Paul Putz Reports From AHA 2016 on American Religious Biography

OsborneThe reports from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta keep rolling in here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Paul Putz is  Ph.D student in American history at Baylor University writing a very interesting dissertation on the history of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Paul reports from a session on the writing of religious biography.  –JF

My first trip to the winter AHA/ASCH meeting was a whirlwind of activity. One of the best aspects was getting to meet many of the historians I’ve gotten to know online through twitter and blogging. It really seemed like many of the conversations we’ve had online seamlessly transitioned to the offline world.

Of all the sessions I attended, I took my most detailed notes on the Thursday afternoon panel, “New Approaches to Religious Biography: Reexamining American Protestant Life-Writing.” It had a stellar cast of participants: Sara Georgini, David Mislin, and Elizabeth Jemison presenting, David Holland commenting, and Catherine Brekus as the chair. Brekus’s Sarah Osborne’s World is one of my favorite religious biographies, so I was very pleased to see her involved.

Just before I made my way to Atlanta last week I read Slate’s study of popular history books, so I had biographies on my mind. Not surprisingly, Slate’s report found that the vast majority of trade press biographies published last year (71.7%) were of men. In that regard, the all-male biographical subjects featured on the panel would have fit right in. On the other hand, two of the three presenters on the panel were women, markedly different than the disparity between men and women when it comes to authorship of trade press biographies.

Sara Georgini, PhD candidate at Boston University and assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, was up first. Her paper, part of a larger dissertation project on the religion of the Adams family from 1583-1927, featured the travels/pilgrimages of Charles Francis Adams Sr. (son of John Quincy Adams), looking at how they contributed to his spiritual development. Georgini also connected Adams’s experiences and reflections with the broader story of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism’s place within the United States.

Next, Clemson professor of religion Elizabeth Jemison used the autobiographies of Lucius Holsey and Isaac Lane, two late-nineteenth-century Colored Methodist Episcopal Church ministers, to explore the intersection of religious and racial identities in South. She provided sharp insights into the surprising ways that those identities could merge and interact, and their part in the social construction of race in the post-emancipation South. Unlike the other two papers, Jemison’s was not part of a larger biographical project, but rather stemmed from her dissertation-turned-book-project, tentatively titled Protestants, Politics, and Power: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Post-Emancipation Mississippi River Valley, 1863-1900.

The last paper came from David Mislin, a professor at Temple University who recently published his first book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press). Mislin’s paper featured late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden. Gladden is often viewed as a leading figure in the shift towards liberal theology and social reform in establishment Protestant churches, but Mislin focused instead on Gladden’s work as a pastor, looking at how he was connected to and shaped by the everyday needs and experiences of his congregation. The paper was a small part of a new biography of Gladden that Mislin hopes to publish in the next couple years.

The three papers were excellent, and I look forward to reading the larger projects once they hit the market. That said, I was a bit surprised that the papers didn’t really address questions of methodology. Rather than discussing new approaches to writing religious biographies, they were new religious biographies. Harvard Divinity professor David Holland helped to fill that void with his comments. Holland found commonalities in the approaches taken by the three papers – like any good biography, he said, all three turned on a surprise. And all tended to be sympathetic, listening closely to what the subjects of study said about themselves.

But even if they were sympathetic, Holland noted that the papers did not entirely escape the tendency to emphasize contemporary interests rather than those of the biographical subjects. Citing Perry Miller, Holland spoke of how biographers often “amputate” from their subjects what they don’t like or what they find unimportant to present concerns. This, Holland said, is an almost inescapable problem. So, too, is the tension between the uniqueness of the single biographical subject and the need to make big arguments or grand claims for the importance of one’s subject. In Holland’s view, biographies exist in tension between the “historicized particularity” and the “quest for significance” – and in that sense, the three papers did not necessarily offer markedly new approaches, but rather wrestled carefully with the age-old problems of the biographical angle.

All in all, it was an insightful and thought-provoking panel, one that I am very glad I attended. I also suspect that TWOILH’s fearless leader may have a thought or two about these questions and issues, given the subject of his first book.



The Brendan Pietsch “Acknowledgments” Post Goes Viral

PietschEven Inside Higher Ed is talking about the acknowledgments section in Brendan Pietsch’s Dispensational Modernism.  The website has devoted an entire article to our post.  Here is a taste of Scott Jaschik’s report:

John Fea, chair of history at Messiah College, was browsing in the book exhibit at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting this weekend when he happened upon an acknowledgments section that he had to share. We thank him for the tip because it certainly is different from the acknowledgments we have typically skimmed over.

You can see the acknowledgments in full in the illustration above.

Inside Higher Ed reached out to Brendan Pietsch, the author of the acknowledgments and of the book where they appear,Dispensational Modernism, published in July by Oxford University Press.

Via email, he said that Fea’s blog post has turned out to be good publicity for the book. “I’m a bit surprised anyone noticed, and the recent attention to a book that has previously had about nine readers has been a little crazy.”

So why did he write the acknowledgments in his book?

Read the rest here.

More on Wheaton College

d67ac-wheatonEveryone is talking about Wheaton College.  I just got back from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta and it seemed like everyone I ran into wanted to chat about the Larycia Hawkins case.

I had conversations with three difference kind of people this weekend in Atlanta:

  1. Evangelical historians.  These conversations were intramural in nature.  We all understand Wheaton and the issues that Christian colleges face, but are baffled with the way the administration is handling the whole thing.
  2. Non-Christian historians.  What is happening at Wheaton College has a ripple effect on those of us who teach at other Christian colleges–sister schools, if you will.  Since many of my historian colleagues know I teach at Messiah College, they wonder just how Messiah would respond to a similar situation.   I have had to work up an answer on this front.
  3. Public intellectuals.  I had a few exchanges this weekend with historians who work at intellectual and political magazines as reporters and editors.  They are very aware of what is going on at Wheaton and feel an obligation to cover this.

After last night’s article in Time magazine, a few more observers weighed-in today.  John Hawthorne’s “Why Wheaton Matters” is worth reading.  I appreciate him referencing my post on graduate admissions and our subsequent exchange on Facebook.  Tobin Grant’s extensive piece at Religion News Service is also worth a look.

Christian James on More Digital History at AHA 2016

etchingHere is Christian James‘s second post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  For his previous posts from AHA 2016 click here.  -JF

The last day at AHA 2016 included two solid digital history sessions. The first, “Digital History and Digital Preservation Projects” was one of several sessions this week on digital histories of slavery. Last year’s Digital Histories of Slavery session was standing-room-only and overflowing with energy, so I understand why there was plenty of related programming this year. Of these, today’s session seemed most interesting to me since it focused less on analysis and more on how to grow and sustain these digital projects, something I’d be more likely to work on as a librarian.

David Eltkins of the eminent project started with a detailed discussion of the sites growth, including web analytics charts and statistics. According to Eltkins, showing these statistics to donors and grant organizations is essential to getting continuing funding. It was pleasing for me to see someone sharing web analytics too – I like to hear about how digital projects are connecting with wide audiences, instead of launching and calling it a day. With this continuing funding, Eltkins says that will add new data from new sources. Eltkins also discussed technical sustainability issues, like keeping dedicated servers and site code up to date and optimizing it for access.

Following Eltkins, Sean Kelley and Paul Lovejoy discussed the Studies in the Histories of the African Diaspora – Documents (SHADD) project, which gathers documents that present first-hand testimonies and voices of enslaved people born in West Africa. Kristin Mann followed by talking about some of her own research that uses the types of documents featured in and SHADD, demonstrating their practical applications. Last up was Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, who has spent decades on a fascinating documentary project using Catholic Church records from Cuba and other Latin American countries. This project started in microform in the 1990s by using church records in Cuba and has expanded to CD-ROM and now online editions. Landers described rich, detailed; local records and her team’s heroic efforts to both preserve them and engage local communities.

The panel did an admirable job allowing enough time for a long question and answer session. The panel and audience discussed involving university archives, libraries, and IT staff in digital preservation. Vanderbilt is engaged in preserving Landers’ project, but Lovejoy’s lamented that York University does not provide such support. Eltkins issued a brutal wake-up call, saying that “anything you put on the Internet is temporary.” He suggested not just working with one university but getting multiple stakeholders invested so projects wouldn’t rely on just one source of support. Eltkins spoke with a tone of realism throughout the morning, saying that he wouldn’t have gotten involved in this work if he knew how much money it would require raising. Fortunately, he did get involved and has done some amazing work.

The second panel this morning was on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Rather than discussing sustainability, this panel encouraged attendees to start new projects from scratch. Instead of an introduction to markup languages, the panel talked about ways to use this XML schema. (When asked, most attendees raised their hands to indicate existing knowledge of TEI or other XML.)

Stephanie Kingsley started the session talking about her research into the publishing history of James Fenimore Cooper’s <i>Mercedes of Castille</i>. By using the open-source Juxta Commons application, Kingsley could compare different editions of the book and see where certain editions had excised controversial passages. Following some examples with lolcat metadata (definitely a highlight of the day), Susan Garfinkel encouraged scholars to use TEI in addition to other XML schemas to explore the different uses of markup language. A primary source such as a diary, Garfinkel argues, is a dataset, and analyzing it as such can give us insight into the human mind.

Joseph Wicentowski of the U.S. State Department’s history office gave especially practical advice, suggesting that scholars check out free software such as eXist instead of learning xslt or purchasing software like Oxygen. Kathryn Tomasek concluded the session by talking about her own work marking up financial record books, as well as the TEI community’s work and future opportunities to connect TEI files to the semantic web with Resource Description Framework (RDF). Unfortunately, there was not much time for Q&A, because I would have asked about possible ways to automate TEI markup. The examples that the panel presented seemed to be quite time-consuming.

Both sessions today gave me optimism for the future of digital history. Rather than talking vaguely about “possibilities” or pilot projects, both sessions gave concrete examples of successful projects and offered practical advice. This indicates that digital history is maturing well, and I’m looking forward to seeing more projects like the ones I heard about today.

AHA 2016 Fashions

ProfessorIn case you have not seen it, Vanessa Holden has written a great post on the fashion choices made by the historians attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.

She identifies four styles:

  1.  The Classics
  2. The Job Candidate
  3. Department Diva/Department Don
  4. Dandies and Femmes

Here is her description of the “Classics”:

These historians are established. They have tenure. They have book(s) featured in the Exhibit Hall. They sit on committees. The adjective that best describes this most prevalent set: comfortable. The masculine dresser will undoubtedly wear slightly oversized trousers with light wrinkles from multiple days of wear, a solid button down shirt, a lamb’s wool V-neck sweater or a blazer in a solid color, black or brown trouser socks (though white athletic socks aren’t out of the question), and black or brown slip-on shoes like loafers, New Balance sneakers in a solid color, or boat shoes. The feminine dresser also has a recognizable aesthetic. They’re wearing a draped top that gestures towards Eileen Fisher’s fashions, leggings or black trousers, and sensible shoes. This look has carried many an academic through an entire career of AHA meetings. 

Read the whole post at AHA Today

Amy Sopcak-Joseph: SHARP Things at AHA 2016

SHARPAmy Sopcak-Joseph checks in with another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  To read Sopcak-Joseph’s previous post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home click here.  –JF

This conference has been such a whirlwind of activities – scoring some $5 books, trying to cram in food and sleep between panels and good conversations with old friends and new.  I was so exhausted when I wrote my first post that I didn’t mention that this is my second time at AHA.  I attended about a day and a half of the 2015 conference in New York.  This year I’m all in, here in Atlanta for the whole thing.

As John mentioned in my first post, I’m primarily attending AHA this year because I serve as one of the co-liaisons from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) to the AHA.  You may have noticed sessions in your program with the “affiliated society” designation.  There are more than a hundred organizations that are affiliated with AHA – whatever your subfield, this list probably includes the appropriate organization.

So what does being a liaison entail?  The work consists of two phases: the prep before the meeting and activities at the conference.  I’ve been working with my co-liaison for the past year to connect SHARP members to AHA activities.  We organized an affiliate panel, “Exploring Race and Ethnicity through Book History.”  After choosing the papers, we spread the word about it through the SHARP at AHA social media accounts and through the SHARP email list.  Stephanie Kingsley of the AHA also discussed it in her blog post about book history panels.

At the conference much of my Friday revolved around SHARP things at AHA.  Each year the affiliated societies are given a chunk of time for exhibits to recruit members and talk to current members.  You may have noticed a number of tables set up on Friday outside of the registration area where liaisons were touting the virtues of membership in their organization.  If you didn’t stop by the affiliate displays here in Atlanta, you should think about doing so next year!  The liaisons love to chat with people, and you never know what kind of cool swag you can add to your AHA tote bag.

The SHARP panel, “Exploring Race and Ethnicity through Book History,” featured an eclectic group of papers on topics ranging from pre-Columbian Mexico to twentieth century book agents.  But all four of the papers made the case that book history methods – paying attention to the development, production, content, and dissemination of texts and images – can bring new insights on the formation of racial and ethnic identities.

In “ Erasure and Reinscription in MesoAmerican Divinatory Almanac: The Curious Case of the Codex Vaticanus B,” Jamie Forde discussed the complicated history of the Codex Vaticanus B, a document created by indigenous peoples but so named because it now resides in the Vatican. Forde and his co-author, Elodie Dupey Garcia, traced where the Codex was edited – images were erased and repainted with designs that were not commonly found in the area where it was created.  They linked these new designs in the Codex to common designs from other areas of Mexico, showing influences of other ethnolinguistic groups.

Kathryn Schwartz’s paper, “‘Civilization’ and the Idea that Print Catalyzes Progress, Late Ottoman Cairo,” explored the meaning ascribed to Cairene textual production.  Europeans, oddly enough, saw printing as a sign of “civilization” that placed them atop a hierarchy of groups.  The introduction of printing in Cairo could be interpreted as both a civilizing influence and a threat – what if Egyptians eventually outpaced Europeans?  Joan Bryant took her first foray into book history with her paper, “Agents Wanted: Kelly Miller’s Book Marketing and the Challenge of Negro Progress.”  Miller was an interesting figure – a writer who wanted to elevate his race and to sell publications.  Bryant pointed out that book agents were often itinerant and moved on to other professions, but these agents were crucial to Miller’s distribution of his works.  

Aston Gonzalez presented the paper most relevant to scholars broadly interested in early America.  “Reforming the Reader: Seeing Race in The Narrative of James Williams and The Slave’s Friend” compared two uses of a portrait of an escaped slave.  Gonzalez walked us through the how the original 1838 engraving from Williams’ narrative provided visual cues of his respectability.  The way that light hit Williams’ face, the nice clothing that he wore, and even his non-caricatured facial features didn’t conform with the stereotypical depictions of African Americans that circulated in the 1830s.  Gonzalez was able to identify a second use of the portrait of Williams’ in an 1839 issue of the children’s periodical The Slave’s Friend, produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS)  The AASS began publishing the periodical in 1835, and it saturated the market with 200,000 copies in its first year.  The Slave’s Friend did not include the specific details of Williams’ story or identify him in any way.  But his portrait was paired with text that clearly touted his freedom and humanity: “This is a picture of a freeman! … Either he or his forefathers were once slaves. He now breathes the sweet air of liberty, and looks like a MAN.”  The use of Williams’ portrait in both of these publications taught readers how to see, how to read, and how to understand race.  I particularly appreciated this paper because I was already familiar with The Slave’s Friend.  In a previous life I worked on K-12 teacher education programs at the American Antiquarian Society.  I used The Slave’s Friend in workshops on abolition.  If you’re interested in the periodical, you can see some of it (including Williams’ portrait) here.