The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology

[The following is the text of a talk I prepared for a panel discussion about authoring digital scholarship for history with Adeline Koh, Lauren Tilton, Yoni Appelbaum, and Ed Ayers at the 2015 American Historical Association Conference.]

I’d like to start with a blog post that was written almost seven years ago now, titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” In it, Tom Scheinfeldt argued that the rise of digital history represented a disciplinary shift away from big ideas about ideology or theory and towards a focus on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” Tom’s post was a big reason why I applied to graduate school. I found this methodological turn thrilling – the idea that tools like GIS, text mining, and network analysis could revolutionize how we study history. Seven years later the digital turn has, in fact, revolutionized how we study history. Public history has unequivocally led the charge, using innovative approaches to archiving, exhibiting, and presenting the past in order to engage a wider public. Other historians have built powerful digital tools, explored alternative publication models, and generated online resources to use in the classroom.
But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.
There are many reasons for this imbalance, including the desire to reach a wider audience beyond the academy, the investment in collection and curation needed for electronic sources, or the open-ended nature of big digital projects. All of these are laudable. But there is another, more problematic, reason for the comparative inattention to scholarly arguments: digital historians have a love affair with methodology. We are infatuated with the power of digital tools and techniques to do things that humans cannot, such as dynamically mapping thousands of geo-historical data points. The argumentative payoffs of these methodologies are always just over the horizon, floating in the tantalizing ether of potential and possibility. At times we exhibit more interest in developing new methods than in applying them, and in touting the promise of digital history scholarship rather than its results. 
What I’m going to do in the remaining time is to use two examples from my own work to try and concretize this imbalance between methods and results. The first example is a blog post I wrote in 2010. At the time I was analyzing the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, made famous by Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. The blog post described how I used a process called topic modeling to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Martha Ballard between 1785 and 1812. To grossly oversimplify, topic modeling is a technique that automatically generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). So, for instance, the technique grouped the following words together:
gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds
As a human reader it’s pretty clear that these are words about gardeningOnce I generated this topic, I could track it across all 10,000 entries. When I mashed twenty-seven years together, it produced this beautiful thumbprint of a New England growing season.
Seasonal Presence of GARDENING topic in Martha Ballard’s Diary
Interest in topic modeling took off right around the time that I wrote this post, and pretty soon it started getting referenced again and again in digital humanities circles. Four and a half years later, it has been viewed more than ten thousand times and been assigned on the syllabi of at least twenty different courses. It’s gotten cited in books, journal articlesconference presentations, grant applications, government reports, white papers, and, of course, other blogs. It is, without a doubt, the single most widely read piece of historical writing I have ever produced. But guess what? Outside of the method, there isn’t anything new or revelatory in it. The post doesn’t make an original argument and it doesn’t further our understanding of women’s history, colonial New England, or the history of medicine. It largely shows us things we already know about the past – like the fact that people in Maine didn’t plant beans in January.
People seized on this blog post not because of its historical contributions, but because of its methodological contributions. It was like a magic trick, showing how topic modeling could ingest ten thousand diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, tell you what the major themes were in those entries and track them over time, all without knowing the meaning of a single word. The post made people excited for what topic modeling could do, not necessarily what it did do; the methodology’s potential, not its results.
About four years after I published my blog post on Martha Ballard, I published a very different piece of writing. This was an article that appeared in last June’s issue of the Journal of American History, the first digital history research article published by the journal. In many ways it was a traditional research article, one that followed the journal’s standard peer review process and advanced an original argument about American history. But the key distinction was that I made my argument using computational techniques. 
The starting premise for my argument was that the late nineteenth-century United States has typically been portrayed as a period of integration and incorporation. Think of the growth of railroad and telegraph networks, or the rise of massive corporations like Standard Oil. In nineteenth-century parlance: “the annihilation of time and space.” This existing interpretation of the period hinges on geography – the idea that the scale of locality and region were getting subsumed under the scale of nation and system. I was interested in how these integrative forces actually played out in the way people may have envisioned the geography of the nation. 
So I looked at a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas, during the 1890s and wrote a computer script that counted the number of times the paper mentioned different cities or states. In effect, how one newspaper crafted an imagined geography of the nation. What I found was that instead of creating a standardized, nationalized view of the world we might expect, the newspaper produced space in ways that centered on the scale of region far more than nation. It remained overwhelmingly focused on the immediate sphere of Texas, and even more surprisingly, on the American Midwest. Places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis were far more prevalent than I was expecting, and from this newspaper’s perspective Houston was more of a midwestern city than a southern one. 
Cameron Blevins, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” Journal of American History, 101, no. 1 (June 2014), 127.
I would have never seen these patterns without a computer. And in trying to account for this pattern I realized that, while historians might enjoy reading stuff like this…
…newspapers often look a lot more like this:
All of this really boring stuff – commodity prices, freight rates, railroad timetables, classified ads – made up a shockingly large percentage of content. Once you include the boring stuff, you get a much different view of the world from Houston in the 1890s. I ended up arguing that it was precisely this fragmentary, mundane, and overlooked content that explained the dominance of regional geography over national geography. I never would have been able to make this argument without a computer.
The article offers a new interpretation about the production of space and the relationship between region and nation. It issues a challenge to a long-standing historical narrative about integration and incorporation in the nineteenth-century United States. By publishing it in the Journal of American History, with all of the limitations of a traditional print journal, I was trying to reach a different audience from the one who read my blog post on topic modeling and Martha Ballard. I wanted to show a broader swath of historians that digital history was more than simply using technology for the sake of technology. Digital tools didn’t just have the potential to advance our understanding of American history – they actually did advance our understanding of American history.
To that end, I published an online component that charted the article’s digital approach and presented a series of interactive maps. But in emphasizing the methodology of my project I ended up shifting the focus away from its historical contributions. In the feedback and conversations I’ve had about the article since its publication, the vast majority of attention has focused on the method rather than the result: How did you select place-names? Why didn’t you differentiate between articles and advertisements? Can it be replicated for other sources? These are all important questions, but they skip right past the arguments that I’m making about the production of space in the late nineteenth century. In short: the method, not the result. 
I ended my article with a familiar clarion call:
Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.
This is the rhetorical style of digital history. While reading through conference program I was struck by just how many abstracts about digital history used the words “potential,” “promise,” “possibilities,” or in the case of our own panel, “opportunities.” In some ways 2015 doesn’t feel that different from 2008, when Tom Scheinfeldt wrote about the sunrise of methodology and the Journal of American History published a roundtable titled “The Promise of Digital History.” I think this is telling. Academic scholarship’s engagement with digital history seems to operate in a perpetual future tense. I’ve spent a lot of my career talking about what digital methodology can do to advance scholarly arguments. It’s time to start talking in the present tense.

Still Playing Catch-Up

As I was flipping through the February 2014 issue of the American Historical Review I was encouraged to see that American historical profession’s flagship journal seems to be doing a pretty decent job of publishing the impressive work of female historians. Three out of its four main articles were written by women and four out of the five books in its “Featured Reviews” section were also by women. That’s encouraging. But what about the rest of the February issue? Figuring out how many women are in the 176 contributors for this single issue is a lot harder. And what about not just this issue, but all five issues it publishes annually? And what about not just this year, but every year since its inception in 1895?

Looking at gender representation in the American Historical Review is exactly the kind of historical project that lends itself well towards digital analysis. Collecting individual author information from 120 years of publication history would take an enormous amount of tedious labor. Fortunately the information is already online. I wrote a Python script to scrape the table-of-contents from every AHR issue and then, with the help of Bridget Baird, began to process all of this text to try and extract the books that were reviewed in the AHR, their authors, and the names of the person reviewing them. The data was something of a nightmare, but we were eventually able to get everything we wanted: around 60,000 books, authors, and reviewers. The challenge turned to: was there a way to automatically identify the gender of all of these different people? Especially for a dataset that spanned more than a hundred years we needed a way to take into account potential changes in naming conventions. A historian named Leslie who was born before 1950 was likely to be a man, but if that same Leslie was born after 1950 the person was likely to be a woman. Bridget’s solution was for us to write a program that relies on a database of names from the Social Security Administration dating back to 1880 to account for these changes. This approach is not without problems. It only includes American names while subtly reinforcing an insidious gender binary framework. Nevertheless, it does contribute a useful new digital humanities methodology and one that we are planning to explore with Lincoln Mullen in more depth.

This might come as a real shock, but the American Historical Review didn’t feature very many women for much of its publication history. Over the first eighty years of the AHR‘s existence there were rarely more than a handful of books written by female authors in any given issue – as a percentage of all authors, women made up less than 10% of reviewed books through the 1970s. But things began to change in the late 1970s, when female authors began a steady ascent in the AHR‘s reviews. By the end of the 1980s women’s books had nearly doubled in the journal. By the twenty-first century there were three times as many women as there had been in the 1970s.

Gender of book authors (as a percent of all authors) in the American Historical Review between 1895 and 2013. The number of authors categorized as “Unknown” in the early years stems from the widespread use of initials (ex. K. T. Drew). Most of these authors were likely men, but we’ve erred on the safe side in categorizing them as Unknown. In the later years, many of the “Unknowns” stem from non-U.S. names.

But other numbers paint a less rosy picture. Lincoln Mullen’s recent work on history dissertations showed a similarly steady upwards trajectory in the number of female-authored history dissertations since 1950. Although it has plateaued in recent years, women have very nearly closed the gap in terms of newly completed history dissertations. But the glass ceiling remains stubbornly low in terms of what happens from that point onwards. In book reviews published in the AHR male authors continue to outnumber female authors by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. Whereas there is now a gap of around 3-5% separating the proportion of male and female dissertation authors, that gap jumps to 25-35% in terms of the proportion of male and female book authors being reviewed in the American Historical Review.

Gender of dissertation authors and of book authors in the American Historical Review. Note: The above chart only looks at authors whose gender was successfully identified by the program. It is also something of an apples-to-oranges comparison given that Lincoln and I were using slightly different methods, but it gives a rough sense for the gap between dissertations and the AHR.

On the reviewer side of the equation, things aren’t much better. There are still more than twice as many male reviewers as female reviewers in the AHR. But gender inflects this relationship in less direct ways. In particular, we can look at the gender dynamics of who reviews who. About three times as many men write reviews of male-authored books as do women. In the case of female-authored books, there are slightly more male reviewers than female reviewers but the ratio is much closer to 50/50. In short, women are much more likely to write reviews of other women. And while men still write reviews of the majority of female-authored books, they tend to gravitate towards male authors – who are, of course, already over-represented in the AHR.

Gender of reviewers for male-authored books. Note: The above chart only looks at authors and reviewers whose gender was successfully identified by the program.
Gender of reviewers for female-authored books. Note: The above chart only looks at authors and reviewers whose gender was successfully identified by the program.

Bridget and I were also able to extract the subjects used by the AHR to categorize their reviews. Although these conventions changed quite a bit over time, I took a stab at aggregating them into some broad categories for the past forty years. Essentially, I wanted to find out the gender representation within different historical fields. As you can see in the chart below, the proportion of men and women is not the same for all fields. Caribbean/Latin American history has had something approaching equal representation for the past decade-and-a-half. In both African history and Ancient/Medieval history female historians made some quite dramatic gains during the late-nineties and aughts. The guiltiest parties, however, are also the two subject categories that publish the most book reviews: Modern/Early Modern Europe and the United States/Canada. Both of them have made steady progress but still hover at around two-thirds male.

The different subjects are sorted left-to-right by the number of reviews in the AHR. Again, please note that the above chart only looks at authors whose gender was successfully identified by the program.

Women are now producing history dissertations at nearly the same rate as men, but the flagship journal of the American historical profession has yet to catch up. There are, of course, a lot of factors at play. This gap might reflect a substantial time-lag as a younger, more evenly-balanced generation gradually moves its way through the ranks even as an older, male-skewed generation continues to publish monographs. It might reflect biases in the wider publishing industry, or the fact that female historians continue to bear a disproportionate amount of the time-burden of caring for families. That the AHR continues to publish far more reviews of male authors than female authors is depressing, but unfortunately not surprising given the systemic inequalities that continue to exist across the profession.