May 29, 2007

Military history and other subfields

Memorial Day brought with it the opportunity for some people to lament the apparent passing of military history from the nation's universities. I'm sympathetic to the argument that military history is an important field, possibly somewhat neglected, but I don't believe there's any great conspiracy to chase military history out of history. Academia just doesn't work like that.

Change the nouns in those articles, and you have a template for complaining about the decline of "X history," and "Y economics," and "Z sociology." Military historians are hardly the only people to feel themselves on the outs. Indeed, please show me the sub-field anywhere that feels it is making out at the expense of all the others. Few academics feel that way. It's hardly motivating to feel you've conquered the academic world, and answered all the questions. Every academic needs to feel a little insecurity about the value of what they're studying. It keeps you on your toes. In the lab, archives, or library it's easy to convince yourself that what you're doing is self-evidently important. It isn't.

The rise and fall of topical interests in academia is chaotic rather than conspiratorial. People are rewarded for doing new and different scholarship. Inevitably that leads to golden ages followed by declines. Or, if you like, periods of excess in one direction, followed by corrections. Booms and busts. The military historians have a lot on their side for a resurgence. War has been a significant part of human history by any measure. It has changed the borders of nations, killed people, uprooted millions of men and women from their normal jobs and put them in the service of their country, brought down political leaders, and led to the rise of others. Significantly, war is often quite well documented, leaving much material for the later historian. People will return to military history because there really is something there to study, and precisely because there are fewer people doing it now.

Looking at faculty lists is a terrible single indicator of what anybody is studying now. The faculty at elite institutions represent what was happening in history at best a few years ago when the most recent hire selected a dissertation topic, and on average perhaps 15-20 years ago (a reasonable guess at median time since PhD graduation for all faculty in elite departments). Faculty webpages do not list what people are becoming interested in -- they represent conservative, historical information on what someone has done. Dissertations, conference papers and articles are a better leading indicator of what's going to be significant soon, though harder to compile and evaluate. 15-20 years ago history was in the middle of the "cultural turn." I'm glad that historians have learned that "language matters," but some of the excess along the way was not to my intellectual tastes. The new enthusiasm in history for transnational history shows its origins in cultural history. Basically, some transnational history is about how the same "texts" were read in different ways in different places. But once you start asking that question, you end up asking about how the places, people and events differed to give those different readings. You're not quite through the looking glass, but you're getting back to bigger questions than the intense analysis of obscure texts can support.

If transnational history can't open the door for a revival of military history, I'm not sure what will. It won't be the same military history that we had in the past, but nothing is ever the same the second time around. It might even be better after decades of intellectual marination. Take, for example, the economic history of institutions or business history. I cite these examples because I (sort of) know them. Back in the day (that would be the first half of the twentieth century) economic history was nearly entirely contiguous with the history of state institutions and policies, and the history of businesses, often the history of specific firms. With new ways to analyze old data, economic history in the second half of the twentieth century was (and I generalize broadly) concerned with questions that could be answered with microdata, and the macroeconomic question of what drives economic growth. But now lo and behold, there's renewed interest in business history and state policies and institutions. It looks quite different than it did 50 years ago.

A revived military history will not be about battles we already know about. It's been done. No one gets rewarded for literally reinventing the wheel. They get rewarded for finding new uses for old wheels, and marketing old wheels as new. Things change in 50 years. You can't go back, but you can take it with you.

Posted by eroberts at 10:34 AM

May 25, 2007

Advertising you don't see today

I found this advertisement in a 1937 issue of Fortune magazine. It's revealing, to say the least. Fortune was regarded as a relatively "progressive" business magazine, and before World War II had a staff of excellent journalists and photographers.

Among the interesting aspects of the advertisement is the black man working as a servant. The vast majority of black domestic service workers in the 1930s were women. Butlers—which this man appears to be—were not as common in the United States as in Britain. It's doubly interesting that this advertisement portrays having a black butler as part of a desirable lifestyle.

Posted by eroberts at 5:43 PM

May 14, 2007


No, really, that's all there is to the story. They met in New Zealand. Hence the headline in the New Zealand Herald.

These kinds of stories are probably universal. I never fail to be amused by them. I'd say there's an interesting project for someone to look at how often these types of articles appear in papers in different places.

Posted by eroberts at 8:28 AM

May 11, 2007

Cafe standards

A U.S. acronym doesn't survive the Guardian's editing.

I believe that the café standards for fuel efficiency are to drink at local cafés which you can walk or bike to, rather than driving. Very fuel efficient. Rigorous CAFÉ standards would probably ban drive-through "coffee."

Posted by eroberts at 3:03 PM

May 9, 2007

15 minutes of fame

Still in the pool. I hope to be cleared to resume "terrestrial running" soon ... dissertation off with its readers for the moment ... I have more time to aqua run. The goal is to do the equivalent of a hundred mile week in the pool this week. In the pool you can do this in singles since there's no impact stress. There's only potential boredom, and I solved that one long ago. In fact last night I did 2 hours, barely 12 hours later I did another 2 hours. On dry land I'm not sure that I'd ever contemplate doing 16-17 miles in the evening and then getting up early to do it again. Sure, I'd do it that was the way to get the workout in, but not an ideal arrangement.

Anyhow, I spend a lot of time in the pool bobbing up and down and taking up a lane that could otherwise be used by actual swimmers. A part of me feels a little guilt that I cannot back up this assertion with records, but I firmly believe that the swimmers come in, see me, look at the other lanes, and only choose to double up with me if the swimmers they would have to share with are large or clumsy.

When I go to the pool I'm squinting a little since I don't have my contact lenses in, nor my glasses on. I have the delusion that affects every partially sighted person—if I can't see other people (very well) they can't see me.

It's a delusion. One of the lifeguards (at least) must recognize me, because last night she said "Do you run marathons?"
"Yes, I do," I replied.
"I thought so, I saw your photo in a magazine, a little local magazine ... [trying to think of the name]
"Twin Cities Sports."
"Yes, that's the one."
"Well, now I have a stress fracture!"
"Yes, it's so lovely outside for running you'd have to have a good reason for running in the pool."

My next post-dissertation-to-readers ambition is that I'll write a semi-intellectual blog posting on some matter of historical or political importance, rather than aqua running.





Posted by eroberts at 3:18 PM