Last week, the Arts & Sciences Graduate Center at William and Mary hosted a Digital Identity Roundtable to discuss the benefits, pitfalls, and protocols for graduate students who currently use social media for networking and scholarship, and for those who would like to start. As a contributing editor for The Junto, I was invited to participate in that discussion. Only after agreeing did I realize that mine would be the only graduate student voice among a group of highly accomplished professors from across the college. Being a typical graduate student, the thought of speaking with any “expertise” caused a brief panic and I turned to my fellow Junto editors for their tips and suggestions for graduate students and early career scholars about managing a digital identity. My query (really a plea for help), elicited such a big and generous response from my fellow editors that we decided to share that advice here. Hopefully, this can start a wider conversation about how graduate students should confront an increasingly vital part of our professional development. Continue reading
Janine Yorimoto Boldt is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is writing a dissertation that explores the social function of domestic portraiture in Virginia between Bacon’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.
“Why should a historian read your dissertation? How can portraits tell us something new, rather than confirm what historians already know?”
The historian on my dissertation committee posed these questions during my prospectus colloquium. They haunt me when I sit in the archive and now it hangs over my head while I write. These questions only enhanced the feeling of the disciplinary divide between art history and history that I already observed. One of my comprehensive exam fields was early American cultural history. Reading early American history, I noticed how few historians engage art historical scholarship. Usually, the art histories are relegated to the footnotes as an obligatory afterthought. For example, after mentioning the fact that so-and-so had a portrait a footnote reads, “for more information on portraiture in the colonial period, see these [three sources here].”
To be fair, in the field of art history, there are few recent monographs that focus on early American art, and fewer that are object-centric. Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Jennifer Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (2014) are recent and excellent studies of early art that place the object at the center of their analyses. Several cultural historians write about artists or write histories that revolve around art objects, but they tend to circle around the object instead of engaging in deep material and visual analysis. Biographical information about producers and consumers take center stage, rather than foreground the art as an agent. In the field of early American art, especially the colonial period (and on artists other than John Singleton Copley), there is a lot more work to be done.
When asked about current trends in historical scholarship, a recent visiting historian on campus told graduate students that we need to engage more with visuals. When they said this I was thrilled! I agree! Then, they said, “but not how to do visual analysis. That’s not important.” Why not? Why do so many historians dismiss the importance of the visual? Surely images can function as more than “wallpaper” and portraits can be used as more than illustrative of a historical figure’s likeness. At another event, after presenting an argument based on visual analysis of a woman’s portrait, a historian told me to “stick to evidence” from documents. However, this woman left virtually no archival evidence. All that she left to posterity was her portrait, and an unusual one at that. Do I not have an obligation as an historian to interpret this piece of historical evidence to the best of my ability in order to tell her story? Doesn’t the portrait count AS evidence in and of itself?
Certainly there are some disciplinary divisions in training and method. However, as the humanities become increasingly interdisciplinary, I hope that the divide between history and art history closes a bit and more historians choose to engage with art. We live in a hyper-visual world and historians can help students learn to think critically about historical images to prepare them for critically engaging with contemporary media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for incorporating art into history classes and scholarship:
Discuss images in class. I have seen many historians use PowerPoints with images in lectures and presentation. Do more than use the images as simple illustrations. Pick a key image and dissect it as you would a primary source document. Ask questions like:
- Where was it displayed? What does that say about visibility the intended audience?
- How was it meant to be seen? Is it a small image meant to be held close? Was it part of a set of images? Was it a large statement piece?
- Who made it? Who commissioned it? Why?
- What can the image tell us about this event/person/culture that written documents cannot?
Think about assigning images as primary documents. In assignments that involve analyzing a primary source, consider using a image as an option. Or, consider pairing an image and a document.
Think critically about whether the image you include is appropriate. Are you using a images from the 1850s to illustrate an event in the 1770s? Include an image caption that references, at minimum, the date of creation and the artist. Dates matter!
Use images as evidence. Images are forms of material culture and are cultural texts. If your research brings you to images, try to do more than include them as “wallpaper” illustrations. Images are material, they are constitutive of culture, and visuality is formative.
As an American Studies graduate student, and an undergraduate with a double major in art history and history, I have taken a number of “traditional” history courses. Except for material culture seminars, I have not seen images used widely in the history classes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in how other disciplines engage with art. Do you have any other suggestions for utilizing images? Do you regularly use images or assign art history texts?
Sowande’ Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
Writing a book review a day after Karin Wulf’s entertaining analysis of what makes for a good review might be hubris at its worst, or simply bad timing. And, while I will never have the expertise, style, and prose that made Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution so good, I do hope this review will explore the central ideas of Slavery at Sea in anticipation of a Q&A between the author and The Junto’s own Rachel Hermann tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!
In the introduction of her new book, Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Sowande’ Mustakeem, writes that, “not all slaves endured the transatlantic passage in the same way.” That statement serves as the driving force behind an unflinching exploration of the “multiplicity of sufferings” endured by aged, infirm, and infant Africans carried across the Atlantic and into slavery. Despite the simplicity of that premise, Mustakeem’s concise monograph exposes how the focus on young and able-bodied African men as the predominant population of captives held in slave ships overshadows the experiences of the “forgotten” of the transatlantic slave trade. As a result Mustakeem’s narrative lingers on the painful details of what she describes as “a massively global human manufacturing process” that commodified the bodies of young and old, healthy and infirm, female and male (9). Continue reading
As a historian of piracy, I suppose it was inevitable that my research summaries would end up reading like bad monologues for a late night comedy act. Like this tidbit from the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla: “1618 four Frenchmen appeared before the governor of Santo Domingo accused of piracy by the Spanish patrolmen who caught them on the island’s coast. The governor interrogates the four men through a translator. One of the men admits that, to survive, they occasionally went pirating on the high seas, but that they never stole anything from the Spanish. The governor then asks him where they got their ship, to which the men admit that they may have stolen one thing from the Spanish.” Ba dum tsshhh, cue the rimshot and laughter from my friends as I relate the story over beers later that evening. Continue reading
In their introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman write that the accumulation of scholarship about early American economic development necessitates “a fundamental rethinking of American history itself” (2). And, for someone who works on the seventeenth-century Caribbean, those words nonetheless resonated with debates very current in my own field of research. In 2011 – the same year that the conference that resulted in Slavery’s Capitalism was held – Latin Americanist John Tutino declared that, “We face a fundamental rethinking of the rise of capitalism” in response to the work of individuals like Dennis Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Kenneth Pomeranz. For Tutino, a global perspective on the development of capitalism amends the “enduring presumptions … that capitalism was Europe’s gift to the world,” and “historically antithetical” to places like Spanish America and the Caribbean. Beckert and Rockman recognize in their description of Dale Tomich’s “Second Slavery” the importance of new scholarship in “weaving together transnational and imperial frameworks, the history of capitalism, and the study of slavery as a profit-seeking enterprise” (11). Continue reading
“The heart of the English Empire in the seventeenth-century Americas was Barbados,” according to Justin Roberts in his recent William and Mary Quarterly article. That claim is perhaps not surprising—Richard Dunn established the social and economic importance of the island over thirty years ago in his seminal work, Sugar and Slaves. However, Roberts takes that point further by exploring the political ramifications of all of that Barbadian wealth in the West Indies. His article also speaks to a larger sea change in the historiography of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Continue reading
There should be no need to mention in a blog about early American history that the digital turn is, perhaps, a fait accompli. However, over the past couple of years more and more articles have called into question the ways in which access to digital archives and digitized sources has changed both the questions historians ask and the kinds of research we do. Of this surge in publications, Lara Putnam’s recent AHR article stands out as a kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine warning to both graduate students and established professionals. Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, calls on all of us to have an “extensive discussion of digitization,” thereby pulling our research approaches out of, “the realm of invisible methods, the black box where by consensus we leave so much of our discipline’s heavy lifting.” For Putnam and others, the digital turn remains full of pitfalls that deserve our serious consideration. Continue reading