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).