Archive | June 2014

Historians and their damned eclecticism

After a recent post, I received an email from a blog reader pointing me to an online project focused on presenting information on WW2 in a digital environment: Envisioning History. If you’re interested in the potential for digital history, you should check out some of its YouTube videos.

Watching a few of the videos made me appreciate once again how different note-taking needs can be from one academic inquiry to another. For historians they appear to break down into two categories:

  1. Storing the unstructured data of the original sources themselves, whether they be scans of archival documents or photographs of battle paintings or fortifications.
  2. Keeping tabs on the structured data extracted from the unstructured data for a particular analytical purpose, usually a summary of the sources’ content, most often in the form of summaries, keywords or quantities, or maybe a quote or two.

These two types of information are fundamentally different yet related, as many methodological treatises will no doubt explain. They also require different types of note-taking capabilities. Historians are generally generalists and a surprising number still rely on 3″x5″ notecards and simple Word documents, but those on the cutting edge (like me?) also want all the cool toys our colleagues in other fields play with. Back in the day, I referred to the options as a quadrangle or rectangle.

My early attempt to categorize different types of software

My early attempt to categorize different types of software

On the one hand, historians want the unstructured, original documents, in all their messy glory. That means, ideally, transcripts of the full document, as well images of the originals. But the hard work for historians is to find structure in this chaos. We need the originals in case we need to verify a quote or ask a new question. But usually we are creating structured data by extracting information from the original sources according to a pre-determined method – ideally the methodological choices are made clear to the reader. Structuring the unstructured requires, at a minimum, keywords and categories, with a link back to the original whenever possible. There’s an immense amount of winnowing in the journey from source to analysis.

Unfortunately, few off-the-shelf software packages handle both unstructured and structured information with equal facility, a limitation I am once again confronting in my transition from MS Access to Devonthink. The CLIO or Kleio software by Manfred Thaller was an early, extremely historio-centric, attempt, but most historians fall back on packages with a broader user base. In part the specialization of software is probably explained by cultural explanations as much as purely technical ones. Over the several decades of the Personal Computing Age, increasing processor power has expanded our toolkit far beyond the simple, business-friendly relational databases and punch-card legacy systems of the early days. But it took time – well into the 1990s social scientists  still shoehorned their qualitative data into the quantitative model preferred by most early software, creating quantitative dummy variables (0=No, 1=Yes) and numeric codes (1=French, 2=English, 3=Dutch) that could be handled by the slower processors of the period. Though the 0/1-Yes/No dummy variable retains its elegant simplicity, today’s more powerful relational databases can handle big chunks of rich text, but we also have so many other types of analysis to choose from: quantitative analysis software like SPSS and Minitab, GIS software which allows us to analyze geospatial relationships between objects, and textual analysis software for those seeking word frequencies, KWIC, co-occurrences, topic modeling and the like. Modern programs even allow photographic (and increasingly video) analysis, Picasa’s facial recognition being one of the simplest examples. Today, “big data” is as likely to be composed of text or images as it is of numbers.

This embarrassment of computational and data riches (the data-mining metaphor isn’t accidental) comes at the price of having to deal with often-incompatible software packages, not to mention distinctive methodologies. Unfortunately I don’t have a solution for methodologically eclectic historians, but I figured I could at least give those ignorant in relational databases a better sense of what this  type of software does well. So here I post my Powerpoint slides from a presentation I gave 14 years ago, describing the basic design of my note-taking Access database. It preserved both the unstructured original sources (transcriptions only, alas) and built a layer of structured data on top of it. As it turns out, I didn’t use it to its full potential, but perhaps it might be of use to others, if they can suss out what the slides mean without my accompanying explanation (that’ll cost you extra). Maybe I’ll even return to relational databasing in my next project. Read More…

The times they are a-changin’

Interesting piece in Inside Higher Ed today on academic monographs as luxury items: expensive items that justify their high cost by appeal to prestige and reputation. The takeaway quote for me (admittedly because I’ve already said the same, though from a scholarly – as opposed to publishing – perspective):

So here’s a thesis. If there truly is a crisis in scholarly publishing, it has arisen from this fundamental first cause: the end of the era in which institutions sponsoring presses saw the publishing of scholarship as something near to the heart of their core mission, and deserving to be supported on those terms. Result: What was never intended to be a system left to the vicissitudes of the market has become exactly that. Scholarly books have become high-priced, prestige-driven luxury goods not by accident, but by forgetfulness.

I’m sure there are various complications – particularly that some popular subjects are marketable in softcover – but the article and the comments are an interesting read.

The article also cites a report which estimates that the average academic book now carries a price tag of $90, up 50% from a decade ago (i.e 2002-2012). My Vauban under Siege monograph costs twice as much, so I guess that means it’s twice a good as the average monograph! Ah, the life of luxury…

Truth be told, though, my book probably doesn’t cost that much for most readers. As it so happens, I just received a royalty payment, which adds yet another wrinkle to the mix. I was curious about the number of copies my book has sold (I won’t give the number on the statement, but it’s several times lower than the number I’d been told a few years back), so I went to check on WorldCat to see how many copies were in libraries. To my shock the book was reported in 753 libraries! Now I know I haven’t sold anywhere near that many copies, so I explored further and quickly realized that most of those “copies” are purely digital, i.e. a university or group of state university branches pool their pennies together and subscribe to publishers’ e-collections, which give them access to all of the monographs within the publisher’s catalog (or maybe by series, who knows). Something to keep in mind if you’re concerned about the circulation of your future book, or even thinking about terms in a future book contract.


Soldiers and violence – who woulda thunk it

The latest issue of History 99, no. 336 (July 2014) has a collection of articles on violence in early modern Britain, revolving specifically around the intersection between violence and human rights. Those interested in the topic should consult all the articles, but those more narrowly focused on military matters might be particularly interested in:

1) Malcolm Smuts, “Organized Violence in the Elizabethan Monarchical Republic,” pp. 414-443.


This article argues that the Tudor concept of England as a Protestant commonwealth normally implied a belief in the legitimacy and necessity of armed violence against enemies of God and the public good. In the absence of a standing army the instruments of such violence had to be mobilized partly through the voluntary efforts of subjects who regarded warfare as a form of public service. The article goes on to explore how ideas and practices of armed violence shaped government policies in England and Ireland. In England the privy council constructed a system of county militias under the control of a cohort deemed loyal to the Protestant state, and toyed with schemes for using martial law against vagrants and other groups who threatened public order. But in the absence of a successful invasion or major rebellion, this machinery of military control was never fully mobilized and a reaction eventually set in against its potential abuse. By contrast in Ireland linguistic and cultural divisions, weaker institutions of civil government and the preponderance of Catholicism created situations in which brutal military coercion sometimes appeared the only effective method of maintaining ‘civil’ governance and Protestant control. The weakness of royal supervision over the captains who carried out government policy on the ground also enabled freelance violence. Elizabethan brutality in Ireland was not simply a product of colonial rule; it reflected the dark underside of commonwealth ideals of civility, political initiative and godly rule. 

2) Vincent Carey, ‘”As lief to the gallows as go to the Irish wars”: Human Rights and the Abuse of the Elizabethan Soldier in Ireland, 1600–1603,’ pp. 468-486.


This essay explores the treatment of the Elizabethan soldier in Ireland under lord deputy Mountjoy from 1600 to 1603, the years of the most atrocious violence of the conflict. Coming at the experiences of the ordinary soldier in these years from the perspective of human rights forces the historian to a set of rather uncomfortable conclusions. For while many of these soldiers inflicted horrific violence on the native non-combatant population, their own experiences were determined by a set of forces and practices that left them vulnerable to some of the most extreme abuses of the age. While this essay will address the question of human rights and the implications and applications of the terminology for Elizabeth England, it will do so within the context of a war that abused the ordinary soldier as much as it abused the non-combatant Irish. Yet the abuse of these men is worth re-examining as it provides us with an insight to the state’s attitude to the subordinate classes and their basic rights. For in examining the recruitment, equipping and treatment of the ordinary soldiers in the field, we find a brutalized mass whose only option was to endure or flee. A mass whose fundamental rights as subjects of the English crown or indeed as humans were badly abused. They were often masterless men unsuitable for combat and ultimately the victims of ‘social cleansing’, victims of class and coercion. The wretchedness of their conditions of service was thus forced, inevitably downwards, on the helpless non-combatant Gaelic Irish.


The deceptive nature of note-taking

In any note-taking system, having lots of categories (or “fields” in database parlance) in which to record information about sources (aka meta-data) is important. Really important. For historians, simple tags aren’t enough, nor is relying on the full-text alone, nor is a single hierarchical organizational scheme. What on earth do I mean? Keep reading.

Let’s say I’m looking at the question of how early moderns perceived military deception, trickery, subterfuge, lying, and the like. You find a bunch of germane sources and take notes on their discussions of the subject. To simplify matters, we’ll stay theoretical, focusing on how contemporaries expressed their preferences for either deception or straightforwardness in war, rather than using other measures (the frequency of their actual reliance on such sly stratagems, etc.). Perhaps you try to get a good balance of sources, including theoretical discussion of the use of stratagems as well as reactions to specific examples of deception on campaign.


Deception, thy name is Megatron

So you’ve found dozens or hundreds of quotes from contemporaries – verily, the digital age has given early modern historians (military ones at least) a bounty of evidence to sift through! You have plenty of notes on other topics as well, so you need to identify those specific to deception for future reference. You could take the shortest route and simply tag them all with a “deception” tag. Assuming you want to examine whether contemporaries considered deception laudable or execrable, you could make your life easier and further sort your quotes into two bins based on the stance presented in each source: those quotes that support the use of deception (pro-deception) and those that are against it (anti-deception). Or maybe there are three possible values for this variable: pro, con, and ambivalent/neutral. Heck, maybe add in a separate value for those sources that you checked which you’d think should discuss the utility of deception but actually don’t – perhaps that’s noteworthy. So we have one Stance category with four possible values: pro, con, neutral/ambivalent, or not discussed. Call the Stance variable a group, a tag, a field, a category, or what have you. Note-takers don’t appear to have a standardized vocabulary for such things.

Thus tagged, you can now easily find those hundreds of examples in just about any note-taking system worth its salt. But historians, at least systematic ones, want to look for patterns within that data. A whole range of questions start to bubble up. Maybe you want to see if particular types of people shared the same view on the subject? Or whether geography or chronology (or both) played a role in shaping opinions on the morality of deception? Maybe you wonder whether these contemporary prescriptions and proscriptions were universal, or did contemporary judgments depend on the situation? Maybe you speculate that there are finer gradations within the pro-deception camp? Figuring out all of these questions require slicing the data in a number of different ways. To do this, you need additional categories to differentiate your notes on deception.

  1. Let’s say you’re looking at the question primarily from the perspective of two groups, say, the English and the French (see how we’re staying totally hypothetical here?). So maybe you want to see if the English were more likely than the French to express their opposition to the use of trickery. (If you wanted to count up the quotes, you could even get all statistical, in a cross tab-y sort of way: nominal variable x nominal variable.) So we should add another variable, call it Side, to the Stance measure. That’s two variables to keep track of for each quote.
  2. But “Side” isn’t really specific enough. What we probably mean by “Side” is actually the side of the author of the quote. This assumes, of course, that the author’s point of view is represented by the quote, i.e. the quote isn’t part of a dialogue where one or both characters might not even represent the author’s position, or the author isn’t playing devil’s advocate in the text, or presenting the opposition’s case before rebutting it… Add a SideOfAuthor category.
  3. And if we have an SideOfAuthor field, we probably also need to note when a French author is taking about the French, versus when he might be talking about the English (maybe he’s even talking about a specific Englishman). Perhaps authors saw a difference between the two worth noting? Make it three variables (Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject) for our note-taking system, or four for greater precision (Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject, SubjectPerson).
  4. But maybe you perceive that the English seem more likely to talk about deception when the French are doing the deceiving – now we’re combining the previous categories. Cynical by nature, you wonder if the French do the same – seeing the deceptive dustmote in the English eye while ignoring the lying log in their own. Is it generally true that each side tends to downplay its own deceptive qualities and highlight those of its enemies, or is there a shared preference for (or against) deception in war? You could figure it out by looking for all the cases where a French author discusses a French subject, and when an English author discusses with an English subject. To be certain, you’d need to examine all four cells of what I like to call “the box.”
    The "Box"

    The “Box”

    To quickly sort all those hundreds of quotes into the four cells, you need those categories. In case you want to look at more than two sides – throw in the Dutch for good measure – you’ll convert your SideOfAuthor variable from a binary one (possibilities being French or English) to one allowing three or more options. If you want to make it a bit easier, you could add another binary variable, “Self”, which includes possible values of “self”, i.e. the author’s own side, and “other,” i.e. not the author’s side. That way, if you want to query whether authors were self-serving or not, you can simply use the Self variable, rather than test all the pairs of SideOfSubject and SideOfAuthor (SoS=French and SoA=French, SoS=English and SoA=English, SoS=Dutch and SoA=Dutch…).
    But just because you’ve aggregated upward, don’t throw out the more specific SideOfSubject variable. Keep it so you can, for example, group together all the non-English authors’ views of the English if you were looking at more than two countries – to find out if everybody else is ganging up on the poor ol’ English (SoS=English and SoA=not English). Or maybe you’re interested to see if one nationality is more likely to talk about themselves (or the Other) than the Other.

  5. We might want to add yet another variable, what I vestigially refer to as EventID. This could be composed of another generic-specific variable pair: a specific combat field (the specific variable) and a related field for combat type (a generic variable based off of the specific combat). There should be a field indicating the type of combat (deception in a surprise attempt, deception in a battle, deception in a siege…). Is deception more acceptable if it leads to a battle than if it leads to a siege? The specific variable in the pair would be a specific combat (the battle of Ramillies, the siege of Lille, the surprisal of Ghent…). Keeping paired general-specific variables gives you flexibility and scalability.
    Other plausible variables could be derived from this Event category. Perhaps contemporaries were pure functionalists: they praised (actual) cases of deception – regardless of who deceived whom – when they succeeded, and excoriated liars only when they were caught out? Or maybe there was a gradual shift in how a specific example of deception was viewed – maybe the French surprisal of Ghent in 1708 was declared base treachery when the English first learned of it, but within a few years the English had gained perspective and come to appreciate the cunning French trick? Perhaps you could examine those curious cases where you know deception was used at a specific event yet its use was not mentioned in a particular source (Stance=not discussed)…

So now we have a good setup, needing at least five different variables to answer our constellation of questions surrounding early modern views on military deception: Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject, Self, and Event. Each quote needs the answers to these five questions. And that doesn’t include all the other variables that are associated with these five categories. To give just one example, each author has various attributes that might be germane in addition to their Side: maybe opinions on the utility of deception vary by one’s generational status, by an author’s military experience, by the theaters he fought in or the other authors that author read… Lots of metadata to keep track of.

Is this note-taking scenario over the top? Not at all. Not if historians want to base their arguments on more than a random or superficial glance at the sources. Not if historians want to avoid magically finding only evidence that confirms their preconceptions. And not if historians want to make use of the range of sources now easily accessible. In fact, the above example is even simpler than the reality. We could start by simply adding further possible values to existing variables. For the Self category, it would probably be important to appreciate that an English author could be talking about an Englishman (maybe need to break that up further into Tory vs. Whig, or Court-Country, as well as which the author is), or this English author could be referring to an enemy (who could be the hated French, or maybe the despised-yet-want-to-be-trading-partners-with-them-all-the-same Spanish, or the problematic Protestant Hungarians rebelling against England’s Catholic Austrian ally), or perhaps the English author actually was referring to an ally (Prince Eugene), or perhaps even discussing a neutral (Charles XII of Sweden in his concurrent Great Northern War, or maybe the less-sympathetic Terrible Turks), or maybe it’s a historical reference to Caesar’s use of deception. So at the least, possible Self values could include: own side, enemy, ally, neutral, historical. I can certainly imagine a scenario where an author would opportunistically treat his friends and allies more gently than his enemies, but his friends more kindly even than his allies (or certain kinds of allies, maybe the Protestant ones…). Other structural additions might be needed: some of the variables might have records that require multiple values: maybe it’s noteworthy to see if, whenever English authors discuss their own deceptive practices, they always introduce French subterfuge to muddy the issue? In this case SideOfSubject might need both French and English values for the same quote, or at least a “more than one” value. Does your note-taking system allow this? I hope so. You could plausibly keep throwing in additional variables – the list goes on and on.

Too detailed? Not really. Too specialized to be useful for other topics? Hardly. These categories are not unique to the question of military deception. These categories are, in fact, inherent in just about every possible topic somebody might be discussing: Author A, member of group B (SideOfAuthor), said C (Stance) about person/group D’s behavior (SideOfSubject) regarding topic E (in this case, use of military deception). Whenever more than one type of people (or more than one person) says something about somebody else (or themselves), either in general or relating to a specific instance, and has an opinion on it, you should be tracking these details. You’ll never know if your sources are being self-serving or not without this information. You’ll never know how widespread a particular opinion was without this information. You’ll never know which possible patterns help explain the phenomenon under study without this information. In short, you’ll never really know.

How does this intersect with note-taking? You can mentally assign values to each of these variables every time you read the quote, but note-taking is about summarizing the quote in numerous ways so you don’t need to reprocess it every time. You need categories, ways to organize any single quote, or any list of quotes, by any (or all) of these variables. So you might as well spend a few minutes at the start (after you’re read some sources) figuring out which variables are worth tracking and what their possible values might be (keep room for future changes), and then track them for each record. That’s the note-taker’s way.

Next post: how this all relates to Devonthink. I think.

And the war rages on…

Recent CHE article on the continuing struggle between academic publishers and academic libraries, this time over the costs of e-book subscriptions.

I sure am glad I *own* (not rent or borrow) physical/digital copies of almost all of my sources. Sometimes there are advantages to studying the early modern period. And English history.


Call For Papers (CFP) of the SMH (Society for Military History) has been issued. You can find it online here.

Proposals due October 1. Conference theme: “Conflict and Commemoration: The Influence of War on Society.”

Sometimes I hate to be right, but I told you so. From the CFP:

The year 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the end of the Civil War, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Shield. The Society for Military History invites papers that examine these and other pivotal conflicts in terms of how they were conducted and how they have been remembered and assessed over time by individuals, institutions, and societies. The program committee will consider paper and panel proposals on all aspects of military history, while especially encouraging submissions that reflect on this important theme.

Happy Anniversary baby,
Got you on my mii-iind.

Publishing the Great Academic Monograph

New Chronicle article on the same topic: how to turn a dissertation into a book.

Again, good advice in general, but puzzling statements as well. I’m not sure how we can reconcile all these requirements with academic rigor.

Quotes of note:

Maybe it’s a History thing, or maybe my dissertation was really different from most others. I must really be old-school.




City upon a Hill or Potemkin village?

Courtesy of Venti Belli blog, I read a blog piece on current academic publishing. The op-ed presents the University of Illinois Press editor-in-chief’s view on that hotly-contested question of whether PhD students should embargo their dissertations. I’m personally ambivalent about that particular issue (see Publishing tag), but the broader import I took away from the blog post was disconcerting. I appreciate the pressures academic publishers face. I appreciate the concerns of acquisition librarians, who have to placate the increasingly-specialized interests of their faculty with dwindling acquisition funds. But more and more I think the interests of academic publishers are diverging from the interests of academic scholarship, at least for historians.

Overall the story is a well-known tale of the decline of the monograph, the core of the academic publishing business model as well as the historical discipline. If presses can only sell a few hundred copies of an academic monograph instead of a thousand, then fewer monographs will be published and each monograph must appeal to a more diverse audience; as a result, presumably, fewer budding historians will be able to advance their professional career, and a less diverse variety of (popular) subjects will be published.

To assist graduate students in their quest to achieve publication, the latter part of the blog article lists numerous revisions to make a dissertation more publishable. “Basic” revisions include the addition of an introduction and conclusion, structuring the book around an argument, “making selective rather than exhaustive use of examples”, shortening its length, and being sure to change its title. More involved revisions include encouraging the author to “embark on some new research to expand the geographical and/or chronological scope of the work, or to bring in additional primary sources.” Most are sound recommendations. But those few that aren’t common sense (if your dissertation doesn’t already have an argument, then what the hell is wrong with your dissertation committee?) have dangerous implications to my eye. I certainly wouldn’t have published my dissertation as it was. In fact I followed just about all of the revisions mentioned above. Revising a dissertation is a good, even necessary, thing.

I am more concerned with how far we travel in this direction. One passage from the blog that jumped out at me deserves some rumination (as always, read the original for context):

publishers prefer that a book contain little to no previously published material. We try to counsel authors to publish the articles they need for their portfolios by developing pieces that won’t be in the book, perhaps pulling out a self-standing chapter of the dissertation that’s an outlier to the book’s focus. It’s also wise to avoid publishing a “nutshell” version of the book as an article that a scholar can access on JSTOR instead of buying the book.

What do we make of this? This suggestion would have, I think, several deleterious effects on academic history.

First, the call to publish books with no old material certainly would seem to upend the whole promotion-and-tenure process as it now stands. When university press editors explicitly state that they don’t want to publish any “old” material (and all historical research is old), that should make us wonder how exactly young scholars are expected to get a monograph published in time for tenure/promotion – particularly since the AHA has recently reaffirmed that the monograph is the gold standard for historical scholarship. Ph.D. recipients have just spent 5-10 years immersing themselves in the ins-and-outs of topic X, written a 150+ page work on the subject, yet now they are advised by academic publishers to change topics, or to glom on a period or place outside of their expertise? How is a young scholar supposed to do research on a new topic while holding an academic job (if they’re lucky enough to get hired in the first place), and then be ready for P&T in 5 years? Historians need to decide to what extent our promotion-and-tenure decisions should be founded on the vagaries of the publishing market.

Personally, however, P&T isn’t my main concern – callous I know, but I’ve got tenure. My larger concern is over what effect this trend will have on History (see how I capitalized it there?) as an academic discipline – what it would do to historical scholarship. For example, what quality should we expect from a work that has not seen any kind of previous publication? Should we be comfortable with academic publishers essentially saying: “Trust us. The book you are now reading hasn’t been vetted by multiple layers of peer review (the sustained input of dissertation committee members, multiple chapters vetted independently as separate journal articles or conference proceedings, as well as further input from readers of those publications). The two or three peer reviewers we’ve chosen should be more than adequate for you. And, by the way, we made the author incorporate the subsequent century into his/her argument because more people are interested in that timeframe than the period the author actually studies.” That kind of publisher gatekeeping will open the gates not to a City upon a Hill, but to a Potemkin village instead.

I’ll have more to say on the subject – maybe this summer will be the summer of the Marlborough historiography? – but the last thing History needs is yet more pressure to crank out half-baked research composed of arguments based off a few anecdotes drawn from a few published sources. I’m sure most readers can think of several recent historical works that are a mile wide and an inch deep, some published by academic presses. Such shoddy scholarship should be unacceptable today, now that so many more sources are available to the average historian than ever before in history.