A Dissertation’s Infancy: The Geography of the Post

A history PhD can be thought of as a collection of overlapping areas: coursework, teaching, qualifying exams, and the dissertation itself. The first three are fairly structured. You have syllabi, reading lists, papers, classes, deadlines. The fourth? Not so much. Once you’re advanced to candidacy there’s a sense of finally being cut loose. Go forth, conquer the archive, and return triumphantly to pen a groundbreaking dissertation. It’s exhilarating, empowering, and also terrifying as hell. I’ve been swimming through the initial research stage of the dissertation for the past several months and thought it would be a good time to articulate what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Note: if you are less interested in American history and more interested in maps and visualizations, I would skip to the end.

The Elevator Speech

I’m studying communications networks in the late nineteenth-century American West by mapping the geography of the U.S. postal system.*

The Elevator-Stuck-Between-Floors Speech

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century the US. Post steadily expanded into a vast communications network that spanned the continent. By the turn of the century the department was one of the largest organizational units in the world. More than 200,000 postmasters, clerks, and carriers were involved in shuttling billions of pounds of material between 75,000 offices at the cost of more than $100 million dollars a year. As a spatial network the post followed a particular geography. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the West, where the region’s miners, ranchers, settlers, and farmers led their lives on the network’s periphery. My dissertation aims to uncover the geography of the post on its western periphery: where it spread, how it operated, and its role in shaping the space and place of the region.

My project rests on the interplay between center and periphery. The postal network hinged on the relationship between its bureaucratic center in Washington, DC and the thousands of communities that constituted the nodes of that network. In the case of the West, this relationship was a contentious one. Departmental bureaucrats found themselves buffeted with demands to reign in ballooning deficits. Yet they were also required by law to provide service to every corner of the country, no matter how expensive. And few regions were costlier than the West, where a sparsely settled population scattered across a huge area was constantly rearranged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the late nineteenth century. From the top-down perspective of the network’s center, providing service in the West was a major headache. From the bottom-up perspective of westerners the post was one of the bedrocks of society. For most, it was the only affordable and accessible form of long-distance communication. In a region marked by transience and instability, local post offices were the main conduits for contact with the wider world. Western communities loudly petitioned their Congressmen and the department for more offices, better post roads, and speedier service. In doing so, they redefined the shape and contours of both the network and the wider geography of the region.

The post offers an important entry point into some of the major forces shaping American society in the late nineteenth century. First, it helped define the role of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, for many Americans the post was the federal government. Articulating the geographic size and scale of the postal system will offer a corrective to persistent caricatures of the nineteenth-century federal government as weak and decentralized. More specifically, a generation of “New Western” historians have articulated the omnipresent role of the state in the West. Analyzing the relationship between center and periphery through the post’s geography provides a means of mapping the reach of federal power in the region. With the postal system as a proxy for state presence, I can begin to answer questions such as: where and how quickly did the state penetrate the West? How closely did it follow on the heels of settler migration, railroad development, or mining industries? Finally, the post was deeply enmeshed in a system of political patronage, with postmasterships disbursed as spoils of office. What was the relationship between a communications network and the geography of regional and national politics?

Second, the post rested on an often contentious marriage between the public and private spheres. Western agrarian groups upheld the post as a model public monopoly. Nevertheless, private hands guided the system’s day-to-day operations on its periphery. Payments to mail-carrying railroad companies became the department’s single largest expenditure, and it doled out millions of dollars each year to private contractors to carry the mail in rural areas. This private/public marriage came with costs – in the early 1880s, for instance, the department was rocked by corruption scandals when it discovered that rural private contractors had paid kickbacks to department officials in exchange for lavish carrying contracts. How did this uneasy alliance of public and private alter the geography of the network? And how did the department’s need to extend service in the rural West reframe wider debates over monopoly, competition, and the nation’s political economy?

Getting Off The History Elevator

That’s the idea, at least. Rather than delve into even greater detail on historiography or sources, I’ll skip to a topic probably more relevant for readers who aren’t U.S. historians: methodology. Digital tools will be the primary way in which I explore the themes outlined above. Most obviously, I’m going to map the postal network. This entails creating a spatial database of post offices, routes, and timetables. Unsurprisingly, that process will be incredibly labor intensive: scanning and georeferencing postal route maps, or transcribing handwritten microfilmed records into a database of thousands of geocoded offices. But once I’ve constructed the database, there are any number of ways to interrogate it.

To demonstrate, I’ll start with lower-hanging fruit. The Postmaster General issues an annual report providing (among other information) data on how many offices were established and discontinued in each state. These numbers are fairly straightforward to put into a table and throw onto a map. Doing so provides a top-down view of the system from the perspective of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. For instance, by looking at the number of post offices discontinued each year it’s possible to see the wrenching reverberations of the Civil War as the postal system struggled to reintegrate southern states into its network in 1867:

Post Offices Discontinued By State, 1867
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1867)

The West, meanwhile, was arguably the system’s most unstable region. As measured by the percentage of its total offices that were either established or discontinued each year, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana were continually building and dismantling new nodes in the network.

Post Offices Established or Discontinued as a Percentage of Total Post Offices in State, 1882
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1882)

Of course, the broad brush strokes of national, year-by-year data only provide a generalized snapshot of the system. I plan on drilling down to far more detail  by charting where and when specific post offices were established and discontinued. This will provide a much more fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) view of how the system evolved. Geographer Derek Watkins has employed exactly this approach:

Screenshot from Derek Watkins, “Posted: U.S. Growth Visualized Through Post Offices” (25 September 2011)

Derek’s map demonstrates the power of data visualization: it is compelling, interactive, and conveys an enormous amount of information far more effectively than text alone. Unfortunately, it also relies on an incomplete dataset. Derek scraped the USPS Postmaster Finder, which the USPS built as a tool for genealogists to look up postmaster ancestors. The USPS historian adds to it on an ad-hoc basis depending on specific requests by genealogists. In a conversation with me, she estimated that it encompasses only 10-15% of post offices, and there is no record of what has been completed and what remains to be done. Derek has, however, created a robust data visualization infrastructure. In a wonderful demonstration of generosity, he has sent me the code behind the visualization. Rather than spending hours duplicating Derek’s design work, I’ll be able to plug my own, more complete, post office data into a beautiful existing interface.

Derek’s generosity brings me back to my ongoing personal commitment to scholarly sharing. I plan on making the dissertation process as open as possible from start to finish. Specifically, the data and information I collect has broad potential for applications beyond my own project. As the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure, the postal system provides rich geographic context for any number of other historical inquiries. Cameron Ormsby, a researcher in Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, has already used post office data I collected as a proxy for measuring community development in order to analyze the impact of land speculation and railroad construction in Fresno and Tulare counties.

To kick things off, I’ve posted the state-level data I referenced above on my website as a series of CSV files. I also used Tableau Public to generate a quick-and-dirty way for people to interact with and explore the data in map form. This is an initial step in sharing data and I hope to refine the process as I go. Similarly, I plan on occasionally blogging about the project as it develops. Rather than narrowly focusing on the history of the U.S. Post, my goal (at least for now) is to use my topic as a launchpad to write about broader themes: research and writing advice, discussions of digital methodology, or data and visualization releases.

*By far the most common response I’ve received so far: “Like the Pony Express?” Interestingly, the Pony Express was a temporary experiment that only existed for about eighteen months in 1860-1861. In terms of mail carried, cost, and time in existence, it was a tiny blip within the postal department’s operations. Yet it has come to occupy a lofty position in America’s historical memory and encapsulates a remarkable number of the contradictions and mythologies of the West.

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.

A Term In Review

Yesterday I handed in my final papers to officially conclude my first academic quarter at Stanford. With that in mind, here are my initial thoughts on being a graduate student:

1. I read a lot.

I’ve never read this much in my life, and it took me most of the quarter to learn how to sit down and read books for hours and hours every day.

Given that this was my first term and that I was only enrolled in two reading-intensive courses, I’m a tiny bit terrified of what the future (cough, studying for orals) holds. Reading for so many hours has sadly all but demolished any inclination towards pleasure reading. On the flip side, I’ve gained a new appreciation for Hulu.

2. I’ve met amazing people.

It took me a little while to get used to the fact that I was surrounded by ridiculously intelligent people, including a classmate with his own Wikipedia page and an advisor who won a Macarthur Genius Award and who’s also way cooler than I am. All thirteen of my fellow cohort members are incredibly bright, inquisitive, and quite inspiring to think of as future colleagues. Everyone I’ve met outside of the history department has been just as impressive. Meanwhile, I have a blog that I struggle to update more than once a month.

3. I still don’t know what I want to study.

This is going to be a recurring problem. The downside to having a focus on digital methodology is that I have yet to figure out what I actually want to use that methodology to study. I don’t like the idea of confining myself to a narrow thematic topic, but it’s a step I’ll have to take eventually (one I plan on putting off for as long as possible). In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep answering the questions of “American history? Anything more specific?” with “Um, no. Not yet.”

4. I made the right decision.

Stanford has been a phenomenal fit so far. The best example I can give is that I had the opportunity to take a non-history course titled Literary Studies and the Digital Library taught by Matt Jockers. It was a seminar class in the English department, and included undergraduates, graduate students, and a fairly broad sample of various disciplines. The course centered around designing a digital text mining project to examine over one thousand American and British works from the nineteenth century, culminating in a three-paper proposal to the Digital Humanities 2010 conference in London (fingers crossed). Matt has since extended the course into the next quarter to let us continue to work on the project.

I could not have been happier with the course, and it embodies many of what I consider to be the core tenets of the digital humanities: hands-on technical problem-solving, interdisciplinarity, and intensive collaboration. I have almost no background in English – during class discussion I at one point googled “buildings romane,” which a helpful classmate had to correct to “Bildungsroman.” Despite this, or maybe because of this, I learned not only about cool things like epistolary novels and the rise of serialization, but also the differences in how literary critics and historians approach questions and problems. This interdisciplinary experience will serve me well in the future.

At the end of the day, I feel incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to be doing something that I love. As one of my classmates said to me over lunch, “Isn’t it absurd that we’re somehow getting paid to be here?” Not yet jaded from TA’ing, orals, dissertation writing, or the job market, I could not agree more.

Playing Well With Others

One of the sharper distinctions between the digital humanities and traditional scholars is an acceptance and emphasis on collaboration. Lisa Spiro has written several convincing posts that detail how scholars in the digital humanities are far more likely to work together and co-author essays, along with some examples of collaborative projects. At the NEH’s Office for Digital Humanities, the first requirement for applying to a grant for a fellowship at a Digital Humanities Center is to: “support innovative collaboration on outstanding digital research projects.” Meanwhile, many disciplines within the humanities cling to the notion of the individual scholar. Cathy Davidson of HASTAC tells the story of job-seeking and being told that collaborative work didn’t “count” as legitimate scholarship: “I felt like Hester Prynne wearing her Scarlet A . . . for Adulterous Authorship.” The academy remains enamored with putting a single face and a single name to research; the vast majority of the annual prizes given by the AHA are presented to individual historians for individual work.

The reasons for this distinction are easy to understand. Most digital humanities initiatives are inherently multidisciplinary. There are those among us lucky or hard-working enough to possess both “soft” humanistic talent and “hard” technical skills, but for the majority of us it is much more efficient and effective to split the workload of multiple, and often very different, approaches between more than one person. Why spend six months trying to master the intricacies of MySQL when you can team up with a colleague who already knows how to implement it? Teaming up with other people across disciplines is a form of self-preservation that saves everyone time and energy.

Another reason for the distinction often stems from the basic nature of the projects – many digital humanists have focused on building tools, online collections, and interactive media. Whereas as most academic monographs are aimed at an audience of fellow academics, these projects are inherently designed with a broader public in mind. With that overarching goal, collaboration during the production phase becomes an almost instinctive (and necessary) pursuit. Similarly, scholarly specialization leads to (often) intense intellectual turf wars. If you are struggling to make your academic mark on a very specific focus within a very specific sub-field, other people working on that same field can often seem more like a threat than a resource. These jealously guarded barriers are less prevalent within the digital humanities community, given its emphasis on greater transparency and a broader scope of study.

This is not to say that traditional humanists are allergic to collaboration. Established (read: tenured) professors are often much more willing to edit volumes, co-author essays, and work together on research projects. When you are a successful author and Harvard historian like Jill Lepore, you can afford to take a chance and co-write a work of historical fiction. An associate professor at a small state school struggling to get tenure? Not so much. Younger scholars are still plagued by the never-ending issue of digital scholarship not “counting” as a valid accomplishment.

Most graduate (particularly Ph.D) programs in the humanities simply do not train their students to play well (or at all) with others. Writing a dissertation is still viewed as an infamously lonesome pursuit. Doing so establishes your credentials as an individual scholar capable of producing original work. Unfortunately, this not only reinforces the conception that anything other than individual research is somehow less valued, but it also does a terrible job of preparing students to do any kind of future collaborative work. Learning how to take notes in an archive or write manuscript chapters are critical skills, but so is learning how to delegate tasks to research partners or co-author a grant proposal.

There is no reason why the traditional humanities cannot begin to embrace scholarly collaboration. Even for those with no interest in digital initiatives, increased collaboration creates a ripple effect. There are the obvious benefits: different perspectives add richness and depth to studies, a division of labor and specialization can lead to greater efficiency, and more collaborators often facilitates future connections across otherwise-insular academic networks. Almost every scholar has the story of a single conversation, comment, or idea from a colleague, friend, or family member sparking a revelation or major advancement in their work. Official collaboration only magnifies this effect, and the academy as a whole would benefit.

Collaboration is not a cure-all, and it presents its own set of quite-formidable challenges. As every high-schooler working on a group project or cubicle-dweller sitting in a meeting can tell you, working with other people can often be a frustrating experience. How do you divide up responsibilities, reconcile different opinions, share both criticism and credit? A professor of literature sitting across the table from a computer scientist will probably have a lot of trouble communicating effectively with each other. All of these issues have the potential to be even sharper inside the humanities, where most scholars have been given little to no official instruction or practical experience in how to work together. Nevertheless, the potential for concerted collaboration to spur on academic discovery within the humanities is simply too high to ignore.

Separating from the Pack

Almost two years ago, I made the decision to go to graduate school. At the time I was basking in what could only be called a history nerd’s dream summer break, spending my workdays as an intern at the New-York Historical Society‘s public programs department doing background research on professors and authors we could invite to give talks. While learning about traditional history occupied my days, learning about digital history began to occupy my evenings (at least when I wasn’t occupied with being a 21 year-old enjoying NYC). I had used GIS extensively the previous summer through a research project and had caught passing glimpses of the broader digital history universe, but I hadn’t fully explored it as a possibility for future study or (gasp) a future career. By the end of the summer, I had realized with a crystal-eyed clarity that digital history is what I wanted to “do” – in the airplane conversation sense of, “So, what do you do?”

By the time I began the actual application process, things had become even clearer, but certainly not easier. I loved history – I loved reading it, researching it, writing it, speaking it, teaching it. The idea that I could potentially spend my life doing these things made me embarrassingly giddy. At the same time, I was endlessly fascinated by the potential that lay in digital scholarship as an exciting frontier with seemingly limitless possibilities. When I sat down to my computer to start looking at schools, I began to feel the intense tug-of-war between these two impulses that would become a constant throughout the next nine months.

On the one side of the spectrum lay the traditional academic program, ivy-wrapped in prestige and brimming with names that fly off the jackets of some of my favorite books. On the other side lay the digital history program, sleekly packaged in technology and humming with voices that build the blogs and websites I trawl. On the one side, my college professors and the academic job market counseling me to apply to the very best schools I could. On the other side, my own geeky impulses were urging me to take a chance and apply somewhere new and different and exciting. I did my best to split the difference, and in the end, I was lucky enough to be accepted to a school with a fantastic combination of these two sides.

My experience led me to the conclusion that just as digital methodology is shifting the scholarly landscape of historical study, it is also altering the competitive landscape of the field. Schools are rapidly carving out digital niches for themselves, and this will prove increasingly attractive to successive waves of graduate applicants and job candidates. Most of these individuals will be reliant on accessing databases and articles online, many will be familiar with new forms of media and technology, and some will be interested in areas of visual design, data mining, or spatial analysis. However, if any of them were to ask their advisor or mentor for suggestions on programs that are strong in digital history, they’d likely hear a one-name (if any) reply: George Mason. Most advisors wouldn’t be able to point towards Nebraska-Lincoln or University of Virginia as digital history strongholds, the same way they would be able to point towards Duke and North Carolina for their strength in African-American history.

This will change. At first glance, the general structure will remain the same. “Top-tier” schools aren’t likely to start hemorrhaging applicants to less-established programs immediately. Innovative schools like UNL will continue to fight the persistent prestige-and-name-recognition battle. Nonetheless, subtler transformations will occur. Even five years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a school like George Mason (whose doctoral program has only been in existence for eight years) would be able to compete on an even footing for history applicants with a school like Stanford. Now, their success in establishing themselves as the dominant industry leader gives them an unparalleled advantage for anyone interested in digital history.

Even for schools on traditionally similar footing, an established track record of integrating new media can easily tip the scales in their favor. Much like special collections and on-campus archives, showing off a sparkling digital infrastructure will emerge as a “sexy” way to pull in both applicants and candidates. Wealthier schools may begin to invest in humanities computing centers and new kinds of software, even if for the simple goal of keeping pace with their competitors. The day is not far off when the mainstream academic history-verse buzzes with the news that an ivy-league school has “poached” a leading history professor in media and technology. Grant proposals for more applicable digital initiatives will cut out bigger slices from an expanding NEH pie.

The schools that will truly separate themselves from the pack, however, will be the ones that demonstrate their support for digital scholarship on an ideological level.  Those programs that establish a sustained committment to encourage, guide, and reward the members of their department (both faculty and students) for digital methodological inquiry will be the ones that will emerge in the best position to attract and train historians eager to tackle the technological opportunities inherent in today’s world.

History-ing Turns West

Today I officially accepted an admissions offer from Stanford University’s history graduate program.

The decision was not an easy one, and for that I’m grateful. I had the extraordinary luck to be able to choose from several schools’ offers, all of which presented their own distinctive strengths and arguments for attending. Over the past several weeks I have often been almost embarrassed at being in such a fortunate position, of having the distinctive luxury of comparing a range of criteria such as programmatic fit, faculty involvement, geographic location, and financial support. Throughout the decision process, I was continually impressed at the generosity of professors and graduate students to reach out to an admitted student and happily answer all of my questions.

In the end, my decision to attend Stanford rested on a number of factors. I had been drawn since the beginning of the application process to the school’s strong involvement in digital history and humanities. Within the history department, efforts at the Spatial History Lab appealed to my background in and enthusiasm for historical GIS. That, in combination with a strong interest in the history of the American west, led me to apply to work primarily under Richard White. Stanford’s history program also posed a phenomenal fit in combining the strengths of both traditional historical training and a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches. The school holds tremendous appeal beyond its academics. I have family in the Bay Area (including my big sister), and California’s allure of sunshine, palm trees, and my all-time favorite mountain range proved intoxicating. Visiting the campus at the end of last week finally confirmed my decision, neatly summarized during a Q&A session with current graduate students when one of them said quite seriously, “I think the best thing about this place is that I am just really, really happy here.” An immediate and genuine chorus of agreement drove home that simple, but altogether critical point.

Finally, I can’t resist offering up some visual (and superficial) support for the “non-academic” side of the decision. I took both of these photographs out the windows of two university’s libraries while visiting schools last week to demonstrate the difference between New England and California:



After a deep breath, I eventually clicked “send” on an email that effectively decided my future. And as the email disappeared, questions large and small immediately took its place:

Have I made the right decision?

I think so.

Am I prepared to attend a university whose mascot is a color and/or a tree?

Sadly, yes – my undergraduate mascot was a sagehen.

Am I ready for the perils of graduate school?

As ready as I’ll ever be.

Alongside these questions lurked a strange feeling, brought about by the surreal knowledge that I had just decided what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be living for the next half-decade. That feeling gradually gave way to one of deep gratitude. In the midst of staggering financial uncertainty and upheaval, I’ve been handed the tremendous opportunity to live out my dream of becoming a historian – an opportunity at once humbling, daunting, and overwhelmingly exciting.

Many, many thanks to the legion of professors, classmates, mentors, friends, and family members who helped make this dream into a reality.

California, here I come.

Rambling Admissions

Over the past three weeks or so, I’ve received a trickle of graduate school rejections and, thankfully, acceptances. Once the initial euphoria of that first acceptance wore off, the sheer strangeness of the entire process began to sink in. Applicants spend months and months working, researching, and worrying. There are the inane hoops to jump through – mountains of paperwork, re-answering the same application questions, altering document formats for different schools, and my personal favorite hoop of inanity: the GRE’s. They spend hours and hours drafting emails to potential advisors, delicately harassing their recommenders to get their letters turned in, and editing and proofreading countless personal statements or writing samples. And the entire time, they are constantly reminded of the similarities between graduate school admissions and rolling dice at a craps table in Vegas. If that weren’t enough, the most common advice an applicant usually receives about getting a PhD in history is: don’t. Unless you enjoy being unemployed.

By the end of January, the last of the applications are submitted, and applicants are left to wait. There are no other forms left to fill out, boxes to check, or essays to upload. For a day or two, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It took me a solid week before I could watch a football game without feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on applications. This is the stage of admissions purgatory, with applicants wishing they could be a fly on the wall of a graduate admissions committee meeting. I’m sure the process varies from school to school, but I’ve always wondered just how random it is – how much depends on the order in which your application is read? Whether or not someone spilled coffee on your writing sample? Did a committee member used to date someone who graduated from your school? And would that be a good or a bad thing? These are some of the questions that skitter through your mind while sitting in admissions purgatory.

With any luck, purgatory is lifted with a magical acceptance note. With any greater luck, more than one arrives. And like flipping a switch, the lowly graduate applicant is suddenly the valued commodity. Once you finally get past “I am pleased to inform you…” you suddenly feel that switch flipped. It is liberating, joyous, and utterly surreal – to go from the position of seller, peddling yourself to various schools, to the position of buyer, as schools offer you their wares. All of that hard work, from those hours of studying in the library during college right up until you clicked SUBMIT on the last application, has finally paid off. I’m sure the stress will come later: of making a (the right) decision, of weighing financial support and programmatic or geographical fit, of accepting the reality that you are truly committed to spending the next 5-7 years  at one school laboring to obtain an elusive degree that you will uselessly cling to like a life preserver as you tumble into the deep end of an over-saturated job market.

But for now? I’m just enjoying the ride.

[As a less rambling coda, I would point anyone else in my position to Jeremy Young‘s extremely helpful post at Progressive Historians, “So You’ve Gotten Into Grad School. What Do You Do Now?” ]


Warning: This post is a blatant attempt to justify the imminent decline in my postings over the next month and a half.

I am now officially in the thick of the graduate school application process. Some observations:

– While not as stressful, per se, as I thought it was going to be, the busywork involved is much, much more time-consuming. As a digital enthusiast, I’m all for online applications. However, even with using the Quicksilver clipboard to copy and paste common fields, if I have to enter “Pomona College” and “History” into one more text box I’m going to lose it. Cough, need for a common app, cough.

– Many thanks to Jeremy Young for offering up his kind advice for graduate school, and then going ahead and writing a lengthy and quite comprehensive posting at Progressive Historians on the process of applying to graduate schools in history. For a similar, albeit dated, post, see John King and Andrew McMichael’s article at AHA.

– The more and more time I spend dealing with the GRE (test date: October 30th), the more and more I loathe the test and everything it stands for. It costs $140 for the very privilege of taking the test. From there, ETS will send your scores to the first four schools absolutely free (doesn’t this sound like an infomercial?), and at the low, low cost of only $20 a school after that. In all, I’ll be paying a little less than $300 to this company in order to show schools that I remember have no idea what cosine is, know the meaning of recognize the word “consanguinity,” and can write a coherent series of sentences so that a machine grader can read it. I’m not kidding, they have a machine analyze your writing section and compare it to a human grader to maintain fairness. Which is actually kind of cool, I’d love to see the algorithms behind it…

– Finally, since this is quite evidently not a serious posting, The Onion’s Historical Archive last week was amazing.

In conclusion, I will be in blogging semi-hibernation for the near future due to writing personal statements, remembering what cosine is, and anxiously following the most historically monumental presidential election of my young lifetime.