Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In light of the recent Learning by the Book conference, it makes sense to reblog this piece, which I first posted on History of Knowledge on February 3, 2017, when we were just getting started and were working out what we thought the thing was. The question was not as self-evident as regular bloggers might think, certainly not at a research institution rooted in Germany’s powerful academic traditions.

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

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Blogging before Conferencing

We tried something new in connection with a conference called Learning by the Book. The conveners asked participants to submit a blog post to History of Knowledge in lieu of precirculated papers. One of the conveners, my colleague Kerstin von der Krone, did most of the coordinating work, prescreening posts for length, permissions issues, and content. Then I edited them, trying to ensure they spoke to a multidisciplinary audience, not just specialists in their authors’ respective fields.

Of thirty-seven potential posts, we managed to publish thirty-five on a rolling basis between May 2 and June 5. Four of these were crossposted on the Recipes Project and edited by Jess Clark instead of me. One piece wasn’t published because of an unresolved copyright issue and another because the author had trouble conceiving of a short blog post that spoke directly to the conference’s concerns while giving the original research context a much more cursory treatment. These numbers tell a success story. An overwhelming number of scholars, from graduate students to senior scholars, were able—and willing—to convey their core ideas in only 1,000 to 2,000 words. And they did so to good effect.

Sometimes, scholars will read aloud what they precirculated to conference participants. I experienced only half the conference in person, but the papers I heard generally did not duplicate the blog posts. Some presenters made their blog contributions a foundation on which to build fuller versions of their posts, while others consciously used the blog format to present a specific aspect of their work, presenting other sides of the story in the conference room. A great example of the latter strategy was offered by Jennifer Rampling, whose blog post focused on an alchemic experiment in the lab, but whose talk dove into the alchemy manuscripts and how they were read.

One participant also suggested that blogging before conferencing forced participants to prepare better because their ideas were being made public in advance. Moreover, the process of writing and revising can force one to become clearer about one’s own positions.

The higher volume of activity on History of Knowledge lead it to garner many times its normal number of readers, thereby expanding the reach of the conference, getting ideas to an audience many times its size. Conclusions synthesizing the results are missing, of course, but what a way to get a first draft! If all history is an act of interpretation, why not make earlier iterations of that work public for other scholars and for engaged members of the public?

Reader engagement (visible in visitor statistics and in reader engagement with our accompanying Twitter posts) and the discussions at the conference itself underlined that knowledge as an object of historical inquiry can open productive dialog across seemingly impermeable disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. (Researching what hashtags to use for which communities on Twitter helps too.)

Blogging

…The iterative practice of regular blogging has its own set of joys. For me, writing begets writing. The blog doesn’t distract from my formal academic or scholarly work. It feeds it. It becomes a form of discipline, like doing sit-ups every morning, a practice I long ago abandoned. My abdominal muscles are flabby, but when I sit down to write, whatever the context, I feel strong.

David Perry, “3 Rules of Academic Blogging,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 11, 2015

Tonight’s Lecture

My initial personal takeaway from tonight’s lecture on digital mapping: It looks useful as an analytical tool, and for presentation, but in the end we still have to write narratives. Historians have to make choices, not present facts that merely speak for themselves.

During the question and answer period, the story-telling aspect of such enterprises became clearer. Apparently a kind of directed narrative is the idea. Unfortunately, that got lost in the presentation of tools aimed at the already initiated. An inordinate amount of space was given to talking about digital mapping per se and not enough about the history that he was mapping.

I would have liked to hear more about the insights that a given mapping project offers. If digital mapping were a product for sale, I would be the consumer who needs to be convinced why that category of product is desirable in the first place. The issues involved in getting value out of a specific iteration of that product are secondary.

I think many members of the profession are at this stage, which is one reason why gaining professional recognition (tenure) for output other than the monograph is an ongoing struggle. We need to gain a better understanding of the value of these projects.

But this public event was a keynote lecture for a conference. Part of the audience included people who, like me, are interested in but not initiated in the assumptions and concerns of digital mapping projects. The other part of the audience, however, comprised conference participants deeply immersed in the tools discussed and the reasons behind their creation and use. Trying to bridge that gap is never an easy task for a speaker.

In any case, I look forward to the conference presentations tomorrow, optimistic that they will help me learn more about the historiographical motivations behind this kind of work. I just hope the history, not the tools used to do it, predominates in the discussions.

Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “Tonight’s Lecture,” personal blog, October 20, 2016, https://markstoneman.com/2016/10/20/tonights-lecture/.

Experts <—> Public

In most of today’s university disciplines, professional training serves to distance an individual from the public, to refine them into an ‘expert’ whose speech and writing are marked by incomprehensible formulae and keywords. But history-telling came out of an age before the era of experts, and its form is inherently democratic.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014; Cambridge UP, 2015), 56.

German Scholarly Monographs

At the end of his English-language review of Anne Sudrow’s long book (in German) about the shoe in National Socialism, Neil Gregor has some choice remarks about German academic publishing, particularly dissertations and the second advanced dissertation (Habilitation) that would-be professors in Germany have to write.1 Of course, he does not mean all or even most scholarly books in Germany, but as an editor and historian, I do have to deal with the tendency he describes rather a lot. I’m sure translators will feel Gregor’s pain too.

Inevitably, there are sections in an 800-page book where the reader’s spirits flag, and where one wonders whether some editing down might not have improved the readability of the book at little cost to the comprehensiveness of its argument. No self-respecting German Ph.D. monograph would spare its reader a fifty-page discussion of the state of research, Fragestellung, and methodology; a suitably earnest discussion of the definition of a shoe is also, of course, a must. Yet life is short, and the half-hour I devoted to mastering the different kinds of shoe polish available to consumers in the 1920s is a half-hour of my life that I will not get back.

On the other hand, scholarly monographs, like shoes, have their own product history—they can no more be seen as isolated objects, standing outside of time and space, than the things with laces that we wear on our feet. In that sense, any such critical remarks are as much a comment on the academic habitus that consistently produces such books as it is on the book itself. The culture of subsidy which permeates German scholarly publishing, combined with a scholarly environment which places such emphasis on thoroughness, can all too easily permit indulgence. Rather like the German manufacturers this book describes—ambivalent about their customers, and irritated by their habits—one often feels that German academic authors ought to take their readers a bit less for granted. Who knows, they might then, like those shoe manufacturers this book brings to life so superbly, even produce objects that can compete without subsidy in the marketplace.

Keep in mind, Gregor begins the review by stating that Sudrow’s book “is one of the most interesting things I can remember reading,” and the bulk of his piece shows he means this. He is not criticizing Sudrow in the above comments, but rather particular weaknesses in an otherwise excellent academic system. I’m quoting him here because he made me laugh, recognizing, as I did, Gregor’s pain, but cognizant that the production of such pain is not a monopoly of German academia.