Challenges for EMEMH

The deadline for panel/paper proposals for the Society for Military History 2013 in New Orleans is coming up in just a couple of weeks. Hopefully there will be several early modern panels, but as I have discovered throughout the years (and am reminded of as I’m trying to put one together right now), it’s not always easy being early modern. The following reasons apply to any subfield, but I think EMEMH particularly faces several challenges.

Publications on the topic of EMEMH provide an indication that somebody out there is interested in the topic, but by themselves they do little to create a sense of community, even with the occasional book review. That requires more informal discussion and debate over a longer time frame. The traditional venue for such community-building is the academic conference, where scholars present their research findings and engage in discussion. Academics have a variety of different conferences to present at throughout the calendar year: those dedicated to a particular place (British Studies or French history), a particular type of history (Society for Military History), special thematic conferences (like the upcoming Peace of Utrecht conference I’ll be attending), generic regional conferences (Great Lakes History Conference), as well as the broad disciplinary conferences, such as the annual American Historical Association. Any number of factors will influence a scholar’s decision of which to attend – perhaps there’s a usual gang you hang out with at the same conference year after year – some conferences tend to be as much about the  social atmosphere as the panels. Or maybe you’re on the job market, in which case you need the exposure of a large cross-section of the history field (if you’re not already scheduled for some first-round job interviews at the AHA). Just as important as these idiosyncratic personal factors are structural ones.

Geography plays a particularly important role, particularly for American/Canadian historians living on the expansive North American continent. North American historians of Europe tend to keep their eye out for conferences in Europe, but us across the pond are naturally at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to attend multiple conferences across the Atlantic. Often times you don’t even hear about the conferences until the schedule of panels has been set – special thematic conference participants in particular appear to be by invitation rather than open calls – which of course leads us back to the same old names. Even for conferences hosted in North America, geographical proximity will influence the number of conferences a scholar can attend – particularly as an observer rather than as a presenter. It’s quite understandable that American conference organizers try to locate their annual meetings in various parts of the U.S. (limited as well by the availability of host institutions), but it can also discourage the creation of regular attendees, unless those regulars either a) have plenty of money to travel to multiple conferences, or b) always present at the same conference year-after-year. Such serendipity is rare: this blog was in fact created after experiencing a rare confluence of EMEMHians at a recent conference. And EMEMH suffers unique disadvantages in the U.S., since it is, I would argue, the least popular among the periods of Western military history: modern, medieval, ancient, and only then early modern. Within military history – itself a poorly represented field in the academic world – there are numerous modern history conferences (check out the SMH Headquarters Gazette for examples, including those focused around individual wars), while American military history is obviously far more popular than European around here. Similarly, only a few European countries have garnered enough historical interest to sustain regional organizations in the U.S.: the Western Society for French History, and various regional branches dedicated to British Studies come to mind. Many European countries (e.g. the Netherlands) don’t even have an active national society/conference in the U.S.

Another important factor is money. Academics have varying levels of support from their university. This includes the ability to take time off from coursework to travel to a distant conference, as well as recourse to travel funding. Scholars at research institutions obviously have a significant advantage in both regards – not only do they have much lighter teaching schedules, but they also have more financial support. Both of these operate on multiple levels, for not only do they have more money and time for conference travel, but they also have more money and time for research, research that can then be presented at conferences. Those of us at teaching institutions have much less support for conference travel, and since there is a heavier teaching load, there is less opportunity for research, our libraries and research budgets are smaller (if they even exist), and therefore we have fewer papers to present in the first place. Since there are extremely few EMEMHians at research institutions and far more a teaching schools, that usually means most individual academic EMEMHians can swing one or two conferences a year, and will usually be paying much of their own way for at least one of them. In some cases, you might only receive full funding if you present or comment, not if you simply chair a panel or attend out of interest.

A lack of numbers adds to the economic and geographical challenges. It’s difficult to gain a critical mass of participants when there are relatively few EMEMHians in academia – I can think of half-a-dozen deserving Ph.D.s I personally know that are no longer in History departments, and there aren’t that many more who are. Those that have survived the tenure-track lottery mostly work at teaching institutions, with the concomitant scarcity of resources mentioned above. The fact that there are relatively few EMEMHians and that most EMEMHians only have the material for one or two papers per year is exacerbated by additional challenges, deriving from the subfield’s diversity and amorphous nature. Since many of the conferences are either country-specific or type of history-specific, and because our interests vary across several centuries and several countries, the people you know may not all work on the same country or century, which eliminates many panel opportunities. It also explains why the Society for Military History is the obvious default conference in the U.S. – military history is what all EMEMHians share, even though one studies 16C France and another 18C Britain. The paucity of EMEMHians can also lead to conflicting conference schedules – the perfect contributor to your panel may have already committed to another panel for that year, or another conference altogether, in which case you are out of luck. (This becomes even more problematic when conferences limit participants to one paper or panel.) As suggested above, there are few conferences dedicated to the period of early modern history, much less EMEMH, just as there are extremely few journals. This again encourages EMEMHians to glom on to a place or subfield conference. Broad conferences are useful, but if they are too broad, the usual result is a very small number of attendees actually interested in EMEMH. If you present at one of these, this is possibly your only conference for the year. And since one of the main points of conference participation (other than a line on the c.v.) is discussion and networking, many broader conferences provide little opportunity when there are so few EMEMHians in attendance. I assume I’m not the only one to be frequently underwhelmed by most of the feedback offered at such generalist conferences.

As a result, we tend to see small subsets of EMEMHians as regular attendees at places like the SMH. Since conference organizers are strongly incentivized to accept whole panels rather than try to cobble papers together and dragoon ill-fitting commenters to the Frankenstein result, it really helps to have a network of regulars that you know you can depend on. It doesn’t help, however, when a conference committee actually splits up a cohesive panel proposal because they prefer a different grouping. (Had that happen once.) Usually it will be evident when conference committees make a valiant effort to include as many singletons as they can in their program – you can usually tell by the generic-sounding panel title. And while this is, from the presenter’s perspective, better than no paper at all, it’s not likely to get very good attendance, or else it encourages the kind of attendance where audience members pop in and out, which ruins much of the discussion. Many people deciding whether to go to a conference or not will base their decision on how many panels look interesting to them, which can self-fulfillingly discourage a critical mass of EMEMHians in attendance. Even worse, when there are only two or three panels on EMEMH at a conference, they can easily be swallowed up by competing time slots, e.g. I was on a EMEMH panel that was competing with a panel on the Military Revolution. Even worse, the occasional disastrous EMEMH panel might have papers that are so poor that it taints the subfield!

In short, there are several challenges to any attempt to create a sense of an EMEMH community. So what is the solution? Well, other than getting some billionaire to fund a new EMEMH society or set up endowed chairs at research universities for EMEMHians, the options are limited. The most obvious would be better coordination: a year in advance, EMEMHians would let each other know about their current research topics, and possible paper topics. That way particular conferences could be targeted well in advance. It would also help to have more give-and-take about what a panel might have for its focus. As it stands, it’s usually easier for a single individual to take the lead, create an ideal panel topic in their head – often based off of the conference’s theme to improve the likelihood of acceptance – and then enlist people they know to participate by encouraging them to write on that theme, which might actually require the invitees to change their focus away from their current research slightly. The pressure to say ‘yes’ is probably not insignificant, since the invitees might have their own counter-ideas for a panel topic, but would need to invite these same people to participate in their alternative panel. And since serving on any panel is likely to get you more travel funds than just attending as a spectator, it’s easiest to go with the flow. Of course, a much better process would be a group effort to collectively develop a panel theme, but that requires more regular contact. Ideally such communication would include new and up-and-coming scholars, not just the same old regulars.

Ultimately, conferences can help, but I think their periodic (and expensive) nature make them insufficient in and of themselves. Frankly, the most realistic (and easiest) way to encourage greater communication between EMEMHians is to eliminate the biggest problems: travel and schedule coordination. The web has made this possible: this blog is attempting to do that, and could easily host an asynchronous conference-like event. But this medium would have to overcome a challenge of its own: It would require a lot more participation from academic historians than we currently see in the comments. I’m not disparaging non-academic contributors – in fact I think the blog thus far has illustrated how much there is to learn from those beyond academia – but, frankly, we need more academic voices added to the mix. One impressive model is the collective Russian history blog, even if it doesn’t have Skulking’s personality! 😉

Of course this would, in turn, likely require some kind of incentive. Participating on the blog would have to be worth an academic’s while – we are all very busy with lots of competing demands on our time. Would the blog need to fulfill some academic objective to make it attractive to participate, e.g. would participation count towards promotion and tenure? I have little control over this obviously, so hopefully the answer is ‘no’. Not to mention, history particularly remains hesitant to consider thinking and writing in the digital realm comparable to peer-reviewed publications. But are there things that would make academic EMEMHians more likely to contribute to the blog, either in the comments, or with guest posts? Or, if one prefers their own platform, starting up their own blog? (Remember in the old days when they had ‘rings’ of websites on a similar topic? Today I suppose that’s called a blogroll) Does Skulking need a different format? Different types of posts? More bloggers? Or would a new blog altogether be needed? I’m not going to give up Skulking, but if other academics were interested in trying to replicate something like the Russian history blog, I would be interested in hearing proposals. For this blog, I’m particularly interested in trying out a ‘blog conversation‘ – I even have a book in mind for an attempt in a month or two.

Creating a community of EMEMHians requires creating an EMEMH identity. My sense is that one of the biggest challenges to EMEMH is that it is too diffuse – there’s too much historiography that is unique to a specific place and period: late Stuart England, Louisquatorzian France, Frederickan Prussia… Whether anything can overcome this challenge remains to be seen, but at least I’m trying.

Thoughts? Any professional academic EMEMHians out there? Sound off like you’ve got a pair (as the expression goes).

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7 responses to “Challenges for EMEMH”

  1. jegrenier says :

    Over the years, I have found conferences to be of little intellectual value. They’re great for seeing friends, sharing drinks and dinner, but I have gotten little from them other than visiting with my peeps. Sadly, too many papers are slapped together at the last moment…it’s really hard to present a ground-breaking idea in a 20-min presentation, so most people talk about some obscure aspect of their pet project, everyone is polite, and then we hit the bar and end up talking football, politics, or about that mutant with used to work with at U of X. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, so I’m not trying to throw stones here. Of course, there’s the YGTBKM discussions about the terrible panel and the speaker who almost bored us to death. Those are the panels that get most the (unwanted) discussions from me and my buddies.

    Something like this blog would be a great venue to share ideas, but my experience (again, just my experience) is that historians are pretty close hold about their big ideas, especially when the idea is in the developmental stage. Does anyone want to test out their ideas in a setting like this? I’d love to read some new and different stuff on this blog. It’d be great to hear something new and exciting from some young guns. But historians generally don’t like criticism (who does, really?), so I doubt that any of us wants to share our big idea with a bunch of “strangers.” Maybe, then, the conference is just about networking. Fair enough. The cliques seem pretty well established, tho. Hmmm.

    Then you get to a point in your career where you have no interest in speaking at conferences…writing a 20-min paper is a pain in the ass IMHO, and then you have to get on a plane and travel, etc. Really, who needs that hassle? Conferences of course are good for cv fodder early in your career, but after a certain point, the pain from TSA and bedbugs ain’t worth a cv entry as far as I’m concerned. If everything goes perfectly at a specialized conference, maybe your paper can get selected to be in a collection that 16 fellow travelers will read. Jamal, hook me up here with a link to another strange publication. Odds are, it’s the same old guys saying the same old things.

    And the scheduling. Like who was the reject that scheduled the last SMH on Mothers’ Day Weekend? Being pretty content here in my compound, a conference is going to have to really appeal to me to get me to visit. So odds are I won’t be attending any conferences anytime soon. But again, I’d be psyched to read some new stuff from a new historian. Toss it up here on this blog. Maybe then some of the more cynical types Iike me will find a reason to go to a conference, because there is the promise of something more than the SOS.

  2. Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

    It feels like the exact opposite of ancient military history–too many sources available and too few people interested in studying them, rather than too few sources and too many people interpreting and re-interpreting them.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    How can it be that in this day and age, I can’t type the names of classmates who got tenure track jobs into Google and not find a blog? Where, other than online (even before the lecture hall) should we expect to find tenured academics?

    This is where we talk about things, now, for God’s sake. Are we seriously going to entertain the excuse that the people who receive mediocre financial and massive cultural compensation to be our thought leaders have nothing to say?

  4. jostwald says :

    Historians do indeed seem to be among the last to adopt digital tools, whatever their stripe. As my rather pathetic blogroll suggests, there just aren’t that many early modern (much less EMEMH) academic historians interested in the medium, and posting on those that do exist is very sporadic, with many many defunct after a few years. Clearly more than just EMEMH is lacking critical (digital) mass.

    Oddly enough, this is just at the time when University PR departments (sorry, University Relations) want their faculty to become nation-wide experts on whatever news story is fresh off the wires. Careful what you wish for…

    So the question is, as Lenin put it: “What is to be done?” It seems the most fruitful candidate is, rather than create totally new ideas to be disseminated online – ideas which historians only manage at a glacial pace in any case, to focus discussions on widely-available publications – debate recent historiography, talk about the state of the field, etc. I’ll try one of these blog conversations here in a month or two.

    Fundamentally though, the digital realm doesn’t pay the bills, so it always comes second or third on most people’s priority list, as I notice now that I’m back teaching. Yet blogs still seem like the obvious replacement to and supplement for conferences that most people in a field in any given year don’t attend anyway.

  5. Gavin Robinson says :

    I get the impression that independent researchers are more likely to blog, maybe because we have less access to conventional academia. If blogging ‘counted’ for academics we’d probably get lots of joyless blogs that are just there to tick boxes and fill up lines on CVs, and then the blogosphere would be as boring as conferences.

    These days I think it’s better for a blog to be self-sufficient. Some group blogs have kept going for a long time, but if something depends heavily on input from multiple people for long-term success then it’s more likely to fail. Skulking is already doing really well, so you can probably be satisfied with that.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks.
      Re: independent researchers – to the extent that their primary job isn’t directly history related (or at least working with other academic historians), it’s also an outlet that they don’t have at work. Alternately, most independent history researchers these days (yourself included) seem to do digital humanities, which already implies a serious engagement with the Internet, blogs, Twitter, html…

  6. Erik Lund says :

    Pff. You want ancient history at work? I might be able to point out a retail outlet or two that hasn’t had proper maintenance since they were told Agamemnon was popping in for a visit.

    And by “two,” I mean, “several million.”

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