The New Wave of Review

Digital history is riding a “review wave.” In the fall of 2015, the American Historical Association released its new “Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History”. In February 2016, the association’s flagship journal, The American Historical Review, published an exchange titled “Reviewing Digital History” that inaugurated its first venture into digital project reviews. In my own field, the Western Historical Quarterly began printing “Born-Digital Reviews” in the fall of 2015. The Journal of American History first started publishing website reviews in 2001, but in September 2013 changed this section to “Digital History Reviews” (the journal also publishes lengthier reviews of digital research projects in its “Metagraph” section). Moving forward, digital historians will increasingly find their work evaluated in some of the discipline’s major print journals.

What’s odd is the degree to which supposedly hidebound print journals are the ones propelling this recent wave of review. After all, it’s not as if digital historians need print journals to review each other’s work. Blogging, Twitter, and other online platforms have stood at the heart of the field for years. We often tout the speed and openness of these platforms compared to the molasses-slow publishing cycles or gated paywalls of print journals. And yet, with some rare exceptions, we don’t use these platforms to engage in substantive or critical evaluation of the work of our peers. New digital history projects are released all the time. If you’re like me, you stick mostly to virtual high-fives: you tweet a link to the project, offer congratulations and commendations, and maybe add it to a syllabus or workshop. Deeper engagement takes place mainly through informal conversations or behind the doors of classrooms – not exactly the sort of public, rigorous intellectual evaluation that drives a field forward. Our colleagues deserve better.

Digital history’s reticence for critical online evaluation stands in contrast to, say, the lively exchange that unfolded in 2015 over Matt Jockers’s Syuzhet package, a method that Jockers developed for identifying literary plot shapes using sentiment analysis. After Jockers first announced Syuzhet, Annie Swafford wrote a pointed critique of the method, and over the course of roughly one month the two literary scholars debated the validity of the method in a series of back-and-forth posts. Other digital humanities scholars weighed in from across the disciplinary spectrum. Whatever your thoughts on Syuzhet, the entire online exchange was a rigorous, substantive, and transparent evaluation of digital scholarship. So why do digital historians seem to prefer virtual high-fives to this kind of deeply evaluative online engagement?

There are a few reasons for the dearth of online reviews and critiques within the field of digital history. For one, there are real drawbacks to online platforms. The immediacy of writing a blog post affords less time for measured reflection or carefully crafted or revised responses than, say, a review in a print journal. Self-published posts also lack editorial oversight. A good journal editor can vet the qualifications of reviewers, help them improve and refine their critiques, and serve as a mediator between reviewers and the people they’re reviewing. Without an editorial presence or a shared platform, online reviews run the risk of operating on unequal playing fields. One historian might be writing from a position of seniority or have a much larger or more vocal online readership than another. It’s also a lot easier for someone like me to tout online exchanges as “lively” or “freewheeling” when I don’t run the risk of getting denigrated or harassed because of my race or gender. Gatekeeping may be a dirty word, but openness isn’t exactly a panacea.

There’s also the broader challenge of subject specialization and expertise. Digital history’s unifying thread is methodological, not thematic. As a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, just how deeply can I engage with, say, Vincent Brown’s spatial history narrative of Jamaica’s 1760-1761 slave revolt? I might be able to discuss its interactive design or the way it uses a spatial framework to circumvent textual silences in the archive. But am I really capable of evaluating Brown’s interpretation of the revolt as a unified, strategic rebellion rather than a series of haphazard insurrections? Even more importantly, am I qualified to evaluate the significance of this claim in terms of how it changes our understanding of Caribbean history? Probably not. This is why it was so encouraging to see deep, thoughtful reviews of Slave Revolt in Jamaica in recent issues of Social Text and The American Historical Review. The reviews were written by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Claudio Saunt, and Natalie Zacek, all of whom combine subject expertise with considerable experience in digital humanities projects. Both Social Text and The American Historical Review also gave Vincent Brown the opportunity to respond to these reviews – exactly the type of substantive, scholarly exchange that seems to be in such short supply for digital history projects.

But, again: these exchanges took place in print journals. Consequently, there was a gap of more than two years between the project’s release and the publication of reviews. This lag doesn’t make the exchanges any less valuable, but it hews far more closely to the way the discipline reviews print monographs. In an alternate scenario, the scholarly exchanges between Vincent Brown and his reviewers might have unfolded in a series of online posts over the course of a few months, rather than a few years, after the project’s release. Moving this back-and-forth out from behind the paywalls of Duke University Press and Oxford Journals could have allowed for other scholars to weigh in, much like what happened after the initial posts between Matt Jockers and Annie Swafford during the Great Syuzhet Debates of 2015.

Ultimately, though, I find the format of this new wave of digital history less interesting than its substance. There are a few different ways to evaluate digital history projects, which I would group loosely under pedagogy and public engagement, academic scholarship, and what historian Fred Gibbs terms “data and design criticism.” Most digital history reviews fall under the first category of public engagement and pedagogy. The Journal of American History’s “Digital History Reviews”, for instance, frames its reviews follows: “The goal is to offer a gateway to the best works in digital history and to summarize their strengths and weaknesses with particular attention to their utility for teachers [emphasis added].” As I write in a forthcoming article for Debates in Digital Humanities 2016, this emphasis reflects the field’s particular genealogy and its roots in public history initiatives. Both the reviewers and the projects themselves continue to position digital history in terms of public engagement rather than academic scholarship.

Some reviewers, of course, do try to evaluate digital history projects as works of academic scholarship, akin to a scholarly monograph. This second approach, conducted in large part by field specialists rather than “digital” historians, often compliment the public-facing dimension of a digital project before ultimately critiquing its shortcomings in terms of historiography and interpretation. In a review of Richard S. Dunn’s website Two Plantations, Kirt von Daacke notes that the site’s archival collections “represent the best of digital media.” He ends the review, however, with a standard complaint: “Frustratingly, Two Plantations never indicates its target audience, only hints at interpretation, and ignores historical literature altogether. Its analysis section never really answers the questions it poses, nor does it situate Dunn’s interpretation in the broader scholarship on slavery.” Without explicit interpretive claims to grab onto, trying to evaluate the scholarly contributions of digital projects can feel like trying to scramble up a smooth wall.

The third approach to reviewing digital history focuses on a project’s design, interface, methods, pipelines, and datasets. These kinds of “data and design criticism”, to borrow Fred Gibbs’s formulation, often make a passing appearance in digital history reviews, such as describing a website’s layout or critiquing the usability of certain features. Few reviewers, however, put it at the center of their evaluations. One recent exception is Joshua Sternfeld’s lengthy review of Digital Harlem in the American Historical Review. In it, Sternfeld offers a prolonged description of the site’s digital infrastructure and features before launching a blistering critique of the project. He questions the representativeness of the project’s archive, criticizes its method of data entry and sampling, and ultimately describes Digital Harlem as “subverting the provenance of the source data.” For his part, the project’s co-creator Stephen Robertson returns serve with an equally blistering counter to Sternfeld’s review. Robertson argues that Sternfeld “misrepresents the design and content of the site” and “only fitfully engages with the spatial orientation of Digital Harlem.” Whatever side of the exchange you come down on, the back-and-forth illustrates how questions of data and design can stand at the center of digital history reviews.

I find myself frustrated by all three kinds of digital history reviews. First, I appreciate the value of evaluating projects in terms of pedagogy and public engagement. But the preponderance of this first kind of review reinforces the (false) notion that digital history does not, in fact, add substantive new academic knowledge to the field. This notion feeds into the second kind of review, one that takes digital projects to task for shortcomings surrounding academic argument and interpretation. I’m actually sympathetic to this kind of review, but they often mistakenly evaluate digital projects in terms of what the reviewer wants them to be (a traditional academic monograph) rather than what they are (an online exhibit, research tool, pedagogical resource, etc.). Finally, I worry that the third strand of digital history review – “data and design criticism” – will further exacerbate what I see as the field’s problematic privileging of method over argument. Data collection, interactivity, visualization and design – all these features should be part of the review process, but they need to be grounded in a frank evaluation of whether and how they lead to new knowledge or interpretations about the past.

Does a digital history project fundamentally change how we understand a particular topic? How does it fit within the existing literature about this subject? What are a project’s methodological strengths or flaws specifically in relation to the project’s historical contributions? As a field, we need to dig deeper into these kinds of questions when we evaluate each other’s work. A call to burrow into the scholarly weeds of historiography and interpretive nuance puts me at odds with one of digital history’s core tenants: cultivating a broad audience. The general public doesn’t necessarily care how a particular scholarly brick fits within the grand edifice of historical knowledge. Neither, for that matter, do literary critics, media theorists, philosophers, or the rest of our colleagues in the broader digital humanities community. Hell, a lot of historians don’t want to wade too deeply into debates and arguments outside their specialization. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

I’m calling for digital historians to seize and shape the current wave of review. Regardless of whether we do so in blogs or print journals, we need to more substantively evaluate the work of our peers. We need to evaluate and critique each other’s work not just in terms of public engagement and pedagogy or data and design, but in terms of new historical knowledge, insight, and interpretations that these projects contribute to the field. In the next few days I’m going to follow my own advice and post a review of a digital project related to my particular sub-field of nineteenth-century U.S. history. Readers who aren’t in this sub-field might find it tedious, but my hope is that it will spark similar evaluations of other digital history projects. Stay tuned…

What I Wrote in 2015

I spent most of 2015 writing, so I thought I’d offer a quick recap.

My year began at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, presenting on a panel about the future of digital scholarship. My talk turned into a blog post, which turned into an abstract, which turned into a revised article, which turned into a final essay that will appear later this year in Debates in Digital Humanities 2016. “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense” starts with an observation: why do so few digital history projects make explicit arguments? The essay attributes digital history’s lack of academic arguments to the field’s particular genealogy, most notably its early and ongoing overlaps with public history. In practice, digital history is synonymous with digital public history. The article ends with a call for historians interested in argument and interpretation to make those features a stronger part of their digital work.

I also co-authored an article with Lincoln Mullen for Digital Humanities Quarterly: “Jane, John…Leslie? A Historical Method for Algorithmic Gender Detection.” The article first describes the gender package for R, which uses historical datasets to more accurately infer gender from first names. It then uses the package to study gatekeeping in the historical profession by uncovering gender disparity in the American Historical Review. Although the number of reviews of female-authored books has steadily climbed in the AHR, the journal still prints close to twice as many reviews of male authors as female authors. 

I served as an anonymous reviewer for several journals and an edited volume over the course of 2015, and also wrote a non-anonymous review of The Programming Historian for the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy in December. It was fun to get the chance to review what has become a foundational resource for skill-building in the digital humanities, even if it did highlight the field’s ongoing struggles over barriers and exclusions.

Oh yeah, I also finished writing my dissertation in 2015. It was, by far, the most rewarding experience of my academic career. Plus, there was funfetti cake.

IMG_1453

Postal Geography and the Golden West

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about gold, the American West, and the way we narrate history. But first let me explain why I’m telling you this story. I’m in the midst of writing a dissertation about how the U.S. Post shaped development in the West. The project is a work of geography as much as history. It traces where and when the nation’s postal network expanded on its western periphery, and part of these efforts include collaborating on an interactive visualization that maps the opening and closing of more than 14,000 post offices in the West. The visualization reveals the skeleton of a “postal geography” that bound Americans into a vast communications network. It’s a powerful research tool to explore spatial patterns spread across fifty years, thousands of data points, and half of a continent. Visit the site and read more about the visualization. But first, I want to use this tool to tell you a story.

viz_screenshot
Cameron Blevins and Jason Heppler, Geography of the Post

In the beginning there was gold…

That’s usually how the story of the West starts: with a gold nugget pulled out of a California river in 1848. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills set off a global stampede to California and pulled the edges of American empire to the shores of the Pacific. 

EnsignsThayerMap
Ensigns & Thayer, “Map of the Gold Regions of California” (1849)
David Rumsey Map Collection

The California Gold Rush casts such a dazzling light across western origin stories that it’s often hard to see past it. But there was more than just gold. Even as miners flocked to the Northern California, farmers were plowing fields up and down Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But whereas gold is exciting, farmers are boring. They’re pushed aside in gilded narratives about the West. When Oregon farmers do appear, they serve as an epilogue to a much more exciting story about covered wagons, dusty trails, and Indian attacks. As soon as overland emigrants traded in their covered wagons for seeds and ploughs they’re pushed to a dimly lit corner of western history. 

emigrants
Henry Bryan Hall, “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” (1869)
Library of Congress

But these women and men nonetheless left their mark on the geography of the West. Even as they raised their barns and planted their fields they participated in a long-standing American tradition of demanding that the U.S. government bring them their mail. Each new Oregon town came with a new post office, and five years after the discovery of gold in California there were nearly as many post offices in Willamette Valley as there were in the mining region of the Sierras. In most historical accounts the blinding glitter of California gold has rendered these Oregon settlements all but invisible. Our story pulls them out of the shadows.

1846-1853
U.S. Post Offices, 1846-1853

Gold survived in stories about the West long after it ran dry in California’s mines. In May of 1869 a ceremonial golden railroad spike shimmered in the sun at Promontory Point, Utah. It was the “last spike” that would symbolically link the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, completing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony concluded six years of breakneck labor that laid down more than a thousand miles of wood, metal, and stone across the West. The golden spike at Promontory Point proved just as momentous as the gold flakes at Sutter’s Mill two decades before, inaugurating a new era of western settlement. And, just like the gold rush, the dramatic glare of the golden spike blinds us to other stories. 

LastSpike_Cantor
The Last Spike (1869)
Cantor Arts Center

You can be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the West stood still while workers laid down transcontinental railroad tracks in the late 1860s. That is, after all, how stories of the West are often told. But the West wasn’t standing still. A simultaneous story was taking place in southwestern Montana, where the discovery of gold led to a new rush of Anglo settlement into the region. By 1870 this mineral-fueled migration had transformed western postal geography as much as the transcontinental railroad tracks that snaked through northern Nevada, Utah, and southern Wyoming. As miners and speculators streamed into Montana they dragged the nation’s postal network with them. Whether established at a Montana mining camp or a Nevada railroad depot, the post offices that appeared during these years reflected two stories occurring simultaneously, of a prospector shivering in a cold mountain stream and a railroad worker sweating in the desert sun. Yet we tend to separate their labor when we narrate the history of the West; the miner waits offstage for the railroad worker to finish laying down tracks before he wades into the Montana stream. Anchoring them to a larger spatial network recovers the simultaneity of their stories. 

1864-1865_1869-1870_compare
Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1864-1865
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1869-1870

Blank spaces are foundational for the stories we tell about the West. In the worst of them, white settlers carry the mantle of American civilization into an empty western wilderness. It’s a story that systematically writes out the presence of non-Anglo settlement. Using postal geography to narrate western history runs the risk of parroting this story. After all, post offices on a map resemble nothing so much as pinpricks of light filling in the region’s dark blank spaces. But those blank spaces also have the potential to tell a very different kind of story.

During the late 1860s miners in Montana and railroad workers in Nevada were joined by another migration into the region: soldiers marching into northern Wyoming and southern Montana to battle a coalition of Lakotas, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. After suffering repeated losses, the U.S. Army withdrew from Powder River Country and signed a peace treaty in 1868 that ceded control of the area. Unlike the miners and laborers, these soldiers left no trace on the U.S. postal network: the Powder River Country remained utterly devoid of post offices for the next decade. 

1865-1877
U.S. Post Offices, 1865-1877

Silence speaks volumes in the stories we tell. In our story the blank spaces in the postal network act as narrative silence, laden down with meaning. The map’s negative spaces have as much to tell us as its constellations of post offices. It is a story about the control of space. Post offices were a marker of governance, a kind of lowest common institutional denominator. The absence of a post office signaled the lack of a state presence. In this context, the yawning blank area in northern Wyoming and southern Montana reflected the tenuous position of the U.S. Government in the West. Through the late 1870s vast swathes of the West remained outside the boundaries of American territorial control and solidly within the sphere of native groups. The government’s inability to extend the U.S. Post into this region defined the geographic limits of westward expansion. Anglo-American settlement wasn’t inexorable and it didn’t unfurl in a single unimpeded wave. It occurred in fits and starts, in uneven forays and halting retreats. It’s a narrative whose boundaries were drawn by the supposedly blank spaces of the West and the people who lived in them. 

Our story ends where where it began: with gold. In 1874 an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer marched into the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Their announcement that they discovered gold touched off a frenzied rush into an area that was officially outside the control of the the United States government. Clashes between prospectors and Indians escalated over the following year, eventually erupting into all-out warfare between the U.S. Army and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in early 1876. Despite the 7th Cavalry’s dramatic defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army ultimately prevailed. The end of the campaign in 1877 and the dissolution of the Fort Laramie Treaty unleashed a flood of white emigrants into the gold fields of the Black Hills. A dense pocket of post offices appeared almost overnight to bring the mail to these gold-hungry settlers. 

1875-1877_1878-1880_comparison
Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1875-1877
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1878-1880

The image of post offices twinkling into existence in the Black Hills says nothing about the violence that birthed them. Their appearance depended on a military campaign and the ultimate removal of people whose very presence had visibly defined the limits of American territory. But these post offices nevertheless help us to tell a different kind of story about the West. It’s a story that expands our vision to look beyond the glare of the California gold rush and towards the plowed fields of Oregon. It’s a story marked by simultaneity, a story about railroad workers swinging sledgehammers in northern Nevada even as prospectors panned for gold in southwestern Montana. And it’s a story about blank spaces and the people and meanings that filled them, a story about the control of space and the boundaries of western expansion.

Ada Lovelace Day 2013

October 15th marks Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. As I read through posts commemorating the day, it got me reflecting on my own experience. It’s not just that I admire Ada Lovelace and the women that followed after her. It’s that I quite literally wouldn’t be here without them.

My mom, Bridget Baird, went to an all-women’s college in the late 1960s where she considered majoring in philosophy before switching to mathematics. After getting her PhD, she took a job in the early 1980s at Connecticut College in the math department. She got interested in computer programming, and eventually moved into a joint appointment in the computer science department. Over a three-decade career, her curiosity led her (and her thousands of students along with her) to the intersection of computer science with disciplines as far afield as archaeology, music, dance, and art. Along the way she faced the kinds of systemic discrimination that plagued the entire cohort of women entering male-dominated fields in the 1970s and 1980s. In other ways, she was lucky to have grown up during a time of transition when women began carving out new possibilities to enter those fields. She has spent her entire career mentoring female students and colleagues while vocally pushing her institution and discipline to take a more active role in tackling gender equity.

Although I missed the boat entirely on my mom’s math gene, she did manage to impress on me her fascination with applying computers to solve problems. Five years ago I wrote personal statements for history graduate programs structured around my interest in using technology to study the past. My mom since helped me learn how to program and we eventually ended up collaborating on a couple of projects. I’m one of the few graduate students I know who can call their mother to ask her about Thanksgiving plans and Python modules. I am, in ways I can’t even begin to articulate, a direct beneficiary of the legacy left by women like Ada Lovelace.

Which is why I oscillate between hope and discouragement when I look at around my own disciplinary homes of history and the digital humanities. On the one hand, women have made significant inroads in both fields. There are roughly equal numbers of male and female graduate students in my department. Many of the thought leaders and rising stars of the digital humanities are women, with opportunities and support growing all the time. The kinds of daily overt sexism faced by my mom and other women in her generation have, for the most part, gone the way of transistor radios. But that’s the problem: what remains is an insidious, covert sexism that is much, much harder to uproot.

And it’s everywhere. The proportion of female faculty in history departments is far lower than other fields, with the proportion of new female PhDs hovering stubbornly around 40%. Male historians continue to enjoy more time to spend on the kind of research that will get them tenure (as opposed to female historians spending more time on teaching and instruction), while men and women express completely different perceptions of gender equity at their institutions. The digital humanities have unfortunately inherited many of the gender problems endemic to computer science. These problems rear their ugly head everywhere, from the assumptions of a privileged male coding culture to the language of “hard” STEM fields vs. “soft” humanities. When I look around the room at digital humanities meetings and conferences I see the faces of a whole lot of people who look a whole lot like me. At a digital humanities conference on women’s history, though, I found that those same faces all but disappeared. I think about my mom every time I watch a female student grow increasingly silent during a discussion section or read the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. We can do better.

Post Offices by State, 1867-1902

Below is a Tableau visualization showing the number of post offices in each state for each year. Note that the visualization is a quick-and-dirty approach that uses modern political boundaries. This causes particular problems with western territories. North and South Dakota, for instance, were grouped as Dakota Territory until 1889 while Oklahoma peeled off from “Indian Territory” in 1891. Information for these pre-modern-statehood areas are not visualized on the map, but the full dataset can be downloaded here.

I am interested in what patterns you might find, so please post any and all observations in the comments section below!

Tab descriptions:
– TotalOffices: number of post offices in that state for that year
– Established: number of post offices established during that year
– Discontinued: number of post offices discontinued during that year
– DisPercent: discontinued post offices as a percentage of total post offices
– EstabPercent: established post offices as a percentage of total post offices
– DisEstabPercent: combined established and discontinued post offices as a percentage of total post offices.

Source: The Annual Report of the Postmaster General, from 1867-1902. (Example page)
Date Created: 8/28/2012
Date Modified: 8/28/2012

Creative Commons License
Post Offices By State, 1867-1902 by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://cameronblevins.org/postal-data/#officesByState.

U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries

*Note: The following summaries were written in 2011. I cannot attest to their accuracy and are intended only for personal or educational use.*

Colonial America

  1. Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of Revolution
  2. Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
  3. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
  4. Timothy Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence
  5. Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority
  6. Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
  7. Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People
  8. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
  9. Thomas Doerflinger, A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Pennsylvania
  10. J.H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830
  11. Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782
  12. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
  13. Alison Games, Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World
  14. David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England
  15. Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America
  16. Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
  17. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
  18. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America
  19. Bruce Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence
  20. Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry
  21. Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800
  22. John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence
  23. Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America
  24. Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
  25. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
  26. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
  27. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic
  28. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Nineteenth-Century America

  1. Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War
  2. Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans
  3. Ed Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction
  4. Sven Beckert, Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
  5. Menahem Blondheim, News Over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America
  6. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
  7. Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America
  8. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
  9. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom
  10. Eugene Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South
  11. Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration
  12. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870
  13. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire
  14. Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars
  15. Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism
  16. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
  17. Richard John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications
  18. Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse
  19. Paul Johnson, Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper
  20. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
  21. Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
  22. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture & Black Consciousness
  23. Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War
  24. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  25. Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
  26. James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
  27. Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879
  28. Charles Postel, The Populist Vision
  29. Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850
  30. Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore
  31. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
  32. Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America
  33. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
  34. Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation
  35. Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860
  36. Louis Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show
  37. Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado
  38. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
  39. Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920
  40. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

Twentieth-Century America

  1. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
  2. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939
  3. Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism
  4. Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy
  5. Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Poor Whites, and Blacks in Texas Cotton Culture
  6. John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947
  7. Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920
  8. James Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California
  9. Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945
  10. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR
  11. Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
  12. Robin Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class
  13. David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
  14. Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
  15. Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
  16. Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943
  17. Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
  18. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
  19. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
  20. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America
  21. Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965
  22. Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America
  23. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
  24. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
  25. Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture
  26. Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age
  27. Vicki Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950
  28. George Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Race, Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945
  29. Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics
  30. Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland
  31. Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
  32. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
  33. Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente
  34. Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Kobe Bryant and the Digital Humanities

What does one of the most successful and polarizing basketball players in history have to do with the digital humanities?

For those that don’t follow the NBA, Kobe Bryant is famous for a host of accomplishments: winning five championships, league MVP honors, and an Olympic gold medal, leading the league in scoring twice, winning the All-Star dunk contest, and scoring the second most points in a single game in history. He has also been accused over the years of placing personal success ahead of the team, undermining teammates and coaches, and most notoriously, of sexual assault in 2003. From a basketball standpoint, however, one of the most enduring aspects of Bryant’s career has been an overwhelming consensus of his ability as a “clutch” player. There exists a widespread perception that no other basketball player on earth is better at the end of close games. Both NBA players and general managers have repeatedly and overwhelmingly voted Bryant as the player they would want taking a shot with the game on the line. Bryant’s name and legacy have become entwined with the word “clutch.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UimsYwkGYuU]

Unfortunately, this is a flawed narrative. Henry Abbott recently wrote a blistering (and persuasive) analysis of Bryant’s abilities as a “clutch” player. Abbott concludes that, by nearly every statistical measure he examined, Bryant is not the best in the world at scoring points at the end of close games. Depending on the metric, Bryant is somewhere between decent and very good, but nowhere close to the best. Perhaps most damningly, the effectiveness of his team’s offense (the best in the league during Bryant’s tenure) plummets at the end of games.

So the question remains: what does Kobe Bryant have to do with the digital humanities?

The fault line in the basketball world over Kobe Bryant’s “clutchness” largely falls between those that evaluate Bryant’s ability by what they see and those that evaluate his ability by what they measure. For someone watching Bryant, no other player has as many breathtaking, memorable game-winning shots and no other player looks as graceful and impressive while doing it. I draw a parallel between this qualitative analysis with more traditional humanistic research: we read our sources and look for meaningful or interesting patterns that jump out at us. On the other side of the basketball fault-line stands a young but growing movement that advocates for more rigorous statistical analysis of basketball, in the same vein as the sabermetric “Moneyball” movement in baseball. For these stat-heads, the seductive aesthetic appeal of Bryant’s game-winning shots hides the less glamorous reality: that Bryant misses those game-winning shot attempts at an extremely high rate. And this is the side of the debate that I would compare to the digital humanities.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Much of the work being done in the digital humanities field is not, in fact, quantitative (and making the comparison brings to mind the less-successful turn towards quantitative history in the 1960s and 1970s). But the analogy does have  some useful parallels. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, digital humanities has a lengthy history but has only recently begun to gain traction across the wider academy. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, digital humanities is occasionally seen as threatening or, at the very least, promising too much. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, there are those in digital humanities that revel in revisionism and using new techniques to challenge conventional narratives. And like the stats movement in the basketball world, there are divisions within the digital humanities over method, approach, and emphasis.

One of the most important parallels to be drawn is how the digital humanities are increasingly being used to strengthen (rather than replace) traditional humanistic study, just as advanced statistics are being used in the NBA to strengthen analysis. In the past, a basketball player would be evaluated by a handful of traditional statistics, perhaps most importantly: how many points do they score? Today, teams and scouts are looking at more advanced metrics: for instance, how efficiently do they score those points? In the same vein, traditional literary history might look at a handful of canonical works in order to draw broad conclusions about, say, early-19th century British fiction. Today, advocates of distant reading are measuring trends across hundreds or thousands of early-19th century British novels beyond the canonical authors. Most of these digital researchers would continue to acknowledge the literary importance of Charles Dickens over a barely-published contemporary novelist, just as most stat-heads would acknowledge the importance of a player that scores a moderately-efficient 30 points per game over a player that scores a hyper-efficient 5 points per game.

Comparing the two also highlights their limitations. Some aspects of basketball can’t be measured, such as whether or not a player is a good teammate or how likely they are to stay motivated after receiving a contract or whether they’re likely to end up injured. Similarly, human experience can be an elusive target to study with technology. Charting the prevalence of certain phrases across time using Google NGrams offers, at best, a largely superficial indicator that requires careful and more extensive investigation, while cataloging every slave ship voyage might serve to mute and depersonalize the particularities of individual slaves.

In both the statistical movement in basketball and the digital turn in the humanities, new approaches allow for new questions. Henry Abbott and others have not “proven” that Kobe Bryant shouldn’t take the last shot of a game, but they have raised important questions: would Bryant’s team be better served by using him as a decoy? More broadly, is the long-standing convention of putting the ball into the hands of your best player in an isolation situation at the end of the game even a good idea? Using digital methodologies in the humanities can also serve to pose new kinds of questions, but I think the field should model itself more explicitly after the statistical basketball community in having specific questions drive those methodologies. There is a tendency to build tools and ask research questions later. This is useful, but I’d also like to see more focused questions along the lines of “Is Kobe Bryant a clutch player?” Those of us who advocate for the use of digital tools and techniques in the humanities could benefit from taking a break from the library and turning towards the basketball court.

Walt Whitman and Blue Jeans

I’ve really enjoyed Levi’s recent ‘Go Forth’ ad campaign produced by the hotshot advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy. I first saw one while watching a football game, and the entire room full of people gradually fell silent. That’s pretty impressive for a non-Super Bowl ad spot.

Beyond being visually arresting and creative, the campaign offers up a vision of America that (by mainstream Madison Avenue standards) is fresh and edgy. The basic set-up of the sixty-second commercials is flashing imagery of denim-clad youngsters moving frenetically. Sounds like a fairly typical clothing ad. Except that it includes footage of post-Katrina New Orleans and is set to a Walt Whitman poem – in one of the spots, (supposedly) the reading comes from a wax cylinder recording of Whitman himself. Put in comparison to a concurrently-running ad campaign by Wrangler that involves Brett Favre tossing a football to a George Thorogood soundtrack, and you really get a sense for just how different this campaign is:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdW1CjbCNxw]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2pIvg-2vEY]

The imagery isn’t super sophisticated – a neon AMERICA sign half-submerged in flood water opens and closes the “America” spot. Some people might feel that throwing in a kissing interracial couple (or a kissing gay couple in “OPioneers!”) is tokenizing. But Levi’s has managed to construct a divergent conception of what exactly is America, no small feat for a corporate ad campaign. The new commercials are oddly triumphant, but with a disquieting edge to them. Children are running through fields, but in this new world they’re doing so under a looming electrical grid. There is laughter and muscle-flexing and vibrancy, but it’s against a backdrop of chain-link fences or broken down buildings. Blue jeans have constituted an enduring symbol of rural, down-to-earth, industrial America, an image that Levi’s has helped to cultivate in its lengthy, 130+ year-old history.  The fact that the same company would now stake itself to such a contrasting campaign speaks volumes. Is Levi’s banking on a collective shift in the American psyche? That we are open to moving beyond a cornfields-and-cowboys idea of American denim? What exactly is the alternative vision they’re hoping the American consumer will identify with? I have no idea, and that’s part of what makes this campaign intriguing.

The Blank Canvas

When I sat down to write my first blog post, I was immediately struck by a sense of paralysis. It reminds me of the “blank canvas effect,” the intimidating prospect of attempting to create something within an empty space and running the risk of making a mistake. Every art teacher I’ve ever had always urges the same remedy: pick up your pencil, pen, or brush and fill up that space until you aren’t afraid of making a wrong mark. So here are those marks.

A quick introduction to the road to my decision to begin a blog. I am a recent graduate of Pomona College who majored in American history, and am one of those people who was genuinely excited about their major. My interests led me to uncover history-related sites and blogs such as the History News Network, American Historical Association, PhDinHistory, Easily Distracted, and Tenured Radical. I am also fascinated by the rise of the digital age, and how it affects traditional scholarship. It was this interest that led me down the path to begin subscribing to digital humanists such as Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, Mills Kelly, Lisa Spiro, Bill Turkel, and Jeremy Boggs.

After months of reading blog posts and listening to podcasts, I realized they were influencing how I thought, studied, and reflected as much as any class I had ever taken. My approach to history, scholarship, and learning in general had been transformed for the better. This realization ultimately inspired me to take a crack at joining and contributing to this thriving online community. It’s an intimidating prospect, but at least I’m no longer staring at a blank canvas.