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.

AHA 2016: Day 3 Wrap-Up

It was a busy day in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

This morning I went to the Conference on Faith and History breakfast.  It was good to see old friends and make some new ones.  The conversations were so good that I stayed too long and missed the podcasting session I wanted to attend.

So I headed to the book exhibit.  While I was at the Oxford University Press booth I came across this.  I took a picture and posted it to the blog.  Tens of thousands of visits later (seriously), it has become the most popular post in the seven-year history of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. And it only took 12 hours!  Does this count as a post “going viral?”

Thanks Brendan Pietsch. I hope my post results in a lot of book sales for Dispensational Modernism.  I was a fan of this project when you work-shopped it in Louisville several years ago and I am an even bigger fan now.

I don’t like the layout of the book exhibit in the Atlanta Hilton.  There is no rhyme or reason to the layout of the booths, making it difficult to know whether you have covered the whole exhibit.  I had the same problem when the OAH was here a couple of years ago.

As I wrote earlier today, it was good to spend some time chatting with two former students–Jeff Erbig and Lucy Barnhouse.

I had big plans for attending Peggy Bendroth’s American Society of Church History presidential address, but my friend and co-editor Jay Green distracted me with some great conversation.  I haven’t seen Jay in a while, so it was good to catch up.

Jay is the Vice-President of the Conference on Faith and History.  He informed me that the CFH board elected me as program chair for the 2018 meeting at Calvin College.  I spent my entire time with Jay trying to get out of it.  (Only half-kidding). The last time I was program chair (Hope College–2004) I shared the responsibilities with Jay and Eric Miller.  It was hard work, but our book Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation came out of the collaboration.

So I guess you could say it was productive day despite the fact that I did not attend a single session.

Go Steelers!


Ana Stevenson: Dispatches from the Poster Session

We are happy to have Ana Stevenson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  Stevenson is a visiting scholar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. Here is her first post–JF

Ana Stevenson.jpg-large

Today marked the exciting beginning and conclusion, which came all too soon, of the poster sessions for #aha16. Across the day, there were three sessions which revealed a range of historical research topics, from the medieval Ottoman empire to the history of food and Arizona’s suburban retail landscape during the 1970s and 1980s.

Many of the posters prioritized imagery and even used material culture to engage people in their discussion.

Various posters pivoted their research around historical maps and cartography. Jamie Mize’s (UNC at Greensboro) presentation, “Contested Cherokee Gender in the Early Nineteenth Century,” arranged its entire discussion around a detailed map. In contrast, “The Historical Map as a Geodatabase: Creating a Geographic Information System (GIS) from a Data-Rich Seventeenth-Century Map,” by Nicholas Gliserman (University of Southern California), matched one particular historical map to a contemporary map of the same region.

Other posters looked toward historical images that had circulated in the popular culture of social movements. In “Lives Abroad in Romantic Interest: Debate over Marriage in the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” Jessica Derleth (Binghamton University, SUNY) used postcards to depict antisuffragists’ fears about the way women’s suffrage would negatively transform the institution of marriage. My own poster, “The Transnational Visual Culture of Women’s Suffrage in the United States and Australia,” used pro-suffrage cartoons to discuss previously overlooked parallels across the Pacific.

Particularly fascinating was the use of material culture to accompany the poster. Lisa Munro’s presentation, “Indigenous Textiles and the Construction of Popular Ethnographic Memory in 1930s Guatemala,” was accompanied by some beautiful Guatemalan textiles.

Following an enduring theme at the conference more broadly, a number of posters engaged with digital humanities methods. The aforementioned poster by Gliserman signalled the beginning of a project hoping to collate many colonial maps together in a larger geodatabase.

Other digitally-informed projects included: “‘Commentaries’ in Migration: A Digital Humanities Examination of Literature, Law, and Practices across National and Chronological Borders,” by John Nathan Blanton (CUNY Graduate Centre), Micki Kaurman (MLA), and Nora Slonimsky (SUNY Graduate Centre); and “Commonwealth Slavery: Digital Studies in the History of Slavery at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,” by Susan Perdue, William B. Kurtz, Laura K. Baker, and Brendan Wolfe (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities).

Unfortunately, as a participant, I was only able to get a selection of photographs from the poster session, but do check the twitter feed #AHAposter to see some others. And if you’re thinking about making a historical research poster in future, check out the wonderful AHA resource, Effective Poster Presentations.

For those who managed to drop into the poster sessions, make sure you vote for your favorite poster by tweeting #AHAposter!

This May Be the Best “Acknowledgments” Section of All Time

This morning I finally made it to the book exhibit at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  (More on that in a later post). While browsing at the Oxford University Press booth I came across Brendan Pietsch‘s Dispensational Modernism.   

I met the author of this new intellectual history of American Protestant fundamentalism a few years ago at an event sponsored by the Louisville Institute.  At the time I think he was still working on his dissertation at Duke University.

When I picked up his book and turned to the Acknowledgments this is what I found:


Day Two of AHA 2016 is in the Books

programIt was a good day at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  I spent the morning chatting with several friends and acquaintances over coffee.  The older I get in this profession it seems I spend less time attending sessions and more time meeting with people.  I am a natural introvert, but I enjoy one-on-one and small group chats.  I had several good conversations today.  I am also very caffeinated, which helps me to blog.

I still have not had a chance to fully explore the book exhibit, although I did visit the Oxford University Press booth to buy the book of an author Drew and I we will be interviewing this week (for later release) at The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast. I need to read the book between now and Wednesday morning.  Stay tuned.

This afternoon I went to the American Society of Church History session devoted to the “Intellectual Legacy of Mark Noll.”  I storified the session here.   I included some of my personal thoughts about Mark Noll and his influence on my work in some of the storified tweets.

My plate is pretty full tomorrow.  The only think that I have not nailed down yet is which session to attend tomorrow morning at 9:00.  I am torn between AHA session 161: Podcasting History and AHA session 166: Rewriting Revolutions.   Any last minute thoughts on which one to attend (and live tweet) would be appreciated.

Paul Bartow Checks-In With A Few Session Reviews From AHA 2016

FreemasonPaul Bartow is back with another post as Day 2 of the AHA conference comes to a close.  See his previous posts here.–JF

After a great start to the AHA Conference yesterday, I was looking forward to day two. I attended the following sessions today: “Freemasonry: The World’s First Global Social Network,” “American Society of Church History Luncheon Honoring the Career and Contributions of Mark Noll,” and “The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian.”

The day yielded mediocre results in my opinion, but it was salvaged by the Exhibit Alley at 5:00 PM – a reception that included discounted book sales and complimentary wine, presumably to facilitate the uninhibited purchase of books.

The first session on Freemasonry was very informative. Coming in, I already had a fair understanding of the concept of Ancient versus Modern Freemasonry, which turned out to form the crux of the session’s discussion. I was very interested in papers on Freemason lodges outside of Britain and the United States. I had no idea that the French, who hate everything English, would have Freemason lodges, and the Germans were a pleasant surprise as well. Hans Schwartz, a PhD candidate at Clark University, seemed extremely knowledgeable even when asked what appeared to be a “designed-to-stump-you” question about Freemasonry in Latin America. Furthermore, I really appreciated how they emphasized the point that Freemasonry allowed influential, well-placed, and ambitious men to make business and professional connections across the Atlantic and within European nations. Grand lodge registers or almanacs were compiled with the meeting dates, places, tavern insignias, and other helpful information to allow visiting masons to make connections with their brethren spanning many nations. Perhaps the creators of LinkedIn should take note.

The luncheon honoring Mark Noll was obviously more ceremonial than informational. It was an honor to see Dr. Noll again, a scholar who has made pioneering contributions to Christian religious history in North America and Canada. While I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College Noll had a peculiar but well-deserved cult following. The man’s integrity, humility, and pleasant demeanor coupled with his profound ability for historical scholarship is something rarely seen in the profession today. He will retire from the faculty of the University of Notre Dame at the end of this academic year. His scholarship will be dearly missed.

I was particularly looking forward to the session on documentary filmmaking. In my early college career at Waubonsee Community College, Ken Burns’s documentaries inspired me to declare a history major. His features on the Civil War, Lewis & Clark, and Thomas Jefferson were particularly compelling. I studied history in college but was never presented with options or training regarding how to become a historical documentary film maker. The title of the session, “The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian” seemed to promise insights into how to begin a career in the profession. After the first half hour, however, it became clear that two different schools were presenting their findings and syllabi on how they incorporated their first attempts at documentary and digital media courses at their institutions. This was not what the title led me to believe, and this was the biggest disappointment of the day. Although the panel presented great insights into how to implement documentary and digital media into college courses, perhaps they should have re-titled their session.

Tomorrow promises some great panels, and I look forward to writing about my experiences here at the AHA Conference in Atlanta!

Paul Bartow on Digital History at AHA16

We are glad to have Paul Bartow writing for us this week in Atlanta.  This is Paul’s first visit to the AHA conference.  He currently works as an American history research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Here is his first dispatch–JF: 

Day one of the American Historical Association Conference is in the books, and what a great kickoff it was. Being the first historical conference I have attended, I admittedly do not quite have a point of reference for comparison, but I was definitely happy with the return on investment.

The day began with a rather auspicious start. My favorite panel of the day was “Big Data and Digital History” presented by Dr. Alan Pike of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. As a complete novice to the field of digital humanities, I found this series to be particularly valuable. The topics covered included the uses of “metadata” (not in the NSA sense) and how utilizing massive quantities of data can help frame the questions that historians seek to answer. One particular example would be the comparison of Twitter interactions regarding the AHA Conference between 2015 and 2016. How many tweets went out using the AHA hashtag? Which institutes or scholars gained the most followers?

The neat thing about digital humanities is that these findings can be visually represented. One of my favorite examples was Google Books Ngram Viewer. As a History major and lifelong enthusiast, I had never come across this research feature. It is a tool that is used to search the entire corpus of digitized Google Books for certain research queries. I ran a brief test to see the frequency of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” with the results here (peak at roughly .019% in the year 2007). This allows historians to quickly see trends visually represented and then to seek to address the causality behind their findings. Even better – this tool is free and does not require a costly subscription.

In the same way, relationships can be expressed, visually modeled, and analyzed throughout space and time. One particular project that was brought up in the session was the spread of slavery in the United States. Using census data, one project modeled the movement of enslaved people and the densities of the enslaved population in respective regions. These are the cool diagrams and features that appear in college textbooks that I have always been interested in discovering how they are made. Now, I at least have a basic understanding, and am very interested in learning more about digital humanities.

Lincoln Mullen Map


Clearly, digital humanities are an increasingly frequent and valuable part of historical scholarship. In all my years in college as an aspiring historian, I was never made aware of these amazing tools. Another session which I attended mentioned that digital humanities should be phased in to undergraduate programs in order for students to gain familiarity with how they function. In the digital age where infants who can barely even recognize their own names are handed iPads, I fully expect undergraduate students to at least be able to obtain a working understanding of how digital resources can be used to aid in historical scholarship. At the very least, they would foster creative expressions of historical findings and would, in my opinion, draw more students to historical study than writing term papers. Thus is the power of digital, visual data representation.

Help the History News Network Get Back to the AHA

HNNAs I wrote in my post this morning, George Mason University is no longer funding the popular website History News Network.  As a result, Rick Shenkman, the editor and founder of HNN, is not in Atlanta for this year’s meeting of the American Historical Association.

We will miss Shenkman’s annual coverage of the conference, especially his videos and interview with historians.

Let’s get Rick Shenkman and HNN back to the AHA.  He is looking for new sources of funding.  You can support HNN here.

AHA16: Day One Wrap-Up

BadgeThe first day of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association  is in the books.

I usually don’t do much on the first afternoon of the AHA meeting apart from getting settled-in.  I arrived in Atlanta around 3:30pm, checked into my hotel, registered for the conference, and had a couple of meetings.  The book exhibit does not open until Friday.  I was hoping it would be open Thursday afternoon because I need to buy the book of a historian we are interviewing early next week for The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  (Episode 0 now available on ITunes.  Episode 1 will drop next week!).

I did not swing into action until the opening plenary session. My dinner meeting went late, so I did not get a chance to see Kevin Wagner of Carlisle High School win the Beveridge Family Teaching Prize for K-12 teachers. Kevin is a graduate of Messiah College and has done some adjunct teaching in our History Department.  He is a gifted teacher who has been winning award after award of late, including the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American HistoryPennsylvania Teacher of the Year.”

The opening plenary session–“The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture“–was stimulating, but not as controversial as it could have been.  The general public was invited to this session, but academics dominated much of the conversation, its framing, and the Q&A sessions. The scholars on the panel did a great job (read my Storify for details), but some of us were expecting a bit more public engagement.  I probably set my expectations too high for this session. 

Much of the discussion in the plenary focused on what to do with symbols of the Confederacy in the wake of the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.   W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina suggested that we need to develop a “hierarchy of Confederate monuments so that we know which ones to get rid of, which ones to move, and which ones to keep for the purposes of history education.  Jane Turner Censer of George Mason University proposed moving them to cemeteries (where late 19th-century women’s groups in the South first began to care for the legacy of the Confederacy) or museums.

Late last night I learned that Rick Shenkman, the editor and founder of the History News Network, is not at the conference this year.  Rick or one of his staff is always a fixture at the AHA.  HNN has done a great job over the years of linking to conference bloggers, posting video of sessions, interviewing presenters, and publishing daily wrap-ups.  Rick shot me an e-mail late last night to tell me that George Mason University has stopped funding HNN and until he finds a new source of funding he will have to put his HNN visits on hold.  In addition, Rick is on the road right now promoting his new book Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.  Congrats!

I got back to the hotel to watch some of the Obama-CNN town-hall meeting on gun control.  His proposals seemed modest and sensible, but when I watched the CNN commentary following the event I realized just how divided–sometimes foolishly–we are on this issue.

Stay right here for what I think will be a big day at the AHA.


What You Can Expect From Our #AHA16 Coverage

e3335-aha2bprogramThe Way of Improvement Leads Home  will be in Atlanta later this week for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  We will be covering the conference from a variety of angles.

At the moment, we have eleven correspondents who will be reporting from the conference floor.  Stay tuned for their dispatches.  It is a very eclectic group.

I also hope to live tweet some sessions  Foloow along @johnfea1.  Due to other commitments at the conference I will not have time to attend too many sessions, but the following sessions are still in the running:

You can also expect random photos and commentary as the weekend unfolds.  (If you take a pic that you think we would find interesting feel free to send it along and we will try to post it).

Just remember to keep us bookmarked throughout the conference.