Writing to Re-Learn to Write

I’ve finished revising my book manuscript, Building the Ivory Tower. It was a long time in coming and, for the last several months, it was just revising. I had a copyeditor go over the whole thing, then read the whole manuscript aloud and made prose edits, then went over the footnotes with a research assistant, then did captions for images. It was all pretty much fixing and tweaking, no real creativity or new writing. Now that it is turned in, I am back in the archives, and looking at a more or less blank page or screen. How to build a new project up? I’ll have to remember — and I’m returning to my blog, which hasn’t seen an update in 2 years, to aid in that process. Stay tuned to this space.

Re-Time Shifting and the Single Parent

A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.

My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.

What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.

This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.

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.

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]

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

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.

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.

Modest Living

As part of my book research I’m looking at the 1930 U.S. census for Austin, Texas. Since a local public library has an institutional subscription, I can look at digitized pages through Footnote/Fold3, a genealogy research service.

I stumbled across a member of the UT administration, Ivan Moore, who was Dean of Men, living near campus. To my surprise, he was renting a unit for 50 dollars a month, a very typical rent in this area (which inflates to about 678 dollars according to the BLS inflation calculator). He supported a wife and three children here, about where the Student Services Building now is, kitty corner from the Littlefield Dormitory.

This was assuredly before the major expansion of the university and its grounds, paid for by the 1923 oil field strikes, but I’m quite struck by how modestly this dean was living. I could not possibly imagine a dean renting such an average apartment these days. [As a note, there is hardly any indication of any qualifications that would make him appropriate for the Classics Department, but I guess even in those days administrators wanted — and got — a safety net. I wonder if Battle had something to do with it.]

UPDATE: I’ve also found 2 other deans living in this neighborhood, renting their apartments for 45 to 50 dollars a month, including the dean of the law school.

Victor Moore’s UT memorial announcement after the jump:
Continue reading