Sister Agnes explains why you still need to visit the archives


Sister Agnes schools us on the archives

Like many historians, I have more than once discovered that the published version of a primary source is incomplete or even misleading when checked against the archival source.  One of my first missions as a graduate student was locating the archival court records for a New England colony whose records were published except for some cases of adolescent boys and young adult men who were convicted of sodomy.  (The sensibilities of the Victorian-era editor of the town court records were too delicate to include the details of those cases, and those cases only.) 

Indeed, the intimate details of historical documents–the marginalia, the burn holes, the water stains, the ink splotches, few of which are reproducible in published form or legible on microfilm or even in digitized versions–are some of the greatest pleasures of being a historian, archivist or librarian.  I have long felt that intimacy with the documents is not just desirable, but necessary–not just to be sure that published records haven’t introduced errors in my research, but because I like to touch things that the people I write about have touched.  I like seeing whose handwriting is clear and the product of an educated hand, and whose handwriting is crude and full of non-standard or phonetic spellings.  The rare letter from a desperate Anglo-American woman on the Maine frontier looks a lot different than an official dispatch from Governor Dudley, and those differences are flattened when the documents are published in books or transcribed digitally.  That stuff matters to me.

The immediacy and sheer volume of historical materials available on the world wide (and as it turns out, not peer-reviewed) internets demands our continued scrutiny and vigilance.  Here’s a recent lesson by Sister Agnes, who spent some time in a European archive recently and discovered that the compiler of an on-line series of summaries of medieval monastic charters provided false or incomplete data: Continue reading

Women's History Month book club: Judith Bennett's "History Matters" Part III at Tenured Radical

bennetthistorymatters2Tenured Radical has posted her essay for Part III of our discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters, where she discusses premodern history, the academic job market’s bias towards the modern, and Bennett’s call for women’s historians to write more “lesbian-like” history.  The conversation is happening there now, so come on over and join in the fun!  (If you haven’t read them already, see part I by Notorious, Ph.D. here, and see my contribution, part II, here.) 

Sister bloggers, don’t forget TR’s announcement that the Journal of Women’s History wants submissions for their roundtable on “Feminism, Blogging, and the Historical Profession.”  See the CFP after the jump.

Continue reading EXCLUSIVE! Ruth Karras answers your questions, dishes some more

Ruth Mazo Karras returns today to answer some of the questions left in the comments to her previous post about publishing in Gender and History, whose North American headquarters have recently moved to the History Department at the University of Minnesota.  Ruth is a distinguished medieval European historian who serves as one of three North American co-editors of Gender and History, along with Sarah Chambers (colonial Latin America) and Regina Kunzel (U.S. History).  Today she answers your questions and dishes some more:  about choosing the right venue for your work, and how to list articles not yet published on your C.V. with greater precision.

ruthkarras2Thanks for all your kind comments on my post about publishing in Gender and History.  I’m glad some of you found it useful advice for publishing in humanities journals in general, too.

Magistra wanted to know whether G & H has any statistics on how often different articles are read.  We do have stats on frequency of downloads.  Unfortunately I only have hardcopy, it’s in my office, and we’re on break.  I can tell you that there aren’t any medieval articles in the top 10.  There is one early American article near the top of the list that sticks in my mind:  Toby Ditz, “The New Men’s History and the Peculiar Absence of Gendered Power:  Some Remedies from Early American Gender History.”  Many of the most frequently downloaded articles are like Ditz’s in that they are very methodologically or theoretically oriented; the ones that focus more closely on research findings don’t appeal to as wide an audience, although that doesn’t mean we don’t publish them.

I agree with Bennett that it is important for scholars working on earlier periods to be part of the conversation in women’s and gender history (and history of sexuality, which strict Foucauldian constructionists will tell you didn’t exist before modernity).  True story:  when I became president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, I had a long-time member tell me Continue reading

Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it's distant, anyway)? A call to arms.

bennetthistorymatters1Part II of Judith Bennett’s “History Matters” Women’s History Month book club.  If you haven’t seen it already, go read Part I here.

When my copy of Judith Bennett’s History Matters:  Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2006) arrived on the doorstep earlier this winter, I sat down and devoured it.  Yes, it was my constant companion, and even bedtime reading.  At times in the initial chapters, it read like a feminist version of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,with bits of gossip dropped here and there (although, frustratingly, I wished that Bennett had dished more than she does–she doesn’t always provide citations when she suggests that people wrote or did something she disapproves of.  However, if you’d like to know what a complete tool Lawrence Stone was, I can direct your attention to p. 14, footnote 36.  The cited condescending book review is available by subscription only on-line, but you can get some of the flava by reading Joan Scott’s angry response here.)  I love Bennett’s passionate, informed conviction that as women’s history has become more institutionalized and thus more distant from the women’s movement, it has lost something vital.

Last week over at Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, several of us got into a discussion about the generational angle of Bennett’s book.  In History Matters, Bennett writes about the excitement of being a graduate student in Toronto in the 1970s at the height of the modern women’s movement, coming out as a lesbian, and helping to invent women’s history all at the same time.  She also writes about her keen disappointment that succeeding generations of women’s historians have lost the founders’ zeal–and although she doesn’t say specifically, my guess is that Generation X women like me are a big part of her disappointment.  Continue reading

Historiann for the U.S. Senate!

I’ve thought it over today, and I take back most of what I wrote about Caroline Kennedy’s bid for the special appointment to fill the Senate seat that will be vacated when Hillary Clinton is confirmed by the Senate to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of State.  Now that it looks like we’ll have a Senate seat in need of a special appointment here in Colorado, I’ve asked myself:  why should experience in politics count for anything?  After all, various politicians in Colorado have expressed a great deal of interest in serving as top administrators in higher education without terminal degrees or any experience whatsoever, why shouldn’t I, a humble History professor with no experience in politics, throw my hat in the ring?

So here’s a draft of the letter I will send to Governor Bill Ritter to lay out my qualifications to become the next Senator from Colorado (and, not incidentally, Colorado’s first woman U.S. Senator).  Please let me know what you think, and where you would recommend changes!

Dear Governor Ritter,

How have you been?  Did you have a nice summer?  How is your wife?  I have been extra good this year.

I am writing to you to express my strong interest in being appointed to fill the open seat in the U.S. Senate that will be vacant pending Senator Ken Salazar’s confirmation by his Senate colleagues to become the next Secretary of the Interior.  I meet all of the constitutional requirements to serve as a U.S. Senator, but more importantly, I believe that my 22 years in higher education have prepared me very well to serve the people of the state of Colorado in the U.S. Senate.  In addition to education, my other top issue will be the development of clean, green energy technologies and industries, because like you I believe that our state should be a leader on these issues.

I know you probably aren’t getting a lot of telephone calls from other professors about this job.  But Colorado has recently showed itself to be very open to politicians like former U.S. Senators and failed gubernatorial candidates serving as university presidents and chancellors, and it goes without saying that the people of our state would be equally well served by permitting people in higher education to enter politics at the top.  Since our retiring U.S. Senator Wayne Allard has indicated his interest in becoming the Chancellor of Baa Ram U., appointing me to the U.S. Senate would be an even trade, and it would permit politicians in Colorado and in the U.S. Senate to benefit from the experience and wisdom of the academy. 

As an early American historian who regularly teaches on the era of the American Revolution and the writing of the U.S. Constitution, I am well versed in the history and political philosophy of our nation.  (Now that Robert Byrd is geezing pretty badly, the Senate will need another “historian.”)  Furthermore, as a women’s historian, no possible candidate for this Senate seat would understand better the significance of my becoming our state’s first woman Senator.  I am a proven vote-getter, as I have regularly been elected to serve on my department’s Executive Committee, which works much like a combination of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the Rules Committee.  Additionally, I’ve been elected this year to represent my department on the College Tenure and Promotion Committee, experience that would be applicable to service on the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

I have a great deal of administrative experience for a regular faculty member, earned within my department as the Graduate Studies Chair for one year, and as a Program Committee co-Chair of the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, a triennial event with 1,100 people on the program and which drew more than 1,400 registered participants.  My experience in both of these positions demonstrates that I would be able to assemble a great team of advisers and a crackerjack administrative staff to assist me in Washington and with my re-election campaign.  Additionally, as a Baa Ram U. faculty member, I would have access to some of the finest minds working on environmental issues in the country.

Finally, I would bring some intangible advantages to the Senate and to the Colorado Democratic Party.  I am physically fit and a hiking enthusiast, as are all of my very photogenic family members, so my campaign website and brochures would offer plenty of the pictures that are de rigeur for Colorado politicians:  me and my family embracing each other on top of various peaks in scenic vistas.  While I am not a native Coloradoan–which I realize may be a vulnerability–I would submit that the non-native Coloradoans who have found employment and made happy lives for themselves here deserve quality representation in the U.S. Senate too.

As a faculty member at a state university, I have already demonstrated that I work hard for the people of Colorado.  I would be honored to serve them in the U.S. Senate.

Yours Very Sincerely,


Advice to a new department chair: "to choose is to offend."

Here’s a dose of stiff medicine at the Chronicle, called “Advice to a New Department Chair” (via RYS Hall) from an outgoing department chair.  (My department is looking for a new chair this year, so the subject is on my mind lately.)  It’s actually great advice, although it’s probably not what new chairs want to hear.  The first declaration on his list is,”Nobody held a gun to your head.  No matter how reluctantly you took the job, you had the ultimate say as to whether to accept it. In that sense, you took the job willingly, knowing it would be difficult and sometimes stressful. Nobody forced you to seek it, or promised a bed of roses.”  I think this is really useful professional advice that applies to a variety of professional roles and service we might take on.  My favorite bit of advice is this:

To govern is to choose, said President Kennedy. And my corollary is, To choose is to offend. Expect criticism. It will not always result from the most-controversial or hard-to-defend decisions you will make, but sometimes from those that will seem like no-brainers to you. Your motives and sense of fairness will be suspected.

I got a version of this advice from a good friend of mine, when I privately complained to her about some long, crazed e-mails written in the correspondent’s blood I was getting concerning some of my work for the Berkshire conference last year.  The angry e-mails (and phone calls–ze called other people to complain about my decisions!) upset me:  did this person think I was a 23 year-old graduate student ze could push around?  Where was the respect?  Did ze not understand the hard work and careful planning that went into my decision, and that I made the decision with the advice of others, too?  My friend said to me, “Well, Historiann, the more stuff you do, the more you’ll get criticized.”  She continued:  “You either have to decide to live with the criticism, however fair or unfair, or decide not to do anything.”  She was exactly right:  if you stick your neck out and take on a role in which you’ll need to make decisions, not everyone will say “thank you for doing all of that hard work!”  Well, some will–but some will complain that you didn’t make the right decision–because it’s so easy and fun to criticize the quarterback from the sidelines, isn’t it?  (Of course, occasionally they might be right, but right or wrong, you won’t get credit for volunteering to make the decision.)

Needless to say, I realize that this all seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but I guess I had to hear it from someone else before it all clicked in my brain.  And, I should say that the words of praise, encouragement, and genuine appreciation for my work far, far outnumbered the few complaints I received.  (Perhaps that’s why this one persistent complainer stood out so dramatically and was so upsetting to me.  Everyone else loves my work–what the hell is wrong with you, pal?)

I decided that in the end, despite some criticism, it was good to be the quarterback.  If anyone doesn’t like my plays, they can damn well field their own team and put on their own show.  (And, please, please let me remember this as I watch happily from the sidelines for a few years.)  You can either bitch, or roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Little Berks blogger meetup round-up (yee-haw!)


Well, it sounds like a great time was had by all, gosh darn it, although I wasn’t in attendance (*sniff!*  Maybe next year I should volunteer to arrange for the Little Berkshire Conference to meet in the Rockies instead of the, um, Berkshires?)  The laydeez–Tenured Radical, Knitting Clio, and Clio Bluestocking–have posted reports on the conference, and two of them wrote about their conversation Saturday about women’s history blogging.

Although she missed the first night of the conference due to a bad cold, KC writes about a great idea of hers, namely, linking the Sunday seminars with the new Berks blog although as a place for starting the conversation before the conference, and for keeping the conversation going afterwards.  (Who knows if there will be seminars or not in 2011–that’s up to the next Program Committee co-Chairs–but I think making better use of the blog is a wonderful idea, especially if it can involve Big Berks content and connections, too.)  Tenured Radical writes very movingly about how blogging was for her “the best kind of middle-aged crisis,” in that it permitted her to be “a historian who is once again having fun.”  She relates more information about the Unpleasant Events she endured a few years ago, saying that “my writing had been purposely trashed as part of a departmental political struggle,” which led to a crisis in self-confidence about her writing and her chosen career (natch!)  Fortunately, the blogosphere saved her!

TR also drops the very interesting point that “Nancy Cott, Director if the Schlesinger Library, is currently working with her staff on a project to archive feminist blogs permanently, which will cause a blog like mine to ultimately be ‘fixed’ in a way it never will be while it is up on [the web.]”  (Don’t they know that Google cache is forever?  Well, “forever” is a Google-dependent concept now I suppose, so it’s probably good that the girls down at the “Schles” are at work to preserve touts les bons mots ici!) 

Finally, Clio B. hasn’t posted a final report about her presentation, although she leaves us some intriuging clues in some thoughts about connections between Sandy Bardsley’s talk about women in the wake of the Black Death, and her prospective thoughts about women bloggers.  Bardsley presented some compelling evidence about the decline of women’s public voices after the plague:

One of the audience members pointed out that this last point — about women’s public voices — anticipated tomorrow’s panel on blogging. One of the points that I want to make on that panel is related to the abuse that many female bloggers have endured sometimes simply by daring to venture a voice into the public. This seems so cliche and expected. Of course when women venture into the public sphere, they sustain vicious attacks. Of course, when they protest sexism, they are told to suck it up. They should, in other words, to be a “man” about it. What original can I bring to this conversation, especially in the absence of some concrete data?

Well, Clio–we’re waiting!  Don’t leave us in suspense any longer (although I understand that your return was delayed in Yonkers.  Ouch!)  I’ve already shared my thoughts about feminist bloggers attracting surprisingly creepy, persistent, and disturbed trolls–let us in on your secrets!  (Secret recipes for troll repellent, that is.  How about Erica’s hot dogs and hard-boiled eggs en gellée?  That’ll fix his wagon.)

Whoops–it’s time for the chuckwagon to pull up here at El Rancho Historiann.  Come and get it, gals!

UPDATE, 10/7/08Clio B. has posted her notes and reflections on the discussion about blogging.  She is getting contrite about having complained about students in the past on her blog, but I still think it’s OK in some cases to blow off steam about frustrations with students on academic blogs, even when one is the teacher and tenured and all that.  Sometimes, students (like everyone else) say and do obnoxious things, and it’s perfectly OK to complain about that (anonymously, of course).  It’s not OK to mock students for being unsophisticated or not very bright, IMHO–that’s just mean–but it’s fine to call out bad behavior and ask for help from others if you need advice about dealing with a student. 

Interestingly, most academic blogs focus their ire on the bad behavior of colleagues.  Hmmm….

Oh, and thanks for pointing us to this intriguing title:  How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ.