American Panorama: Part II

This is the second half of a review of American Panorama (you can read Part I here). Together, the two posts are a follow-up to my earlier call for digital historians to more actively engage with the historical contributions of each other’s projects.

Part II. The Overland Trails, 1840-1860

Between 1840 and 1860 several hundred thousand people traveled westward across the United States, most of them ending up in California, Oregon, and Utah. Their migration has become a foundational element of American history, conjuring up visions of covered wagons and hardy pioneers. Or, if you grew up playing the educational computer game The Oregon Trail: floppy disks, pixelated oxen, and exciting new words like “dysentery.” The topic has been exhaustively studied by genealogists, historians, and millions of schoolchildren over the years. American Panorama attempts to break new ground on what is, like the trail itself, well-trodden soil.

The Overland Trails follows a similar visual layout as The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, with multiple panes showing a map, a timeline, aggregated data, and the expandable text from twenty-two trail diaries. Far more so than The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, however, it puts these written narratives into the spotlight. The visualization includes the full text of each diary rather than brief excerpts. Clicking on a specific diarist allows you to read all of their entries, with a linked footnote to the original source. As you scroll through the entries, clusters of dots track the progress of the emigrant’s journey on the map as they pass between landmarks like Courthouse Rock or Fort Laramie.


Two other panes provide context for that particular year: a short summary of trail activity and a small map breaking down the estimated annual migration to California, Oregon, and Utah. The timeline uses small multiples for each year that plot the seasonal progression of emigrant journeys on its x-axis and, somewhat confusingly, the (horizontal) longitude coordinates of these journeys on its vertical axis. Timeline aside, the overall reading experience is both intuitive and seamless. More importantly, the visualization strikes a balance between detail and context, weaving the full text of individual sources within a larger spatial and historical tapestry. In many ways, this is digital design at its best. But why does this elegant design matter? What is the historical payoff? The Overland Trails makes two contributions to the topic of westward migration – one archival and the other interpretive.

First, The Overland Trails gives us not just a new, but a better platform for reading and understanding the topic’s source base. The trail diary was a genre unto itself during the mid-nineteenth century. They were often written to serve as a kind of guide to help family or friends follow them westward, recording daily mileage, landmarks, trail quality, and the availability of water and grass. These details made the diaries immensely helpful for future emigrants, but immensely boring for future historians. Take an entry written by James Bennett on July 12th, 1850:

Friday 12th-After ten miles travel this day over a heavy, sandy and barren road, we reached Sweet Water river, where we took dinner. Here we found the grass very short and as our cattle were nearly exhausted by hard work and scant feed, we drove off the road five miles to the right, where we found excellent grass and a good spring.

Now imagine reading thousands of entries exactly like this one. You start to get hungry for anything that breaks the monotony of the trail: white-knuckled river crossings, exchanges with passing Indians, or fiery arguments about whether or not to travel on the Sabbath. Moreover, as a reader we often don’t care all that much about where these juicy episodes took place – does it really matter if they occurred in western Nebraska, northern Utah, or eastern Oregon? The nebulous space of “The Trail Experience” serves as a stand-in for specific geography of where things happened. But the loss of geographic context risks distorting the lived reality of nineteenth-century emigrants. For them, trail life was overwhelmingly defined by geography: boring, repetitive, grinding travel along an established trail itinerary, with mileage tallies or landmark notations acting as a means of marking their progress through that geography. American Panorama captures the experience of overland travel far more effectively than simply reading trail diaries on their own. As simple as it sounds, linking individual entries to their location on a map illustrates the small-scale, incremental geography that made up this massive, large-scale migration.

The second historical contribution of The Overland Trails involves a broader spatial reinterpretation of westward expansion. The phrase itself – “western expansion” conjures up the image of a wave of Anglo-American settlers washing over the continent. This was the geography embedded in Manifest Destiny iconography and Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

American Panorama presents a much different geography. Western migration was not a wave; it was a narrow river. Hundreds of thousands of people may have traveled across the western interior between the 1840 and 1860, but they did so along a severely restricted corridor of travel. This might seem obvious; the Overland Trail was, after all, a trail. But the trail’s meaning has come to embody a certain idea of mobility, not just in terms of traveling westward to Oregon or California, but of experiencing and claiming the vast swath of land that lay in between. When mapped, however, the journeys of twenty-two emigrants resemble tightly braided cords that only gradually fray as they approach the Pacific Coast. Overland travelers operated in a tightly constrained space.


To take one example: although emigrants technically traversed from one side of Nebraska Territory to the other, most travelers didn’t see very much of it. The grinding necessity of daily travel kept them pinned along the Platte River. American Panorama illustrates just how narrow this pathway was and how infrequently emigrants deviated from it.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the interior of the western United States was seen as a region to pass through as quickly as possible, an area that had long been labeled “The Great American Desert,” or in historian Elliott West’s words, “a threatening void.” (The Contested Plains, 122) Much of the western interior was made up of territory that was ostensibly claimed by the United States but that remained largely ungoverned and unsettled by Anglo-Americans. American Panorama effectively recreates this geography through visual design: bright, sharp lines track the emigrants’ journeys along the trail, interspersed with landmarks and forts shown in equally bright colors. This tightly demarcated trail geography pops out from the map as it snakes across a minimalist base layer entirely devoid of the familiar political boundaries of states or territories. Instead, the underlying map consists of terrain, sparse water features, and the locations of Indian groups such as the Cheyenne in the central plains or the Goshute near Great Salt Lake. The Overland Trails manages to capture the experience of traversing a semi-arid, mountainous region still occupied by native people, one that was seen as largely off-limits for Anglo-American settlement.

The project’s cartographic achievement comes with a cost, however. The presence of native groups played a crucial role in shaping mid-century views of the interior. As historian Susan Schulten notes, “erasing Native Americans from both mental and actual maps” (29) was a central process in the eventual shift from seeing the western interior as an inviting area to settle rather than a forbidding area to traverse. To their credit, the designers of The Overland Trails put native people back on the map. The problem comes from the way in which they do so. The mapmakers label Indian groups using a muted gray color that is nearly identical to the map’s base terrain. Moreover, changing the zoom level causes some labels to shift locations or disappear entirely in order to avoid overlapping with the trail and its landmarks. The overall effect is to weave native groups into the natural landscape, making them visually analogous to the map’s rivers or mountains. This cartographic design ends up conflating native people and the environment – a deeply problematic notion that remains stubbornly lodged in the popular imagination. The visualization builds a marvelous stage for overland emigrants, but its set design turns Indians into a backdrop.


I don’t mean to quibble over (literal) shades of gray. After all, the map’s creators made a concerted effort to include Indian groups – the same can’t be said of other many other historical projects, digital or otherwise. But the project’s cartography highlights a common tension between digital design and historiography. From a design standpoint, the creators of The Overland Trails make all the right decisions. Brightly colored overland routes are foregrounded against a muted base map, including unobtrusive gray labels of Indian groups that give readers contextual information while keeping their attention firmly focused on the emigrant journeys themselves. When those same labels disappear or change locations depending on the zoom level, it helps avoid visual clutter. The problem is that effective digital design can run headlong into fraught historiographical issues, including the contentious idea of the “ecological Indian” and a longstanding cartographic tradition of using maps to marginalize and erase native claims to territory in the West.

Visual design is not the only sticking point for The Overland Trails and its place within western historiography. The visualization is, at its core, a digital archive of primary sources. As I’ve already noted, its interface contributes a new and fascinating way of reading and understanding these sources. What troubles me is the privileging of this particular archive. To be blunt: do we really need a new way of reading and understanding the experience of mostly white, mostly male pioneers whose stories already occupy such a central place in American mythology?

The historical commemoration of overland emigrants began almost as soon as their wagons reached the Pacific Coast. Western pioneer associations held annual conventions and published nostalgic reminiscences that romanticized their journeys. Historians, meanwhile, largely followed the blueprint of Frederick Jackson Turner, who immortalized the march of pioneer-farmers carrying the mantle of civilization westward. Nearly a century passed before historians began to reassess this framework, from uncovering the ways that gender shaped life on the trail to, more recently, interpreting overland migration as a “sonic conquest.” (to use Sarah Keyes’s formulation).

More often than not, however, historical treatments of the Overland Trail still tend to resemble book titles like Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails, or quotes like, “An army of nearly half a million ragged, sunburned civilians marched up the Platte in the vanguard of empire…they emerge from their collective obscurity to illuminate a heroic age in American history.” (Merrill Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives, xiv) The Overland Trails doesn’t explicitly advance this viewpoint, but nor does it move away from it in any substantive way. The informational text accompanying the visualization’s timeline can, at times, read like a “greatest hits” of western lore: the Donner Party, the Gold Rush, Indian fighting, and the Pony Express (its freshest material centers on Mormon migration). The visualization’s space constraints leave precious little room for important historical nuance, leading to generalizations such as “White settlement in the West was disastrous for Indians everywhere.”

To reiterate a point I made in the first part of my review of American Panorama: prioritizing user exploration over authorial interpretation comes with risks. I don’t want to minimize the significance of The Overland Trails, because it contributes a truly valuable new interface for conceptualizing nineteenth-century historical geography and the experience of overland travel. But the project uses a novel framework to deliver largely tired content. My guess is that its selection of content was based on the fact that these particular diaries were already digitized. This kind of pragmatism is a necessary part of digital history. But explaining the interpretive implications of these decisions, not just the nitty-gritty methodological details, often requires a more robust and explicit authorial voice than many digital history projects seem willing to provide.

My hope is that The Overland Trails will serve as a prototype for visualizing other movement-driven sources. To that end, American Panorama has given outside researchers the ability to build on this framework by making the project’s source code available on Github.  The Github repository highlights the open-ended nature of the project, as its creators continue to improve its visualizations. In a similar vein, American Panorama‘s team has several new visualizations to come that examine redlining, urban renewal, and presidential voting.  I have high expectations, and I hope that other historians will join me in giving them the substantive engagement they deserve.


Surviving Quals, Part II: The Grind

*This is part two of a series on preparing, studying for, and taking qualifying exams in a history PhD program. See Part I here. After taking my exams in December 2011, I decided to collect my thoughts on the process. The following advice is based on my own experience of taking Stanford’s qualifying oral exams for United States history. The format was a two-hour oral exam, with four faculty members testing four different fields: three standard American history fields (Colonial, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century) and one specialty field (in my case, Spatial and Digital History). Bear in mind that other programs have different purposes, formats, and requirements.*

The Grind

“Preparing for quals is a full-time job, but there is no reason to put in overtime.” This was one of the best pieces of advice I received when I was asking fellow graduate students about the process. More so than perhaps any other facet of graduate school, studying for quals should be managed like a job. This is for two reasons: to keep pace and to keep sane.

Keep Pace

Quals can be thought of as a simple math problem with two main variables. One variable is the total number of books you need to read. The other is how much time you have to read them. If you have an exam date already set, work backwards to figure out how many books you need to read each week. If you have more control over scheduling the date of the exam, work forwards. Using a baseline of around 3-4 hours for each book, determine how many total hours you will need to read them. In either case, it’s crucial to factor in additional time for things like basic chronology, reviewing material, and meetings with professors (roughly 30-40 hours per field, in my case). Schedule in other commitments, weekends, vacations, or time off depending on your schedule. Finally, add in an additional 2-3 week buffer before the exam. This gives you crucial time to synthesize all of the material and, worst case scenario, a surplus buffer of time to dip into if you get behind on your reading schedule. Add it all up and you’ll get a rough sense for what your pace needs to be. In my case, I ended up having to read roughly 8-9 books a week, with around eight hours of additional preparation each week.

Once you’ve figured out what your pace is, you need to keep track of your progress. I ended up creating a spreadsheet with all of my books and estimates for how much time I’d need on each book (usually 3-4 hours for a normal monograph, several more hours for a synthetic tome like Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought). This gave me a running tally of my progress and how much still remained – unsurprisingly, this was a daunting list in the beginning. But checking off books became a daily ritual that lent an all-important sense of moving forward. Having a schedule also gives you added structure for an experience that can otherwise be dangerously unaccountable. There are days when you will be tired, distracted, or just sick and tired of turning pages. These are the days when lack of daily accountability becomes a problem. Putting off a book one morning might seem trivial at the time, but it adds up quickly. Having a schedule forces you to keep working. It might not be pretty, you might not retain as much from that particular book, but knowing that you have to get through it to reach your “quota” for the week allows you to keep grinding.

Keep Sane 

Treating quals-studying like a job that you clock into and out of also helps to keep your sanity. Just reading and reading for hours every day is an isolating and tiring experience in a way that taking classes, teaching, or even research is not. It’s easy to get lost in the world of endless books, and while this can be rewarding in its own peculiar way it’s also not sustainable. Set a daily reading schedule and try to stick with it. By working consistently at the same times each day it will be much easier for you to “leave” your job. When you’re done for the day, actually be done for the day. I found studying for quals to be draining in a very different way from other aspects of graduate school. Whereas I have no problem answering emails from students at night or thinking about research while I cook dinner, it was much more exhausting to think about the two books I had read that day for quals. If possible, try to take at least one day off a week where you don’t touch a book. And all of the other rules about work/life balance apply: have a social life, exercise, think and talk about things other than history. Clock in, clock out.

Learn How to Not Read

Arguably the most important skill in studying for quals is learning how to not read. When you have to read two books a day, you don’t actually read them. You gut them. Graduate school has likely forced you to begin to do this already, but it will soon become a standard rather than an exception. For inspiration, read Larry Cebula’s “How to Read a Book in One Hour.” Although you will be spending more time on each book, the same general principles apply. Below was my own system for reading a book for quals.

1. Use a template. After much debate I ended up using Evernote as my note-taking medium. I created a basic template that I would use to create a new note for each book. This not only saves time but allows you to remember information more systematically. Finally, taking notes digitally also allows for a more robust catalog and search functionality, especially via tagging systems. By tagging summaries of books with their different subjects, I could quickly pull up, say, all the books on my 19th-century reading list having to do with slavery.

*Download my empty template in Evernote format or as an HTML file, or see an example of a completed note.*

Screenshot of note-taking in Evernote, with Tags and Searches highlighted

2. Use book reviews. Read 2-3 reviews of the book and take notes on them. If possible, try to find a mix of shorter (1-2 page) synopses and lengthier (5-10 page) reviews. You will quickly learn which journals are best for your particular field – in US History, for instance, Reviews in American History offers much more detailed reviews that oftentimes place the books within a broader historiographic context. I would usually pair one of these longer reviews with two shorter ones. By reading several different reviews you can usually glean what the “consensus” is on the book’s major themes and contributions and be on the look-out for these while reading.

3. Be an active reader. I’m aware people have different styles. But for quals, I found the best way to take notes was to sit at a desk with my computer and take notes on every chapter as I went. Whereas in classes I had often read books lying on a couch and used marginalia and underlining, I’ve since soured on this approach. Actively taking notes while you read is less enjoyable, but forces you to synthesize as you go. It’s easy to underline an important sentence without actually understanding it. Paraphrasing forces you to actually get what you read. As for content, start with a careful, word-by-word reading of the introduction and take detailed notes. Then move much more quickly through the book’s chapters, skimming and trying to pull out what’s most important.

Quals tend to privilege arguments over thematic content: few people are going to ask for the specific evidence an author used to support their argument in a particular chapter. However, jotting a sentence down that describes the general setting, actors, and subject of the chapter, separate from its argumentative thrust, allows you to recall it better in the future. It’s important to take notes on both arguments and content. Finally, move fast. Flip past pages that are simply listing additional evidence for an argument. Although these are often the most enjoyable parts of history books they are, unfortunately, tangential to why you’re reading the book. Unless the book was particularly long or particularly important, I tried to cap the reading part of the note-taking process at around three hours.

4. Synthesize. This is crucial. After reading every book I forced myself to take 20-30 minutes and write a careful two-three paragraph summary of the book. This is much harder than simply taking notes because it forces you to distill a book into its barest bones. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s difficult to write a summary of a book you don’t understand or remember, so doing this also makes sure you actually processed what the author was trying to do (or force you to at least take a stab at it). As a supplement to this, as I was reading the book I would write major themes or concepts in a bullet list. Once I got to the end, I would go back and decide which of these were actually major themes or concepts and which ended up being auxiliary. The important themes gave me a basic skeleton from which I could then write a more elaborate summary. These write-ups proved invaluable. When you’re reading two books a day, even a book you read two weeks ago can dissolve into a distant memory. These summaries give you a fast and efficient means of recalling what the book was about. Finally, go back and revise them as you read other books. Oftentimes you don’t understand the broader significance of an author’s argument until you’re able to place it in a larger historiographic context.

See an example of a full note here. Also see my full listing of book summaries for my US history fields.*

5. Talk it out. This is probably the hardest step, especially in the beginning of the process. But it’s central to studying for quals. There is something about having to verbally articulate an answer that forces you to understand it in a way that simply writing answers or notes does not. Additionally, one of the most challenging parts of quals is to move beyond simply being able to regurgitate a specific author’s argument and move towards higher-level synthesis. It’s one thing to be able to answer: “What is Bernard Bailyn’s interpretation of the American Revolution?” or even “What are three different interpretations of the American Revolution?” It’s much harder to answer, “Was the American Revolution actually revolutionary?” Answering these higher-level questions out loud is hard, but it is a skill at which you can and will get better. Once again, rely on your fellow graduate students, particularly ones who have already taken their exams. Have them ask you practice questions, pretend you are in an actual exam, and give formal answers (rather than the easier route of making it conversational, as in “Well, I’d probably say something about…”). Practice your own answers, but also ask other students for clarifications about topics or books you don’t understand. Do this as early as possible and keep doing it throughout the process. I found it the most useful way to prepare for the exam itself.

6. Go back to the basics. My grasp of the more factual side of American history was surprisingly weak going into the process. It’s easy to spend all of your time learning about historiography and interpretations, but you need a factual framework to build off. Particularly important episodes demand a solid grounding in chronology – for example, the lead-up to the American Revolution or the Civil War. Memorize things like changing geography, presidential administrations, dynastic reigns, economic depressions, major legal cases, etc. Some books, like those in the Oxford Series in American History, offer more nuts-and-bolts information than others. In this case, be aware of that and take more time to read them in more detail, writing separate notes related to basic chronology or events in addition to your notes on the more interpretive side of the book.

Surviving Quals, Part I: Laying the Groundwork

*This is part one of a series on preparing, studying for, and taking qualifying exams in a history PhD program. After taking my exams in December 2011, I decided to collect my thoughts on the process. The following advice is based on my own experience in taking Stanford’s qualifying oral exams for United States history. The format was a two-hour oral exam, with four faculty members testing four different fields: three standard American history fields (Colonial, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century) and one specialty field (in my case, Spatial and Digital History). Bear in mind that other programs have different purposes, formats, and requirements.*

Laying the Groundwork (Or, Helping Your Future Self)

From a big-picture standpoint, studying for qualifying exams begins as soon as you start your graduate program. I mean this largely in a meta-sense: you should not be constantly thinking about your quals as a first-semester graduate student, but the classes you are taking, the papers you are writing, the courses you are TAing, are all building your knowledge base. On a more logistical standpoint, you should figure out the details of exams early on: what are the requirements, what the process is generally like, what the deadlines and dates are, who serves on your committee, etc. Which brings me to my first recurring theme:

Theme #1: Ask for Help

Talk to students who have already gone through or are currently going through the process. Department guidelines and handbooks are helpful, but actual students can usually tell you exactly what will happen and what you’ll need to do. Is there a department policy that is particularly onerous? Are credit requirements set in stone, or are they more flexible? Talking to students will give you a better sense for what all you need to do in a way that is often more directly relevant than talking to professors or administrators.

In the classroom, it’s crucial that you take systematic notes. This might seem straightforward. It’s not. There will be many, many weeks where you are swamped by papers, reading, or grading. These are the weeks when it’s much easier to underline and scribble just enough notes in the margin of a book to get through the day’s discussion rather than systematically writing it down. Don’t. Two years later these marginalia that made sense at the time are often barely helpful. Similarly, I’ve found that graduate seminars encourage a different kind of analysis than qualifying exams. In courses you usually talk about a book within a few days of reading it, dissect the book in a discussion setting (often with a graduate student enthusiasm for viciously ripping it apart), and then immediately setting it aside to move on to the following week’s reading. Studying for exams is much more about synthesizing and retaining massive amounts of information and big ideas. Which brings me to my second recurring theme:

Theme #2: Get Organized

Qualifying exams are often as much about persistence and organization as they are about intellectual firepower. Each person has different styles of note-taking, but for studying purposes active synthesis is absolutely crucial. To this end, I would taking 15 minutes after you’ve read and discussed a book to write up a short, 2-3 paragraph summary. I cannot over-emphasize how helpful these summaries will be – unless you are blessed with an extraordinary memory, the particulars of a book will often fade in a matter of weeks or months. Keeping the summary short forces you to consider what the major contributions and points of the book are. Take notes in class discussions about relevant context or historiography, and keep these notes alongside your summary. Your future self will thank you immeasurably.

The process of composing your reading lists will vary from program to program and professor to professor. My experience consisted of me coming up with a draft reading list for each field, submitting it to my committee member for review, and then incorporating their revisions. Regardless of the specifics, always refer to Theme #1: Ask for Help. Nobody sits down and comes up with a list from scratch. Go through as many reading lists from older graduate students as you can and you will start to get a sense for which books are part of the “canon” (for instance, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black was on every single list I consulted). For some reference, here were my reading lists for Colonial, Nineteenth-Century, and Twentieth-Century U.S. History.

An important note on this stage of the process: this is the fun part. If you’re in a history graduate program for the right reasons, you will be giddy thinking about all these cool books you want to read. This is wonderful, but don’t get carried away. It is easy to put every book you’ve ever wanted to read on the list. Don’t. Adding an extra book here and there seems harmless, but they add up quickly. And when you realize your exam is a month away and you’re fourteen books behind schedule you’ll be kicking yourself for adding in so many extra readings. This ties into my third theme:

Theme #3: Be Efficient 

To winnow it down, ask older graduate students about which are most valuable. Which books are particularly versatile or useful? Are there books they absolutely loved or hated? A book like Robert Self’s American Babylon allows you to answer a wide range of topics related to post-World War II America: metropolitan development, suburbanization, the rise of conservatism, race and identity politics, spatial history, and civil rights. Do you have multiple books covering the same topic? If so, which one(s) should you jettison? For instance, I included both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint. Both are fantastic books, but in retrospect there was too much overlap between them. For the purpose of quals I wished I had substituted another book on colonial slavery for the seven-hundred page Slave Counterpoint that offered a much more different approach. Whenever you engage in a give-and-take with your committee member for a particular list, be firm. If you really want to include a particular book or think that the list is getting too long, lobby as strongly as you can to change it. Some professors will give you more leeway than others, but regardless do as much as you can to shape the list into what you want it to be. Which is all a part of my fourth theme:

Theme #4: Own It

Graduate students are endlessly warned about choosing a dissertation topic that they truly love. The same advice should be applied to reading for quals. Take the time to really think about what you want to get out of the entire experience. Figure out what the purpose is supposed to be. Stanford’s process is geared much more broadly towards preparing its graduate students to teach American history. Other programs aim to give you a mastery of the literature related more narrowly to your research agenda. Whatever the purpose, think long and hard about what specifically you want to emerge with. This can be as broad as “designing a survey course on colonial America” or as narrow as “finally understanding the Progressive Era.” Quals are an often-onerous academic hoop for you to jump through, so you might as well try to make it as valuable and enjoyable a hoop as you can.

Getting Under the Hood of Graduate Coursework

As part of Stanford’s history graduate program, those of us studying the United States participate in a series of courses called “the core.” This consists of six courses taught by six different professors that cover the chronology of the United States – two each for (roughly) the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. On Stanford’s quarter system, this works out to three “core” classes each year that comprise the backbone of the Americanist graduate training. Having completed half of the core, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at its content.

Each course follows a similar format: one book assigned each week, usually accompanied by additional excerpts or chapters of other books and related essays. The class posted short responses/questions which we then discussed in our once-weekly class. Even with a small class (around 8-12 students), the aggregate of our short responses produced a sizable body of text over the course of the year. The responses also offer a means of gleaning some of the overarching themes of US historiography. As Julie Meloni describes in a post at ProfHacker titled “Wordles, or the gateway drug to textual analysis” word clouds are an easy and playful way to visualize these themes:

Many of the words are not particularly surprising (American, history, and book, for example), but the word cloud does point towards the essence of Stanford’s “core” in training its graduate students to analyze texts from a largely historiographical standpoint. There are relatively few content words  – Vietnam doesn’t appear too often, for instance. Instead, words such as analysis, argument, and narrative crop up in our responses. We are being trained to read a book not for its factual information but in order to evaluate its interpretive arguments. This is a crucial difference that often gets overlooked by those outside the profession, and this characteristic displays itself quite clearly in our responses.

Examining the central books that were assigned in the core gives a glimpse into what our professors thought were the important works in United States historiography. What follows are the major weekly books, in order of publication date:

Patricia Limerick The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Gordon Wood Radicalism of the American Revolution
Charles Sellers The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
William Cronon Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Richard Bushman The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
Robin Kelley Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class
Christine Leigh Heyrman Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
Amy Dru Stanley From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation
Kristin Hoganson Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars
Walter Johnson Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
Ann Fabian The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America
Mary Dudziak Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy
Elizabeth Anne Fenn Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
Sven Beckert The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Caroline Winterer The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910
Paul E. Johnson Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper
Steven Hahn A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration
Jeremi Suri Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente
Mae Ngai Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America
Louis S. Warren Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show
Susan Scott Parish American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World
Charles Postel The Populist Vision
Annette Gordon-Reed The Hemingses of Monticello
Pekka Hamalainen Comanche Empire
Jackson Lears Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
Peggy Pascoe What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America
Susan Carruthers Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing

Taking a look at all twenty-seven books reveals some interesting characteristics. Unsurprisingly, the assigned readings are heavily weighted towards recent work:

Part of the purpose of Stanford’s core is to develop a strong working knowledge of the issues and debates of the field. For example, Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision, published in 2007, takes on interpretations advanced over the past half-century that characterize the 1890s People’s Party as quixotic and backwards-looking. Instead, Postel argues that the movement was deeply committed to ideals of modernity and progress. The Populist Vision serves as an exemplary book to assign in the graduate “core” in part because it provides a strong background for the ongoing issues, debates, and trends of how historians have interpreted late nineteenth-century American politics.

Looking at the authors themselves is also interesting. The gender breakdown is quite even, with fourteen male authors and thirteen female authors. What I decided to examine was not just who these people were, but where they received their historical training. The twenty-seven different authors received their PhD’s from only ten different schools:

Columbia University
Harvard University
Princeton University
Stanford University
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Helsinki
University of Leeds
University of Michigan
Yale University

In short, it’s a narrowly “elite” bunch. Eleven (over 40%) of the authors received their PhDs from Yale alone. Of the eight American schools represented, all of them currently reside in the top ten of US News and World Report’s list of history graduate programs. Of note, the authors had a more diverse background in both their undergraduate education (ranging from Montana State University to SUNY-Empire State) and the schools at which they currently taught. The prestige factor seemed to be most dominant at the graduate level.

The over-representation of elite schools highlights the stratified nature of graduate training in the American historical profession. I don’t mean to draw broad conclusions from an obviously limited and biased sample, which only reflects the decisions of three Stanford professors as to what they think are the most important recent books in the field. Yet the authors of these books were overwhelmingly trained at prestigious, “top-tier” programs. Does this mean that the products of Harvard and Yale’s programs are the only historians who received the quality training needed to write ground-breaking scholarship? Absolutely not. But the above reading list does imply that where a historian received their graduate education seems to have an outsized ripple effect on the reception and impact of their scholarship.

Scattered Links – 3/16/2009

I’ve been closely following the history blogging roundtable examining Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar kicked things off with Should politics be historical? Should history be political? Then Historiann kept the ball rolling with Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms. This week Claire Potter at Tenured Radical posted part three, Teach This Book!, with part four appearing soon at Blogenspiel. I’ve found the series instructive, given my embarrassing lack of knowledge of historiography in general, and feminist (not to mention medieval feminist) historiography in particular. A lively comment-debate about generational issues followed Notorious Ph.D.’s posting, which Historiann expounded upon in part two (and included an interesting suggestion of social history’s potential for comparative women’s studies). Tenured Radical delves into why feminist historians might gravitate towards more recent history, while championing queer history as a partial solution to some issues that Bennett raises. The history/academia blogosphere could benefit from more roundtables such as these.

Deviant Art supplies an amusing cartographic comic on the progression of World War II. My favorite part? “We talked about this before, mon ami.”

Lisa Spiro at Digital Scholarship in the Humanities gives a great two-part wrap-up of Digital Humanities developments in 2008. Part One sounds a triumphant note, including “Emergence of Digital Humanities” and “Community and collaboration,” while Part Two is more sobering, discussing continued resistance to open access and other new scholarly models, along with the erroneous and Grinch-like litigation by EndNote against Zotero.

Scientists compiled a clickstream map of “scientific activity” (along with other disciplines) that creates a visualization of how users moved from one academic journal to another. The visualization shows how different disciplines tend to cluster around one another, and I was impressed at the degree of interaction in the humanities and social sciences (although I would have loved to see more fluidity between humanities and more “hard” disciplines).

It reminded me of Sterling Fluharty’s insightful take on using quantitative methods to rank history journals based on citations, which the clickstream map avoided due to inconsistent nature of citations across disciplines.

Finally, the Economist’s Technology Quarterly profiles Brewster Kahle in “The Internet’s Librarian” and his quest to build “Alexandria 2.0,” a free digital archive of human knowledge.

Revisiting Charles Tilly: “How (and What) are Historians Doing?”

In April of 2008, noted historian and sociologist Charles Tilly died of lymphoma. In addition to the 51 books or monographs and over 600 articles, he left behind a legion of friends and admirers. By all accounts, Tilly was a prolific and highly influential scholar whose work encompassed a staggering breadth of subjects. Back in April I decided I should at least acquaint myself with some of his writing, and filed away a recommended article for later reading: “How (and What) Are Historians Doing?”

The article covers several different topics, but begins by addressing the question: what distinguishes history from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences? Tilly lists a six-part answer:

1. Time and place are fundamental characteristics
2. Historians specialize in specific times and places
3. The most dominant historical questions are rooted in national politics
4. The blurry line between amateurs and professionals
5. A strong focus on written documents and sources
6. A narrative style that focuses on the motivations of characters as supported by textual evidence

I think some of these characteristics already feel dated, eighteen years after he wrote them. For instance, the popularity of transnational history weakens the case for Numbers 2 and 3. Historians are increasingly straying outside the traditional specialties bound by time period and geographic location, and into more thematic realms such as diaspora and women’s studies. In many ways, this is a good thing. Without the constraints of specific time and place, scholars are able to tackle problems and questions from a radically different perspective.

On the other hand, I would contend that number 4 remains stronger than ever – historical writing consistently maintains a level of common popularity that is largely out of reach for many other disciplines (although a similar case could be made for sociology and, especially today, economics). Journalists, genealogists, librarians, curators, reenactors, armchair enthusiasts – all are contributing to the field of history as much as those within the academy. Finally, even though digitization projects are making sources such as print media, maps, video footage, and material culture more accessible, I would agree with Tilly that the solid majority of historical research is conducted using written documents and sources.

Later in the article, Tilly starts to systematically analyze common approaches to historical study. To do so, he uses a simple chart outlining these different approaches:


On the vertical access is the scope, or the size of the lens being used by the historian. On the horizontal access is a continuum of methodological/philosophical approaches. Like any good educator, Tilly then uses specific examples of historical monographs to illustrate the “Four Corners” of historical approach. For his sample, he selects Carlo Ginzburg’s (1980) The Cheese and the Worms, E.P. Thompson’s (1963) The Making of the English Working Class, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield’s (1981) The Population History of England, 1541-1871, and Olivier Zunz’s (1982) Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880-1920. After discussing each one individually, he charted them visually:


Although I have not read any of the works, Tilly did a great job of explaining them in terms of four different approaches to historical analysis. I was left with the urge to create my own charts using works I had actually read in the past year or two:

republic-of-suffering2Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

The graph for Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering is largely concentrated in the large-scale, humanistic quadrant, as the book delves into the traumatic effects on the American psyche caused by the Civil War’s unprecedented slaughter. Its line extends down to the small-scale, humanistic corner in order to represent Faust’s use of individual experiences (such as those of Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce) to illustrate her broader points.

polio1David Oshinksy, Polio: An American Story

David Oshinsky’s Polio covers a wide area of scope and approach, but it leans towards a large-scale, social-scientific book, given his detailed narrative covering America’s medical struggle against polio in the twentieth century.


David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom

David Blight’s A Slave No More maintains a relatively tight focus on the small-scale and humanistic approach. Blight uses the narratives of two escaped slaves to explore their decisions, motivations, and actions – all within the larger context of slavery’s death throes and national emancipation.


Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic

Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place takes a small-scale, more social-scientific approach to chronicling several generations of a slave family and a slaveholding family on a Georgia plantation. The scope is kept relatively small, with a huge amount of detail that draws upon a range of quantitative and qualitative sources.

I enjoyed the process of creating these graphs. Information visualization is a growing field, and one that I believe will become ever more important to historians. Although the above graphs are imprecise and subjective, they forced me to really consider the content of the books in a new perspective. Most of these books probably touched every corner of the graph at some point during the course of the monograph, but visually plotting their content necessitates a careful aggregation of the author’s central themes and points. Where do the books cross the two axes of scope and approach? Where is their “centroid” on the graph? Just how far along each axis do they go? It’s a refreshing exercise, and one that I think could work in the classroom as a visual and quantitative supplement to a traditional book review.

I’d recommend anyone reading this to sit down with a pencil and paper, channel your inner Charles Tilly, and try to sketch out a graph for a favorite historical monograph. For those of you who have read the above books, I’d welcome any and all criticisms and disagreements regarding their graphs.