Perhaps it’s just that reading organizational records means more bureaucracy than I’m generally used to, but I’ve been intrigued by entries in the monthly meeting minutes of the Philadelphia Society of Friends that report on general levels of attendance at meetings throughout the week. I’ve just moved on to the yearly meeting, and found that those reports were aggregated, with the conclusion “The hour is generally well observed. All the meetings notice instances of sleeping, but in other respects little unbecoming behavior.”
I’ve been writing/learning to write history for a bit now, but I don’t think that I’ve ever been as aware of my language as I am this semester teaching American history. I find myself, more and more, using North America in my U.S. survey, in part because the borders of the United States shifted so quickly in the 19th century that what counted as outside of the United States one year mightn’t be the next. But also, I think that orally centering North America reminds students that United States history does not consist of the inexorable filling of the borders we have today. If I weren’t already worried that I too-often reference cultural products that my students can’t relate to, I might ask them to think about how this Douglas Adams quotation, which actually describes Adams’s concerns about humans’ ideas about their place in the universe, can apply to our understanding of American westward expansion:
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think that there is a tendency, especially after the American Revolution, to think about a United States shaped hole in north America that is being slowly and correctly filled by the new American nation.
Building on the patterns I’ve been trying to track in famine donors, I also noticed today that of the thirteen individual donors from New York City, nearly a quarter lived within a few blocks on Henry Street. I don’t know what it’s about, or if it’s just a random happenstance but I’ve got a whole other list of NYC donors and I look forward to finding out!
For those history of science types out there, I just finished working on a project with David Hubbard, Anouk Lang, Kathleen Reed and Lyndsay Troyer for the (now completed) IVMOOC on the History of Science Society’s journal, Isis. We ended up with a visualization that tracked changes in authors’ locations from 1913-1937 to 1988-2012, and also mapped the dominant themes in Isis article titles from 1913 to the present. There’s probably still a lot to do with the history of the journal, but I think we made a pretty good start.
I’ve just received word that the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine – to which I contributed a chapter on the impact of the famine on the demography and infrastructure of New York – was presented by the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to President Obama yesterday. I find it unfathomably cool that either of them might have read something I wrote.
I’m just back from the Society of Early Americanists’ 2013 meeting – which, like NAVSA 2012 was a fantastic series of interdisciplinary panels. I’m always amazed by the degree to which we historians use the same language as scholars of literature, but often use it to mean such different things. Fantastic papers by NYU Atlanticists Jerusha Westbury, Dan Kanhoffer, Kate Mulry, Jeppe Mülich and Mairin Odle were seen, alongside equally wonderful ones by Mike LaCombe, Melissa Gniadek, Lauren Klein and Molly Perry, and a whole panel on the process of creating digital archives which I’m very excited to get into sometime soon.
I think, though (aside from the amazing company) my favorite parts of the conference were the conference were the panel on early Georgian foodways, featuring some fantastic locally grown food, and the live-tweeting phenomenon of the whole conference. The idea of putting my first impressions of a paper out into the inter-ether is, frankly, pretty terrifying, but I was quite impressed by the number of people who catalogued their conference experiences as we went along.
Having finished this dissertation project of mine, I’ve been thinking about the big picture view of my research, which has led me to explore mapping and GIS, which in turn has pointed me towards an episode of This American Life on mapping and cartography. All of this is to say that what I’m about to write about is sort of a stretch, but does actually come out of the dissertating process.
The TAL episode in question talks about a lot of different kinds of maps (odd spatial ones, aural, olifactory) and basically makes an argument that almost anything can work in map form. So today, as I was walking to the train post-Nemopocalypse, it occurred to me that the bands of unshoveled sidewalks between houses might be read as a map of contested property boundaries. Neither neighbor wants to shovel any more than they absolutely have to, so these unshoveled spaces seem to indicate divergent expectations about property lines.
Now, back to learning GIS.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Strange Maps when writing about strange maps.
I was living in Cork for the last inauguration, but came home from the archives early to watch. Though Twitter existed in 2009, trending hash-tags were not yet a “thing,” and one group tried to track impressions of Obama’s first inauguration using the Mass Observation technique pioneered in Britain in the mid-20th century. The January the 20th project tracked international impressions of the inauguration, and posted them with little analysis. The original Mass Observation project is searchable by topic, and includes diaries, surveys and photographs. The dominant themes include “sexual behavior,” “reading habits” and “bird watching.” Twitter is something like a perpetual modern-day Mass Observation – there were more than 14,000 tweets per minute during today’s inauguration ceremony. Trending topics included the musical performances, #inaug2013, #fourmoreyears, and FLOTUS’s bangs.