Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Society for US Intellectual History: An Interview

Randall Stephens

Since 2007 the US Intellectual History (S-USIH) blog has nurtured a lively community of historians. Since then that virtual group has morphed into a series of annual conferences and the Society for US Intellectual History. The revamped S-USIH site is a real model for digital humanities and shows how best to foster conversations within a field. The blog features book reviews, op-eds, think pieces, and essays that frequently spark heated debates in the comments section. (Like many U.S. historians I’ve watched all this with real interest—reading, lurking, and occasionally commenting on posts.)

To find out a little bit more about how the website has led to a vibrant Society and what the group does, I recently caught up with key members and founders: Andrew Hartman (Illinois State University), Tim Lacy (Loyola University), Benjamin Alpers (University of Oklahoma), and Ray Haberski (Marian University).

Randall Stephens: The US Intellectual History blog started in 2007. Why did you and others launch it?

Andrew Hartman: Tim [Lacy] got the ball rolling by issuing a call to the H-Ideaslistserv. I answered that call, which was to form a community of U.S. intellectual historians in some fashion, because I felt like I had few people to talk to about my work and about the type of history I was most interested in doing. I was in my first year as an assistant professor, and was already missing my graduate school community, and was looking for some way to replicate that. I don't exactly remember why we decided a blog was the best way to build community—at that time, I didn't even read academic blogs—but in retrospect it was a great decision.

Tim Lacy: As I review the points in my original call, the death and resurrection of intellectual history metaphor was, of course, overly dramatic. The field was not dead; no resurrection was therefore required. I would be corrected on those points by scholars in the know (I recall a personal note and some correspondence with David Hollinger, among others). But—-and this is crucially important—-the needs for a field/group identity and an injection of new life were real and substantial. I just felt there had to be more work done on U.S. intellectual history topics because of the success, at the time, of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club. And we needed a conference. That point that has been validated, of course, by attendance and enthusiasm for the events we've planned.

Benjamin L. Alpers: Unlike Tim and Andrew, I was not involved in the blog from the start. Though I think I was vaguely aware of its existence in its earliest days, my involvement began with the first U.S. Intellectual History Conference in Grand Rapids in 2008. Paul Murphy had contacted me out of the blue in the summer of 2008, asking if I'd serve as respondent to a panel at that conference. Having just spent a year on a Fulbright in Germany, I was on vacation in France and didn't have very regular access to e-mail. I remember responding rather late to the invitation. I'm still not sure why Paul thought of me, but I was delighted that he had. As a 20th-century U.S. intellectual and cultural historian, I'd always envied my colleagues in areas like Western history, Southern history, and medieval history, sub-disciplines that had well-established annual conferences. I had a great time at the conference, attending a number of excellent panels, meeting some old friends, and making some new ones.

Ray Haberski: I came to the group first through an invitation from Tim Lacy, who I had gotten to know because we both worked on the H-Ideas listserv. I had organized and moderated a forum at H-Ideas with George Cotkin, David Steigerwald, and Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn that centered on George's essay, "The Democratization of Cultural Criticism." That was back in 2005 and my interest in doing something new with intellectual history and the web was fired up by Tim's great essay that ultimately launched the blog we now manage. Obviously Tim is pretty damn significant to this endeavor. Once I began writing for the blog, I gained a whole new intellectual community that I now, quite literally, cherish.

Stephens: I wonder if you could say something about ways that the blog has served as a meeting point and how it's helped speed along the Society for US Intellectual History.

Hartman: Clearly there were many people who felt as we did—that there was a need for a community of U.S. intellectual historians. So once our content got to be more regular (by about 2009), our readership, and our smart commentariat, grew by leaps and bounds. If I were to advise a group of young scholars on how to build a scholarly community, I would tell them to start a group blog. Junto (the new blog for early Americanists) is a great recent example.

Lacy: E-mail and the blog sufficed for almost two years (January 2007 to October 2008) until we met for the first time in Grand Rapids. That's an amazing amount of time spent in virtual connection (sometimes close, sometimes daily, sometimes infrequent) before actually meeting your "pen pal."

My sense in 2008 was that we should try to simply piggy-back onto an existing society. But that proved too complicated (and expensive, I recall). So we started our own society. But the transition from blog to independent conference to free-standing society was only linear in retrospect.

Haberski: It was clear at the outset that we needed a website. As secretary, I was in charge of investigating the development of the site. That task was well beyond my capabilities, so I began to search for potential partners to develop a site for us. The minutes of the society tell the story of my efforts. The upshot is that I couldn't find a quote from a developer for less than $5,000. While lamenting the fact that society did not have enough money to pay developers who I had contacted, the father of a child in my daughter's class told me he would be willing to hear what we needed. His name is Curtis Billue and he has become the developer of the website. We spent the better part of fall of 2012 working through different designs. Curtis has been responsible for the new logo, the entire look of the new site, and has created new designs for widgets available through wordpress. I have been responsible for most of the content on the site outside of the blog itself.

Stephens: You all have recently revamped the site. What did you hope to accomplish with the change in look and navigation?

Alpers: The site is really Ray's baby. Two things really drove the move: the first organizational, the second technological. First, since S-USIH came into existence in the summer of 2011, both the blog and the conference have been subsidiaries of the society. But the blog had spent its first several years of existence as the chief institutional expression of all our endeavors. The blog, odd as it sounds, had run the conference and had created the society. In our new digs, the relationships among society, blog, and conference are all much clearer.

Stephens: What would you like to see for the blog in the future?

Lacy: More posts and more writers! I think that strong voices of dissent (think of Christopher Shannon's recent posts) are stimulating. So I want more voices overall—-even if I have trouble, some weeks, keeping up with what we already have!

Hartman: I think it's already one of the most vibrant academic blogs going. So I'd like to see that continue. I'd like to see us expand the type of content we provide. We need more pre-20th century US intellectual history. The website has a page for podcasts. I'd love for us to do more of these.

Alpers: We need to build on our successes. We're hoping to increase our number of regular bloggers to as many as fourteen, so that we might regularly put up two posts a day. As Andrew has already said, we're currently too heavily weighted to the 20th century, and we have a particular interest in bringing on board historians who work on earlier periods.

Haberski: The next phase is to clean up the blog and make it easier to use as a discussion forum and to do the same for the book review section. We then hope to create a genuine members' area in which resources for teaching and research will be housed.

My hope is that our site will have a stable set of members (200-300), a constructive area for members, a lively and engaging blog and book review area, and become a place for us to profile and encourage younger historians as well as more veteran historians.


Tim Lacy said...

Randall: Thanks a million for the interview. It was good for all of us, I believe, to reflect on what's happened and what's happening in order to think about what we can do better, or create, for the future.

Jonathan Wilson said...

An informative interview! I just wanted to say that the USIH blog was one of the explicit models for The Junto as it was being organized last year.

Randall said...

Glad to hear that USIH played a role in how The Junto was created.