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:

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.

In Which I Go Visiting...

This week, the lovely Claire Potter allowed me to visit her online abode, Tenured Radical, and share my views on women’s history blogging. The piece I wrote was in response to the roundtable she hosted at the Journal of Women’s History. (what I wrote will make more sense if you read those papers first).

It seems to have triggered a range of responses, which I find very interesting. If readers are interested, I can continue the discussion over here (comment below - I'm interested to see if this is something people really want to hear more about!).

All aboard for the AHA!!

Like so many of my colleagues, I’m headed to Boston in a few days for the annual meeting of the  American Historical Association. I have written about this annual history festival before, and I know some people consider my fervent attachment to it somewhat strange.

It is a HUGE event, with thousands of people attending. Other disciplines have similar events, the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and American Philosophical Association (APA) also falling in the two weeks after Christmas. The AHA program is the size of a phone directory for a small town, and a major feature of the conference is that job interviews for many positions are held there. This is part of the reason that for many people it seems a chamber of horrors (in their descriptions): expensive holiday airfares to get to humiliating interviews capped off with $10 beers in the Hilton bar.

This has not been my experience. I have never landed a job as a result of an AHA interview, but I haven’t found the job center itself a bad system. I have had far more painful interviews for jobs outside academia (to put this in perspective, I was once turned down for a job answering the phones for Pizza Hut...). But for some people I know, the fact that the AHA and their struggles on the job market are inseparably intertwined, means that they hate it, hate it, HATE IT. And once they land a tenure-track job, they vow never to go again. And this is a great shame.

I find much more to love than dislike at the AHA. Indeed, what puts some people off is actually what I love. In addition to jobseekers, the other people who seem critical of it are those who find little in the program of interest. It’s broad, not like subspecialty-focused or local conferences. People have told me they get far more intellectually from attending the conferences of their area. But for me, the breadth is its beauty. Yes, I go to specialised conferences in the field/s I research. But the AHA allows me to dip into areas of history I don’t know much about. For instance, I’m not going to attend a conference on the American Civil War, or Feudal Japan, or marine archaeology: but I’ll go to a panel on one of these things if it’s at the AHA and looks interesting. If I’m at some point going to be teaching broad survey courses, I feel it’s useful (indeed a professional obligation) to at least be vaguely aware of what’s going on OUTSIDE my own subspecialty. And more than that, I actually enjoy learning about other fields of history and what people are researching. For people who LOVE HISTORY, the AHA is FUN!!

This is the first one since Phillie (2006) where I am not presenting or interviewing*, so I look forward to going to panels and meeting people. My good friend, Helena Toth, has put together a panel on the culture of death and remembrance in Eastern Europe, so all you Europeanists should come along!

I will also be announcing the winners of the Cliopatria awards for the best in history blogging, so that should be fun. I’ll be making the announcements during a dinner for Twitterstorians on Thursday, January 6. If you are interested in coming, register here.

*If you are on a search committee, and want to hire in urban/social/world history, drop me a line.

Welcome to the October 2010 History Carnival!

Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations, and special thanks to Nick Poyntz who shared a bumper crop of suggestions! I didn't post everything I received, and if there were several nominations for the same blog, I picked the post I liked the best. Some things are from more than one month ago, since the Carnival was on hiatus since August. 

First up, Larry Cebula at Northwest History received a response from the Baron von Munchausen historic house, to his letter featured in the last history carnival. It's a real eye-opener to attitudes about the role of museums and "public history".


Executed Today looks at the hanging of mutineer Thomas Nash, while Early Modern Whale discovers sin and penitence in Thomas Barton's 'Brief Relation'.

Historical travels

William Eamon explores medical history with early modern rhinoplasty.

Jost a Mon discusses economic history through the Persian travels of Jean Chardin.

Nick Poyntz at Mercurius Politicus retraces the steps of Samuel Pepys to Epsom, and shows us what is still there from his time. 

Letters from the Past

Soldier's Mail features a letter from October 1918, with the author hoping peace would come soon.

A La Mode de les Muses features some Depression-era love letters - and a great photo of Alaska.

Recipes and Advice

Got Medieval tells us how to get rid of unwanted dragons, the Gentleman Administrator tries old-fashioned cooking, while Dainty Ballerina tries some seventeenth-century drinks.

Historians and research

Ether Wave Propaganda has a detailed piece on geographic determinism in history.

Were the Samurai victims of lead poisoning? Maybe not, says Jonathan Dresner at Frog in a Well. An interesting discussion on unslayable myths in historical research. 

The Tenured Radical continues her service to the discipline by offering some advice to an aspiring historian. (Anyone hoping to pursue a career in history would do well to search the archives of her site)

Historiann examines the history of white women's political activism in the USA in the light of the Tea Party phenomenon. 

The Little Professor joins the discussion on the ideal of a university, following this piece by Roger Scruton

Judith Weingarten of Zenobia: Empress of the East has a fascinating piece on using modern technology to examine the death of a girl in Greece after the Peloponnesian War. 

That's all for this month, thanks for visiting! 

Next month will be hosted by the Birkbeck Early Modern Intelligencer.

More information about the Carnival at and for future updates, you can also follow @historycarnival on twitter.

I heard it through the grapevine; or the semi-secret world of academic hiring

Scuttlebutt, bush telegraph, radio bemba, the rumour mill: this tends to be how we hear first that someone is leaving, or has been hired by another university. That would make sense for friends and close colleagues, but even for people at great distance, we end up getting third hand information about who is going where, and why. Unless you are close enough to someone to have seen their facebook updates, or in the department doing the hiring, you're unlikely to otherwise have a clue about who is moving departments next year.

Those of you who have braved the academic job market in recent years will be familiar with the various job wikis (many hosted at - a lot scattered elsewhere on the web).These are examples of crowdsourcing, where many participants add to the pool of information. Of course, there is sometimes disinformation broadcast on the wiki - whether malicious or mistaken.The general cloak of secrecy allows a lot of disinformation to flourish, as incorrect assertions are rarely corrected - and almost never by anyone speaking with authority (the candidate in question, or a member of the search committee).

In the UK, where the period from application deadline to hire is often something like a month (with the job offer coming within 24 hours of the interview), there is not a long time in which people are required (or try) to keep a lid on the process. Not to mention that it's common to meet the other candidates at the interview - there is no expectation that one's job search is confidential, from the other applicants or anyone else. In North America and elsewhere, where a search can lurch on for months - that's a lot of time for dust to be kicked up and gossip to swirl among it. In Germany, it is common for people to advertise not only the new job they have accepted, but offers that they declined. I'm not sure that level of transparency would take off in the English-speaking world, but it's an interesting comparator to have when examining the manic paranoia that seems to accompany the job market in some places.

While some universities make announcements about new hires (in history, ads are placed in Perspectives), most don't. Big splash announcements tend to be limited to senior hires, and even then will sometimes only show up on institutional websites months after the fact - and that's at the hiring end. The departed department often retains faculty profiles on their site for those long gone, and not just those who took jobs elsewhere. I learned never to rely on a faculty directory for up to date information after the mortifying experience of writing to a scholar and receiving a very sweet note from his widow, telling me he had passed away years before...!

For philosophy, the Leiter Report does a good job of keeping the community up to date with moves. But I'm not aware of anything like that in history or other humanities. (It depends on first having a website that a critical mass of people in the field visit, and I'm not sure we do). This also offers a service for PhD students in throwing a little daylight into the shadows of placement rates, which are typically vague and anecdotal otherwise.

Now, you may be asking why you should care. Currently, few historians have a personal web page. When I search for someone online, I am lucky if the first result is their departmental website. But frequently the departmental site that comes up is the one of their grad school, in which they are still listed as a PhD student despite graduating five years ago, or the school where they spent a year as a VAP some time in the 1990s. And of course the listed email addresses are long since out of service. We all know the departmental pages that list someone's book as "forthcoming for 1998", and faculty info is no more likely to be current. How hard should it be to find other academics - perhaps to suggest a collaboration, or invite them to participate in a symposium? If you find you are hidden under the weeds and rocks of the google pond, make your profile shiny so we can see you!

Back to the transfers - unlike the Major League draft, there is no wholesale publicity of who is going where (although I bet that would lift viewership on!). I was recently introduced to this section of Inside HigherEd which is a directory of people changing jobs. It seems to be little-used, and mostly by those being promoted within the same institution. Perhaps History News Network could start keeping track of historians on the move? They're the only site I can think of with the visitor volume that might be able to manage it.


Article submissions and journal response times

This is an issue I have discussed before, that of the time taken by journals to review articles. Most recently, I’ve been quite fortunate – I received my last response within four weeks (it was, alas, in the negative, but all the better to know quickly). I set up a wiki some time ago to survey the situation and form a reference,

The posted comments already suggest a pretty dire situation at some journals. And even the “quicker” journals boast turnaround times that would make a scientist blanch. However, I have been told that some scientific journals were also slow until the custom came in of printing the date submitted and date accepted on the bottom of each article. This would be a useful development in history, where even (and perhaps especially!) a journal that is quick to review may have a backlog of a couple of years’ worth of articles waiting to be published. It would also serve to publicly shame the chronically slow into reforming their practices (or at least help show scholars which journals to avoid!).

As one anonymous user commented on the wiki about waiting an inexcusable period for a response from a journal “I’m trying to build a career here”. The timing of article acceptances can be crucial for those seeking promotion and tenure: and in today’s climate, even getting a first job. Particularly as more universities seem to be moving to models of citation indices and impact factors to judge a scholar’s merit, a practice such as printing dates of submission on published articles could go some way to demonstrating the time lag faced in the humanities, as well as for applicants to demonstrate steady output – which may not be otherwise reflected by the timing of articles finally arriving in print.

Cities and Nationalisms Conference

This conference will take place in London on 17-18 June 2010, and may be of interest to urban historians who are in the area.

“Cities have been intimately connected with nationalisms of many kinds. The architecture and spatial design of cities have commonly been intended to bolster national pride. So have the nationalist ceremonies that cities have staged. Yet cities have also been places of contending nationalisms or counter nationalisms in which urban territorial divides have helped shape and maintain competing or actively hostile group loyalties. Cities have also sometimes promoted themselves as cosmopolitan and hospitable to all nations. This conference aims to explore the nature and rich variety of connections between nationalisms and cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Cities explored include Alexandria, Belfast, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Cape Town, Cork, Cracow, Hong Kong, Kinshasa, Kirkuk, London, Montreal, Paris, Prague, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Washington.

Speakers include: Robert Bickers (Bristol), Iain Black (Cambridge), Bill Freund (Kwa-Zulu Natal), Tim Harper (Cambridge), Paul-André Linteau (Québec) and Prashant Kidambi (Leicester)”

I will be there as a panel chair, so come and say hello!

More information here

Cityscapes in History Conference - 29-30 July 2010

I am co-organising a conference, Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience, in Munich at the end of July.
The program is here, and we have a variety of panels on urban history – registration will be free, if you would like to attend!
The Center for Advanced Studies

Jacob's Golden Ladder Gets Slippery at the Top...

Stepping late here into the churning waters of the job market debate in history. Marc Bosquet has effectively critiqued the AHA’s data (and their “supply side” economic focus). One of the comments on Historiann’s blog added a pertinent point which is often overlooked in this long-running debate. Kathleen Lowrey said

“If you were 24 years old and choosing between a few years reading and writing and thinking on a self-chosen schedule vs. a 40 hour week yea until death as a cubicle critter, you might take the gamble of grad school, too. Cake now vs. no cake ever (cake being leisure time, self-direction, feeling one’s existence is meaningful, being surrounded by interesting like-minded people) — I’d probably make the same choice.”

The “cake now” vs “cake never” attraction of graduate school is, I believe, a strong factor. I certainly met PhD students who said that they only enrolled “because I got funding” and three years of salary (in the UK) was too good to turn down. Not to overgeneralise, but these were also people who seemed ambivalent (or flat out uninterested) in their academic research, and in a number of cases never finished anyway. So in a sense they got a free 3 year holiday: and when it’s offered like that (there is no punishment for not completing, for simply walking off at the end of the three years having taken the money and produced nothing), it’s hardly surprising people take it up. I also met people who – faced with (realistically) spending up to a year after their undergraduate degree looking for a job – decided to enrol for a Masters degree at the same time, so their “jobseeking” year also accrued them an additional qualification. Of course, if they were performing well in the Masters course they would be encouraged to apply for PhD places, and this is one track by which people end up in humanities PhD programs. It wasn’t their original plan, but when a funded opportunity appears, weighing that against scouring the want ads while living back with one’s parents makes a PhD sound like a pretty good option. In fact, at that post-BA stage, a funded PhD place can be the “bird in the hand” over the unknown outcomes of the general job market.

But the other element raised, that fresh graduates of 22 see their options as “wage slave” vs the intellectual world of academia, is a key one. The undercurrent in graduate school (at least as I experienced in the humanities) is that it is a noble vocation, an “independent” way of life (in the same sense of “indie” films versus blockbusters, and you can well imagine the kind of cultural snobbery that goes with it). People who left academia to pursue another job were described as “selling out”. So there is a strange contradiction, between an attitude that regards academia (in the humanities) as some kind of free, creative realm, but then turns around at the end to complain that the time spent in grad school did not provide a professional qualification that would lead directly to a job.

...and heaven’s walls too high to hear the trouble down below

Is some of the problem that (some) senior people don’t understand what the job market is like now? It seems hard to believe anyone could be unaware, but some of the advice circulating while I was a PhD student suggests that this really is the case. I knew people who simply applied for 12 hypercompetitive postdocs and were surprised not to get one, and senior profs who talked about Junior Research Fellowships and British Academy Postdocs as a natural progression, as if they were easy to come by.
I’ve also heard from people serving on search committees who were SURPRISED to get 100+ applicants for a position. How long ago was your last interaction with the job market if that’s a surprise?


History Carnival #80

To begin, we have two new tools or sources that will be useful for historians:

Marcin Wilkowski on Friendsourcing on Twitter (for academic purposes)

At War and Health, a new database of mediæval soldiers’ records

And two pieces on the new uses of digital archives:

Trevor Owens on Mining Old News for Fresh Historical Insight

Indicommons Cold Case Unit:  Dorcas Snodgrass – how the mystery of a nurse’s disappearance in 1912 is getting attention via flickr.

Curious historical people:

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon at Scandalous Women blog discusses The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and how her real life differed from the fictional depictions (don’t they always?). I was interested in what I read about her at the Colorado History Museum recently, which was very different from the ‘Calamity Jane in a Hoop Skirt’ image of the various Titanic films.

From Soldier's Mail: Letters Home 1916-1919, Sgt. Avery’s letter from the base hospital in Bordeaux

Judith Weingarten on fancy dress parties, fashion design, and a Victorian fascination with Queen Zenobia

Lidian at The Virtual Dime Museum on a famed fortune-teller in 1850s New York

Reassessments and discussions:

From Philip Blue, Gaziantep and a thought on ‘Orientalism’

Jonathan Dresner at Frog in a Well on Hirohito's last birthday


Alan Baumler has been writing about his visits to the Shaanxi Provincial Archives, and this post looks at the work the archivists are doing

At the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, a piece on touselle – Louis XI’s “miraculous wheat”

Thanks to Sharon Howard, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, Penny Richards, Philip Blue, Jonathan Dresner, Richard Landers,  and Jeremy Cherfas for nominations.

History Metablog

I have been discussing with Larry Cebula (of Northwest History) the idea of a large discussion forum for historians. He has written a post here suggesting that the way to go forward is for H-NET to be that vehicle. While that would be great, and some H-NET lists are huge in terms of membership, they are small in terms of regular posters – and I’m not sure that H-NET is the way to capture people for such a project. The current H-NET list system of moderation means that ‘discussions’ tend to wither on the vine with the delay (sometimes days) of posts being forwarded on by the moderators. Twitter obviously offers immediacy but the brevity of tweets means no in-depth conversations. A twitter feed that updated people on new posts on the group blog, though – that would work.

I am a participant at Frog in a Well, and this and other group blogs have shown how these arrangements can work, and work well. But the challenge is to set up a blog where

  • All participants are equal: there is not one blog owner and everyone else just adding comments at the bottom
  • People register, under their own names, so it is a discussion forum for academics, and not random spam monkeys
  • A critical mass of participants is needed to get things moving, my estimate is 50+.

At the Anglo-American Conference!

I am at the Anglo-American conference, which is the annual conference at the Institute of Historical Research (which is where I work). The conference has been going since the 1920s, and it’s fun to look at the posters for the past years and see the big names giving the keynotes addresses.
This year the theme is cities! So there are urban historians everywhere. Swarming.
One interesting thing is that the conference has a twitter hashtag, #aac_2009, which is something I would like to see other history conferences adopt. The AHA, for instance... You can follow the feed, at

All sessions will also be recorded, and I believe the plan is to release them as podcasts.

Last weekend I was at the World History Association conference, which was fun! I enjoyed visiting the town, and the National Parks Service really stepped up providing guided tours and plenty of information about the local area.

There were some great papers (mine, of course ;) and opium and Jesuits came out as particular themes (not in the same paper though, at least not that I heard!). Marion Diamond gave a fascinating paper about the 18th century reception of Opium, on a panel with a paper from Frances Karttunen about the opium addicted women of Nantucket, and I loved the keynote address by Dane Morrison about Salem and the China trade, from the perspective of expatriate Salemite communities through East and Southeast Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some elements could have been better organised, one comment I heard from a number of people (and with which I agreed) was the apparent lack of awareness of people coming from outside the US to attend (it’s called the WORLD history association, people!). The information on transport was limited, and distances were all given in times, e.g. “X is only five minutes away” - meaning the time it takes to travel there BY CAR. Nobody seemed to know the timetable for the shuttle bus, or how long it would take (I was given estimates anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes), and not enough time was allowed to get between the conference sites at the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem State College by bus between panels.

Nonetheless, it was a fun experience, and I’m interested in the theme for next year’s WHA, ‘The Pacific in World History’.

Return to online journaling....

This will be a purely research focused journal. So don't expect amusing anecdotes of what happened to me at Starbucks or at a party. Or my musings on life in general.
I would like to invite historians (and anyone else) to comment and send advice.

Right now, I have been working on a small article which has brought me into the 'land of the living' as a historian, or rather, into the time period in which participants may still be alive. I looked up one person in the phone directory, I don't know if it's the same person, but the age range is right (I paid the 95c to some online people-finder skip tracer directory) and it is the same area, so it's possible.
I looked up the address, from 50 years ago, and the house is still there (thanks, Google Street view!).
I feel creepy and stalkerish: I want to know as a historian, but at the same time, how much can I know? What if it is the same person - am I going to pick up the phone and call? (I don't think so - at what point does my 'right' to scholarly enquiry override my instinct not to harass the elderly?).
I realise that historians who do oral history and deal with contemporary sources deal with this all the time. But I feel discomfort, like it is invasive for me to be writing about the life of someone still living and presenting it as a historical artefact.