Monday, January 30, 2012

Fixing the job market in two modest steps

Another January, another set of hand-wringing about the humanities job market. So, allow me a brief departure from the digital humanities. First, in four paragraphs, the problem with our current understanding of the history job market; and then, in several more, the solution.

Tony Grafton and Jim Grossman launched the latest exchange with what they call a "modest proposal" for expanding professional opportunities for historians. Jesse Lemisch counters that we need to think bigger and mobilize political action. There's a big and productive disagreement there, but also a deep similarity: both agree there isn't funding inside the academy for history PhDs to find work, but think we ought to be able to get our hands on money controlled by someone else. Political pressure and encouraging words will unlock vast employment opportunities in the world of museums, archives, and other public history (Grafton) or government funded jobs programs (Lemisch). These are funny places to look for growth in a 21st-century OECD country (perhaps Bill Cronon could take the more obvious route, and make his signature initiative as AHA president creating new tenure-track jobs in the BRICs?) but the higher levels of the profession don't see much choice but to change the world.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Practices, the periphery, and Pittsburg(h)

[This is not what I'll be saying at the AHA on Sunday morning, since I'm participating in a panel discussion with Stefan Sinclair, Tim Sherrat, and Fred Gibbs, chaired by Bill Turkel. Do come! But if I were to toss something off today to show how text mining can contribute to historical questions and what sort of issues we can answer, now, using simple tools and big data, this might be the story I'd start with to show how much data we have, and how little things can have different meanings at big scales...]

Spelling variations are not a bread-and-butter historical question, and with good reason.  There is nothing at stake in whether someone writes "Pittsburgh" or "Pittsburg." But precisely because spelling is so arbitrary, we only change it for good reason. And so it can give insights into power, center and periphery, and transmission. One of the insights of cultural history is that the history of practices, however mundane, can be deeply rooted in the history of power and its use. So bear with me through some real arcana here; there's a bit of a payoff. Plus a map.

The set-up: until 1911, the proper spelling of Pittsburg/Pittsburgh was in flux. Wikipedia (always my go-to source for legalistic minutia) has an exhaustive blow-by-blow, but basically, it has to do with decisions in Washington DC, not Pittsburgh itself (which has usually used the 'h'). The city was supposedly mostly "Pittsburgh" to 1891, when the new US Board on Geographic Names made it firmly "Pittsburg;" then they changed their minds, and made it and once again and forevermore "Pittsburgh" from 1911 on. This is kind of odd, when you think about it: the government changed the name of the eighth-largest city in the country twice in twenty years. (Harrison and Taft are not the presidents you usually think of as kings of over-reach). But it happened; people seem to have changed the addresses on their envelopes, the names on their baseball uniforms, and everything else right on cue.

Thanks to about 500,000 books from the Open Library, though, we don't have to accept this prescriptive account as the whole story; what did people actually do when they had to write about Pittsburgh?

Here's the usage in American books:

What does this tell us about how practices change?