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.

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.

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.

National Building Museum

National Building Museum

This image I took of the Great Hall of the National Building Museum last year was posted on Reddit and got a flood of views, so perhaps its worth a bit of explanation. This building, designed by Montgomery Meigs and based on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, was formerly the federal Pension Office Building* and was constructed as a Civil War memorial. There is a frieze on the exterior wrapping around the whole building depicting the march of men to battle. It is just a gorgeous building in addition to housing a great museum and anyone in DC should take a visit. I had the good fortune to receive the Field Fellowship at the National Building Museum and worked doing research on campus planning and urban renewal in the DC area for part of the spring and summer.

*Former employees’ records were rolled up and wrapped with a piece of red fabric, so when anyone wanted to claim their federal pension, a bureaucrat would have to “cut through the red tape” to help someone make their claim. That red tape is now available for purchase in jewelry form from a National Archives vendor.

People-Powered Digital History

Wista DX II View Camera

A great example of the kind of democratic historical work drawing on knowledgeable amateurs that is increasingly possible with digital tools like wikis and web content management systems — Camera-wiki.org.

An old site, camerapedia (now on wikia), was the go-to place for information, images, manuals and whatnot about old cameras. When the founder sold the website, which relied on the knowledge of a broad community of users, that community declined to follow along and instead reconstituted itself under a new banner. The transitional efforts seem to have invigorated the whole community and enterprise.

What kinds of cameras do you have? I’ve got a Toyo 4×5 view camera, a Burke & James 4×5 [one of the kinds Weegee used], a Mamiya C220, a Zenit 35mm, a Kodak Hawkeye 2A, and a Holga.

Just for fun, here’s a Weegee image — Heatspell, 1938, depicting children sleeping on a fire escape during a New York City heat wave.

Heatspell 1938

The Limitations of Digital History

Earnest digital historian Adam Crymble offers a defense of the recent decision that LAC will replace a student visitation program with digitized documents.

[Image]Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is cutting an on-site World War I workshop intended for high school history classes, and took some heat in the Globe and Mail for the decision (the article, “First World War workshops soon to be history” [Feb. 25, 2010] is behind a pay wall).

The workshops offered Ottawa-area students the opportunity to handle World War I era letters from soldiers and learn about the soldiers’ experiences from LAC archivists who had expert knowledge of the material.

The article paints Canada’s national archives as near-sighted for replacing face-time between students and expert archivists with online PDFs and lesson plans for teachers.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Canadians should be applauding the decision. In the face of a huge Canadian deficit this year, it is important for cultural institutions to justify their spending and look for more efficient ways to offer Canadians their services. LAC has achieved this by placing the learning resources online, making them available to far more students, and reassigning the staff who offered the workshops to other tasks.
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Journalism and the Web

For some reason I missed Whet Moser’s recap and explanation of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall way back in the Febs. But I just read it tonight — maybe you should, too.

My favorite idea that came out of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall–beautiful in its simplicity, and I am ashamed that I cannot recall who said it–was this:

It would be stupid to buy a newspaper. The Trib? The Sun-Times? Hell, the Reader and its fellow papers?

Do the math. If you buy the Creative Loafing chain, you get Rolodexes, a bunch of dated computers, dated software, and a name. Essentially you’re buying a logo, a URL, some archived content, and a giant fucking IOU.

So, sayeth this smart person: it’s much cheaper to let them die and hire the people, who have the knowledge and the contacts and who actually represent the name. (If you want to be all Web 2.0 about it, call the new thing the Rdr or the Twib, though I guess you won’t have to italicize it. We do not put on airs in the glorious future.)

People seem to be coalescing around the realization that journalism will always be with us in some fashion. If you abstract that a bit, it’s obvious — content will always be with us, whatever the medium. People will seek content and likely pay for it. The issue is, since the barriers to journalism and commentary have decreased, the compensation is declining–the local monopoly or oligopoly of newspapers kept revenues and profits high and those are largely out the window, so now the marginal price of a newspaper story or a blog post should approach the marginal cost — whatever it takes to produce one more.

MORE: Carrying out the implications of that, with any luck there will be fewer big-money reporters and commentators but the same (or more) straight middle-class types of positions. But who knows — Exhibit A in the future of newspapers, the Ann Arbor News Ann Arbor.com doesn’t look too good, even though many of the people they hired came from the News. Exhibit B, the Ann Arbor Chronicle, looks better, but the effort Mary Morgan and Dave Askins are putting into it probably means they’re not getting too great a level of monetary compensation if you do the math. You can probably fill in other examples from your community.

Anyway…

Hanging On

Via the Ann Arbor Chronicle comes a reminder about an account of going to college in the Depression, Edmund Love’s Hanging On. I came across this book as I did research on student housing for my masters thesis and Love’s account was an engaging portrait of Ann Arbor and Michigan in the period. As Tobin writes,

Gerald Linderman, now professor emeritus of history, often assigned the book in his popular course in early 20th-century U.S. history. Hanging On carries the story through Love’s prolonged college career at Michigan. “The Great Depression of the 1930s too often comes down to us as a series of statistics,” Linderman says. “We frequently use them to lighten the predicament of our own recession, e.g., ‘Our jobless rate is less than ten percent, theirs much worse at 25 percent.’

There are a few issues with believing Love’s memoir on every count. In probably half a dozen instances he is saved from total disaster by some amazing coincidence or stroke of luck — huge gambling winnings, selling cats to fraternity boys for practical jokes and the like — that come off as exaggerations.

Here’s what I wrote about Love in my thesis:

When Ed Love graduated from Flint Northern High School in 1929, he intended to fulfill his mother’s wish that he earn a degree from the University of Michigan. The onset of the Depression and the myriad compromises and serendipities of life on the edge of poverty diverted him from that path, taking him in and out of college at Michigan until he finally graduated seven years later. By the time Love earned his degree in 1936, he had spent several semesters living in rooming houses and more than half his undergraduate life rooming in his fraternity house, but had never had the opportunity – nor, apparently, the desire – to live on the U-M campus.
[...]
Edmund Love, the student from Flint, arranged his sophomore year to room at the fraternity he had joined. His father was facing financial difficulties and Love sought a “board job” at a sorority that would provide him with meals. His responsibilities were to help prepare and set up meals for the sorority women, enabling him to eat for free before or after meals in lieu of pay. Though rooming at the fraternity increased what Love expected to pay at a rooming house, he opted for fraternity living because the organization allowed its members to carry a balance on their room or board. The social networks of Greek life were an essential safety net for students working their way through college during the Depression.

Love’s fraternity was located at 1443 Washtenaw and the building is now the William Monroe Trotter House.