Recently, there have been a number of news items & publications all dealing in one way or the other with being a 21st century historian. In this blogpost I will discuss three of these, and try to reflect upon my own research and the bigger picture.
In 2014, Jo Gaudi and David Armitage posted The History Manifesto, in which they argue how historians through a continuing focus on short term micro-histories “ceded the task of synthesising historical knowledge to unaccredited writers and simultaneously lost whatever influence they might once have had over policy to colleagues in the social sciences, most spectacularly to the economists.” Much has been said about their approach and their apparent solution, a renewed focus on the longue durée, and perhaps not enough about the worry the express.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Queen’s University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston explicitly denounced his faith in the profession when he stated that “[s]ociety doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.” The backlash was quite severe, and rightly so, with eminent classicist and historian Tom Holland explaining to Mr Johnston the importance of precisely that sixth century for our understanding of today’s world, adding that “[a]ny university vice-chancellor looking ‘to help society drive forward’ should be supporting the teachers and students of the period to the very best of his ability – not stabbing them in the back.”
And then there was a minor outrage among digitally minded academics in general when an anonymous “young PhD student” denounced the use of social media in a toe-curling Guardian piece titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”. The author, apparently a budding scientist, argued that “the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?” Unfortunately for our anonymous author, those ‘dreaded grant applications’ often include a section on interaction, outreach, and media; any previous experience with these topics through, let’s say, social media, seems quite advantageous.
As a young early modern historian who makes frequent use of both digital methods and social media, instances such as the above do make me wonder where I fit in. I was glad to see that our anonymous scientist received appropriate feedback – a quick search for the hashtag #seriousacademics will provide some delightful examples – as there are many ways in which social media can enhance serious scholarship. But both the History Manifesto and the Belfast Telegraph example provide an ample challenge to a historian who devotes most of his time to unravel the mind of a seventeenth century human being. By phrasing it thus, I can already draw parallels between the past and the present. Newton was a human being like you and I, albeit of exceptional genius. Trying to understand his creativity also sheds a light upon our own creativity, both in the process of understanding and in the result of such process.
In searching for Isaac Newton I often find myself a Sherlock Holmes, picking up little clues here and there and trying to puzzle them together. Last week I was working through a massive series of notes and drafts for Newton’s earliest chronological work, and I was able to connect several pieces not only of this work, but of his natural philosophical and alchemical work as well. Trying to understand Newton often involves hours and hours of painstaking analysis, in what I like to think of as a form of forensics: trying to reconstruct how Newton went from one draft to another, when particular marginal additions were created, and where they should be inserted. I do not think I would have been able to do this in the pre-digital era: the online availability of so many of Newton’s manuscripts, together with the Newton Project’s transcriptions, allows for research that is both wide-ranging and incredibly detailed. And though I still do not have an Instagram account, I do enjoy blogging and tweeting about interesting finds and juicy details.
Yes, I am a blogger – and I hope the academic world will judge me a serious academic.