Writing and Publishing

Must...Avoid...Research Rabbit Hole...Or, Were the Articles of Confederation a Failure?

Were the Articles of Confederation a success or failure? I finished reading Merrill Jensen's The Articles of Confederation (1940). It's the first book I've read for my new book project about the Articles of Confederation and it's the last book historians have written specifically about the Articles and how the Continental Congress drafted them.

Jensen spends most of his conclusion discussing whether or not we can view the first constitution of the United States as a success or failure. He states that "the fact that the Articles of Confederation were supplanted by another Constitution is no proof either of their success or their failure. Any valid opinion as to the merits of the Articles must be based on a detailed and unbiased study of the confederation period."[1] I agree.

The only way to assess the success or failure of the United States' first constitution is to study them in action. And this bring us to the point of Jensen's book: Jensen intended for The Articles of Confederation to establish the context and knowledge he needed readers to have so they could best understand the book he wanted to write, The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789 (1950).

Jensen's question and point are interesting, but are they the question and point I want to answer and make in my study of the Articles?

Recognizing a Rabbit Hole

I came to be interested in the Articles of Confederation because so many recent studies about the Constitution of 1787 treat the Articles of Confederation as a stepping stone to the Constitution. These studies discuss how it was a flawed constitution and reason that those who drafted the Articles never intended for it to stand as a permanent, lasting government.

These claims don't make sense to me given what I know about the Revolution.

Additionally, an article I wrote about trade during the Confederation era came back from peer reviewers with a recommendation that I flesh out and expand the historiography section on the Articles of Confederation. That's when I found that I couldn't expand the section because there wasn't more literature to add. Jensen had written the last book on the subject and subsequent works only address the Articles on their way to a discussion of the Constitution of 1787.

The realization that there was such a gap in the historiography combined with the question of what did the framers of the Articles intend the constitution to be inspired me to take up this project.

Were the Articles of Confederation a success or failure as a constitution? This isn't a question I want to answer. I want to answer three different questions:

1. In what context did the Continental Congress draft the Articles of Confederation?

2. What intent did the framers of the Articles have for the constitution? Was it to be a permanent constitution or did they intend for it to serve as a temporary measure until a future congress could draft a more full constitution?

3. How did the thirteen states come together to draft and ratify the Articles of Confederation? How did they overcome their regional, economic, and political differences to form a union?

 

Avoiding the Rabbit Hole

I'm grateful for the work Merrill Jensen did in The Articles of Confederation, yet I want to write a different book.

History is about people and Jensen didn't really discuss people in his book. His work was meant to serve as an extended introduction to the book he wanted to write. I want to write a book about how the Articles of Confederation came to be, the men who drafted them, and how those men came to their ideas.

I also want to provide more context than Merrill Jensen did in his book. Jensen mentioned how the men who drafted the Articles spent a lot of time referencing history in their arguments for and against certain articles. Yet Jensen didn't explore historical precedents for the Articles. Both the Netherlands and Switzerland had confederations at the time Richard Henry Lee resolved that Congress should establish a committee to draft a confederation.[2] What role did these foreign and contemporary confederations play as models for the Articles?

Jensen barely mentioned slavery and yet today we know that slavery and protecting it played a huge role in the governance of the early United States. Surely slavery played a role in the drafting of the United States' first constitution too. I need to investigate that role.

Also, what role did land and the west really play in the Articles and their ratification? For Jensen, limiting the boundaries of states like Virginia, which had charter rights to land from the Atlantic to the "South Sea," proved to be a central controversy. This may be the case. At this point I know little about the political and cultural rivalry that existed between Maryland and Virginia (I need to learn more about it), but I know all about the political and cultural rivalry that existed between New York and New England and land played a big role in it.

Frederick Jackson Turner

Jensen may be right that land played a central role in drafting and ratifying the Articles, however, I noticed something curious in his footnotes: Jensen did not cite a lot of secondary sources; he relied on a lot of documentary editions and some manuscripts. When he did cite a secondary source, several citations were for works by Frederick Jackson Turner.

I know about Turner and his work, but I've never read Turner. I think this may be the next step in my project. I think I need to take a quick step back and explore the historiography that clearly influenced Jensen so I can better understand where Jensen was coming from, where I agree and disagree with him, and how I want to move forward.

 

Conclusion: Stay Focused

When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I had all the time in the world. I had a funded position, research fellowships, and my dissertation was my full-time job. I thought nothing of spending a month or more in distant archives. Heck, I moved to Albany, New York so I could "reside" in the two most important archives for my project: The New York State Library and Archives.

Now, I have a full-time job with Ben Franklin's World so I have to work on this project differently. I have to work smarter. I need to stay focused on my research questions and not chase as many interesting questions, ideas, and bits of information down rabbit holes. I suppose that is the point of this post: A reminder to myself of what my research questions and goals are so I can stay focused and eventually write and publish a book.

Avoid the rabbit holes, Liz.

 

Notes

[1] Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1st edition, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940), pg 239.

[2] On June 7, 1776, Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee of Virginia made the following resolution in the Second Continental Congress: "Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation."

 

Sounds of History: What Did Early America Sound Like?

What did early America sound like? boston-harbor

This recurring thought has recently moved from the back of my brain to its front.

I'm fortunate to live in Boston, a city that attempts to preserve vestiges of its early American past even as it builds around them. Living in a place with many visual reminders of the 18th and 19th centuries provides ample reminders to pause and listen for early America.

In recent weeks it has become typical to find me standing at the corner of State and Congress Streets, for example, staring down State Street at the Long Wharf, tuning out the cars in the foreground, and trying to imagine what it sounded like when ships pulled into and out of port and dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo holds. Or standing on a lawn on the Common trying to imagine the sounds the British military encampments made in 1768 and during the 1770s.

I've even started pacing the sidewalks in my neighborhood in areas where the sidewalk transitions from granite cobblestones to brick pavers. I'm wearing modern shoes, but the sounds my shoes make as they make contact with these different materials sounds different. What would it sound like if I wore period shoes?

Sound shapes our world, mostly in unconscious ways. It drives our experiences in part by establishing context and setting expectations.

Film provides a great example of the power of sound and how it shapes our expectations and experiences.

For example, let's explore a few of the sounds in Star Wars. The movie opens and immediately the music used to introduce the film sets an expectation that we are in for a grand, epic tale about "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Background music and sounds frame scenes so we know if we're watching Tie Fighters chase the Millennium Falcon or a shoot out between rebels and drones. We also know when Darth Vader is coming. His heavy, ominous breathing gives him away even before we see him on screen.

If you want to have some fun, try watching Star Wars (or any other film) without sound. It changes the experience and makes it easy to lose the story because it lacks the context sound provides.

*****

The fourteenth and final episode in the "Doing History: How Historians Work" posted today. Each series episode presents a discussion with one or more of the seventeen historians, archivists, and genealogists I interviewed about how they work with and use the historical process. As I reflect back on all the sage advice they provided, two recurring themes stand out:

1. Process: The production of historical knowledge comes out of a collaborative process based on evidence, analysis, and interpretation. Even historians who claim to work alone rely on work produced by other historians and on sources produced by people who lived in the past.

2. People: History is about people. It's the study of how and why people lived, acted, and responded in different times, places, and circumstances. It tells us who we are as people, communities, and individuals and its knowledge provides us with the intellectual tools we need to navigate and better understand our present-day world.

In the final episode of the "Doing History: How Historians Work" series, Lonnie Bunch, the Founding Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture stresses that historians need to humanize the past so that everyone can relate to history and realize that the past is alive and a part of who they are.

For most humans, sound is a fundamental part of who we are. It's an essential part of our humanity as it frames every moment of every day and shapes our preferences and moods.

Sound has the power to humanize the past in a way that the text in books, articles, and exhibits cannot. It has the power to evoke mental images, create empathy, and to tell us something about the ways people lived, worked, and responded to events in ways that we cannot fully understand through text alone. I believe that sound can work with the other media historians produce to create a more three-dimensional image of past peoples, places, and events and to make them seem more real, more human.

Therefore, I plan to spend 2017 thinking more consciously about what early America sounded like and experimenting with sound in my scholarship. I expect you will see and hear the results of my thinking in future podcast episodes--especially those in the forthcoming "Doing History: To the Revolution!" series and in how I think and talk about my new book project on the Articles of Confederation--a project that I've already begun to compose in both text and sound.

That's what I'm working on in 2017. What aspect of history will you be working on and exploring?

 

Finding and Making Time For My Research

hermione-time-turnerI often wish I had some sort of time creation device. I'd take Hermione's time turner if it were available. However until such a device exists, I must create time the old fashioned way: by finding and making it within my schedule. I need time for my new research project on the Articles of Confederation. I started this new project during a two-day research trip I tied in with a speaking engagement in late October. Since then progress on the project has been slow, but I'm making progress.

Over the last year and half, I've found it difficult to find time to work on my historical research. It seems like I'm either working on the podcast or away speaking about podcasts. Still, my questions about history are important to me and they will go unanswered if I don't make time to research them. Plus, I love to research and I miss it. So I've resolved to make what time I can for it.

I know many historians who advocate for the 1-hour-per-day method of research and writing. They note that devoting an hour in the mornings before work or in the evenings after work is not that onerous and over the course of a week you can make 7 hours of progress, which multiplies over the course of a month and year.

I love this notion and after trying to develop this habit, I found it doesn't work for me. I find that by the end of an hour I've only just begun to think about my project in productive ways. I need bigger blocks of time to work and think; I need two 3.5-hour blocks in my schedule.

Right now, I've found that I can set aside time on Sunday mornings. I'm an early riser, my partner and dogs are not, so I can work before they get up and we need to run our errands and go about our day.

The tricky part comes in trying to create the second block of time. Early mornings work once a week, but I use early mornings during the rest of the week to practice yoga and run. Self-care is important and I want to make time that doesn't come at a cost to it.

Evenings and weekends are also tricky for me to make and find time. Ben Franklin's World is a time-intensive project that has yet to fit into a 40-hour work week. My work spills over into nights, weekends, and holidays, just as it does for every historian I know. But where there is a will, there is a way and I need this time so I think my extra block will come on Mondays.

My writing buddy Megan Kate Nelson and I used to get together to write for 4 or 5 hours just about every Monday afternoon. We met consistently for about nine months between 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, our schedules worked against us for most of 2016 and we got out of the habit of meeting. We've decided to try and make our write-ups regular again starting on January 2, 2017.

I know our work schedules will continue to interrupt us and that other work deadlines will often seem more pressing. Yet, this is where having a writing buddy can be helpful: writing buddies can be accountability buddies too.

Although we haven't been able to meet in person for months, Megan and I have started to send text messages back and forth asking each other about our projects (Megan is writing about the Civil War in the West). We've found these text check-ins useful and motivating. One exchange helped Megan work through a small problem with her workflow and narrative and the idea that Megan would ask about my "morning with Merrill Jensen" (I'm working my way through his Articles of Confederation (1940)) motivated me to get out of bed and get to work this morning even though I stayed up entirely too late last night attending a holiday party (it was fun) and watching the Big Ten Championship football game (Penn State defeated Wisconsin).

These text exchanges are working and I think they are something we can, and will, continue to do throughout most of the week and as we continue to run into Mondays when we can't meet.

I'm not sure whether this latest attempt to make time for my research will work over the long term, but as it has worked for about a month, so I'm hopeful.

How do you make time for your scholarship?

 

Was My Dissertation Just a Dissertation?

Over the last couple of years, I've read many blog posts wherein authors discuss their successes and struggles with turning their dissertations into publishable book manuscripts. I've enjoyed, sympathized with, and benefited from these posts because I too have been trying to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. However, there's one type of post on this subject that I haven't yet seen: How to know if your dissertation is just a dissertation.

This thought has been churning in my mind for most of this year.

 

Is My Dissertation A Book?

By all accounts, I should be able to turn my dissertation into a book.

I was fortunate and privileged in my graduate education. I attended a good, funded doctoral program where I worked with one of the best historians and writers in the profession. Ever practical in his outlook, my advisor does not direct his students' dissertations, he directs first drafts of their books.

James Eights Pearl StreetThis means my dissertation never had a literature review. Most of the references I made to other scholars occur in my notes, not the main text. And while not perfectly written, my dissertation conveys its ideas with clear writing and active verbs.

This is not to imply that I wrote a dissertation ready for publication as a book. My dissertation has some serious flaws.

First, it purported to trace how the people of Albany, New York created first Dutch, then British, and finally American identities. That's a false claim. My first chapter provided a very brief overview of Albany and its people during the Dutch and early English periods. Chapter two begins in 1750.

Second, chapter four implies that the fighting of the War for Independence ended right after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In reality, fighting carried on in vengeful, civil war-like manner until 1784. Albany and its people played a big role in this fighting. Chapter five begins in the 1780s.

Third, I didn't think broadly enough when I framed my dissertation. My work speaks to an important local and small piece of the historiography. However, the events, politics, and interactions I explored and interpreted could have added valuable insight to the larger story of American and United States history, but they don't because I didn't frame and situate them properly.

Plus, there are instances when I did not consider my sources carefully enough. Further consideration would have changed parts of my argument.

These are all flaws that I can fix, and in some cases, I've already fixed them. If I had to guess, I would say that my book manuscript needs somewhere between 6-12 months worth of work before I could send it to a publisher for consideration.

So why have I been thinking about the question "how do you know if your dissertation is just a dissertation?"

 

Is My Dissertation Just a Dissertation?

America's First GatewayOne year ago this week, I shelved my book manuscript. I didn't want to put it aside; I was making great progress. However, good issues and problems due to the quick growth of Ben Franklin's World had piled up and required my attention before they hurt the podcast. I made the decision to set aside my book project and work on the podcast full-time for a month or two.

Here we are one year later. I've made almost no progress on my book since I set it aside. My lack of progress is not for lack of trying. What I thought would be a one or two month leave of absence turned into a six-month hiatus.

I attempted to return to the project in February. I wasn't sure where I wanted to jump back in, so I took chapters one and three with me on a week-long, distraction-free retreat. Chapter one is a new chapter. The binder I took with me consisted of an outline for the chapter and the research I needed to write it. Chapter three is an old chapter that needs some slight reframing and good editing. I thought having two different chapters in two different states of being would allow me to pick and choose how I wanted to wade back into my project.

I didn't make much progress. I tried for hours and days to get back into my project. I tried free writing, editing on my computer, editing with pen and paper, the Pomodoro technique to encourage short bursts of progress, and long walks to generate ideas and think my material through--nothing worked. 18th and early 19th-century Albany, places which had once seemed so familiar to me now seemed like foreign countries.

Because I'm stubborn, I've been trying on and off to get back into my project as time has allowed. It's been six months since February and I haven't made much progress.

Part of my inability to get back into my project could be that my podcast work doesn't allow for more than a few hours of book time a week. (Some weeks it doesn't even allow for that.) Therefore, dedicated focus has been a problem. Subject-matter fatigue could be another factor. I've been working on this project since 2004.

 

Moving On

Regardless of what is causing my block, it's time to stop being stubborn about it. It's not productive and it's not fun. I've decided to stop trying to force myself to work on the project. I'm moving on.

Articles of Confederation BooksI'm starting work on my next long-term research project: The Articles of Confederation. Over the last year and a half, I've been mining footnotes and steadily accumulating books about the subject. No one has undertaken a serious study of the Articles since Merrill Jensen in 1950.

In the current historiography, the Articles appear as one of the most maligned aspects of the Revolution. Many scholars treat them as a mere stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787. I intend to look at the creation of this government within the context of the American Revolution. I'm curious about how the Continental Congress drafted them, what regional issues accelerated or hindered their drafting, and whether their creation and ratification fostered a sense of national identity.

I'm really excited about my new project. But saying "hello" to the Articles of Confederation means I need to say "goodbye" to Albany, at least for now.

Will I return to this project and see it into the great book I know it could be? I wonder.

I hope the opportunity to read and think deeply about a different aspect of early American history will somehow reconnect me with Albany.

But it may turn out that my dissertation was just a dissertation.

 

A Traditional Historian in a Digital World: How I Write History for Podcasts

Digital AudioAt NCPH 2016, someone asked the panelists of "Drafting History for the Digital Public" how we acquired the digital skills to work on our various projects. My answer: My historical training drives my digital work. For the next three days, colleagues asked me about my response and since the conference more questions have found their way into my inbox. Most of the questions inquire about the “specialized” and “technical” training I use to write history for digital audio.

Confession: I am a traditional historian using traditional historical skills to work in an accessible digital media.

Ben Franklin's World represents an interview-driven form of narrative history. The end product of each episode may be a digital audio file, but the historian’s traditional tools—research, analysis, interpretation, and writing—give birth to each episode.

In this post, you will take a behind-the-scenes tour of Ben Franklin's World to see how I use my traditional historical training to produce its digital audio content.

 

Research

Like most history books and journal articles, Ben Franklin's World episodes begin with questions and research.

Listeners determine most episode topics. They e-mail, tweet, Facebook message, and verbally request topics such as the American Revolution, Everyday Life, the Constitutional Convention, and George Rogers Clark. It’s helpful to know what aspects of early American history listeners want to explore, but as we learned in graduate school, what makes history fascinating is asking the right questions of broad topics. It’s up to me to come up with the historical questions each episode will explore.

How do I know what questions to ask and investigate? I research. I look at the historiography to see what arguments and interpretations of the broad topic exist and which historians to contact. After I schedule a guest, I prepare for each interview by reading their work or researching their project/historic site.

 

Analysis

Analysis plays a role in all stages of episode production. I use the historian’s ability to analyze information when I research episode topics, read guest books and articles, prepare interview questions, interview guests, edit episodes, and when I write episode intros, outros, and show notes.

When I read a book for the show, I read it for information and structure and reference both with the historiography. I facilitate this analysis by taking notes on argument, interesting facts, the historical questions the author asks, their answers to those questions, and how the historian structured their narrative as I read. Upon finishing a book, I review my notes and use my knowledge of the historiography to contextualize the information they contain. This comparison and contextualization allows me to determine what information we should highlight in the interview, how to ask questions that get at the desired information, and how to sequence the questions so that the questions and answers tell a coherent story about the topic of the episode.

It’s the same type of analysis we do when we study for comps, explore the secondary source literature for course reading assignments and lectures, and consider as we determine how to write up our research projects for books and articles.

 

Interpretation

Ben Franklin’s World seeks to create advocates for history and historical research by generating wide, public awareness about the work of professional historians. The project generates awareness by offering accessible interpretations of the modern historiography of early America.

Each episode contains two types of interpretation: The guest historian’s interpretation of the historical record and my interpretation of their interpretation.

My interpretation comes through in the questions I ask and how I edit each episode. Each question reflects information I want to highlight for listeners. The order in which I ask questions reflects the sequence of how I think listeners should explore or think about historical people, events, and themes.

Historians rely on this type of interpretation every time they offer a lecture, build an exhibit, lead a tour, write a synthesis narrative, or edit a collection of scholarly essays.

 

Writing

I cannot overstate the role good writing and editing skills have played in the success of Ben Franklin’s World. The reason that most Ben Franklin’s World episodes convey tight, coherent mini-narratives about early American history is my graduate advisor took the time to teach me how to write and edit my work.

Every episode of Ben Franklin’s World relies on a scripted structure and undergoes at least three rounds of editing.

Guest historians offer natural, unscripted responses just as I offer unscripted commentary and follow-up questions. However, I script out the intro and outro for each episode as well as 50 to 80 percent of the questions you hear me ask. This is not to say I read the scripts verbatim, but writing out my ideas ahead of time and referencing the script as I record is a large part of why each episode sounds tight and well organized-- “smooth,” as many listeners say.

Editing serves as the other reason why episodes sound tight and coherent. Each episode receives a minimum of three rounds of editing. I conduct the first and third rounds, my audio engineer (Darrell Darnell) conducts the second and possibly fourth rounds. We edit each interview in a program called Adobe Audition. Audition works like a word processor for audio files. I record each interview as a .wav file and Audition allows me to read the interview by displaying it’s waveforms. You read through audio files by listening to the interview and watching the waveforms.

BFWorld Episode Waveform

 

The First Edit: I look and listen for long breath sounds, pauses, unnecessary tangents, misstated information, and whether I can improve the flow of an interview by restating a question, shortening an answer, or by moving around questions and answers. When I find a section I want to remove, I use Audition’s delete or cut feature much like we use the delete key in our word processor.

Occasionally, I find misstated information and I try to correct it. For example, one guest said “Rhode Island” when they meant “New Hampshire.” Neither of us heard this mistake during our conversation, but I caught it during the edit. As my guest said “New Hampshire” elsewhere in the interview, I used Audition’s copy and paste feature to replace the misstated “Rhode Island” with “New Hampshire."

I would classify the edits I make in this first round as content edits. I focus on the content of the episode and use the remove, copy, and paste tools to get the “text” of the episode how I want it.

 

The Second Edit: Darrell goes through the edited files and focuses on cleaning up the audio. He removes most of the ahs and ums, long breath sounds, and long pauses. He also levels the waveforms so the volume of the recording sounds even, adds my intro, outro, and bumper segments (show music), and adds compression to the file. Darrell is the magician behind the fantastic audio quality of each episode.

Waveforms after Leveling

 

The Third Edit: At this point the file is equivalent to the page proofs of an article or manuscript. It’s just about ready for publication but it needs a final proof read. I listen through the file to determine whether we need to cut or add anything else from the episode and whether the audio has imperfections we need tweak. If I find a problem in the proof, I send the file back to Darrell and he fixes it.

 

Editing is the most time intensive part of producing episodes. To save time most podcasters either don’t edit or they hire out this work completely. Outsourcing all of the editing for a podcast about history doesn’t work. Unless the engineer has had historical training, they cannot write and edit historical content the way a historian can.

 

Conclusion

Historians' ability to research, analyze, interpret, and write makes us well suited to convey our scholarship through digital media. The only special training historians need to work in digital media is time: time to research the different voice(s) of the media they want to work in, time to read a few how-to books or blog posts about how to use software like WordPress or Audition, and time to ask questions of others who work in the same medium.

As we complete the second decade of the 21st century, we need to stop viewing “digital history” projects, like podcasts, as separate or “non-traditional" categories of the historical discipline. This outlook has created a mental hurdle that prevents many historians from trying and embracing new media; media which our traditional work is well suited for and which can extend the reach of our work beyond those who read our books and journal articles.