I’m feeling less pissed off today about Wiki overwriting my content. I think this is a fatal flaw of Wikipedia, which will undermine the quality of their entries and destroy their credibility with the people who make Wiki what it is with their contributions. But I still believe in peer-to-peer information exchange.

Rob Weir of UMass wrote an interesting post that appeared today on
Inside Higher Ed. It’s about trying to get students to appreciate the value and limitations of sources like Wiki when they’re doing research. It generated a moderate number of comments, mostly more-or-less in favor of letting students use internet sources, but with an understanding of their limitations. We’re not Luddites after all, seemed to be the general consensus.

What surprised me was that, aside from me, everyone was pretty focused on the demand side of the equation: the consumers of information. No one seemed particularly interested in the supply side, which may be partly because Rob’s post talks mostly about undergraduates writing papers. But presumably
some of the commenters also perceive themselves as knowledge creators. I wonder what they think if Wiki from the perspective of info suppliers?

My big objection to Wiki is that it’s shooting itself in the foot by letting people or automated processes trash meaningful, well-documented content without putting something equally useful in its place. I think that’s suicidal, for a site that depends on volunteered content. Disagreements are one thing -- that's what the discussion pages and the revision histories are for. Actually, disagreements are probably a good thing, leading to better posts in the long run. Just trashing someone's work and replacing it with machine-generated text, however, is stupid.

Because let’s face it, there’s nothing magic about Wiki. Google can give you a dozen pages on any topic that are deeper, better researched, and more reliable than Wiki. Most are free of charge, and free of the occasional obscenities and stupid comments that find their way into (especially controversial) Wiki posts. Many are hosted on academic servers.

Maybe Wikipedia is an intermediate step on the way to a free, worldwide basic knowledge base. One whose time has come and gone. Maybe the next step is that people with subject-matter expertise can start posting it themselves. Server space is cheap or free these days. Yeah, a little uniformity of presentation is helpful. But I’ll happily endure a clunky interface (I’m talking about you,
Fulton Postcards) or a few web-ads (Spartacus Educational) for useful, reliable content.

So what if people started posting the info they’ve done the most work on to the web? What if university departments asked their faculties and grad students to help populate a “this is what we do here” website that provided more than just marketing info about their most recent publications? What if we talked to our students about their future roles as producers of knowledge, and got them in the habit of contributing to this knowledge base rather than just consuming it?

Comics, Blogs, Writing

In writing class today we talked about comics, graphic novels, story-boarding and blogging. Scott McCloud’s books, Understanding Comics and Making Comics were the basis of the discussion, and of course I brought in my complete From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (did you know Eddie Campbell has a blog? Click the picture)(Gaiman is a little more active, but then, he's a writer). We talked about mood and inanimate characterization. I thought London was a character in From Hell, in the sense that it seems to loom actively over the characters. You can’t really imagine the story happening anywhere else. Another guy in the class said that might be an extreme case of mood. His example was the heat in Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t achieve agency, but it’s certainly causal. Either way, we’re looking at how people build stories around inanimate stuff -- which is basically what our historical arguments are when all’s said and done. HCR uses the LoTR movie as her example: the central character is an inanimate object, the Ring.

One of the things I really like about this class is that we’re not limiting ourselves to academically oriented tools, to learn about writing. We’ve talked about the LoTR DVD directors’ commentary, and read Stephen King’s book, Rabiner’s
Thinking Like Your Editor, Strunk & White, and now McCloud. I think this has been really helpful. Proof will be in the pudding, of course...

I had some thoughts about my rural history project on my drives to and from school today. An hour in the car with no music can be a good thing. The people I was researching last week had a lot of difficulty obtaining money in the country. It got me thinking about credit and the velocity of money in urban and rural settings. Some notes about it on
my rural blog.

We also talked more about how much it’s smart to divulge in blogs. I’ve started being a little more careful about how much I tell about my research. There’ll be time enough once I’ve written (and sold) the book, to talk about the details and all the cool stuff that gets left on the cutting room floor. In the meantime, though, there are a lot of books to read and a couple of conference papers to write. So that should keep me flush with content.

Rural Myths

So I’ve had my head in this census project for a couple of weeks now. I’ve found out that, to whatever degree the town I’ve been looking at is representative, many of the things we believe about early American towns are wrong. I’m happy about this, because it gives me something to talk about, and because I’ve been hoping to do some myth busting in this project.

One of the persistent myths about early American towns is that they were inherently stable, inward-looking communities; in contrast with cities which are thought of as the scene of rapid, disruptive changes leading to modernity. Cities are imagined as filled with new people and ideas, and focused on trade, progress, and material success. Towns, on the other hand, are pictured as being filled with families and focused on “good, old-fashioned” values. In contrast with the city’s commerce and profit-motivation, the farmers, artisans and small merchants of these exceptional New England communities are supposed to work for a competence or sufficiency. Rather than upward mobility, town and country folk are believed to appreciate staying put. Democratic town meetings and the Congregational assembly are seen as institutions that focus social life and best represent the character of rural people.

read more)

Spring Break

Went on a spring break research trip. Took me, among other places, to Cornell. I hate to admit it's been literally decades since I’d been there. Things looked familiar, but there was a lot more to the campus than last time I was there.

Took over 1600 photos of documents. LOTS to read through now, and most of it's in faded, semi-legible 19th century cursive handwtiting. But there are a lot of surprises... More on the research in the not-too-distant future.

The Motley Crew

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

This book rocks! I’ve been spending a lot of time researching my own stuff, and I was beginning to feel bad about letting the field reading slide a little. Especially the radical stuff. I half-reluctantly grabbed this from the bottom of the pile on my shelf, thinking I’d give it a day and jump-start this reading.

A day and a half later, I’m thinking I need to break my rule and buy this book. And I think I need to borrow some of these characters -- many of whom I've never heard of before! -- for fiction in the future. Click the title for my notes on the book.

A Good Story = Truth?

This is a slight elaboration of (my side of) an email discussion we're having in my history writing class:

I've been planning on building my story around a series of characters/families.  I'm thinking of this as a way to try to merge a sort-of microhistorical focus on personality with all the demographics and economics you usually get in social histories like Roberta Balstad Miller's
City and Hinterland or Margaret Walsh's Rise of the Midwestern Meatpacking Industry.  I thought both these books were really effective, but both would have been more powerful with some people in them.

But since we're writing history rather than biography, we've got the dilemma of picking "the right" people.  I suppose they need to be representative of something I'm talking about, but there's the rub.  What are they really representative of?  My thesis, or what life was really like for a lot of people in these times and places?  Or some exceptional experience that goes against the grain of the majority and sheds light on others by contrast?

Maybe this is less of an issue for other people, if you don't claim to be speaking for a large, overlooked population.  In the long run, one of my ambitions is to say something about "rural people."  So I'm sensitive to the possible criticism that the folks I've picked aren't representative enough, and don't speak for their communities. But maybe that complexity is helpful, because it draws attention to the fact that the rural population is no more uniform than the urban.  

Another way to look at it, which I find seductive, is to follow the story and then see what insights it leads to.  I'm usually annoyed by novelists who say they let their characters lead them, because a lot of them overplay that metaphor.  But there's something to the idea that fictional characters usually have an internal consistency -- and that we think they should because that makes them "lifelike."  On that basis, we might also expect historical stories to "lead somewhere" if we let them.  

I know this could lead to an argument about narrative in non-fiction, and deconstruction, and all the way to cognitive theory if we let it.  At this point I'm less interested in why it works, than in whether it actually works.  And I suspect (don't know, but hope) that a good story, told well, has something in it.  Or it wouldn't attract our interest in the first place.

I'm don't mean to imply that there isn't a lot of construction between my discovery of the story's insight and the reader's.  Heather Cox Richardson said she used a technique in her forthcoming book on Wounded Knee "in which I talk about the American worldview in harsh, square images and straight lines, while I talk about the Indian worldview in gentler images and curved lines. (Factories have
square brick walls that slice the view; Indians camp near the wandering creeks that carve the rolling hills...)" I thought this example was a great one.  Linear, angular Americans vs. curvy, conforming-to-the-terrain Indians.  It's incredibly artificial and manipulative at an almost subliminal level, when you think about it.  But it and other techniques like it could be the reason people "get" the story at a deeper level than where they merely understand her argument and agree or disagree with her conclusion.

So anyway -- back to picking characters.  This afternoon I finished a 1,217-row spreadsheet covering everybody known to have lived in Ashfield from 1790-1840.  I've got all the census data, as well as all the Vital Records, town tax rolls, and local history/genealogy.  I now know a lot about who lived and died in Ashfield, and where the other folks went, if they didn't die there (a much bigger number than I'd expected).  I think this data will help me argue several points about migration, persistence, and local attitudes toward the outside world.  I plan to do this for each of the places in my story.  But this isn't the story.

People have gotten away with that sort of thing in the past. Hal Barron, for instance, in
Those Who Stayed Behind.  But it's dry reading, isn't it?  All setting, no actors.  I kept thinking, as I was reading it, "yeah, this makes sense.  But did anyone who lived then actually feel this way?"  Not for nothing Carlo Ginzburg's mother was an award-winning Italian novelist.  

Bottom line: I want to spend some time telling the reader about these wonderful, bizarre people I found.  This one Ashfield guy, Samuel Ranney, after being harrassed by the local church, actually sends them a letter pre-emptively excommunicating
them!  I love this guy!  Does he single-handedly refute Perry Miller?  I suppose not.  But he does suggest there's something rotten in the state of Denmark.