This post is co-written by Katy Lasdow and Eric Herschthal, contributors to The Junto and Rapporteurs for the Columbia University Seminar on Early American History and Culture.
Earlier this month at the Columbia University Seminar on Early American History and Culture, scholars in New York City got a glimpse of the most pressing issues facing the field as seen through the eyes of the new editors of early American history’s flagship journals. Joshua Piker, the recently named editor at The William and Mary Quarterly, joined Catherine Kelly, now in charge of the Journal of the Early Republic, to discuss what concerned them most as they entered their freshman year on the job. Their concerns ranged from the challenge Atlantic history posed to what it traditionally has meant to be an early American journal, to the way technology—JSTOR, Project MUSE, even blogs like us here at The Junto—has forced academic publications to rethink their role in a more egalitarian digital world.
Prior to the seminar, Piker and Kelly sent out questions they hoped would guide those in attendance. (We’ve included the full list of questions below.) They wondered, for instance, what boundaries readers thought the journals should set as scholarship increasingly focused on sites far beyond the original thirteen colonies. When does an article investigating, say, the Russian fur trade on the 17th century Aleutian islands cease to be relevant to a historian studying New Jersey’s state constitution? (We made that one up, if only to highlight the latitude early American scholars seem to have these days.) Bringing in Native American, Spanish, French and Russian voices, also invites another problem of defining temporal boundaries. If Native history defines the “early” in “early America” when do we begin our story? And if we fully include the Spanish empire, why shouldn’t we extend the “early republic period” forward, to say, 1848, with the end of the U.S.-Mexican War?
None of these issues are new, of course. But that so many of the seminar’s guests had conflicting opinions suggests that we have hardly reached a consensus. If the latest textbooks still look much like they did a century ago—and in many respects, they do—it seems in no small part because we have not figured out how to put the field back together; this even after more than two decades of boundary-busting monographs that have underscored the importance of gender, race and global empires to our understanding of early American history.
Several guests at the Columbia seminar trekked up from New York University, which holds a similar monthly workshop focused on Atlantic history. Some of them argued convincingly that early American scholarship stood, at the very least, to gain a much more varied set of characters to reset America’s origin stories. Narratives centered on Columbus are far behind us, but who really feels knowledgeable enough to start a survey course on American history with a section on the Cahokia empire? Or how about the 17th-century Spanish nun Maria de Jesus de Agreda? (And if you do, please share your methods and approaches in the comments!) Especially with the WMQ publishing content that varied so widely, if not in quality than in topic, Piker worried that many early American historians were not finding the journal so relevant anymore.
Technology only exacerbates this problem. The number of journals available to scholars can now be called up in a nano-second. Kelly and Piker worried that a decline in readers consuming their journals from cover-to-cover—once something scholars looked forward to (or at least felt guilty not doing)—has made some editorial practices seem increasingly futile. Special issues devoted to a single topic, or forums and roundtables are now difficult to read the whole way through. Publishing companies like JSTOR and Project MUSE break up articles from their full issues, discouraging readers to read pieces in conversation with one another. We noticed that what seems to be happening here is not unlike what happened to the carefully curated music album after Apple introduced the downloadable track. (Though the music industry offers few inspiring alternatives.) On the one hand, JSTOR et al deserve plenty of credit too. Piker and Kelly noted how the digitalization of their journals has opened up their back-issues to a whole new generation of scholars.
Yet hardly everyone in attendance pined for the revival of roundtables. Some scholars noted that roundtables and forums seemed to invite exclusivity at a time when academics are trying to embrace inclusion. Published roundtables require a journal’s editor to invite a few set scholars to contribute the articles. Often that has meant friends invite friends. Kelly and Piker recognized that reality, and yet they seemed both genuinely interested and ambivalent about the promise online formats held. While the democratic nature of online conversations was something worth praising, if journals were to fully embrace online commentary, the rigor of academic peer editing—something journals, and their readers, tend to appreciate—might stand to lose.
In any event, the comment feature on blogs did not necessarily offer a translatable model. Blogs seems to invite immediate comments in a way that scholarly articles don’t, Kelly said. She spoke from experience. As the former editor of the online scholarly journal Common-place, Kelly used to look forward to reading online comments to articles. But most of the articles, though certainly read, received hardly any commentary at all. She suspected it had something to do with the nature of journal articles themselves. Perhaps these traditional pieces did not lend themselves well to the informal, and at times feisty, provisional character of blog posts.
What do you think, Junto readers? Keep this conversation going in the section blogs do best: the comments section!
As promised, here are the pre-circulated seminar questions.
– – –
From Catherine Kelly and Joshua Piker:
As editors, we realize that good journals are a marriage of content and form. With that reciprocal relationship in mind, we’ve chosen to pursue questions along two axes, one concerned with historiography and the other focusing on format and media.
- Early Americanists work in an ever-more geographically expansive field. The tight focus on the 13 colonies (and later, states) has given way to Atlantic history, continental history, imperial history, hemispheric history, and global history. The gains are easy to see. But what have we lost? And what can we do about those losses?
- As the Journal of the Early Republic creeps backward in the period it encompasses and the William and Mary Quarterly creeps forward, what are the implications of overlap? Are there ways to leverage this overlap to help us rethink issues of periodization?
- Early American historians have re-thought each word in the phrase “early American history.” We no longer write only about 1607-c.1820. We no longer confine ourselves to the East Coast of North America, and we no longer assume that we are all historians. What, then, holds this field together? Where is its center? Does it need a center?
- How should both journals deal with the upcoming 250th anniversaries of all sorts of Revolutionary-related events?
- Which topics to do you think most require sustained attention?
- How has interdisciplinary work changed the field of early American history? What possibilities for new sorts of interdisciplinary work are out there?
- What place, if any, does theory have now in Early American history? What kinds of theory might matter?
- What is the place of social history in Early American History?
Format and Media
- What impact have digital resources and computational tools had on our research and writing (as opposed to our teaching and publishing)?
- To what extent are journals like the JER and WMQ enjoined to reach multiple constituencies, even within the academy? What are our obligations to scholars who work in teaching intensive institutions or, for that matter, work as contingent faculty? Are there ways to invite readers who teach our fields but weren’t trained in them?
- How can we broaden the reach of our conversations (e.g., OA) w/o destroying the scholarly infrastructure that undergirds those conversations?
- How do we encourage the things that digital does well (wide-distribution; exploration, non-linear processes, reader-crafted paths) and yet retain the things we expect in a scholarly article (reach a community of scholars; evidence that is organized and cumulative; an argument that relies on that evidence; a historiographical referent chosen by the author)?