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.

Great Depression Higher Education Enrollment

Something just clicked for me in a new way. I have been saying in my book, Building the Ivory Tower, that the economic collapse of the Great Depression prompted a crisis for higher education, as well. This is not a revolutionary idea, indeed it’s well accepted. However, in making this claim I wanted to illustrate the changes with some hard data. Turning to one of my favorite quantitative sources, the Historical Statistics of the United States, 1 I put together the following chart:

Ignore the scale on the x-axis. Data is spotty the earlier you go, but in the relevant period, post-1919, the data is for every 2 years.

You can see that there was declining growth in enrollment from 1929 to 1931 and then a pretty significant drop from 1931 to 1933. The numbers go from 1,101k in 1929 to 1,154k in 1931, then to 1,055k in 1933. That’s about a 9 percent drop from 1931 to 1933 — and that’s a crisis, as any admissions director could tell you. But we have to think like the administrators of the time, who were looking at average yearly growth of 50k per year from 1919 (598k) to 1929 (1,101k). With a decade-long trend like that, administrators must have been expecting a continuing trend of growth, much as stock watchers and general business enthusiasts were predicting in the period. So to go from 50k growth per year to 50k drop per year in the course of a couple years must have been gut-wrenching.

It means that not only was there the absolute decline from 1931 to 1933, there was the enrollment gap, much like the output gap we see economists looking at in recessions. This would be the difference between actual student enrollment compared to what had been going on (and expected) over the course of the last decade. Projecting 50.3k growth from 1929 to 1933 — just continuing the average yearly growth of the preceding decade — would have yielded 1,302k students in 1933. And the real numbers, 1055k in 1933, are more than 18% below trend — the enrollment and institutions the administrators would have thought they were going to have in 1933. And that’s an even bigger crisis than I realized.

The story isn’t all bad — you can see in the above chart that higher education eventually did nearly make up the gap over the course of the 1930s, reaching enrollment of 1,494k in 1939 (vs projected 1,604k, or 6.7% below trend).

And then there was World War II.

  1. Data comes from Table Bc523 of the HSUS.

FHA Underwriting Manual

This summer I was reading Louis Hyman’s Debtor Nation when I came across a surprising reference to the FHA Underwriting Manual developed in the 1930s advising mortgage lenders that college campuses were an excellent buffer for good neighborhoods against infiltration by lower class and racially diverse residents, so the presence nearby was a good factor in the security rating system (the “redlining” maps). I had never thought to look at the Underwriting Manual and so immediately tried to find one on the web. Being that it was a government-produced document I was also surprised to find that it was difficult to find one on the web. Google Books has only digitized a 1958 version of the manual and will only make it available in their Snippet View. This was aggravating. I went to HathiTrust and found a scanned document there I could look at, but it was in terrible shape.

This spurred me to action. I have always been very happy to find an easily accessible text/HTML version of the Port Huron Statement right here for the last 10 years or so, and I figured the historians of the world could use the same for the underwriting manual. As an assignment in my undergrad Digital History course I had students clean up the OCR’ed pdfs of the manual, then use an HTML editor to make the Web version look more or less like the book, but without the artifacts of the printed book, like page headers or forced text wrap.

Feel free to read or link or download the April 1936 version of the underwriting manual here.

An increasing number of historians are creating or accumulating digital archives and sources as part of their research. I think it’s incumbent on us to put all the stuff we can out on the web — the public domain stuff is a no-brainer and I think a good bit can be shared under fair use (e.g. with some interpretation). You don’t have to make a wiz-bang site to make materials available (though I recommend just about everyone develop their own professional/personal site). Maybe just a simple Omeka installation can do the trick.

Historian’s Road Trip

This summer my family took a road trip out to the western Chicago suburbs to support some research I have been doing on the creation of Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne was located near Lemont along the Illinois and Michigan Canal because it offered large space for development and was proximate to Chicago by car owing to U.S. 66 nearby.

My interest was in getting a sense of this area when Argonne was being scouted and opened, and what the towns were like — particularly Lemont, Naperville, and Downers Grove. I decided we would take the Illinois WPA guide, produced only about a decade before the site selection, to help us understand what was there and appreciate what had grown. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of growth, befitting communities described by historian Michael Ebner as “boom burgs.”

DOWNERS GROVE, 11.2 m (717 alt., 8,977 pop.), incorporated in 1873, was named for its founder, Pierce Downer, who emigrated from Rutland, Vermont, in 1832. He settled at the intersection of two Potawatomi trails, between what are now Oakwood and Linscott Avenues, and Grant and Lincoln Streets. The exact site is marked by the DOWNER MONUMENT, which consists of a bronze tablet imbedded in a granite boulder from the foundation of Downer’s barn.

Maple Avenue today

Downers Grove, a commuting suburb, has quiet shaded streets; Maple Avenue (47th St.) is bordered with century-old maples planted by settlers in hope of obtaining a sugar supply. The necessity for the local production of sugar had been overcome by the time the trees matured, and they were never tapped.

The Avery Coonley Experimental School

The AVERY COONLEY EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL (visiting by appointment), 1400 Maple St., is nationally known among educators. Opened in 1911 with two free kindergartens, it now includes the elementary grades. Teaching methods are based on the theory outlined in Education Moves Ahead, by Eugene Randolph Smith, president of the Progressive Education Association.

The highway skirts the northern limited of NAPERVILLE 18.7 m (693 alt., 5,118 pop.). Shortly after the first settlers immigrated her in 1831 the Black Hawk War forced them to flee to Fort Dearborn. Returning with a company of volunteers, they built a stockade known as Fort Payne in June 1832. The settlement profited from the caravans of covered wagons rolling west from Fort Dearborn, and by 1833 its population numbered 180.

The first settler in Du Page County was Bailey Hobson, who staked his claim in 1830, returned the following year, and established a grist mill. In 1832 came Joseph Naper, who built the first saw mill and platted the town site. Naperville became county seat in 1839, a distinction it retained until 1868 when Wheaton ended a long legal dispute by forcibly removing the records.

Reconstruction of Pre-Emption House

The most famous of the old buildings in Naperville is the PREEMPTION HOUSE, northeast corner S. Main St. and Chicago Ave., a two-story frame structure of Greek Revival design built in 1834. For years it was the most renowned tavern in the region; it is now occupied by a saloon.

Former site of the Robert N. Murray House

Other buildings of Naperville’s early years are…the ROBERT N. MURRAY HOUSE (private), 215 N. Main St., a one-story frame structure with an excellent doorway of Greek Revival design…

Site of the old Bailey Hobson Town House

The richest historically of Naperville’s old houses is the BAILEY HOBSON TOWN HOUSE (private, except to teachers and students of history), 506 S. Washington St. Built in the 1840’s, the two-story frame structure, houses a large library and a wealth of early records and pioneer furnishings.

Old Main at North Central

NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE, School Ave. and Brainard St., a co-educational institution maintained by the Evangelical Church, was founded at Plainfield in 1861. In 1870 the college was moved to Naperville, occupying the north and central sections of OLD MAIN, a limestone structure of Italian Gothic design. The average enrollment of the college is 500.

Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing in Naperville

The KROEHLER COMPANY MAIN PLANT (tours arranged by application in advance), between Ellsworth and Loomis Sts., was established here as the Naperville Lounge Factory and is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of upholstered furniture. [From Tour 13]

Downtown Lemont, IL

LEMONT, 26.9 m (605 alt., 2,582 pop.), an old towpath town, raises its hill-crowned head amount the trees. [From Tour 22]

The Power Elite

A brief foray into the collections of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library brought two minor surprises today, both from his pre-presidential papers.

While he was a senator, Kennedy was a member of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, which included responsibility for federal housing legislation. In my JPH article on the University of Chicago, I argue that Julian Levi coordinated the lobbying effort for the Section 112 credits program, created with the Housing Act of 1959, and he and Lawrence Kimpton led the heads of AAU institutions in working on members of the Senate committee. Prescott Bush was from Yale, John Kennedy went to Harvard, Joseph Clark went to Harvard (and Penn for law), Paul Douglas had been a UChicago professor and gotten his PhD from Columbia, so there was a good deal of affinity between the universities and the committee. I differed with Margaret O’Mara in Cities of Knowledge, who gave credit to Joseph Clark (a former Philly mayor), though he was certainly involved in the effort to pass the provision and legislation.

Today I was making a quick assessment of some of the Kennedy files on Harvard and realized that not only was he an alumnus, but that he was a member of the Board of Overseers, the governing body for the institution. (See these materials from the Board of Overseers dinner at the White House in 1963, when Kennedy rotated off the board). So it would not simply have been a love for his alma mater, but Kennedy also had a duty to protect and promote the interests of Harvard as a governing member of the institution. So this was new information to me. Lo and behold, Joseph Clark, Jr., was also a member of the Board of Overseers. As was David Rockefeller, a longtime supporter of the University of Chicago (as a member of the Rockefeller family, he carried on the family’s continuing relationship with the institution) and urban renewal advocate for Columbia University (as head of Morningside Heights, Inc.) Rockefeller, you’ll see in the linked Kennedy documents, was seated next to the President at the White House dinner.

In some sense, I had reckoned with the possibility in which a body constituted for a certain purpose could serve another — for example, how the Senate Committee might serve the interests of higher education institutions because of individuals’ loyalty to their alma mater. And by that, I don’t mean a simple “boola boola” kind of loyalty, but a commitment to the ideals and goals of higher education, as individuals who had benefited from them. However, I had not really grappled with the possibility that a body like Harvard’s Board of Overseers could, it seems, serve as a gathering place for one purpose and a meeting ground for sympathetic individuals to discuss some measures from a quite different institution — that Clark or Kennedy or Rockefeller might be talking about the Housing Bill before a Board of Overseers meeting or be highly inclined to support it because of the web of interlocking commitments that policy elites had, but it makes sense and I think speaks to the hegemony of American elites at mid-century and higher education institutions’ roles in creating and recreating that hegemony.

Second interesting tidbit: Kennedy was on the Astronomy committee of the Board of Overseers. This makes almost obvious sense, but staffers at the LBJ library have claimed NASA and a great deal of credit for space development and exploration for Johnson — eg, why Mission Control is in Houston. Perhaps a longer Kennedy trip is in the offing.

The Kennedy library, by the way, has a great reading room, a really helpful staff, and seems like a great place to do research, even though it’s a bit difficult to get out to.

Using a Wiki to Keep Notes

Murph, a friend of mine from graduate school, used to take notes on a wiki on his personal site, Common Monkeyflower. I was damned impressed and tried to implement a wiki on the cheap for a few years, to no avail. I probably should have just used one of the Scratchpad ones, but I wanted it all on my UMich IFS space (not possible), or on my own domain (took some service upgrades). I was reminded recently how useful this really is and could have been if I had implemented it sooner. After a long hiatus on my University of Chicago archival research, I had to plumb the depths of my memory to recall the changing cast of administrators and their eras in understanding the relationship between the faculty, university housing and real estate policy, urban renewal activities, and the broader Chicago milieu. Not an easy task — who was Warner Wick, for example? (Dean of Students in the early 1960s).

So I have started using my wiki to keep notes on the figures that I read about in the archives and making links between them in the wiki pages. In some ways this simply performs the same function as taking copious handwritten notes — physical action reinscribing the information in order to mentally sort and remember it better. But since so much of the research process is going digital, it makes sense to take this process digital, too. Now, I can access it almost anywhere I want, can make it publicly visible, and don’t have to be encumbered by notebooks, along with the ability to link one piece of information to another.

In some cases I still do take handwritten notes (in meetings, for example), but I have also started using the wiki for taking notes on books I am reading.

NOTE on nuts and bolts: I have hosting and domain registration through IPOWER, which started out somewhat affordable, but which I might move sometime in the near future. 1 database and 1 domain is about 70 dollars a year. Now I have upgraded to 6 databases and that runs about another $60 a year. I’d recommend using DreamHost, which offers unlimited databases and domain registration for about 80 dollars a year. I use the MediaWiki software, which requires php5 on the back end, and which has become the standard the last few years.

Grad School Admissions

I sit on the graduate studies committee in the History Department at Virginia Tech and we went through graduate admissions recently.

Based on that experience, I offer some advice for students applying to this kind of program, a mid-level MA at a fairly robust university:

Test Scores: There are a variety of attitudes about GREs. For many, GREs are of high importance since they are the only equivalent measure among students and disciplines. However, they are clearly problematic and in no way objective measures of ability or potential. For the most part, GREs are a kind of gateway or early filter for the application pile — your GREs have to meet a certain baseline number, but it is unlikely that it will get you in or be a decisive factor.

Personal/Research Statement: This is not a personal or autobiographical statement, whatever it is called. Grad admissions committees don’t particularly care about your personal story — that’s something undergrad admissions people look for. We do not want to hear how you have always loved history. We also do not want to know how you always wanted to become a history professor. The former means you have not been adequately challenged in your undergrad career and you don’t really understand what the intellectual work of a historian is about. The latter means you do not really understand what the job a history professor is about — there are few jobs, they are highly demanding, and things are getting worse.

What do we want to hear about in your statement? Your research interests and an analysis of the topic you want to study. This is more or less a research statement and should be written as such. You might include a few details about how you became interested in the topic (a professor’s course or a study abroad experience), but the point is you have to show that you are already prepared to do the intellectual work required in graduate school. Always be preparing for the next stage. Also, make some reference to members of the faculty you would be interested in working with and why — tell them why that department is the right place for you.

Letters of Recommendation: There is often a tradeoff or sliding scale between the prominence of the letter writers and the detail and amount of positive material they provide about you. A baseline for a strong application — three letter writers who are visiting assistant professors or tenure track professors (ie engaged in a research trajectory), with whom you have taken two classes each (and done well), and with one of whom you worked on an intensive, high-level research project like an undergrad thesis, a significant independent study, or some kind of capstone seminar. These people will have position in the field, a meaningful gauge of your research prospects, and the ability to write well about you. If this is not possible (and for all but honors college students or students at small liberal arts colleges, it is likely not), you will have some decisions to make. It is almost always better to have a letter from a tenure track faculty member than from a graduate student, even a candidate who taught his or her own course. The only exception is if the tt faculty member would write less than a page about you. An adjunct letter writer would not hurt you, for example, if they are a practicing professional at something and you are going into a professional program, like public history or museum studies. Much of this kind of information — what kind of letter-writer is senior professor so-and-so? — is not really available to undergraduates. What to do? Talk to your advisor (and if you don’t have an advisor who is your strong advocate, you might want to reconsider grad school) and ask about the people you are thinking of asking to write for you. Without getting into department politics, your advisor should be able to gently steer you to a good set of letter writers and away from any problem professors.

Writing Sample: You have to illustrate three things: you know how to work with archival or other primary source material; that you have read the relevant literature; and, ideally, that you understand how those works were shaped by intellectual forces and responded or revised the subfield. This paper has to be sharp, and will have to impress quickly, so take as many revisions as necessary. It is not necessary that this paper be the one you got the highest grade on — you may have had a great idea and project that just couldn’t come together and flopped, but it still has that top-side potential if you put a month or two of work into it. If you have an undergrad thesis, one of the chapters would be a good writing sample. Also, make sure you have structured the paper and writing well, so that it can be skimmed and evaluated quickly by the committee. Tighten up the prose and excise rambling digressions.

And good luck!

*Note, this is not advice for those applying to PhD programs. Some of the principles are the same, but in that case the grain is much finer and there is less room for error.

OSU and the PWA

OH 4960 (2)

Recently I have been working on a chapter on Austin, Texas, and the relationship between higher education institutions (eg UT) and the federal government at mid-century. Prompted by this, I have gone back through some of my PWA research from the National Archives (map, images). You might know that New Deal programs were amazingly robust in documenting their own work and operations, in part to be able to issue promotional reports and other documentary materials to justify their continuation in the face of conservative criticism. These are now wonderful sources for historians to draw upon.

In the course of reading one report I found a quite striking project. Ohio Stadium, the famed Horseshoe football stadium at Ohio State University, included dormitories for most of the 20th century. During the Great Depression, a group of students set up cooperative housing with the help of OSU’s dean of men. Later, OSU applied to the PWA for a grant to expand and update the stadium, including the cooperative dormitory. In institutions all around the country, cooperatives sprang up or expanded during the Depression (like the Coops at Michigan, started by a socialist organization), but inclusion within a major public building like a stadium (though football stadia are often underutilized) seems like a quite innovative response.

Research Bits

One of the real joys of being a historian is the beginning of a project. The whole narrative, all of the discoveries stretch out before you, and it is one of pure potential. These past few busy weeks, I’ve had about an hour a week for the life of the mind, but really felt this exhiliration.

I have been poking around in the Virginia Tech Special Collections recently doing some scout work for my classes, especially a class I am focusing on Blacksburg in the 1930s. Recently I came across an extensive collection pertaining to a Roanoke architectural firm, Smithey & Boynton, and today I was looking at some from a Richmond firm, Carneal and Johnston — both of whom designed buildings in Blacksburg and on the VPI (VT) campus. In trying to learn a bit more about the firms I found some other collections as well as some digital materials.

No MA theses, though. The MA thesis is a product that seems to be in decline as programs focus either on seminar papers that could turn into articles or on pushing the dissertation and not worrying about the MA thesis along the way. Not quite the bite size of a seminar paper/article, and not quite big or original enough to create new scholarly frameworks, the MA thesis seems to be the red-headed stepchild of academic products.

It is a work of scholarship I have an increasing appreciation for. In that the intellectual ambitions are typically fairly modest, the scope of theses often really are manageable in size. In addition, since students are not trying to make their career based on it, they don’t often push the boundaries of theory or creativity. Instead, they are often solid exercises in demonstrating mastery over a broad topic and specific ability with a manageable set of sources. Just the kind of thing I’d like to see students do for a firm like Smithey & Boynton or Carneal & Johnston.

I’m in the early stages of a career and won’t have the opportunity to do much with these materials, much as I might like to get to know all about architecture in Virginia. But I got excited thinking about the possibilities of Virginia Tech students doing MA theses on firms like these — it really would be a great set of projects that could be valuable resources for scholars, researchers, and the public in years to come. Just reading the finding aids is not enough background on the firms, the principals, or their buildings. Digital catalogues don’t offer the appropriate context or analysis. Only an actual narrative piece of scholarship can both give the background information and make an argument about the trajectory of the firm over time. And an MA thesis would be just about right for one of these firms or another. So students: think about it.

Carneal & Johnston resources: Digital Library of Virginia (photos)

Carneal & Johnston papers

Smithey & Boynton papers

More Smithey & Boynton papers

Advice for Grad Students

Advice abounds on the internet for how to choose an advisor, how to shape your topic, how to get into a writing rhythm. My advice to you: buy a good set of pots and pans. Spend more than you think is reasonable. Probably double what you think is reasonable. Probably copper. No teflon. If you can only afford one, get a good medium saucepan or medium saute pan with fairly high walls because you will be able to get multiple functions out of that one (sauteeing onions in the saucepan or making some soup in the saute pan, for example). One of the best gifts my wife and I ever got was a set of copper cookware that are still our most important pots and pans 7 years on, clean up super easy, and haven’t suffered a bit.

It is important to get this quality piece or pieces because it will make cooking easier for you, make it more fun for you, make cleaning up easier, and allow you to eat more healthily while you are in grad school. You will often stay late at the office or library and feel like grabbing some junk food on the way home. Or once you get home, you won’t want to go to the trouble of a meal and cleanup, so you’ll think about snacking on junk or ordering pizza. Don’t do it. Put some olive oil in your pan and throw in some fresh ingredients — you’ll be eating better and feeling better soon.