Dreaming of Memexes: History and Hypertext

It’s the beginning of a late autumn push for me here at Harvard. After a brief but refreshing vacation to the Bay Area, I return to a Cambridge where my piles of books-to-read are growing taller almost as quickly as the deadlines for various fellowships and research grants speed towards me. It’s all compounded by the common graduate student and post-doc back-of-the-head sense that one isn’t writing or reading enough, too. For while I’ve been productive in October – almost completing the chapter of Developing Powers that has to do with Afghan Turkestan in the 1970s and 1980s – my writing and reading continues to drive new questions and avenues of reading: after finishing this blog post, I’m off to Widener to consult some Russian- and Tajik-language obscurantia on the Gorbachev-era attempt to exert Moscow’s control over its “southern republics” and the strange history of the Tajik-Afghan border, which was managed by a quixotic mix of post-Soviet Border Guards, post-Soviet Tajik citizens (Army or Border Guards officers who got paid more than they would with state service) and forms the coda to the historical arc of which I want to write in the chapter.  Add to this the rush to complete my Digital History project, prepare for a Persian-language presentation on the Khalila wa Dimnaand assorted odd jobs, and I’m increasingly glad that I made the decision to bolt down for a few days when I could.

On the agenda for November: beating deadlines and mucho writing on the history of the Afghan-Soviet borderscape

As has been the case throughout the semester, the Digital History seminar continues to stimulate. This week – another relatively light reading load as we (in theory) concentrate on our projects – the topic is how new media, the “shock of the digital,” and changes in the publishing industry affect the way historians do their work. We’re asked: “Is there a clear path forward for publishing of historical work? Is it dependent on the redefinition or reconfiguration of narrative structures or practices?” As a 1999 piece by Harvard historian Robert Darnton suggests, these are hardly new concerns. A number of tensions are at play. On the one hand, there’s the desire to do good scholarship, to find out what really happened: the insanity, or, more charitably, passion, that drives us to Widener to hunt down stuff published in Dushanbe during the 1990s. Along the way, awards like those that professional associations award for the best dissertation in a field, or more modestly, the encouragement of mentors and professors, propels the young scholar along. Her confidence rises that the six years spend toiling in obscurity might pay off. Yet once one comes to the post-doc or the assistant professor job, and begins to seriously think about publishing with an academic publishing house, it becomes clear how daunting the odds can be.  Even publishers like Oxford or Harvard University Press, which are non-profits, often find themselves publishing books with piddling audiences – or at least audiences willing to pay. Writes Darnton: “Sanford Thatcher at the Penn State University Press tells of a book on nineteenth-century Brazil that won two prizes and sold fewer than 500 copies and of another on Islam in Central Asia that received ecstatic reviews and four awards but sold only 215 copies in cloth (it sold a mere 691 in paperback).”

This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the academic presses existed in isolation, but in much of North American academia, the prestige of the monograph with an Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, or similar university press is a necessary imprimatur for career advancement. “[Academic publishers] function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement; yet they can publish only a few of the manuscripts they receive. The authors of the rest of those manuscripts may never make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjuncts, lecturers, and part-time teachers of all varieties.” As commentators like Sarah Kendzior write, this trend threatens to divide the American academy between a refuge of the lucky, well-heeled, and tenured and a holding pen of casualized academic laborers.  The latter group is stuck in a permanent cycle of applying to visiting assistant professorship positions, will lack the time to turn their dissertation into a marketable book, and – particularly in light of the growing time it takes to complete a PhD – will probably lag behind their friends and non-academic coworkers when it comes to conventional life “accomplishments”: stable employment, anchoring in a city and community, marriage, and the professional and financial stability needed to raise children.  There is data suggesting that the job situation isn’t quite so gloom-and-doom for graduates of top History PhD programs as the catastrophic tone promoted by the U.S. media would suggest.

Still, as a younger generation of students appears to increasingly view the humanities, and in particular graduate education in them, as an unemployment machine that inflicts trauma on its own, it’s worth raising the question: is our beholden attitude towards conventional publishing practices not only limiting our public reach and presence as authors, but also upholding the legitimacy of an unjust professional structure? Could a transition to something more along the lines of the memex than the conventional academic monograph help? Could a shift towards “vertical reading” – looking at historical work as the synthesis of documents and original sources – as opposed to the traditional view of the monograph as a piece of work almost quarantined away from the research processes that generated it help?

“My God, help me survive this deadly love!” A famous mural in Berlin that originally referred to Soviet relations is an iconic image of the Cold War, but might its slogan also apply to historians’ marriage to “the argument” and traditional publishing and even argumentative practices?

I think so, although from looking at the projects that do exist it’s apparent to me that we’re still in the middle of a transition. Fifteen years after Darnton’s piece, initiatives like Gutenberg-e, an initiative between Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association, have made digital monographs more common. Works published in this series feature not only conventional bibliographies but also links to online resources that, in theory, invite the reader to do what Darnton proposes in a more recent interview – the shift to the aforementioned “vertical reading” where our attention, rather than being continually devoted to the book at hand, is invited to jump to sources and the “raw materials” of history. More simply, the fact that these books are online makes it much easier for scholars from institutions in the developing world to have access to the materials: with many American institutions complaining about the high cost of cloth books from university presses, the pressure on purchases is even greater for some of the liberal arts institutions and universities I’ve visited in Central Asia.

Still, a cursory look at the Table of Contents of several of these works gives lie to the idea that something revolutionary is apace. These are still clearly monographs, designed to satisfy – or so it would appear – skeptical and fundamentally conservative university press reviewers and tenure committees. As William G. Thomas writes in a piece on his experience putting together a joint article and digital history project on slaveholding and non-slaveholding communities in the Antebellum mid-Atlantic, historians – or at least the current cadre of those in key positions at American universities, the kind of people who review for the American Historical Review – are frequently burdened by an obsession with what exactly “the argument” of a piece is. While an interest in argumentative novelty or clarity is never a bad thing, in reality this mantra often serves as a cudgel with which to criticize novel projects. Writes Thomas of his and Edward L. Ayers’ project:

Several critics claimed that our argument was obscure or unimpressive. This assessment, it seemed to us upon mature reflection, had two related causes. One was that we simply had not nailed down how to convey the most salient points we wanted to make. The other was that the demands of a non-linear, component-driven structure had worked against reading specifically for “the argument.” One reader wrote, “The new format has advantages but also served as a way for the authors to abdicate the historian’s responsibility to make sense of incomplete and disparate information.” We did not see ourselves, of course, as abdicating anything. But there was a problem: these scholars wanted to “track the argument” and they found “this ‘article’ . . . difficult, almost impossible, to read as an article because it has no linear structure.”

Maybe it’s true that the highly immersive projects of the kind like “The Differences Slavery Made” don’t read like articles. Still, as Darnton’s 1999 piece notes and Kendzior’s more acerbic criticism details, what good is there in demanding that all new scholarship adhere to the argumentative structure and guidelines of a format that may be proving itself economically and intellectually bankrupt as an institution? Demanding of young scholars that they can produce “the argument,” that they can write pieces that will sail through the review of prestigious journals like the AHR and major university presses would be fine if these professional pressures existed in isolation. But they don’t. One worries that we are encouraging graduate cadres to take a major professional and personal risk by devoting years to master an art form (the journal article and monograph) that may be valued for largely formal reasons (the tenure committee), rather than its ability to inform or delight a broader public or even a broad academic audience (think back to the sales figure Darnton quoted). In doing so, we risk squandering the potentially formidable prestige that historians have enjoyed at times in American and other societies, a move that is all the more concerning at a time when other disciplines – economics, computer science, political science – have proven successful at colonizing undergraduate enrollments and sophisticated popular readerships.

Screenshot of Scrivener, where the author is encouraged to place primary documents (below) and the main text (above) side-by-side

Screenshot of Scrivener, where the author is encouraged to place primary documents (below) and the main text (above) side-by-side

Is there a way forward? As Darnton’s 1999 essay suggests, one route might be for authors and publishers to expose more of the research and distillation process in their publishing products, rather than focusing on “the argument” that (supposedly) years of professional expert consideration have revealed to the unenlightened reader. I’m not quite sure what such e-“books” would look like, but I am struck by Darnton’s idea of scholarship exposing a “pyramid” of research where “the argument” stands at the top, but where its foundations – original documents and research practices are made more transparent. That’s how I do work every day with composing platforms like Scrivener (screenshot below), where (subtly) rather than viewing primary sources and “the argument” as quarantined documents, everything – my own chicken scratch and primary sources – goes into one document. Why shouldn’t it be possible to allow readers to see more explicitly the links I made between the former and the latter, and, particularly for those archives where I transcribed or photographed a lot, for them to investigate the documents themselves, too?  In light of the general zeitgeist for “curation,” it may seem odd that we remain married to a system wherein documents and archives are, for the most part, hidden from readers (the few that we have), and where evaluations are made largely behind the scenes in a process that would strike many as hierarchical and secretive. In “the real world,” platforms like Pinterest or RapGenius don’t eliminate the position or prestige of artisans or musicians; instead, readers/patrons are invited to engage with collections, products, lyrics, and maybe even legal decisions in a way that actually spreads and boosts the profile of the primary creators (designers and rappers). There remain incoherencies and difficulties in making parallels here: somehow I doubt that Drake will be thumbing through Soviet archival documents in the same way that I listen to his music as I write. However, remaining wedded to a model whose basis remains anonymous expert opinion, non-profits selling 300 books total of our works, and the munificence of major universities and research foundations seems even more precarious.

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