Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blog CLXVI (166): The Historian and Technology

How important is technology in our professional lives? That is one of several questions that my course here at the Naval War College considers, but I have been applying that question from the realm of military and diplomatic history to the contemporary practices of historians. And my answer--not that much.

We essential do the same thing we did a century ago. We collect primary documents, preferably those that were written at the time by the historical actors we are studying, and we put them together in a narrative that becomes a book. The questions we ask about the past these days are the function of social, cultural, political, and intellectual changes in society. Technology has not driven too many of the big systemic changes between 1914 and 2014. To give but one example, African American history is a legitimate issue for investigation these days, whereas few historians of a hundred years ago would have spent much time on this topic. (Case in point, The Journal of Negro History which is now The Journal of African American had not even been founded in 1914).

Don't get me wrong technology has helped and helped in some big ways. Word processing programs make it much easier to write. Easier even then would have been the case in the 1970s when scholars would have been using typewriters or hiring people to type their handwritten manuscripts. E-mail has facilitated communication between scholars--think about what it would take to put together a conference panel in the mid-1980s given the communication technologies of the day and remember long distance phone calls were expensive back then. The photocopier was a huge boon to scholars. Before then research trips required careful note taking and that is a slow process. The photocopier and then later the scanner and digital camera have made it easier for us to copy more information accurately. The internet has helped a lot too. In the 20 years that it has been around (as far as the general public is concerned) a lot of content has been pumped into it. You can now do library catalog searches from the other side of the country and you do not have to methodically go through the card catalog system in the first floor of a library, but can use search terms and find stuff fast. There are now many databases where you can do similar searches and pull up journal articles, or primary sources. I have been using the ProQuest Historical Newspaper Database like crazy for a current project and it has complete runs of newspapers like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for the World War II years that I am investigating. Many archives are putting electronic scans of important collections on their websites, making it possible to do primary research in your office or home.

As important and useful as those tools are to writing and researching, they are just means to an end. We still communicate via the written word primarily in journal articles and books.  Although the publishing industry is having a difficult time in this economy, it is not going away anytime soon.

All of that might seem fairly straight forward, but last month, Emily Van Buren, a Ph.D. student in history at Northwestern University, posted a blog entry on the Gradhacker blog at Inside Higher Ed with an extremely clear title: "Should You Blog Your Dissertation Research?"  She is apparently considering doing so.

My answer: Hell, no!

There are a lot of reasons for my answer, but to be  concise: you do not want to give away your findings and research in a venue that will give you little credit.  Putting all your interesting findings in a blog, will rob the dissertation (and the book that should flow from it later) of its importance and original contribution.  If all findings are available on-line, why should a publisher spend money putting into print?  In addition, the internet is a mighty perishable media format.  I have tried getting articles from various media outlets in which I was mentioned (I still have the exact address) but no luck, they are gone.  Books and dissertations might be old, but they will endure.  There are other reasons not to do, so but let me just say--these new technologies are not that relevant to the historian.

Then again, I might be wrong--a bit.

The Winter 2013-2014 issue of Columbia Magazine has a cover story on Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia University. Connelly believes that a major new tool awaiting historians in the future lies in using computers to analyze and assess massive numbers of documents. Connelly has put together a team of computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians working on a multimedia research project called the Declassification Engine to tackle the failure of the U.S. government to declassify documents in a timely manner.  To be more specific, this team is using data mining to infer what the government is not declassifying and in the process they are picking up statistical indicators of events and episodes that historians have missed up until now.

In a big way, this use of data mining could change history--but the ultimate product of this effort will probably books.  We might be entering a brave new world, but it looks a lot like the last one.  Technology is a means to an end and the objective has not really changed.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blog CLXV (165): The Fall of the Roman Empire

The National Football League just announced that Super Bowl 50 will be Super Bowl 50 and not Super Bowl L.  The league began using Roman numerals to mark their championship game starting with the second one in 1967.  (There was no Super Bowl I; it was the 1966 NFL-AFL Championship Game. At the time there were two professional leagues playing American football and what became the Super Bowl pitted the champs of each league against one another.  The American Football League merged into the NFL in 1970 with the Super Bowl remaining as the championship game of this super sized league).

It would seem that NFL has learned the same lesson I learned; it is fun to call things Blog III or Super Bowl VI.  Everyone knows the lower numbers and the Roman numbers add a bit of flash to your undertaking, but when you starting getting into really big numbers like 160 or CLX Roman numbers become a real liability.  I figured I was in for a penny, in for a pound and kept the Roman system, but I put the more familiar Arabic numbers in parenthesis.  Will be interesting to see if the NFL stays with Arabic or goes back to Roman.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Blog CLXIV (164): History in Congress

A few days ago the National Coalition for History, which is a lobbyist organization in Washington, D.C. funded by a number of scholarly organizations, announced that its efforts to create a Congressional History Caucus had finally resulted in the creation of that organization. Two Republicans and two Democrats in the House of Representatives agreed to serve as the leadership of this organization. The purpose of the new caucus is to celebrate the past of the United States and use historical knowledge to make better legislation. The four congressmen state that a passion for history should cross partisan and ideological divides.

Sounds really good, right.?

Yes, of course, it does, but I am not sure it really matters.

A caucus is a group of members in the United States Congress that share common interests of one sort or another. Sometimes they are divided along partisan lines, sometimes they are bipartisan. Some are limited to members branch of the Congress or the other, some are members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Congressional History Caucus is currently limited to members of the House of Representatives. There is talk of creating another one in the Senate.

I do not have a problem with this new caucus. I am just not sure it will matter. There are currently 312 caucuses that members of the House can join. Some of them are serious and powerful. For examples, see the Congressional Black Caucus or the Republican Study Committee. Others make you wonder. These are the likes of Congressional Friends of Scotland Caucus or the Congressional Cut Flower Caucus. Some seem like social organizations. In this category the Congressional Baseball Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus come to mind. Oddball organizations are not particularly new. In 1949 House Republicans formed the Chowder and Marching Society, which was part political and part social. The two most famous members were Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. Here is the current list of caucuses in the House.

Now historians have their own caucus. Do not be surprised if it has little direct or indirect impact on your career.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Blog CLXIII (163): Is Blogging Scholarship?

Is blogging scholarship? That was the topic of a session at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The session had a number of historians that have gotten involved in blogging activities and who have-and this point is important-established traditional records of scholarship to their name.

My response to this question: Are you serious? No! Not in anyway.

The session was impressive. The chair of the session was Jeffrey Pasley of the University of Missouri who contributed to the team blog The Common Place.  The participants run some of the more important blogs out there like Ann Little of Colorado State and the blog Historiann, John Fea of Messiah College and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Mike O'Malley of George Mason University who has a blog called The Aporetic, Ben Alpers of the University of Oklahoma who is part of the team that writes for the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, and Kenneth Owen of the University of Illinois at Springfield and writes for The Junto blog. These blogs have large audience-on blog terms-and each is very different from the other.

Little said "no." Her reason: "Blogging is not scholarship because at least in the case of single-authored blogs, it is not peer reviewed." All the others said some version of "yes." They were wrong.

Every point Little made has merit. She noted that a newly-minted Ph.D. needs to worry about getting published in traditional venues and that blogging takes time away from that effort. She is right. Blogging is not peer-reviewed and does not count for tenure or promotion. She is right. Blogging can "advance and promote" scholarship, but it is not scholarship in and of itself. She is right. John Fea admitted that everything she said was correct: "This is the way things are."

I would have made other points. Very few historians blog and there is a reason for that. We have many outlets for getting our views out there: books, journals, anthologies, classrooms, conferences, and journalism as either a source or a guest contributor. There is not a lot of value added in this medium. Blogging is a mighty perishable medium. Traditional research and publications endure for decades. For some fields of scholarship that move slowly-like history-that is an important consideration. (Some historiographies move rapidly others see one major work every two or three decades). Will the article published in a journal be available in a library in 25 years when some grad students who is 5-years old at the moment wants to read and then cite the work. Will that be the case with a blog? No idea, but my guess is not. I want endurance, which is why I try to avoid citing websites. They change often quite frequently and I want people to look at my source material as well as my findings.

Nor are there any quality filters. Peer-review is a gate keeping mechanism to ensure quality. There are other mechanisms in place in different mediums to ensure quality. The professional reputation of journalists, editors, and literary agents keeps them from pushing forward bad ideas. With any blog, anyone with an internet connected can post anything no matter how dubious.

Media formats have changed fairly quickly over the past three or four decades. There is nothing to say that will not happen again in the next decade or two. In fact, the electronic communication media seems to be moving away from blogging. Just type "Is Blogging Dead" into Google and see the results.

The other participants said, there was value in blogging. I would not dispute that, nor did Little. Fea said many colleges are taking a broader view of scholarship, using the ideas of scholarship that Ernest Boyer advocated. I doubt that. More importantly, his position did not rebut Little's argument. O'Malley said scholarly communication is constrained to a few mediums and there are other ways to do this and the blog is one way. Maybe, but only maybe. Alpers and Owen were more enthusiastic, but not convincing. Owen noted he is trying to use his blogging for tenure purposes and that his university is using the Boyer model.

Like Little, I have invested a good deal of time and energy into blogging. I have done so with a realistic understanding of its limits. Some people believe it helps authors connect with other writers and with their audiences. Maybe, but I think that is more the exception rather than the rule. If blogging really works well, it can help build a reputation just like an article in The New Republic, but an article in The Atlantic or The Huffington Post or an op-ed is not scholarship. Bolstering your reputation is never a bad thing.

To see the entire session, go to Youtube. The question and answer session is quite interesting.

You can also read the contributions of each participant:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blog CLXII (162): Friends Don't Let Friends MOOC

The purpose of this blog is to discuss career management issues in history. It has already discussed the danger that on-line education poses to the new faculty member in Blog CXXXIX (139): On-line Education: More of the Same. Massive On-line Open Courses are another, similar threat, but one that might be fading now.

One of the main reasons Massive On-line Open Courses were popular was that they seemed to offer a way out of the problem of rising college tuition and student loan debt loads. The idea of MOOCs also combined with a traditional American view that technological change is always a good thing.  President Barack Obama stated that MOOCs were the "tide of innovation ...that drives down costs while preserving quality." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described MOOCs as a "revolution" and Stanford University President John Hennessy said on-line instruction was a "tsunami coming." Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to form Udacity, one of the first companies to implement MOOCs, claimed that in 50 years there would only be 10 universities left on the entire planet.

The hype surrounding MOOCs was not limited to the United States. David Willetts, the British cabinet officer in charge of education said MOOCs would keep Britain's place in the "global race of higher education."

There were some skeptics. Catharine Hill, President of Vassar College, noted: "I don't think we know yet about the quality implications or the cost implication." Karan Khemka of the Parthenon Group noted in the Financial Times, "MOOCs are unlikely to prove a silver bullet for students or universities."

The bloom seems to have come off the MOOC rose. Hennessy recently said MOOCs failed at Stanford on two very important counts: mass and openness. He told the Financial Times that such courses were too large and failed to either engage and motivate the majority of students. "Two words are wrong in MOOC: massive and open," he said. Most people taking online courses at his school were "not ready for the material at the same level" as Stanford students. San Jose State University bailed on the entire concept, noting that MOOCs had a high fail rate.

These problems are not unique to U.S. schools. Edge Hill University England offered a course on Vampires in English literature and of the 1000 students that enrolled, a total of 31 finished. That is a completion rate of 3 percent. And to add insult to injury, none opted to pay so they could receive credit for the course. Not a one.

Reservations about these type of courses is growing. The Babson Survey Research Group has charted the growth of online education over the past decade. In a survey conducted in 2013, asked chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education. The finding: massive open online courses are not sustainable for the schools offering them and "cause confusion about higher-education degrees."

Thrun is admitting defeat. He now works for Google and described Udacity's courses as "a lousy product." Ouch!

The best defense for MOOCs has come from Mike Cassidy, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News: "And here's the thing: Like any technology-based disrupter, it's not so much that the new idea itself will make the world a better or worse place. It's how the new idea is deployed that makes the difference."

The best I can say in responses is maybe, but only maybe. The tide appears to have turned against MOOCs and if so, that is a good thing. That, though, maybe what I want to see. MOOCs are bad for history, bad for education, and bad for historians. They (and a lot of other on-line courses) are a way for institutions to limit the need for classroom instructors. As this essay comes to an end, I am going to repeat what I said in Blog CXXXIX: if you are every offered this type of employment, walk away.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Administrative Post 30

Sorry about the delays in new postings.  The end of the semester at the Naval War College was demanding.  (The NWC has a slightly different schedule than most universities).  Then there was a family funeral after which everyone got sick.  Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are impressive, but demanding when it is 20 degrees and snowing.  More in a day or two.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Blog CLXI (161): Progress and the Job Crisis

It would seem that a number of scholarly organizations in the field of history are beginning to take the job crisis seriously.  It is one thing to talk about the crisis and to publish articles, bringing attention to the problem, but it is a whole different thing to actually take action.  The American Historical Association had its annual meeting a month ago and the sponsored a job fair at the conference.  Individuals representing organizations and specialties, including the National Library of Medicine, the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, National Council on Public History, St. Albans School, the RAND Corporation, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Compass Lexecon, the Naval History and Heritage Command, US Army Center of Military History, the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of American History, and DC Public Schools had booths and talked about employment opportunities with their institutions.  This enterprise lasted four hours and was well attended. The AHA plans on having another one at its next meeting.

The other main organization in history in the United States, the Organization of American Historians has created the OAH Career COACH®Creating Opportunities for Advancing our Community of Historians.  The COACH is an online job center that the Organization designed to help OAH members find non-academic jobs.  According to the OAH's website: “There are many good, interesting, and intellectually stimulating jobs outside the academy. Having historians in these positions ensures that the public is exposed to 'good history.’”  The website also explains, “The OAH’s Plan A is to help both students and advisers understand this market and the varied and rewarding jobs in the field of American history and extend value to its members through this Web site.”  You must be a member of the OAH to access the content.

There are also things that the smaller history organizations can do.  At its most recent annual conference this past June, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations had mock interview sessions.  Established scholarswhich is to say those that have jobs and have been part of selection committeesran practice sessions with grad students and newly minted Ph.D.s to help prepare them for going out on the job market.  They also offered critiques of their vitaes.  I also chaired a panel: "Jobs for the Ph.D. Outside Academia" at the meeting.  Each of the participants had a Ph.D. in history, but work outside of a tenure track position in a history department.  Jason H. Gart of History Associates talked about working for a public history firm.  Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation talked about working for a think tank.   Luke Nichter, who is now teaching at Texas A&M UniversityCentral Texas, but was formerly a producer at C-SPAN, discussed working as a journalist. Steve Luckert of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was with on the panel at the 2011 AHA meeting.  Luckert is a curator at the Museum and gave the same talk, which is what I wanted him to do.  Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos is a historian for the U.S. Navy and discussed working for the U.S. government. William Morgan teaches at the U.S. Marine Corps War College, but before that was a career Foreign Service Officer.  He discussed taking the Foreign Service exam and working in the State Department. Benjamin Huggins is an editor for The Papers of George Washington, and his talked focused on work in historical editing.  It was an exceptionally well attended session and there were some good exchanges in the question and answer session. 

All of these developments are good news.  It seems that the Plan B debate is having some influence...to a degree. As welcome as these developments areand they arethese initiatives are baby steps.  Mock interviews are good, but if there are only three jobs in a certain field, it only makes the competition that much more fierce.  A career fair is an important new development, but it would be even better if non-academic organizations were actually interviewing at the meeting.  More is needed.