A Short Ode to Slow History

An article just came out in the American Historical Review’s October issue that should be on the radar for anyone interested in early American history: Holly Brewer’s “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery.” In it, Brewer connects Locke’s criticism of absolutism with an opposition to inheritable slavery, thereby casting our understanding of democracy, capitalism, and slavery in an entirely new light.

This nuanced and deeply researched argument challenges the tendency to portray Locke as a proponent of slavery, claims rooted in the fact that he authored Carolina’s Fundamental Constitutions. However, as Brewer argues, “Locke’s support for slavery was weaker than his critics have implied” since his role in Carolina’s constitution was “as a lawyer writes a will,” or as paid employment rather than philosophical conviction (1052). And, despite his authorship of a document that provided constitutional sanction of slavery in the colony, Brewer argues that Locke and his mentor, Anthony Ashley Cooper, opposed the “principles of hereditary status” and absolutism under the Stuarts – including hereditary servitude in the form of slavery (1047).

In this sense, and through detailed analysis of the development of slave law throughout the Anglo-Atlantic, Brewer’s article challenges long-held notions about the relationship between slavery and freedom, arguing that “Slavery and racism were part of larger arguments about hereditary status and lineage. Slavery was part of a broader denial of power to many, not just to African Americans. American slavery developed as part of broader debates about justice” (1075). The implications of that claim alone should cause a rethinking of how we understand the development of slavery and democracy in early America, and encourage Junto readers to spend some time with Brewer’s article.

This is, of course, just a cursory summary of an excellent article, but I wanted to lay out the larger claims in order to highlight something that struck me after my first reading of it. In the acknowledgements note on the first page, Brewer thanks the scholars who commented on her research over the nine years that she had been working on it. In those nine years, versions of the article were presented at several seminars and passed through the hands of an impressive list of scholars including the eight anonymous peer reviewers selected by the AHR. That is a tremendous amount of academic labor over nearly a decade and resulted in an article that will be read and reread for decades to come.

And it got me thinking about publishing, tenure, and the academic timeline. Years ago a friend of mine told me that he felt like the academic job market was an arms race in which young scholars worked fast just to add more lines to their C.V. in order to look more attractive to hiring committees. In some ways, perhaps he was right. But, just like any cook can tell you that slow cooking often brings out more subtle flavors, Brewer’s article demonstrates the benefits of slow history, where presenting work and thinking about it over nearly a decade resulted in something more nuanced and important than earlier versions could have been.[1]

It’s also a luxury that I’m not sure untenured faculty and graduate students have. Or do we? Knowing that everyone has different opinions about when and what to publish, I wanted to open this up to Junto readers. Slow history or arms race? What kinds of pressures to publish should graduate students and untenured faculty put themselves under? Or should we take more time with our ideas, present them widely, and publish when they have fully developed?

And, if nothing else, give Brewer’s article a few hours this week—it will be worth your time.

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[1] That said, calling Brewer’s article slow history is by no means an insult. Considering the breadth of her research and thinking, nine years seems like a quick turn-around.

4 comments on “A Short Ode to Slow History

  1. You raise interesting questions today, Casey. I think most historians working in the UK don’t have the luxury of going slow all the time because of the Research Excellence Framework and the expectation that we’ll all publish four articles or books for every six year cycle.

    What this has meant for me is that I’ve put together a mix of slow and fast stuff. A book that’s been coming together since 2010 or so, but also an article that I researched over a month of early mornings, wrote during the month of Easter Break, and edited during another month of early mornings. Some of these pieces are smaller than others, but are expected as part of my job. For me it always comes down to strategy. I think graduate students can do well to veer sharply away from their MA topic, because it means they have a publishable article or two before starting the dissertation and before going on the market. I don’t think I could have published pieces of my dissertation any earlier than I did, because they just weren’t ready. But I do think in today’s market, that grad students are expected to have those shiny items on their CV. Thanks for highlighting the Brewer article. I’ll add it to my to-read list

  2. I really appreciated seeing this post Casey! Thanks! Rachel’s response poses the question of whether perhaps there is a “slow history” tradition in some places like the U.S. and a fast history tradition in others. I lived and taught in Australia for several years, and I and my academic colleagues were under great pressure to produce new research “outputs” as they called them, and indeed my contract required it. They had a lively research culture in department because of this system (which I liked) but frankly (and my colleagues said this to me themselves) they felt the necessity to repackage and reformulate older ideas just to fit the administration’s production schedule (isn’t there a line like that in a Morrissey song — “frankly Mr Shankley…”?). This system works well in the collaborative social sciences such as economics and sociology, but not for history, I feel. This is because our authority as perhaps the only human to have so deeply engaged in an archive is the basis of the believably of our claims. Yet, there are serious professional pitfalls now in academia in going slow. For scholars with tenure such as Brewer, slow is a luxury they can afford.

  3. ACL says:

    Early mid-career scholar here, really appreciated this post and am intrigued by Brewer’s piece. It’s worthwhile to say, having witnessed enough searches from a departmental perspective, graduate students’ perception that a lengthy publications list on their CV is the key to getting a job isn’t quite accurate. Quality of work always matters more than quantity, and if there’s anything on a CV list of publications that helps catch a search committee’s eye, it’s the prominence of the journals and presses that are publishing your work. Especially when vetting ABDs or newly minted PhDs, there is only one “magic bullet” in an applicant file that gets hiring committees to pull it out of the pile: an exciting, original, and relevant dissertation/first book topic.

    Admittedly, the question of whether your scholarship clears that bar has no objective answer, and all the other factors in your file can certainly shape the committee’s judgement: a gripping cover letter and impressive recommendations (or rather, impressive recommenders) can bear some weight, and of course the reputation of your advisor and program counts entirely too much, and much more than having a couple rapidly-produced ho-hum articles placed in mid-tier or specialist journals. Even when a committee admires your work, that alone does not guarantee an interview. You the candidate also need to check off enough boxes on the (sometimes surprisingly narrow) list of criteria for the hire that the department and committee has agreed upon.

    Basically this is a long way of saying, getting a job is not about winning an arms race. It’s highly subjective, snobby, and arbitrary process, but it can actually reward slower scholars over fast ones.

  4. Ian Saxine says:

    Good points raised here all around. Regarding the publishing arms race for grad students and the untenured, I’d suggest that like so much else in 21st century American life now, there’s a divide. Besides initial funding, the top PhD programs in the US are often able to provide an extra year or so after graduation of a funded, letterhead-carrying position that gives their students more time to polish their work before having to depend on their fortunes in the wider job market. Those who don’t have that opportunity need to build their C.Vs accordingly.

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