On Being a Historian in the Digital Age

To be honest, the idea of immediate and public communication has always fallen from my brain like bowling ball– the large lump squeezing through my throat before plummeting my gut to my feet.

I am the ghost the internet warned you about, but it isn’t like you can blame me. Surely you too have felt the mad frazzle of instant communication bubbling in your anxious spot.

Where do you feel your anxiety? Does it tighten your chest or throat? Does it kick you in the head or make you stub your toes?

Mine sits in my gut, and gurgles with discontent.

Yet, here I am. Here is this blog, here is this opening, first post. Is it too much to say, that I  have been thinking and talking about a blog for several years now? Am I letting on too much, if I allow this blog to be both personal and professional as the internet is?

Carol Hanisch wrote the personal is political first in a memo to a student feminist group  in 1969. The turn of phrase grew from memo note to household phrase because it concisely  affirms our experiences in the larger fabric of society.

For me, the personal is historical. I focus on the daily lived experiences of my historical subjects, who are often not the “big men” of history.

Notes of death, illness, birth, success and failure, I read alongside the daily notations of weather, work, sermons, and notable gossip. Historians are glorified snoops: we read letters and day books, analysis receipts for spending habits and ransack belongings for clues. The historical is deeply personal–the historical narratives I write are built up from intimate experiences in intimate spaces. Ann Laura Stoler and other colonial historians followed the feminist tradition and began examining the intimate to reveal tensions of empire playing out in bodies, homes, and interpersonal relations around the globe.

The historical is personal. The more I learn about history, the more I understand the world around me and my place in it. If the subject matter is personal, so too, is my relation to it.

It wasn’t until grad-school that I embraced the feminist tradition of acknowledging the self in scholarly work and then, only timidly. Now, I let myself hang in the edges of my writings– appearing in the introductions and conclusions as if none but my  historical subjects exist in between. But my experiences flavor my interpretations. My perspective is built up of a grab-bag of identities: Wyomingite; woman; dog-owner; mourner; patient; historian; patron; clerk; artist; daughter of an oilfield work; writer; allergic to dairy; digital humanist; Ashkenazi; scholar; reader; etc.

Our lists of identities are endless–some major, some minor–built up of our interests, communities, families, ethnicities, religions, and so on. There are the identities we choose and those that are given to us while we are still in the womb. Identities we grow into and those we push away. We are all collections of the major and minor identities we acknowledge and those we do not. Where we are in terms of identity colors how we will read a certain text or interpret a certain action. A historical narrative is just a story pieced together by evidence, spacial and temporal context, and self– the a-historical, self.

The internet is everything we are, all at once. It offers our best and worst insights; kindnesses and cruelties; the personal and the professional. All Luddites will be left behind; join now or die. I refuse to let myself and my work perish, and at the risk of favoring one over the other I gladly choose both–knowing that one could not exist without the other.

With my gut 9lbs heavy and praying for a strike, I click post.

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