Over 600 votes were cast in the Championship Game of Junto March Madness 2014—an NCAA Tournament-like bracket that pitted some of the best books in early American history against each other (or, at least, those published since 2000). Unlike last year, when Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom was the runaway winner from start to finish, this year’s tournament provided a nonstop series of upsets, with no number-1 seed making the Final Four, and the championship game involving a 6-seed squaring off against a 13-seed.
In the end, Junto readers once again opted for the underdog, leaving Michael Jarvis’s In The Eye Of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudans, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783. The matchup itself was hard fought—the lead switched several times through the day and the outcome was nip and tuck right up until the last moment. Congratulations to Professor Jarvis, and comiserations to Professor Goetz—who nevertheless had a formidable run throughout the tournament.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the festivities—though the tournament is meant as a bit of fun, we also hope we’ve provoked lively discussion, and raised awareness of the diversity and quality of scholarship in our field. We will have some concluding remarks on the tournament next week; in the meantime, thanks for joining in with us, and let the conversations continue!
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME RESULT
6. Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race 48%
lost to 13. Michael Jarvis, In The Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 52%
Can someone who’s read this book summarize why it deserves to be the Best Book in Early American History Since 2000? I’ve not read it.
Alec, by now you’ve probably seen the interview with Mike Jarvis that ran yesterday, and one of the questions we asked was why people should read his book.
And of course, you and all of the commenters here are warmly welcomed to check out the interview and comment on Jarvis’s points about his book, the field of Atlantic history, and advice for junior scholars.
After such an unpredictable roller-coaster ride of a tournament, I just wanted to take a moment to clarify the purpose and intent of the JMM. It is not intended to mean or imply that the winner is “the best book.” Lots of factors beyond the substantive historical and historiographical value seem to have motivated many voters. Upsets were common as this was the first year that publishers and authors got directly involved in promoting their own books to potential voters, especially on social media. That, I think, is the most significant development of #JMM14. The rise of the “JMM ground game” seems also to have meant that a good number of voters came from outside the blog’s regular readership/audience. All that said, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. The JMM is primarily about highlighting important works of which some people might be unaware and starting conversations. Exposing the blog to new potential readers is an excellent side effect. Therefore, the active involvement of the authors and publishers is a fantastic thing both for the tournament and the books involved. That is, unless you expect the tournament will determine “the best book” as opposed to the ones that were able to generate the most interest in voting for them. After all, books like the top seeds don’t need any more promotion but, if the tournament results in more people being exposed to Jarvis, Goetz, Rushforth, and Morgan’s works who otherwise would not have been, then it will have been successful.
My “Ground Game” was apparently pathetic.
Golly, I wasn’t aware that publishers and self-promotion had played a role this year. I thought folks were voting on “substantive historical and historiographical value.” That negates the results for me! I know this is supposed to be fun–it is!–but I was also looking to learn about good newer books that I haven’t read. I’m bummed that the buzz was not based on intrinsic value alone.
I think the social media aspect was more benign than you fear, Dallet. I’m friends with many of the authors on Facebook and I appreciated their reminders to vote and seeing them joking tease each other in a good-natured way. I guess it’s only a problem if people are using social media to rally vast numbers of people to vote who haven’t read many of the books at all.
I’m more struck by the lack of any substantial discussion of the actual books. I think it’s akin to what happens when a professor makes the always-unfortunate decision to invite an author into a grad seminar discussing her book: once you get through the polite questions about how she got into the topic, it turns to CRICKETS. As it kind of should be when a group of hyper-critical coursework students encounter someone who has actually gone and finished a book.
Few here in this pool of junior and mid-career scholars wants to be on the record in a permanent internet forum saying anything other than praise for folks they are sharing a profession with for the next couple decades. (Indeed, in this year’s tournament, the one time a commenter made an incorrect assessment of a book that I suspect he simply hasn’t read, the actual Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of said work lurched up in comments to call him out.) Adding to that, the mere fact that most of the authors here are also at the start of their careers makes us rightfully all the more sensitive to their feelings.
Maybe a future tournament could include short descriptions of books in the nominated stage? Or maybe Junto authors could do capsule sum-up descriptions of say, this year’s whole Elite Eight or Sweet Sixteen just so the tourney’s stated goal (exposing everyone to influential new books) really gets reached?
In response to ACL: I just want to say that I think most of what I read on this blog is really smart and it is a loss to the entire scholarly enterprise if folks–however junior–pull their punches. If people are afraid to give thoughtful criticism, what then? Our joint pursuit of historical knowledge will become a farce, and emperors will continue to run around without any clothes on.
my 2 cents.
Hi Dallet, I’m not saying that the Junto or its readership lacks a critical perspective, though I’d dare say it could go a bit further. But in some ways, it’s a problem the whole profession faces. I’m sure as editor of EAS, Dallet, you see book reviews that suffer from this same general deference and politeness, with only a few reliable cranks willing to be the much-needed Simon Cowell. I know I see it in many reviews.
I would also add that a lot of my votes in this tourney were not entirely based on a clear critical matrix, where I consistently prized what I saw as the most daring theses, or the greatest historiographical reach, or the most innovative use of sources. Mainly I went on the quality of writing and books that interested me more. (Pleas on Facebook had no effect.) All of these metrics are fairly subjective and boil down to mere “taste.” I don’t think I’m adding much to the discussion to simply declare that a book holds zero interest for me or that it was so boring I couldn’t finish it.
I like this tourney’s stated goal of creating a list of books we might want to check out. Perhaps a pre-1980 bracket (and perhaps, for suspense’s sake, one that excludes previous champ “American Slavery, American Freedom”), because we historians are all a lot more comfortable making grand claims and fighting over folks who are retired or dead.
I meant to say “a pre-1980 bracket might work better” in that last sentence. Hope the meaning was clear.
I don’t think that brackets work at all — they defeat the purpose of sharing ideas and information about good books, new or old.
Why not instead start a discussion under the label SAVE THIS BOOK? We can talk about grand old books that are thoroughly out of print.
Or a discussion under the label EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN? We can talk about books that may be old as to publication date but that still have relevance, perhaps even more so than when they were first published.
First, let me clarify that I did not mean to imply that “outside” voting solely determined the results, which was not the case, as Ken pointed out below. I was just pointing out that the tournament engaged a broader audience (both personally and institutionally) than it did in its first year, which I personally consider a good thing. I think the fact that the tournament was focused on recent books may have contributed to the overly personal way in which some people seem to have taken it. I think Dallet’s approach to the tournament captures the spirit in which it was intended.
I also wanted to say something regarding the degree of “critical perspective” on the blog and in the profession as a whole. I think we have struck a decent balance on the blog in general. But if it’s lacking at all, I would suggest that it’s not just our junior (or lesser) status that makes us wary of being overly (or even directly) critical at times; it’s also the status of those who might attack us. I wrote a post last year that got an over-the-top ad hominem response from a few historians on Twitter. But I found it disappointing more than anything for the exact reason Dallet mentioned above: “If people are afraid to give thoughtful criticism, what then? Our joint pursuit of historical knowledge will become a farce, and emperors will continue to run around without any clothes on.” It’s an inhibiting aspect of all blogging–i.e., to risk suffering character attacks–and is especially unfortunate for academic history blogging. I think the same dynamic plays out in the profession as a whole, only that it has become maximized with the growing use of social media and blogs by academic historians.
I want to answer Michael Hattem from the vantage-point of a senior scholar (I often reject that status, but people keep insisting on pinning it on me). For any kind of senior scholar to assail a junior scholar for a candid expression of views on history or historiography is an abuse of power. Unfortunately, abuses of power do happen, even after they are named as such. Junior scholars should feel free to express themselves cogently and critically, in the spirit of mutually respectful discussion, or how else with the field grow in understanding and wisdom?
Thank you, Richard. I suspect the vast majority of historians feel the same way. As I said, it was just a small few who reacted in that way, but could nevertheless be very disheartening and discouraging for a grad student or even junior faculty member. Also, it was only one incident like that in the year-and-a-half of the blog’s life, so it certainly hasn’t been a common occurrence, either. Blogs provide an immediate and valuable platform for discussing issues that aren’t necessarily addressed in journal articles or books and any behavior that hinders that is, in my opinion, detrimental to the field as a whole.
OK, I’ll be a total wet blanket and say that, just as March Madness in sports is a total waste of time and energy (I have no sports gene), this historiographic version is a total waste of time and energy. Those of us who work in the field of early American history know that it is a dizzying and complicated field, with coverage spanning every single sub-specialty of historical methodology and every single sub-specialty of substantive historical investigation. How then can there be just one book?
Further, why let publishers and self-promotion into the process? As Dallett Hemphisll rightly points out, those variables negate the results, just as the NYPL best book of the twentieth century competition was negated by a determined campaign by Ayn Rand groupies to make sure that her books placed high, if not highest, in the eventual voting.
Last year, I dabbled in the March Madness here. This year, I sat it out, and now I’m convinced that I will sit out future brackets.
Can’t we go back to talking about books and why they’re good or not good and what we can learn from them — and from one another?
I wasn’t aware that we had stopped doing that, Dr. Bernstein, either here at the blog or within the field more generally.
How, exactly, would one prevent them from getting involved? And furthermore, why should they be prevented? This isn’t an official prize, and the readers and voters here aren’t a selection committee.
I’m as surprised as anyone that In the Eye of All Trade ended up winning the tournament. It’s certainly not the book I would deem “best” in the field. But it is an important book, thoroughly-researched, well-written, and insightfully-presented. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, it most certainly is not.
And it is a book, based on a number of comments over the last couple of weeks, that more than a few folks haven’t yet read. And if the book (and others included in the tournament) gets a bit wider reading a result of its inclusion, then I consider the whole thing a tremendous success. Why not let junior scholars (and their presses) get involved? Why not provide some really fantastic books with a bit of free publicity and have a little fun while we’re all at it? If that’s not your thing, no worries — you can sit it out. But there’s no need to rain on others’ brief moment in the sun.
Well, first of all , I *did* begin with the warning warn that I was going to be a wet blanket, so Christopher J. Cox’s tone of surprise at my wet blanket seems out of place.
Second, I say again that I don’t see the point of empty competition between fine books. why can’t we just cite and talk about recent books that we’ve read and learned from and admired for their substantive arguments and for their craftsmanship? Why analogize books to college basketball teams and pit them one against the other? For that is exactly what a bracket system does.
Third, if Dallett Hemphill and I (apologies for my inadvertent misspelling of Dallett’s name in my last post) are taken aback by self-promotion intruding itself into the process, in other words, if it’s not just *my* idiosyncratic grumpiness (because I lack the sports gene), maybe there’s a reason to question the process in general and the self-promotion in particular. For the self-promotion at issue has *nothing* to do with the quality or lack of quality of the books being promoted — rather, it has *everything* to do with the goal of winning a bracket competition. (Anyone who has grumbled about his or her publisher’s failure to promote his or her book, or to promote it enough, will recognize the discontinuity between quality of the book and effectiveness of promotion of that book.)
I value The Junto precisely because, eleven months out of the year, we get to talk about all sorts of cool ideas, questions, problems, issues, and whatever concerning the researching and writing of early American history. I’ve promoted the blog on H-LAW and will continue to do so. But, one month out of the year, we abandon that collegial enterprise for a parlor game that makes no sense. The faux-competition it sets up gets in the way of the thoughtful, collegial, and no-chip-on-the-shoulder discussion that is the hallmark of The Junto.
Apologies for my insertion of an incorrect last name — I don’t know where that came from — and for the typos that I discern in my last post.
Not sure where you got the dates for the subtitle of Dr. Jarvis’s book, but they should be 1680-1783, not 1690-1776
Now corrected – thanks!
In response to a few of the points made above:
1) Though the social media aspect of the tournament was one factor, it wasn’t an overriding one for the most part (except maybe in the later stages). Having kept a close eye on the results and the total number of votes, they were fairly consistent between matchup. Later rounds had more engagement – but really, that’s all part of the fun. If a tournament isn’t your thing, that’s fine. Clearly, though, it did engage a number of people (and, dare I say, more than other fare here does. We might remember that our own academic tastes aren’t always the best way of communicating with wider audiences).
2) The diversity of my to-read list has grown enormously over the last month. I’m aware of books in other subfields, but a process like this allows me to know which books other scholars particularly value rather than fumbling around in a more haphazard manner. (And I think taking nominations and early results is a good guide as to books that have standing in their field).
3) I’ve engaged in a number of discussions that have deeply enhanced my understanding of some important works. Mostly in private forums, but instigated through discussions because of this tournament. Is it contrived? Yes. But a graduate seminar is contrived in its own way, too.
If you doubt the value of a competition like this, that’s fine. After all, we have repeatedly urged people not to take it too seriously, and have made it clear in our introductory post there is no such thing as a ‘best’ book. But I do object to the idea this is something we ‘shouldn’t’ be doing. Yes, it’s a parlor game. But it’s a parlor game of the sort we all indulge in from time to time in different ways, and most of the time it’s that process of discussion that makes our work better.
I do doubt the value of brackets. I do not claim any authority to tell people that they should not be doing things. I just think that we might want to think about what functions this bracket stuff performs that we might not want it to perform and what functions this bracket stuff does not perform that we ought to want performed. Brackets are about stale competition, not about the merits or demerits of the books.
I’m agnostic on the question of whether brackets should be used, but maybe the point that needs to be raised here, is isn’t there ENOUGH competition in academia? Aren’t there enough arbitrary match-ups of apples and oranges that we’re already all subjected to when applying for jobs and fellowships? I can understand the general defense of the JMM you guys are offering but it does seem like the nominating process is the most valuable part of the game and maybe you can do more with enhancing that (say by soliciting nominators to write up the case for each book’s merits) and encouraging a wide discussion at that point rather than teasing these lengthy series of match-ups and dragging them out over a couple weeks. Because that just reeks of clickbaiting and in that point, I share Professor Bernstein’s general weariness.
@ACL Yeah, it was probably a mistake to think I could–I assure you–jokingly intervene in the discussion of my book. I thought I was signaling in the comment that I was offering it in a light-hearted, teasing fashion. This may be another example of a law professor/historian sensibility gap that I sometimes fall into. It wasn’t my intention to stifle discussion of these books.
It wasn’t my intent to be dismissive of your work. I was just trying to provide the kindling for a discussion. I hope you accept my apology. Best wishes.
No need to apologize. As I said, I thought it would be funny if I came on in mock “defense” of THOM. Almost as soon as I hit the button I realized that it probably was not the thing to do. No worries.
The March Madness Bracket is a simple crowd sourced “snapshot” what the readers of The Junto consider to be the relevant works in the field. Yes it is silly, a waste of time etc. It could be a whole lot more. Imagine if you will if the “owners,” main bloggers, or whatever the proper description is used the information to disseminate the information in a more structured way. I propose that say the authors of the “Sweet Sixteen” or whatever round be interviewed about their works. They could state the relevance of their work, what need it fills, etc. The authors could be asked what books/historians influenced them, what they are working on, and what book they read and enjoy. This might be a more efficient method to stimulate discussion.
I think you nail it when you describe it as a “crowd-sourced snapshot” of what books our readers enjoy (as opposed to think is “the best”). Winning the JMM is certainly not meant to be the equivalent of a book award. It’s just a light-hearted affair meant to hopefully expose readers to books that might not otherwise have been on their radar screen. Unfortunately, this year’s tournament elicited less discussion than last year’s as people tended to vote without taking the time to discuss what they liked or didn’t like about the various books. Nevertheless, we are certainly open to suggestions for making the tournament a (more) useful affair for everyone, if possible.
I want to thank you all for running this event again this year. I like seeing what books other people in the field enjoy, and I think this format is a fun way to do it. I know I’ve added several books to my reading “pile” that were not there initially.
I think it’s pretty cool that authors and publishers are driving people to vote. More attention to the blog could be a very good thing.
I personally like the current tournament format, where there isn’t a genuine level of competition, and people vote for the books they like. Granted, the lack of discussion this year was disappointing, but overall it is still fun to see what book “wins.” Maybe for next year the blog can come up with a “winner’s prize” something incredibly tacky that can be awarded to the winning author — a dvd copy of Sharknado, or a gold spray painted copy of Turabian– to show that this is just for laughs.
Again, thanks for putting this together!
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