if this turns into a story of triumph or a warning of what NOT to do in academe.

A Fistful of Twitterstorians

@Past_Lives - Martin Robb
@sulinlewis
@historyrepeatin - Ian Curry
@Damienwarburton
@benfrew
@ProfSigler - Krista Sigler
@tcstride
@TonyHorwitz
@outofmischief - Richard Hemming
@markdegroh
@canenvirorock - Lauren Wheeler
@earlymodernpost - Lizzy Williamson
@KlecticAcademiK - Theresa Runstedtler
@ruth_mather
@erfagen
@tammyingram
@hhtnsw - Historic Houses Trust of NSW

A few more #twitterstorians have come to light, and welcome one and all! Add yourself in the comments if you would like to be included, and check out these people for history-related twittertalk.

Transnational Subjects: Calls for Papers

As many readers know, I am the editor of a new journal, Transnational Subjects: History, Society and Culture. Our first issue will be appearing in October 2011. The journal is print and online, and fully peer-reviewed.

Currently we have two open calls for papers. For our second issue, which will be published in May 2012, we invite essays on all aspects of  transnational and cultural history (4,000–7,000 words) and shorter historiographical or pedagogical case-study articles (fewer than 3,000 words).

We also particularly welcome digital submissions, including audio/visual work that would not be suitable for a traditional journal. Digital content will also be peer-reviewed and published on our website. Send proposals to transnational@gylphi.co.uk. The deadline for issue 2 is 31 October 2011.

Issue 3 will be a themed issue: Gender, Sexuality, and the Transnational Subject, to be guest edited by Gregory Smithers.


For well over a generation, historians have enriched our understanding of the history of gender and sexuality in a variety of historical contexts. Insightful works by Anne McClintock, Ann Stoler, Philippa Levine, Robert Aldridge, and many others, have presented a vivid picture of how the "state" endeavored to control, channel, and at times manipulate gendered behavior and sexual activity. Despite an impressive body of scholarship, we still know relatively little about the individuals who were the objects of the state’s policies, laws, and policing. Transnational Subjects calls for essays that will shed historical, anthropological, and/or sociological light on the experiences of individuals as they navigated the socially and legally constructed concepts of gender and sexuality from the eighteenth century to the present. We welcome submissions that include, but are not limited to, small case studies, methodologically and theoretically innovative essays, digital work, and personal reflections on gender and sexuality in a transnational context. Essays should not exceed 7,000 words, and reflective pieces should not be more than 3,000 words.

Submissions will be peer reviewed and should be sent electronically to transnational@gylphi.co.uk Deadline for submissions is January 15, 2012. Selected papers will appear in the October 2012 edition of Transnational Subjects.

Direct inquiries about the special edition to Dr. Gregory Smithers, Department of History, Virginia Commonwealth University.

You can also follow Transnational Subjects on twitter, @transnationsub

Crowdsourcing historical research: an experiment

Yesterday I put on google docs an article draft. The piece is called "Landscape Projections" and it is about the presentation of Australia's environment in historical film. You can see it here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1uaByekdygE3h7qRPgRKbPl-Nf3b3cDvmZu_dwubSz...

I am interested to gather people's responses to the piece, and any suggestions they may have for improvement. (I was also curious to see how many people actually read it, and I've been pleasantly surprised on that score).

So, take a look, and let me know what you think.

Damn it feels good to be a #twitterstorian

Since the uses of twitter were featured on the AHA blog, including the #twitterstorians, a whole bunch more have emerged!

@keeganjg
@kenneth_owen
@adam_costanzo
@hmprescott - AKA Knitting Clio
@RegalRenegade
@joshuapaddison
@history_doctor - Taylor Stoermer
@kelly_j_baker
@jefferslennox
@commitz - Mike Commito
@fredgibbs
@DanGuadagnolo
@pbkotowski
@tammyingram
@wrigbe - Beth Wright
@wunderplatz - Kate D.
@gordonchls - s.e. gordon-salway
@sarabushnc
@AmandaEpperson
@Brujuli - Juliana GómezMerchán
@lostinhistory - Jason Warren
@notplainjane29 - Jane Rothstein
@drhonor - honor sachs
@JessicaPClark
@macklin_gd
@kenneth_owen
@GeoffPolHist - Geoff Robinson
@jhrees - Jonathan Rees
@itshistorygirl - Emily MacLeod
@jypersian
@YAppelbaum

And some institutional accounts:

@virginiacw150 - The Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission
@HISTORYmag
@BMAGimages Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery Picture Library
@HistoryWJ - History Workshop Journal

Twitterstorians is not limited to academic historians, but anyone with an interest in history. If you want to see the rest of the list, click here.