Notes for a Young Historian: Part 2 of 3

Tip #2: Going Digital Has to Be Part of the Solution

In a recent post, I discussed a conversation that I had in London with a professor at a leading American research university on a question that’s been haunting the minds of many a humanistic scholar recently: whither the humanities? Whither history? And what should young scholars or students with a strong interest in history do to make or find a nicher for themselves?

In that first post – the first of a short three-part mini-series, of which this post constitutes part two – I discussed how an international focus has to be a part of the solution. Anecdotes I hear from graduate students in North America, and the tone of conversations around the Classics world at Oxford, which I have a peripheral view of through Corpus Christi, suggests to me that the old model of national histories and close paleographical work is struggling to guarantee would-be scholars the kinds of jobs and careers they’ll need to have a respectable middle-class lifestyle and a family. The old model of scholar, who mastered one language and one culture (say, Germany), and made a career out of unpacking German history and literature to American students, doesn’t really work anymore in an increasingly global world where individual nations seem less and less perplexing or mysterious than they did during the Cold War.

True, some people still seem to be making a go of it as the “China Man” or the “Russia person” and making a go as a freelance writer, but this is not a practicable model for 98 percent of people. Not only that, but with some exceptions – Evan Osnos comes to mind – many of these posts seem to be filled by hyphenated Americans (Russian-Americans who write about Russia) in effect writing about themselves. That’s a career model I can’t profess much respect for.

I liked your book, David Ekbladh, but where's your media empire to go with it?

Some fields are mastering this challenge better than others, or so it seems to me. Recently, I’ve been getting into international history, which means different things to different people. I’m presently reading David Ekbladh’s The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order, which manages to be a work of distinctly American history that also as a broad, inspiring focus, too. In it, Ekbladh, a professor of history at Tufts, explores the history of how the United States used “developmentalism” and “modernization theory” as ways to expand its power abroad. It has elements of intellectual history in it, similar to other works on the history of development like Nils Gilman’s Mandarins of the Future.

But what I think is cool about it is that, even using just American material, Ekbladh can tell you a great deal about Korea, or Vietnam (or indeed, had he wanted to, the Indus Valley or Afghanistan); throughout the Cold War, the USA deployed capital and engineers to these places, often trying to clone the Tennessee Valley Authority model (dams lead to electrification lead to modernization) around the world. We get a picture of the United States and the Establishment institutions, like MIT’s Center for International Studies (CENIS) that characterized the Cold War social science-government-foundation nexus, but through this history we also face vistas out onto the postcolonial world, too. Compared to some of the dreary economic history I have been subjected to at times at Oxford seminars – think case studies of the barley trade in North Wales from 1338-1340, incredibly navel-gazing stuff – a work like Ekbladh’s is something I can get excited for.

At the same time, The Great American Mission is only a book; I have limited ways of interacting with Ekbladh if I want to know more about the experiences that led him to write this work. If I’m lucky, there may be a book talk he gave somewhere on YouTube that will let me learn more about the project. Or maybe there’s an interview somewhere. Since he published the book with Princeton University Press, there’s a good chance that I can download the introduction, or the first chapter, too. But what if I want to follow what he’s up to for his next project? Or if I think that someone like Ekbladh is really fantastic, and want to take a graduate seminar with him? My options are limited.

Now let’s think of some of the experiences and institutions that socialize and train someone in graduate school today. Virtually none of them, I would maintain, encourage or stimulate people to overcome some of the problems dealing with content distribution that I just described. Comparing the world of, say, Silicon Valley (which neither is not nor should not be a model for how to do everything in life) with the world of the university (let’s remember, slow food humanities or contemplation can be a good thing), one thing I am struck by is simply how hard it can be to get a hold not even of people, but the content they’ve been producing recently. Sure, there are service providers like ProQuest, the company that maintains massive databases of PhD dissertations. But that only helps you if you’re trying to follow what someone has already done, not what they’re up to right now. Institutions like seminars exist … once a week, and too bad if your schedule doesn’t coincide with it.

Think about courses, too. Graduate students or young scholars often struggle to get teaching assistantships in order to survive financially, and are often not allowed to teach their own courses within the closed garden, paywalled content ecosystem of a university. The fact that some graduate students spend so long in IHEs socializes them to the idea that this is normal – courses belong behind paywalls and that you should be licensed over the course of 7-8 years to teach one.

Such a system might have been defensible in the 1950s and 1960s, when the lack of technology made it almost impossible to broadcast content in the ways we can today, and the GI Bill meant that curious Americans were getting the educational content they wanted at, if not Harvard, then a community college like the one my grandfather taught US history at. The situation has changed both technically and socially today. The technology is indisputably there, as Khan Academy has shown, and at the same time we are looking down the barrel of education cuts that stand to create a generation of Americans that are, for the first time in history, more indebted and less well educated than their parents. The moral imperative to create rich content is there.

In short, universities, at least in the humanities, largely remain stuck with the equivalent of what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue social model” – a model for political and social organization devised in the 1950s and 1960s, but that can no longer generate jobs or meet the challenges of the early 21st century in the USA.

One of the tasks that the next generation of scholars, or people interesting in fostering a dynamic culture of the humanities at all in the United States, will have to be both reforming and breaking the current system of content as it exists as described above. Using digital, online mechanisms that dramatically lower transaction costs, and allow individual authors or content producers to appear to have similar legitimacy to established institutions, is going to have to be a big part of this plan.

 What can younger scholars today do? Here’s two things the professor and I came up with over a French dinner and a few pints of lager:

 1. Don’t be Invisible

 As I noted above, it can be unbelievably difficult simply to find out what a given scholar or writer is up to this week or month, let alone this year. This has to change. True, as the professor I dined with emphasized, there are some things universities, or scholars, perhaps should not try to be. There was perhaps something to the “slow-food” model of humanistic research that defined scholarship in the 1960s Atlantic world of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Princeton, and Chicago. Consider the career of Micheal Baxandall: he “spent three years at the Warburg Institute, working in the photographic collection and not completing a dissertation, and several more as a lecturer, later on, writing only a few articles. Then, in 1971 and 1972, he produced two brilliant interdisciplinary books, which transformed the study of Renaissance humanism and art, remain standard works to this day, and were only the beginning of a great career. “

Michael Baxandall: A Great Example of the Virtues of the "Slow Food" Approach to History

Sometimes, projects take a long time (measured in years) to carry out not because the person isn’t manic enough, but simply because some things demand, yes, deadlines, but also contemplation, reflection, and rumination. These are some of the values that, I suspect, drew many graduate students to universities in the first place, and much of what keeps people there even when they complain about their situation.

Moreover, the last thing we should seek to do is to emulate the superficial, frantic attitude that characterizes some self-marketing types. This April, as I was contemplating a move to Silicon Valley, I applied for a two-week (yes, two-week) internship working as, basically, a body man to a fairly prominent (but not on the level of Marc Andreessen or Reid Hoffmann) serial entrepreneur and angel investor. It seemed like a good gig: a chance to dive into the industry, work with someone fairly prominent, and come out of a short, intense experience with solid contacts and some more sure feet under myself.

However, what initially looked like a reasonable application process (resume and CV) soon became absurd. Said potential employer winnowed the field down to fifteen “finalists,” of which I was one. They then requested that we make a five-minute YouTube video about why we were awesome, in addition to writing a short essay of a page on why we were awesome. The best would be … winnowed into a pool of three actual finalists, who then would have to do further self-marketing stuff to have the shot at an interview. For a two-week unpaid internship. The fact that the potential employer ended up using much of the videos that a (in my opinion, deluded) applicant pool made about themselves to promote himself made the process especially embarrassing. It all seemed to play too much into a culture concerned with self-marketing, to the point where self-marketing became the actual quality you were judged on – shades of Erich Fromm’s “marketing character,” someone who adapts to a market economy by selling their love and character all for bucks.

You have to sell yourself, but don't become what Erich Fromm called a "marketing character"

So, am I saying that we shouldn’t be in the business of elevator pitches? Yes and no, and clearly, results will vary based on one’s personal taste. In the end, what seems like an appropriate program to me is the one suggested by this very blog: a place where the writer or scholar can curate their own content, create an online presence for themselves, and establish themselves as someone worth reading (as opposed to someone making histrionic YouTube videos). I still need to follow my own advice of setting up a GitHub location for my own work, but I think it should be possible to get, if I so desire, a daily or at least weekly update of what writers or content-producers I’m interesting in are up to.

2. Don’t Produce Something That Could Have Been Done in 1900

Don’t get me wrong: many people in the tech world are technological utopians. They believe in a myth of progress that things are always, almost necessarily improving. They sometimes have a faith in the future that rivals Stalinists or Maoists, and can speak to, say, defenders of printed books, with a combination of condescension and ignorance that can frustrate.

Still, they often make good points, and any thoughtful person, whether on a university campus or on Sand Hill Road, should be able to see that 21st century technology has to be part of cool humanistic projects in the future. The forms or directions that scholarship can take new technological possibility are almost limitless, so I can only provide a few examples. Perhaps more conspicuously, the New York Times recently had a (poorly-reported) piece on the so-called “spatial turn” in scholarship. Increasingly, scholars from fields outside of geography are employing creative GIS techniques in their work to add a subtle geographic concern to their work. Civil War scholars, for example, have mapped what parts of a battlefield Robert E. Lee could have seen. In my own work, on Soviet development in Afghanistan in the Cold War, I’ve been able to track the extent to which certain parts of Afghanistan were under the control of mujadhidin fighters at different points using Soviet archives. Robert Darnton, a professor of French history at Harvard, has recently written Poetry and the Police, a slim volume that reconstructs oral culture in mid-18th century Paris. Darnton was able to find, after much work, both the lyrics as well as the music to popular French tunes and street songs of the period, which he was then able to set to music with the assistance of a friend, a French opera singer. The songs, which inserted newly-conceived lyrics on top of established tunes, can be downloaded along with the book here.

A modest example of my own for how "spatial humanities" can be neat. This map reflects the extent to which Communists controlled certain sectors of Eastern Afghanistan in the early 1980s: red reflects no control, yellow control in the center, and green total control.

All of these approaches are different, but together I think they’re suggestive of the fact that publishing black-on-white monographs with, say, Routledge and Cambridge (two presses that come to mind for me for having uncreative production staffs) is not going to get it done. As other Harvard scholars like Leah Price and Ann Blair have pointed out, there have always been many different kinds of reading in history. This goes beyond 20th-century American concepts like “pleasure reading” or “required reading.” Some people prefer to flip through magazines, to scroll around on a big whiteboard, to have a map to gaze across, others to take in printed content at the same time that they can listen to something. We’re only going to be shooting ourselves in the foot – if not in the head – if scholars continue to produce essays when they could be doing so much more. Sure, there are contexts when a 100,000 word block of text is actually the most effective way to structure things. But I suspect there aren’t that many of them.

More ambitiously – a project I have been experimenting with in some consulting work and which I may attempt to get going this fall – people could always try setting up their own lecture courses. I can see at least two reasons to do this. One is that if the content-providers themselves don’t do this, they’re want to be exploited by groups and private companies who will. To continue my own Silicon Valley confessions, I had a frustrating, but also instructive interview with a San Francisco-based company in the educational space this spring. The company sought to disrupt the education industry by creating a platform for online lectures and courses; people wanting to take a course on, for example, how to code in C++, could take a lecture course from these guys, with all of the course material there available for them to use. The company, in exchange for creating the platform on which this exchange took place, took something like 30 percent of course fees that the instructor had elected to charge for a given course.

"Television dons" like AJP Taylor can be annoying, but let's take advantage of the flexibility that YouTube and other media give us to one-up him

While I think that approaches like this one have the right idea in mind, I see little reason why people interested in history, literature, culture, etc. should trust their content to entrepreneurs who may not share these same values. I do not know what the future of the lecture or seminar on physical college campuses will be, but I suspect that the market share held by online content providers will be growing. Even if they now tend to provide courses aimed at the start-up sector itself (classes on “how to code,” “how to pitch venture capitalists,” etc.), there is nothing preventing for-profit outfits from becoming serious provider of content that others produce, reaping modest profits along the way. The real solution will have to be scholars themselves learning more about how to control the platform, or simply finding other, more open platforms to deploy their content onto.

So, we have the technical capability to produce lectures or content online, and there is the possibility of someone other than us reaping a profit from it – but do we have a right to do so? Here I think the answer has to be yes. Many friends of mine who are graduate students have expressed their frustration with faculty appointments either at their home institution or other institution. Many of them can end up in bizarre situations where the faculty at their school in their area are either unresponsive to their concerns, seem ideologically fixated on one methodological approach, or are simply ineffective teachers and scholars. Under the ancien régime, you didn’t really have a way to fix this – professors controlled the main content for students and you were stuck as a lowly peon compared to them.

Today, however, there is nothing stopping someone who so desires from creating their own lecture course. It has to be the same entrepreneurial approach as with any other form of content: if you’re not happy with what the existing institutions are providing, and you have the time (something that graduate programs are ludicrously well-suited for – universities are the best place to develop a course), start your own counter-institution. It may not be popular, but with analytics like the kind that, say, Khan Academy uses, you’ll actually know where to change up your content and flow in a talk. That’s something that 60-year-old professors won’t be able to do. At the end of it all, if someone tells you that you’re “breaking the rules,” or it turns out that students are leaving the “legitimate” professors’ courses for your content, you should take it as a compliment. Use numbers of views – or market mechanisms through paywalls the way universities themselves do – to legitimate yourself.

Part three of this series will be coming soon.


One thought on “Notes for a Young Historian: Part 2 of 3

  1. Felipe

    a lot about those who isnist that somebody of a certain ethnicity cover courses on hir ethnicity and how they view the seriousness and sophistication of that ethnicity’s history (and i’m a historian, so I find this particularly problematic). As though Asian-American, African-American, Latino-American, and Native American history aren’t sophisticated enough bodies of scholarship to deserve a trained expert in them. Somebody who grew up that ethnicity will do.

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