Blogging SACRPH (and the Academic Life)

This past Saturday I participated in a panel at SACRPH on blogging for academics. It was unfortunately fairly lightly attended, but there was a good discussion especially prompted by the commenter, Anabel Quan-Haase, who studies digital humanities centers and practitioners.

One of the things this panel illustrated for me is that academic (certainly historians’) concerns about blogging have not changed much since 2004 when I started blogging.* The main one is about taking time away from writing for publication. The second one is about putting ideas out that will be swiped by someone else. Both of these have to do with the publish or perish standard we have adopted for tenure and tenure-track positions, as well as tenure-track hopefuls. If there was a third, I would say it was about the issue of feedback and community.

This was very frustrating for me for a number of reasons. It may be that I have a dramatically different experience than many others, but my experience with blogging is that it invigorates my writing. If you want to write, you’ve got to write — in any number of venues. The times that I am too busy to blog are the times that I am too busy to write. And related to this, for historians at least, is the notion that the writing for publication you are doing is so important. It’s not. Work on your book. Your articles are nice, but they don’t make a career or an intellectual legacy. You’ve probably got to get one out to be taken seriously on the job market, and a couple related to each book project would be nice in order to do promote the book and do something with all of the material you get, but really anything beyond that (maybe 3) will probably see diminishing returns. This is of course different for social scientists.

Maybe even more frustrating for me was the idea of the scarcity of time and the implications about the academic lifestyle. I estimated, even in my most intensive publication-writing periods, about an hour a day of ACTUAL WRITING — fingers on the keys and words on the page. Over the course of a seven-day week, I’d say that’s about right. I MIGHT put that up to two hours if I were only looking at weekdays. During the week I am putting in 7-8 hour days,** but there is a lot of reading, searching for articles and books, working with data, scrutinizing maps, photos and other visual material. All of this might be seen as taking away from WRITING, as well, but you of course see that it is what makes the writing possible and high-quality. And I’m on leave. During a teaching semester I also have to make power points, grade papers, read and write about topics for classes, etc., and then there is committee/service work. There is a ton of stuff to do.

But the point is, you CANNOT let that lower priority stuff overtake your top priority. In an academic-publication sense, the top priority should be your book. But that’s not the real top priority. The real top priority is your overall well-being, a happy family/personal life, and enjoyment of your position in an affluent society with a time-flexible profession. I hope anyone who reads this and is considering an academic career holds this top priority. If you don’t, you are going to be miserable and you should not get into the profession. Work will take everything you give it and want more. And then more. And then more. And people will see how much you get done and want you to do MORE! And you cannot let this happen. If you are not taking time for your family and consuming healthy food and getting exercise and enjoying the daylight hours, you would probably be better off in an 8 to 5 job where at least you would be able to leave work at the office.

In an affluent society, people with our skills should use their work to find the highest level of personal fulfillment and well-being possible. Your scholarly productivity should be part of that! I get a lot of fulfillment and enjoyment from my research and I also believe it is and will be beneficial for society. But I’m not going to make myself miserable doing it and neither should you (accepting there will be some hard days). If you’ve got something to say that isn’t right for a journal, blog it! And then go take a walk. And get an ice cream cone. And then come back to the office and work on your new article idea. But God, I would hate to think all of these people with great jobs were making themselves miserable rather than enjoying it and were only thinking about what they HAD to do rather than what they WANTED to do.

As usual, SACRPH (and a conference trip) was invigorating. Quan-Haase’ comments were well structured, in contrast to the fairly loose presentations I and others made, which was a nice counterweight to tie certain threads together. Perhaps more soon.

*As a side note, I remember doing introductions in a grad class with Matt Lassiter where there were a couple Masters of Urban Planning students in addition to the usual PhD students (I was doing both a PhD and MUP and so straddled these worlds). The MUP students all had blogs and talked them up, but I was really ashamed when Brandon Zwagerman mentioned my blog because I was so oriented to the traditional standards and values of PhD programs. Fortunately, Lassiter was quite tolerant, even enthusiastic about the work and potential of bloggers, which is just one of the reasons he was such a great influence.

**The time I can spend on work is limited/enabled by being a single parent. There were periods, especially as a candidate and before my son was born, when I didn’t go outside (or hardly even move) during a 16-hour day and those were effing MISERABLE. So being a single parent is hard and can seem limiting, but it is so much better than being an isolated hermit who dedicates every waking hour to work.

Blacksburg Roots

One of the general reasons I have been slow to return to scholarly productivity is the reordering of my and my son’s lives. Among the most prominent features of this reordering is our moving to Blacksburg permanently, solidified by buying a house.

It’s a great house in a great location, it came up for sale at the right time, and I had the good sense and the means to act. I am considering adding a separate section on the site for house activities, which will be numerous.

Since we moved from Ann Arbor, unfortunately I haven’t really felt rooted in a community. Kate and I were both introverted and hard at work on our research, along with interruptions for travel, so we did not build a network of community friends, and didn’t get involved in community activities. One of my efforts to do so, with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, was rebuffed because we didn’t own a car.

I’d like to remedy that in Blacksburg. I’ve long envied Mark Maynard in both his blogging and his community spirit. The seed bombing of Water Street is just a great idea and I’d love to see what they look like now. (One of the impulses I regret not acting on was the turning of the vacant corner lot in Evanston into a park with the nighttime planting of a couple trees and placement of a bench.) From my current position (traveling, again), participating in a community blogosphere seems like a good start.

Except…there doesn’t seem to be one in Blacksburg. Technorati gives me pretty much nothing. Google searches give me the Roanoke Times The Burgs, the Blacksburg mayor’s moribund blog, but there does seem to be a bit of activity in downtown Blacksburg. Hmmm.

New Year, New Routine

This year I will be commuting to work by plane. I hate flying and feel as though I am taking my life into my hands on every flight. There is only one flight in my whole life I can ever remember really enjoying, and that was the first one on a family trip down to Florida when I was sixteen and flying was still full of wonder (see Louis CK). But it is a necessity for this year as my family undergoes a work transition.

The fear and logistics involved in this commuting pattern actually bode well for my blogging. The flight is fairly short and while I will be able to read, I won’t be able to get much writing done without a sustained period of concentration and boredom. However, I will be looking to distract myself, as I am at this very moment, from the specter of the menacing landscape below. So, blogging.

Blogging the Book Project

It’s the summer of the book manuscript, so I’m going over my existing draft, looking through the primary research I’ve already conducted, reflecting on my existing publications, doing more secondary reading, and planning for new research. In short, I’m knee-deep in research. One of the pities of this kind of work has always been that there’s such a great amount of interesting material that you just can’t include in the book or in other publications like articles. In some cases, details of a report or other kind of document that just gets a brief mention in a footnote.

The web can help deal with this, and I’m taking full advantage by blogging my book project, creating and disseminating my notes digitally as I go through this process. The first installment is my page on the Hyde Park A & B slum clearance projects, which includes some detailing and analysis of a survey of a sample of the displaced residents, as well as illustration of the existing landscape that was cleared, based on some 1925 Sanborn maps. All in all, it’s useful for me and I hope it can be useful for others who are interested in these subjects. If it helps promote my work before the book comes out and in addition to other work like conference presentations and publications, so much the better. I’ll be using the hashtag #bloggingthebookproject.


Just a note about a clever blog concept. You might recall one of the sources of my interest and excitement about new media and the digital era for historians is that it holds the possibility of unlocking great amounts of data and information packed away in analog form in archives. One example from my classes is the crowdsourcing of the digitization of the census of manufactures of 1840 (for now, just for PA).

The New York Times, in one of its wide array of great blogs, has created a “liveblog” of the Civil War, called Disunion. Brad Delong has been running a liveblog of WWII for a while now, but Disunion, drawing in good part on the archives of the New York Times, is a great way to reinvigorate this material and, by using a guiding theme, avoids the typically crappy and decontextualized, “let’s look at what those crazy New Yorkers were talking about 40/80/140 years ago!” Also much better than one of those “Today in History” kind of things.

Today’s entry on February 13th, 1861: Lincoln heading through Ohio on his way to inauguration:

The presidential party rose at 6:15 a.m. and broke its fast at 7. An eight-carriage motorcade (without motors) took them to the depot of the Little Miami Railroad, where they left Cincinnati on schedule at 9 a.m. The New York Times got a close look as he walked past: “His forehead and face are actually seamed with deep-set furrows and wrinkles, such as no man of his years should have.” The reporter worried that this trip was “wearing the life out of him by inches.”

Can’t Let That Go By

An interesting error from Ezra Klein:

An interesting thesis from Ed Glaeser:

Ford, Durant, David Dunbar Buick, the Dodge Brothers, the Fisher Brothers, Henry Leland – it seems as if Detroit once had an automotive genius on every street corner. … But while their great invention made Detroit wildly productive for decades, it also sowed the seeds for the city’s decline. Cities work best when they are filled with smart people and small companies that innovate by exchanging ideas. Huge automobile plants, like Henry Ford’s River Rouge Plant, were highly productive, but they were isolated from the rest of the city.

This is not Ed Glaeser’s thesis. Jane Jacobs, whose work Glaeser knows well, argued this more than 40 years ago in The Economy of Cities.


?????, originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Why is the Department of Justice searching for information on Margie Teall? And why does their inquiry bring them to my blog?

Web Bits

My paternal grandfather has taken to the habit of giving members of his family, at every opportunity, denominations of the money he spent his life saving. He gave my wife and me money for our trip to Europe then, when we went up to the Upper Peninsula to visit and thank him, he gave us some more money. When we made him and my aunt dinner one night during our stay, he gave us yet more money. When my wife left a pair of shorts there, he sent them back with a dollar bill stuffed in each pocket. He seems determined not to take anything with him. I should note that my maternal grandmother, upon her passing, had a strongbox with $50,000 in cash stored under one of the steps of her stairs. The capacity for children of the Depression to save is amazing to me.

Since I had done nothing to earn the money, I thought at least a small part of it could go to some better endeavor than my coffee habit. I gave $20 to Dorothy at Cat and Girl and here you can see the result. This may be the best $20 I ever spent — it resulted not only in the artistic product linked to, but may facilitate even greater cultural production. Or something.


I’ve put Greg Mankiw’s blog on the blogroll. While it’s unfortunately not very in-depth, it does give the occasional glance into the mind of economists, which I appreciate. One econ blog I can’t stand is the pointlessly contrarian, I-did-an-MBA-at-Chicago-and-am-smarter-than-you Assymetrical Information. Mankiw has also done some housing stuff I find interesting. Top econ blogs.


I got on the John Edwards email list a couple months ago, and I’ve decided he is the candidate I am voting for in the Democratic primary. Chicago is nuts about Barack Obama, but I’m not as impressed. I’ve found him too centrist (despite his appropriate opposition to the Iraq War) from the start while Edwards has been closest to my positions on health care (hell yes we’ll have to raise taxes), opposition to the Bush administration, environment, and economic inequity. I’m generally left of the Democratic Party. My sense is that Clinton is the most likely to win the general (I don’t underestimate star power), but Edwards will provide the best opportunity for transformative change. With any luck, major news sources have gotten over the “$400 haircut” crap and might provide something better in the way of candidate coverage.

UPDATE: 4-min Edwards bit from N.H. on health care.