Vast Early America


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Karin Wulf

Month: November 2017

Civic Engagement (with a Source Packet)

Here in Virginia it’s another important election day, and I’m about to host another reading group for life-long learners.  This group of (mostly) retirees comes to the Omohundro Institute to discuss a mix of explicitly scholarly and dual-audience history.   This year we began, by request from returning readers, with Kathleen Brown’s 1996 OI book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia.   Many of the folks in the reading group also attend an OI life-long learner short course through William & Mary’s Christopher Wren Association.  In the last two years those courses focused on various topics, including Digital Early America.   In 2018 we’ll be teaching #VastEarlyAmerica.  Packing about 35 people in our seminar room for several Wednesday mornings in the spring, we get a chance to talk about the history we know is important with a fresh audience.  The hardcore group has been turning out for the extra, year-round reading group, and the discussions have been great.  The schedule and previous reading list is on the OI website.

Many historians are increasingly attentive to, or at least very vocal about, the value of speaking, teaching, and writing about history as a form of civic engagement.  The most obvious examples in the last months have centered on the fate of Confederate memorials, and the role they played in the twentieth-century politics, and are playing in the twenty-first century politics, of racial violence.  There are so many ways in which historians can take civic action, one of which is addressing, as in that case, a specific history or historical developments.

By reading scholarly books with non-specialists, I get to share not only the history, but the scholarly process.  We focus on that essential relationship of argument to evidence– and by extension, method.  What constitutes evidence?  How do we assess different types and uses of material?  How tightly or creatively is an author using that evidence?  In an age when discernment seems broadly fragile, when the difference between heated comments and bot-generated, targeted bile has become difficult to parse, when digitally altered text and images about, this small exercise in critical reading seems not only important, but a logical extension of my work.

This week we are reading Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s 2017 book, Never Caught:  The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.  I have this book in several formats, the hardcover I read most closely, the e-book I took with me when I was traveling last week and wanted to keep reading, and the signed proof copy that Erica gave me last year– that’s a treasure!  This book, which I’ve regularly described as one of the most important founding era biographies and one of the most important books about George Washington, is a stunning look at how Ona Judge managed to escape and to make a new life for herself and her new family.  But it’s also and fundamentally a book about the practice of racial slavery, as practiced by America’s first president.

And it’s a terrific use case of source material.  What little there is to document Judge’s life before and after slavery is patiently detailed.  The explicit depictions of slavery and Judge’s case in the Washington correspondence, cited in some  other recent work, is unpacked and put into its most urgent context:  Judge’s.  I admire the book’s light touch, moving along at a good pace while taking time to illustrate how Judge experienced Mount Vernon, New York, Philadelphia, and then her life in New Hampshire.  It makes this a perfect book for a source packet.

I’ve attached here the materials that I shared with the reading group and that we’ll be discussing alongside Never Caught today.  These are all materials that are central to Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s narrative and argument.  I included information about where to locate each source, and we’re going to discuss, too, how they can seek out these (and other) primary sources.  I started with the Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery (1780) and ended with the text of Ona Judge’s 1845 interview in The Granite Freeman.

Most days we do what we can to make a difference where we think we can.  On this election day it feels just right to be talking about how to discern the sources that reveal the story of a woman who fought for freedom over 220 years ago, and appreciating the woman who has brought her story to light.

KW-Never Caught Source Reader

Hey! Scholarly Publishing is a Business #NACBS17

I’ve been asked to contribute to a panel on scholarly publishing for an audience of graduate students at the 2017 North American Conference of British Studies in Denver.

I can’t show slides (my fault, I asked about the AV too late), but I think this may be a much better idea.  Instead of talking through the slides at the session, I’m going to post them here, and tweet a digest version.  Probably the key is the links!   Many of these links are to posts by my colleagues/ fellow chefs in the Scholarly Kitchen, though a bunch are links to pieces they have written elsewhere.

Sara Damiano’s piece from the October 2017 WMQ. On my iPad.  Multi-platform publishing!

The basic premise of my contribution to the panel is this:  scholarly publishing is business.  That’s not exactly news, but is important to understand.  I don’t mean here to invoke the bogeyman of rapacious capitalism feasting on humanities scholarship.  Publishing, even the non-profit publishing that dominates the humanities, needs to be sustainable.  That has to be achieved one way or another, through revenues that are subscriptions (which for humanities journals are extraordinarily modest), book sales, or–and this is a big factor–subventions from endowments or other benefactor support.  Often it’s a small but vital helping of the former and a big portion of the latter.

For individual authors, especially those just beginning a career, some essential aspects of scholarly publishing–the ones I’ll address are Open Access, metrics, and social media and online publication–are importantly connected to that basic fact.  You can’t understand how OA is functioning, for example, without understanding that it, too, is tied to the business of publishing.  You can’t understand how metrics work, for another, without understanding the economy of attention.

Yes, I’m well aware that what graduate students might most want to hear at a session like this is “how do I get published?!”  And that’s an important part of this panel, too.  Developing your best work, engaging with as many colleagues as possible as you frame and refine your analysis, managing peer review, and collaborating with an experienced editor are all significant aspects of the publication process.  But you’ll be publishing within a broader context, and understanding just a bit about it will make you a more informed author, better able to manage your career and the lifecycle of your scholarship.

Looking forward to the Q&A at the session, and to my remarks from my fellow panelists!

KW for NACBS on publishing

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