Category Archives: history

For the Love of it?: Alt-Ac Reflections on finishing the PhD

When I was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic undergrad, I applied to PhD programs in history.

I have a very strong memory of sitting in my future advisor’s office and asking him the  most important question I could think of:  “What, in your opinion, makes a good dissertation?”

He responded immediately: “Passion.  Passion is what separates so-so research from the real stuff.  Being passionate about your work is what will make you a great scholar and will drive you to produce a truly great dissertation.”

11 years later, I have finally finished my dissertation.  Go ahead and read it if you like.  It’s called Republicans of Letters: the Early American Foreign Service as Information Network, 1775 – 1825.  It’s freely available.  I don’t believe in embargoes.  And, in the final analysis, I’m pleased with what I wrote.

But where was I?  Ah yes.  Passion.

I have no doubt that my adviser completely believed (and clearly lived by) his words.  They just didn’t work for me.  I would offer a different list:

Dedication. Persistence. Scheduling. Selfishness. Ambition.

These are what finally drove me to finish my PhD.  Ok.  That’s a little overwrought.  The real reason I finished was that Bethany Nowviskie told me: “Jean, everything you want to do will be easier if you finish your degree.”

Whether we like it or not, the academy is a very hierarchical place.  And getting a PhD puts you much closer to the top of that pyramid than almost any combination of skill-set, personality, and experience probably ever will.

Getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are smarter, more insightful, or even more disciplined than other people.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you are more qualified to teach.  But it does mean you have done something most sane individuals do not attempt.  It’s like running a marathon.  You don’t have to do it.  But if you do, you want to tell people about it and get credit for all those long hours of running when no one was chasing you.  And other marathoners welcome you into their club, because, to paraphrase Captain Mal Reynolds, “Lady, you are my kind of crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone looking to have an alt-ac career needs a PhD.  Or that everyone who has started a PhD program has to finish it.  Leaving grad school can be the best choice for your life and your career.  If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would never have bothered.  But I was, and my personality is what it is, so I finished.

And there are lots of good reasons to go to grad school.  Ironically, all the training I received to pursue my alt-ac career came *because* I was a graduate student, accepted into a program whose sole stated goal was to train me to become a tenure-track professor.  I could get hired on The Dolley Madison Digital Edition because I was a graduate student. My cherished fellowships at Scholars’ Lab and NINES were reserved for graduate students.

And I learned a great deal about early American history along the way.  I cannot speak to other graduate programs, but the great benefit of a PhD in American history is that it makes you put your events in context.  There is some fantastic popular history out there, and some of my favorite scholarly treatments of early America were written by people without PhDs.  But so often the journalist or professional non-fiction writer will miss a crucial part of the larger stage their actors stand on.  As someone who works on the oft-misused “Founding Era” of American history, I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pull a talented writer of popular history aside and make him read for comps before publishing another word.

So what is the “value” of a PhD?  IMHO: it doesn’t matter if in the end you go alt-ac, trad-ac, or non-ac.  The value of the PhD is what you make of it.  If getting a PhD gets you closer to your goals, then go for it.  If sticking out a program that is making you miserable has no discernible benefit, than take the gems you have wrested from the earth and build a better life for yourself.  And don’t let anyone look down on you for doing what is best for you.

And if you lose the passion, well, then you lose it.  Somedays it just goes away.  Other days it comes back. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it doesn’t mean you can’t finish, and finish strong.  It just means that you are running an intellectual marathon, and your second, or third, or fourth wind is coming a little late.

Back in those days of brighter eyes and naive (but not entirely misplaced) enthusiasm, I attended a seminar on Applying to Graduate School in History, held by the History Department of my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  During the panel, one of the faculty members said something that, at the time, made no sense to me:

And for pity’s sake, don’t write in your personal statement that you “love history.”  We [faculty] don’t “love” history.  We love our wives, our girlfriends.  We love fishing.  History is our job.  Take history seriously as your job and you will do well.  But don’t love it.  Love something better.

Now that I am finished with my dissertation I am embarking on a “personality reclamation project,” which consists of going back to all the hobbies I abandoned in graduate school: hiking, jazz piano, Spanish literature.

I do love history.  But I need to see other disciplines, and I think she respects that.  I also need to spend time with my husband, and with mountains, and playing Oscar Peterson, and reading Odas Elementales, and oh yeah, being the Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.

As I start to advise graduate students, particularly those intrigued by alt-ac careers, I hope I can give them a sense of safety and stability.  That their worth as human beings is completely distinct from anything their advisers can say about them (be it good or bad).  I would never talk someone into leaving their program, but I want them to know that staying the course is their choice.  And if they choose to leave (for whatever reason), it does not reflect poorly on them nor will they lose the skills they have gained.

And as I advise undergraduates, I will ask them all the hard questions that angered me so much when I stubbornly told everyone I met that “I was going to be a historian.”  Because even if they can’t answer the questions, they need to hear them.  Because the job market has changed and tenure-track has be to your Plan B.  And because there are so many ways to be a historian.

So, at the end of the day — What’s love got to do with it?

Am I even qualified?: Writing about Digital History

About two weeks ago, my article “Fielding History: Relational Databases and Prose” went online for open peer review and possible inclusion in the open access essay collection Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack A. Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki. If you haven’t heard about Writing History in the Digital Age, you owe it to yourself to head over to the website and learn more. It is a fabulous project and experiment in open peer review and open access publishing. I am honored that my essay has made it this far.

As part of the experiment, the editors have asked their prospective contributors to publicly reflect on their writing process. That’s something I have neglected to do until now, for a variety of reasons . . . the main reason being that this may be the most difficult essay I have ever written.

OK, my master’s thesis was probably harder, but that was five times as long, and I worked on it (on and off) for 4 years before sending it out to be traditionally peer-reviewed. “Fielding History” clocks in at 3,077 words and I only had six weeks to write it. Six weeks in which I nearly gave up on the project approximately four times. One of these times (but not the last), my husband asked why I was quitting. Before I could think, I responded:

“Because I am only qualified to write about 18th Century Diplomats!”

He just stared at me. I stared back. Until the absurdity hit me. I’m an open source developer, a database architect, and a historian. I’ve developed and built databases for three distinct historical projects (including my own dissertation). If I can’t write an article on relational databases and historical writing, then who can?

But that is the trick with an emerging field. It’s hard to know when you are ready to write about it. I know how to become credentialed to write about my 18th Century diplomats. I’m getting a PhD. Most of the time I’m very happy with the boot-strapping culture that imbues Digital Humanities with so much of its energy and allows someone like me to have a great job and contribute to the field without having to wait for tenure or even my dissertation committee to declare me “fit.”

But then I have to write about what I’m doing, and all the doubts pile in. I always wanted to write about the theory of history, even before I entered a PhD program, but I thought I would do it after I retired — an emerita’s retrospective on a life of study. What right do I have to do this when I’m only 29?

What finally got me writing was the realization (voiced by my husband) that this was not about having the final word or all the answers. But I could put in an early word for something I care about and maybe start a conversation. I wrote the piece in first person (a big no-no for academic prose) to emphasize that point. I don’t have the theoretical chops to write in the third person about databases and history. What I have is a case study, a story, that may help others think more reflectively about what we digital historians do every day.

I hope you will head over to Writing History in a Digital Age and look at the really amazing essays my fellow historians have written. Open peer review continues through November 14, 2011. Please comment if you have something it say: having an essay up for open peer review is orders of magnitude more nerve-wracking than wondering if anyone reads your blog.

Maybe stop by and read my piece as well, if the topic interests you. Let’s get this conversation started.

Abigail and Thomas

I probably can’t call Thomas Jefferson a metrosexual in my dissertation, but that’s why I have a blog.

Abigail Adams is famous for bringing out the best in her correspondents, but Thomas’s letters to her are particularly striking, perhaps because we have so little to compare them to. He burned his wife’s letters shortly after her death, Maria Cosway was hardly an intellectual equal, and if he wrote to Sally Hemings it is no surprise the documents do not survive.

His letters to Abigail are full of humor, political philosophy, and shopping. Yes, Abigail and Thomas shopped for each other when they lived in Europe, while John Adams was the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James and Thomas Jefferson held the equivalent position at Versailles (1785-1788). She ordered shirts and table linens for him in London. He bought her lace and shoes in Paris. But my favorite example is his quest for the perfect statuettes, described in his letter of September 25, 1785:

I could only find three of those you named, matched in size. These were Minerva, Diana, and Apollo. I was obliged to add a fourth, unguided by your choice. They offered me a fine Venus; but I thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time. Paris and Helen were presented. I conceived it would be cruel to remove them from their particular shrine . . . At length a fine Mars was offered, calm, bold, his faulchion not drawn, but ready to be drawn. This will do, thinks I, for the table of the American Minister in London, where those whom it may concern may look and learn that though Wisdom is our guide, and the Song and Chase our supreme delight, yet we offer adoration to that tutelar god also who rocked the cradle of our birth, who has accepted our infant offerings, and has shewn himself the patron of our rights and avenger of our wrongs. The group was then closed and your party formed.

Unfortunately the little statues were not properly wrapped and broke apart on their journey. But the shoes always made it over intact.

Quote from “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams. Paris, 25 September 1785.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. [accessed 03 Apr 2011]
To see the letter in its original context (complete with scholarly annotations) click on the link. If you do not have access to the Rotunda American Founding Era the letter can also be found in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, Volume 8.

Republicans of Letters

Here are the slides for my January 26th talk at Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, “Republicans of Letters: Historical Social Networks and The Early American Foreign Service Database.”

The abstract ran as follows, “Jean Bauer, an advanced doctoral candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and creator of The Early American Foreign Service Database, will discuss her use and creation of digital tools to trace historical social networks through time and space. Drawing on her research into the commercial, kinship, patronage, and correspondence networks that helped form the American diplomatic and consular corps, Bauer will examine how relational databases and computational information design can help scholars identify and analyze historical social networks. The talk will include demos of two open source projects Bauer has developed to help scholars analyze their own research, Project Quincy and DAVILA.”

Some of the slides are pretty text intensive, so if something catches your eye, go ahead and hit pause!

Into the woods we go (again)

I owe an apology to woodcutters everywhere.

After my misadventures yesterday (see previous post), I confidently announced that Google Earth had allowed me to find the missing entrance to the original Blue Ridge Tunnel. Luckily for me, I blogged about my experience and was thus kept from making (yet another) critical error.

My friend (and experienced geocacher) Kristen Jensen read my blog and did some research of her own. Turns out someone had marked the location on Panoramio, but put it north of the new tunnel not south. I looked at the Panoramio page and realized that I had misunderstood the woodcutter’s instructions. I was supposed to cross over the rail road tracks and continue up a hill following a trail that ran parallel to the new rail bed.

Sure enough, when my husband and I headed out this afternoon, we found the trail again on the other side of tracks. It was rather overgrown and I can’t really say I’m surprised I didn’t see it yesterday. Once found, however, it was quite easy to follow and the overgrowth was relatively light.

As promised, it ended in a grotto, right at the entrance of a most imposing stone structure carved out of the hill. Definitely the place.

When we arrived, we could see little lights flickering in the tunnel. Overtime, they became three fellow hikers who had ventured into the tunnel with flashlights to see how far under the mountain they could go (estimated .25 miles before they hit a drainage pipe). Apparently, there are plans to turn the tunnel and old railway into a Green Trail through Nelson County.

I got some great pictures of the tunnel (and surrounding foliage; it was a perfect fall day). We also walked inside the tunnel, but not too far, and marveled at how well the masonry has held up. On the way back, a cargo train thundered below us on the new tracks I had walked the day before.

On balance, I am rather pleased this expedition turned out the way it did. The light was better today than yesterday, and my husband had never been hiking before. I can’t image a better introduction to one of my favorite pastimes.

Buried within this story you will probably find a morality tale about the importance of local knowledge over satellite imagery, the triumph of idiosyncrasy over algorithms, and the value of a close network of friends. But personally (and artistically), I’m just glad everything worked out.

If you want to see the Tunnel for yourself, here is how to find it.

  • Take Interstate 64 to Exit 99.
  • Turn Left at the bottom of the exit ramp onto 250 West.
  • Drive down the mountain (about 1.5 miles) until you see a railroad overpass.
  • Park on the side of the road.
  • Cross the road and head down the trail on the far side of the overpass.
  • Follow that trail to the modern train tracks. (about 5mins)
  • Cross the train tracks, and turn Right up the hill.
  • Follow the path to the tunnel entrance (about 10 minutes, possibly less if you aren’t a photographer).

For those of you with GPS devices, the correct coordinates are 38° 2′ 24.13″ N 78° 51′ 44.45″ W.

The path is clear, but overgrown so I would recommend long pants and sturdy shoes (hiking boots if you have them). Also bring some water and a jacket, the temperature varies by 15 degrees depending on where you are.

And if you meet a friendly woodcutter, say hello.

A Walk In the Woods

I am revising my opinion of friendly woodcutters.

This afternoon, I was out in the woods by Afton, VA looking for an abandoned railroad tunnel from the 1850s. My plan was to photograph the tunnel entrance, so Will Thomas could use the image in his new book. When it was completed in 1858, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest train tunnel in the United States.

When I agreed to take the photograph I thought I knew where the tunnel was.

Wikipedia had a lat/long value for the tunnel which I happily plugged into my iPhone and got directions. Once I got off the interstate, I found what appeared to be the Frontage Road indicated on Google Maps (although AT&T lost me at several points so the Google API was spotty at best once I actually got out there). The road was in bad repair and covered in leaves, although it had been paved at one point.

I parked my car in a motel parking lot across the street and headed into the woods. After about 15 minutes it became apparent that I was not heading towards the location. I doubled back and came across an older man in work pants and a sweatshirt sitting on the back of his truck, which was piled with firewood.

He took one look at me (long sleeve tee-shirt, jeans, fleece vest and camera bag) and asked “You looking for the tunnel?”

I said yes, and he proceeded to explain that I was on the wrong side of the mountain. I had to get back in my car, drive to the railway overpass, find the trail that ran into the woods and then follow the railroad tracks (at least, that’s what I think he said, his directions were rather convoluted and referenced small differences in a geography I had yet to experience).

I did as he suggested, found the trail and headed off again. I soon found myself walking along suspiciously pristine railroad tracks, but my GPS said I was now headed in the right direction. Then I saw the tunnel: a sheer, concrete slab with a perfect arch cut into it, complete with trademark U.S. Government art-deco typeface etched into the surface, proclaiming “Blue Ridge Tunnel, 1942-1944.”


I took a few shots (just in case), but by this point it was 4pm, and the sun was getting close to the mountain range, so I decided to go home.

As I prepared to merge onto the interstate, I saw the laughably small sign indicating the real Frontage Rd., Rt. 212, and made a quick right. The road was gravel, but well maintained and I drove until I found a gate.

I thought about heading down on foot, but realized the light would be terrible by the time I found the tunnel. Luckily, I didn’t try.

When I got home, I went online to see if I could figure out what had happened. Apparently, Wikipedia gave me the coordinates for the modern tunnel (built during WWII to handle the increased rail traffic) even though the article was about the nineteenth-century construction. The article claimed the new tunnel was built in parallel with the old one, but I certainly didn’t see any antebellum construction nearby.

Finally, I looked at Google Earth and I think I have found the old tunnel, about 200m south by southwest of the new tunnel. As far as I can tell, the easiest way to reach it will be off that Frontage Road and far, far away from the trail suggested to me in the woods. I’m heading back tomorrow to see if I’m right.

Either way, I’m pretty sure the woodcutter was wrong.


The story continues in my next post, “Into the woods we go (again).”

It’s [A]live!

It is with great pleasure, and no small amount of trepidation, that I announce the launch of the Early American Foreign Service Database (EAFSD to its friends). While the EAFSD has been designed as an independent, secondary source publication, it also exists symbiotically with my dissertation “Revolution-Mongers: Launching the U.S. Foreign Service, 1775-1825.”

I created the EAFSD to help me track the many diplomats, consuls, and special agents sent abroad by the various American governments during the first fifty-years of American state-building. Currently the database contains basic information about overseas assignments and a few dives into data visualization (an interactive Google map and Moritz Stefaner’s Relation Browser).

I have been a reluctant convert to the principles of Web 2.0, and I keenly feel the anxiety of releasing something before my perfectionist tendencies have been fully exhausted. The pages of the EAFSD are therefore sprinkled with requests for feedback and my (hopefully humorous) under construction page, featuring Benjamin West’s unfinished masterpiece the “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain.”

Over the next few months (and coming years) I will be adding more information to the database, allowing me to trace the social, professional, and correspondence networks from which American foreign service officers drew the information they needed to represent their new (and often disorganized) government. I will also be enhancing the data visualizations to include hypertrees, time lines, and network graphs.

This launch has been over two years in the making. As I look back over that time, I am amazed at the generous support I have received from my colleagues at the University of Virginia and the Digital Humanities community writ large. I wrote an extended acknowledgments page for the EAFSD, my humble attempt to recognize the help and encouragement that made this project possible.

Launching the EAFSD also gives me a chance to test, Project Quincy, the open-source software package I am developing for tracing historical networks through time and space. The EAFSD is the flagship (read guinea pig) application for Project Quincy. I hope my work will allow other scholars to explore the networks relevant to their own research.

To that end the EAFSD is, and always will be, open access and open source.

Aristocrats, Agendas, & Adams

Some days I think the biggest problem facing digital historians is our workflow. We are already expected to juggle archival research and secondary readings with teaching and writing. Add a digital project into the mix and the temptation to pull out one’s hair becomes almost irresistible. The madness increases when you are the primary programmer on your own project.

I feel your pain.

Last weekend I was despairing of the many moving parts that will (in the next eighteen months) constitute my dissertation. I realized that I was spending all my time on the database I am building to house my research and complete my analysis. The database is indispensable (and being spun-out into an open source project to help others), but it is only one part of my project. Then I had a brain wave, courtesy of my favorite Founding Father, John Adams.

According to Adams, the greatest threat to a successful republican government was a society’s aristocrats — people with the time, talents, charisma, and/or money necessary to accomplish their goals. Such people (and he was one) would always want to be in control, but in a republic The People, not the aristocrats, were supposed to govern. Adams’ solution was to shut the aristocrats into the upper house of the legislature (read: Senate) where they would have sufficient scope for their talents but not enough power to hijack the whole system.

Last weekend, I realized that my database is the “aristocrat” of my dissertation. It is powerful, attracts attention, and brings me funding, but it has become a drain on my time and energy out of proportion to its role in the larger project. So, I am going to try a constitutional experiment.

I am giving myself one day each week to work on the database. I’ve chosen Wednesdays to coincide with my office hours at NINES. With any luck, this concentrated time will push me to be more productive, while freeing up the rest of my time to do the research and writing necessary to complete my degree. Of course, everything comes back to the database in the end: my research is loaded into the data structure and analyzed for patterns, which I then explore in the prose of my dissertation.

But hopefully, a system of checks and balances will keep me stable.

A Gem of A Letter

While working on People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach, I came upon an unexpected gem in the Papers of George Washington — a letter written by Washington to John Marshall on April 11, 1789. At the time, Washington was President of the United States and Marshall was the young (but promising) Virginia lawyer who handled Washington’s personal legal affairs. A month earlier, Washington had instructed Marshall to collect on an over twenty-year-old debt owed him by the estate of William Armistead.

However, in early April Washington changed his mind. He wrote,

“I have been lately informed that Mrs Armsteads sons are dead and have left their families not in very good circumstances. If this is the case—and the payment of the debt due to me would distress them I must beg that you will not proceed any further in the matter, for however pressing my want of money is at present I had much rather lose the debt than that the widow and fatherless should suffer by my recovering it.”

We now live in a time of such financial insecurity, worried about jobs, grants, and life savings. Washington’s letter is a helpful reminder that, whatever our current wants, our plans should encompass our neighbors’ needs as well as our own.

Quote from “George Washington to John Marshall, Mount Vernon, 11 April 1789”, Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda 2007. [accessed 23 Sep 2009]. To see the letter in its entirety (and the editorial annotations), click on the link above, or if you don’t have a subscription to Rotunda’s American Founding Collection, find it in the print volume, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Volume 2, page 47.