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Someday, perhaps someday soon, The Very Last Edited Collection of Essays will roll off a university press.

For years historians have been told that There Will Be No More, because they don’t make money. When one goes to a small conference, the organizers always say, “we would like to get an edited collection out of this, but the publishers we’ve spoken to say they aren’t doing them anymore.”

For a long time, putting out an edited collection was a good way of defining a new subfield – of saying, not only am I toiling in these weeds, but so also are a dozen other promising scholars. Or of redefining an existing subfield, of saying, brave new work is still happening here. Or, very occasionally, they essay a redefinition of the field itself. Or of course they collect the short works of a major historian.

I have a number of these collections on my shelves. The ones I reach for, repeatedly, are few, and almost always of the last kind – the collected short works: Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style, Brinkley’s Liberalism and its Discontents, Haskell’s Objectivity is not Neutrality.

Despite the long era of warning that There Will Be No More, a thinning stream of them still trickles off the presses. When it stops, I suspect it will be the first kind of book to stop – before the dissertation monograph.

When they came for the edited collection, I said nothing …


Peter Novick, author of That Noble Dream and The Holocaust in American Life among other works, has died at the age of 77.

I believe he was a great historian, and one who, in print, introduced me to the profession. For the last three years I have annually assigned and re-read That Noble Dream with pleasure and profit. I am sure I will enjoy it and learn from it again, but I will miss the sense that he’s still out there, somewhere.

[First post here]

But if laptops replaced paper as the main way of getting notes down, the difference in the actual physical process of research was not that much altered. Go to the archive, order the sources you needed, and spend days or weeks or months taking notes on them. Copying costs at most archives were much too high to consider wholesale reproduction, and so note-taking depended on how fast you could type. Portable scanners did not really work; either one had to put the document face down on the scanner or drag the scanner along the document. Neither of those things pleased most archivists. In addition, the scanners were slow and did not offer much storage. Thus, note taking remained resolutely textual, and resulted in the production of lots and lots of MS Word documents with notes on specific sources.Notetakingwindows

That changed dramatically with the advent of digital cameras with high resolution, storage, and battery life. Suddenly, I could buy, relatively cheaply, a lightweight camera able to take hundreds of shots at a resolution that, properly framed, could be read with relative ease on a monitor back home. This advance came too late for A War of Frontier and Empire, but I decided to convert entirely over to using a digital camera for The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, 1900. This was encouraged by the birth of my daughter Madeline, whose arrival meant that long research trips, while restful, did not contribute to domestic harmony.

Powershot sd800 frontBut what kind of camera? I thought about getting a DSLR, but quickly discarded the idea. This was going to be an experiment, and paying over a thousand dollars for a camera to do it seemed excessive. Instead, I decided on a smaller camera, a “point and shoot.” After a fair amount of Internet research, I settled on the Canon SD800. It got good reviews, took a detailed picture (without being too large), and was reasonably priced. I equipped it with the largest memory card I could (512 MB at first; now up to 4 GB, which translates to about 3000 pictures), and set off.

From the first moment in the archive, I was ecstatic. Read the rest of this entry »

The biggest changes in my research since I became a historian have come about because of the usefulness of laptops and digital cameras. When I started doing scholarly research, note-taking was still done using pen and paper (or pencil and paper for particularly careful archives). In the 1990s, however, computers suddenly became really portable, and could be carried into the archive and used to take notes. Suddenly, my high school typing class really started to pay off: ten fingers of typing madness.

My first real research workhorse was a PowerBook 160, 7 lbs and 25 MHz of raw computing power. Allied with a homebrewed Filemaker Pro database, this laptop carried me through a large chunk of my dissertation research. The main limitations on the PowerBook were its battery life (circa two hours) and the range of restrictions that archives put on the use of laptops. The former meant that there was often a mad rush for available outlets by scholars (the old British Library was particularly difficult; if you didn’t get there by 9 am, you weren’t getting a seat in the one row with available plugs). The latter meant that I had to be careful to check with each archive on what they would allow before visiting. The PowerBook did have an unexpected benefit: it got warm when being used, which was nice in archives with less than sufficient winter insulation (yes, I’m looking at you, Colindale).

Figuring out the process happened piecemeal. I didn’t plan ahead of time how to use the new technology, I just took it with to the archives and tried to use it. That meant that the laptop became an electronic notepad/typewriter at first, but I quickly began to figure out ways to use it to better advantage. I learned to program Filemaker, to set up ways to make each note individual and linked to a source citation. I figured out ways to use keywords so that I could gather the individual records into larger groups when I needed to use them. Later, as I was writing, I figured out how to apportion records to particular chapters. The result was barebones, primitive, and resolutely black and white:


The above was a personal memoir of a British soldier in the First World War from the Imperial War Museum.


This was an entry for Martin Ceadel’s book on pacifism in Britain in WWI.

The second record comes from a later iteration of the database and the improvements are evident. In an odd sense, the research notebook grew with the research, sprouting new features and new abilities as I went along. The advantage was that I could do more with it. The disadvantage was that retrofitting a feature left a fair number of earlier entries out, and it was often difficult to update them. Nor, I should note, did I particularly learn the lessons of this impromptu development. I’ve continued to adopt new technology but have essentially figured out how to use it as I go along. There are any number of my scholarly tools, electronic and otherwise, that have been fitted and retrofitted, made for one purpose and then pushed to do another.

Next: digital cameras.

I’ve taught the introductory historiography and methods seminar to incoming graduate students three times, and each time I’ve assigned Richard Evans’s Telling Lies About Hitler. Originally, the point in assigning it was to draw a line beyond which respectable historians must not go; together with Ari I had picked a number of other books that showed acceptable, even laudable, creativity in interpreting and extrapolating from sources – Return of Martin Guerre, Unredeemed Captive, others – and I wanted one that showed an unarguably inexcusable abuse of sources, so that we might know the difference. And what better choice than a tale about Holocaust denial?

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Errol Morris writes, “For years, I’ve wanted to make a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Not because I thought I could prove that it was a conspiracy, or that I could prove it was a lone gunman, but because I believe that by looking at the assassination, we can learn a lot about the nature of investigation and evidence.” He comes up with an “op-doc.”
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I half-remember an anecdote about an English MP a philosopher (graciously identified by ben below) who, when asked if he read novels, replied, “Oh yes. All six of them, every year.” For me, in recent years, the equivalent has become the annual re-reading of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.

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Theodore Roosevelt wanted to get elected President of the United States in 1912, but he had to settle for serving as President of the American Historical Association. Two days after Christmas that year (and only two and a half months after getting shot) he delivered his presidential address on “History as Literature.” Here, in the use of a couple clever metaphors, Roosevelt goes beyond a mere defense of the idea that history ought to have a literary quality to an explanation of what the relation is between a more literary history and the normal work of the historical profession, and why a profession without room for literary history is failing itself and civilization.

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Ari and I are again teaching the core graduate seminar in history this fall. Below is our reading list, by topic, for your delectation.
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Two stories caught my eye last week, both thanks to Ralph Luker. They concern the practice of history, though in disparate ways. The first is about how Paul Krugman, my favorite economist, came to the study of economics:

With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. Why did some societies have serfs or slaves and others not? You could talk about culture and national character and climate and changing mores and heroes and revolts and the history of agriculture and the Romans and the Christians and the Middle Ages and all the rest of it; or, like Krugman’s economics teacher Evsey Domar, you could argue that if peasants are barely surviving there’s no point in enslaving them, because they have nothing to give you, but if good new land becomes available it makes sense to enslave them, because you can skim off the difference between their output and what it takes to keep them alive. Suddenly, a simple story made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality, and Krugman found that enormously satisfying.

I think Historiann’s comment here is the best one: “You know that old joke about economists: ‘Sure it works in reality, but will it work in theory?‘”

The second was Jon Wiener’s article in the Nation about tobacco companies using historians as expert witnesses:

In these cases, history has become a key component in the tobacco attorneys’ defense strategy. In the past, when smokers with cancer sued for damages, the companies said they shouldn’t have to pay, because there was a “scientific controversy” about whether smoking causes cancer. But in recent years they have given up that argument and now argue something like the opposite: “everybody knew” smoking causes cancer. So if you got cancer from smoking, it’s your own fault.
To persuade juries, they need historians–experts who, for example, can testify that newspapers in the plaintiff’s hometown ran articles about the health hazards of smoking in the 1940s or ’50s or ’60s, when he or she started. So Big Tobacco has been spending a lot of money hiring historians…

The historian who particularly caught my eye was Stephen Ambrose, a famous military historian best known for Band of Brothers, as well as some serious methodological issues. In a particular irony, Ambrose died in 2003 of lung cancer caused by smoking.

But my point is not quite to pick on Krugman or Ambrose. Read the rest of this entry »

. . . Brent Bozell, of the ironically named “Media Research Center,” who refuted Oliver Stone’s comment that “Nixon always said Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch” by quoting a number of prominent figures in Reagan’s administration who thought Reagan was really smart:

I turned to Frank Donatelli, the White House Political Director under President Reagan from 1987 through 1989 . . . Richard Allen, Reagan’s National Security Advisor . . . [and] Gary Bauer[, the] Domestic Policy Advisor under the Gipper for two years[.]

All of them agreed that real “dumb son of a bitch” was Stone, who—according Bozell in a letter addressed to Stone—is an historian because he once claimed to be:

Some producer [of Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect] really thought in extremes when they pitted Oliver Stone and Brent Bozell for one episode. I have to say that you were gracious, charming, engaging, and we enjoyed ourselves—except for that moment when I chastised you for claiming you’re an historian. You bristled and denied ever claming that moniker. I cited the source, an interview in some West Coast paper (I can’t recall which one now).

Even though Bozell can’t remember the name of the paper, he somehow managed to re-read the article later and

[i]t turns out that you were right (in the article) and I was wrong.

So Bozell was wrong, Stone never claimed to be an historian, but that doesn’t mean Bozell wasn’t also right:

You are an historian whether you believe it or not. You make films about history and historical figures. You record history, and that makes you an historian.

Now that Bozell, through the cunning use of italics, has transformed Stone into an historian, he can finally slam him good and proper:

Being an historian is not the problem. It’s that you’re a lousy historian.

In short, Stone isn’t what he never claimed to be, but is what Bozell says he is, and a lousy one at that.  The evidence:

“Nixon always said Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch,” you said, and the audience laughed, and you smiled and decided to take that statement further by agreeing with it. So you said, “You know, I think that he was,” and the audience now cheered and hooted and applauded.

See what I mean when I say you’re a lousy historian?

There are two claims being made here: one, that Nixon thought Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch; two, that Oliver Stone thinks Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch. Unfortunately for Bozell, Nixon illegally taped every conversation he ever had, and when we consult his conversations with Henry Kissenger on the morning of November 17, 1971 [620a.mp3], we learn that while Nixon didn’t use those exact words—about Reagan, at least, since we know he used that particular phrase about everyone from the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, to the Director of the Secret Service, James Rowley, to one of his own White House aides, Tom Charles Huston—he didn’t think too highly of the Gipper’s wits:

(beginning at 1:33:02)

President Nixon: What’s your evaluation or Reagan after meeting him several times now.

Kissinger: Well, I think he’s a—actually I think he’s a pretty decent guy.

President Nixon: Oh, decent, no question, but his brains?

Kissinger: Well, his brains are negligible. I—

President Nixon: He’s really pretty shallow, Henry.

Kissinger: He’s shallow. He’s got no . . . he’s an actor. He—When he gets a line he does it very well. He said, “Hell, people are remembered not for what they do, but for what they say. Can’t you find a few good lines?” That’s really an actor’s approach to foreign policy . . .

Admittedly, Kissinger lands the harder blows, but Nixon obviously agrees with him, so we can say with certainty that Nixon thinks Reagan’s “brains are neglible” and that he’s “really pretty shallow.” That’s not quite “dumb son of a bitch,” but it’s close. If only that tape continued . . .

(beginning at 1:46:19)

President Nixon: Back to Reagan though. It shows you how a man of limited mental capacity simply doesn’t know what the Christ is going on in the foreign area. He’s got to know that on defense—doesn’t he know these battles we fight and fight and fight? Goddamn it, Henry, we’ve been at—

Does calling Reagan “a man of limited mental capacity” amount to saying he’s a “dumb son of bitch”? Oliver Stone seems to think so, and I’m inclined to agree. So, as to the first claim, Bozell is clearly the lousy historian here.

As to the second claim—that Oliver Stone thinks Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch—given that Bozell spends the majority of a letter addressed to Stone trying to prove that Reagan was the second coming of Thomas Aquinas, he’s not well-positioned to argue that Stone doesn’t think Reagan was a dumb son of a bitch.

In other words, the person who misremembered what Stone said in an article somewhere, but doesn’t remember where, who then re-read the article from he-doesn’t-remember-where and promptly forgot where it was again—this person thinks Stone is a lousy historian because he correctly cited Nixon’s sentiments about Reagan and correctly stated that he agreed with Nixon’s assessment. If I were Bozell—and could remember that I was Bozell long enough to cite myself—I wouldn’t be knocking people who don’t claim to be historians for being lousy historians when those same tables could so easily be turned on, say, a “lecturer, syndicated columnist, television commentator, debater, marketer, businessman, author, publisher and activist” who fancies himself qualified to judge who is and isn’t “a real [historian].”


seymour2.jpgJournalism is famously the “first rough draft of history” and today I want to look for a moment at what kind of draft it is. To do so, I’ve taken a relatively short article from the New York Times of June 30, 1900, and read it closely. How well does an article written in the heat of the moment stand up for the long term?

The short answer: not well. The long answer, however, is that it is interesting to analyze how the article was constructed, what agendas were served, and where inaccurate or shaded information served some purpose other than simply reporting. As a factual account of events prior to June 30, 1900, the article failed. As a source for a history of that period, the article seems to me eminently useful.

Before we explore those answers further, let me lay out a bit of the background to the article. Since early June, 1900, the crisis in China had grown enormously. Early in the month, the western powers sent several hundred guards–soldiers, marines, and sailors–up to the foreign embassies in Beijing to protect them from the Boxers. Within a few days of that arrival, the train and telegraph lines from Beijing were cut, and almost all communication with the capital was lost. The naval forces assembled off the coast at Dagu in the Yellow Sea put together a scratch force of whatever fighting men they had available, led by Admiral Edward Seymour took the train north from Tianjin, close to Dagu, in hopes of being able to repair breaks in the line and make it quickly to Beijing. They failed, and had to fight their way back to Tianjin, reaching it in late June.

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You’ll sometimes hear historians bemoaning the state of professional scholarship, saying there’s nothing interesting in the new issues of our journals and everyone’s fixated on trivia to the exclusion of important questions. And I like a good jeremiad as well as anyone. But I thought I’d begin a series of posts on journal articles that are interesting and nontrivial. (We’ll see how long it lasts.)


Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 265-288.

Link here, for those who can access it.
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(by request.)

As all actual, practicing literary critics know, few sentences in critical works scream tendentiousness louder than:

What should be transparent to any literary critic is that . . .

Literary matters are only “transparent” when they’re not properly literary. If something is transparent, you don’t need a literary critic to ponder the depths it doesn’t have—any old idiot will suffice. And that’s exactly why Jack Cashill, author of the above and an idiot of long-standing, is just the man to prove that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. For Cashill and his mysterious contributors (“[t]he media punishment that Joe the Plumber received” requires they remain anonymous), the case against Obama is a compelling one:

What Mr. Midwest noticed recently is that both Ayers in [A Kind and Just Parent] and Obama in [Dreams From My Father] make reference to the poet Carl Sandburg. In itself, this is not a grand revelation. Let us call it a C-level match. Obama and Ayers seem to have shared the same library in any case . . . Ayers and Obama, however, go beyond citing Sandburg. Each quotes the opening line of his poem “Chicago” . . . This I would call a B-level match. What raises it up a notch to an A-level match is the fact that both misquote “Chicago,” and they do so in exactly the same way.

So both Ayers and Obama misquote the opening line of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” substituting “hog butcher to the world” for “hog butcher for the world.” This mutual error would be significant (an “A-level match”) if Ayers and Obama were the only two people who ever made it, but according to Google Book Search—a secret search engine to which only I have access—the same mistake has been made by Nelson Algren, Alan Lomax, Andrei Codrescu, H.L. Mencken, Paul Krugman, Perry Miller, Donald Hall, Ed McBain, Saul Bellow, S.J. Perelman, Nathanaël West, Ezra Pound, Wright Morris, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. (To name but a few.) According to Cashill, I have now proven that Dreams From My Father was written by many a dead man of American letters, a living mystery writer, a New York Times columnist and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. That bears repeating:

I have an “A-level match” that proves that Obama’s autobiography was written by a “study of the economic and social effects of automation and other technological changes on industry, commerce, agriculture, education, manpower, and society in Illinois” when Obama was only six years old.  If that somehow fails to convey to the dubious merits of Cashill’s argument, perhaps this will:

Returning to the exotic, in his Indonesian backyard Obama discovered two “birds of paradise” running wild as well as chickens, ducks, and a “yellow dog with a baleful howl.” In [Ayers’] Fugitive Days, there is even more “howling” than there is in Dreams . . . In [A Kind and Just Parent], he talks specifically about a “yellow dog.” And he uses the word “baleful” to describe an “eye” in Fugitive Days. For the record, “baleful” means “threatening harm.” I had to look it up.

You did read that right. Cashill did cite as “A-level” evidence the fact that Ayers and Obama used a word he didn’t know, despite his being the Executive Editor of Kansas City’s premier business publication, Ingram’s Magazine; despite his having written for Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard; despite his having authored five books of non-fiction; and despite the word “baleful” having appeared in print 342 times in the past six months alone. Granted, all those appearances were in high-minded literary publications like Newsday (“[w]ith his baleful countenance, wild hair, sonorous baritone and sage pronouncements”) or leftist rags like The Washington Times (“warn them in baleful tones if they’ve forgotten, say, the Constitution”), so it would be unreasonable to expect Cashill to have been familiar with the word . . . or would be, were it not for the fact that it also appears 19 times in the pages of the American Thinker, the publication for which Cashill penned this tripe. (Seems he can begin his careful literary analysis of the other 848,000 potential ghost writers closer to home.)

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Though I do wonder what experiences led them to charge for extra emails:

We discourage any lengthy-frequent-repetitive contacts with this journal. For the complexity of AEQ review process see Flowchart. The Journal’s ten year publishing experience suggests maximum 8 e-mail/postal contacts
between the author and AEQ as the norm

  • 1) submission
  • 2) submission clarification
  • 3) copyright
  • 4) extra contact

You must complete the above 3 in maximum 4 e-mail/postal contacts. Otherwise, your submission
will be rejected or rescheduled for consideration until the next available issue.

  • 5) reviews
  • 6) reviews clarification
  • 7) final copy
  • 8) extra contact

Exceeding eight contacts may disqualify your submission from further consideration or require $45 redactory fee. as it drives up journal’s administrative cost above the forty-five fifty-seven dollars average per one submission.
Hence, in order to work efficiently, we had to establish “eight contacts limit” per one submission.

Love the strikethrough of the “forty-five” in the last paragraph. “See how much our costs are going up!”

Are there charges for facebooking them? Twitter?

The flowchart link leads to the following (after the jump, so as not to suck up the entire front page).

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If you were teaching a methods/historiography course, what texts would you use? And yes, I know methods and historiography are two different things, thanks.

In 1921 Marc Bloch published a review essay in the Revue de synthèse historique on the propagation of false news in wartime. As far as I know it’s not been published in English, though I think bits of it turn up in the Historian’s Craft, it’s reprinted in Ecrits de guerre, and it’s available as a (very short) book in French. As Carole Fink points out, here Bloch is doing some important spade-work into the critical analysis of myths to reveal what they say about the culture that produces them. Bloch is not interested in propaganda or lies, which he regards as trivial and obvious, but rather in the error that is propagated as fact.
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Historians consult sources that record past events, dismantle these sources into statements of fact, then reassemble these atoms into a synthesis of past events allegedly superior to the constituent sources. In the process we make many decisions: which sources to consult, which facts to distill from them, which facts to cull from the distillate and what emphasis to place on any of them. How do we make these decisions?

In October 1910, Carl L. Becker published “Detachment and the Writing of History” in the Atlantic Monthly, to reckon with this question.1
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