Fame, fortune, and footnotes

The next issue of The American Historical Review, out in April, will contain an exchange concerning the History Manifesto; it is already available on the American Historical Association website. To my surprise (and I am grateful to Brodie Waddell for noticing this), one of the footnotes cites my review of the Manifesto on this blog from October last year. That review is my most popular post to date, no doubt helped by links to it appearing on the Manifesto website, and David Armitage’s webpage about the book. Even so, when I started this blog I never thought it would be mentioned in a serious historical journal dating back to 1895, which has the highest ‘impact factor’ of any journal in the field, according to Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports. Nor did I foresee that it would lead to my name being immortalised in print (which is still more permanent than online content) next to the word ‘historywomble’. Though that should perhaps have been more predictable.

We shouldn’t get too excited, the womble and I. The exchange is a very critical review (far more considered and sophisticated than mine) of the Manifesto by Peter Mandler and Deborah Cohen, and then a response by the authors, Armitage and Jo Guldi. Armitage and Guldi cite a series of online and print reviews which laud various aspects of the Manifesto, and my cameo is in amongst those. Regarding the exchange as a whole, I feel somewhere in the middle – Mandler and Cohen raise some very important points, especially about the treatment of data and historiography. At the same time, I think that the key argument of the Manifesto is worth making (even if the authors, as they acknowledge, are not the only people making it). Historians have something valuable to contribute to public debate and should get stuck in.

It is tempting to see the AHR exchange as a sign of changing times in historical scholarship, not just in what the authors say but in how they say it. The Manifesto was published online and Open Access, and much of the debate around it and the topics it deals with has taken place on the internet. The footnotes of both the review and the response are full of links, some to digital versions of more conventional publications but also to many websites and blogs. Bloggers have long been agonising over whether this form of writing will ever be acknowledged and accepted, will ever ‘count’ in a scholarly sense. I have always seen my blog as much less serious in tone and form than anything else I write, and I intend to hold onto that idea, otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy writing it. I think that trying to treat blogs the same as other writing will lead us to lose much that makes blogging appealing. On the other hand, it’s possible that, in certain circumstances, the boundaries between different kinds of academic publication are beggining to dissolve. Although maybe it’s too soon to tell.

Though I have been no more than a minor participant in all of the discussion surrounding the History Manifesto, I was still pretty chuffed when I saw the footnote. It’s certainly not as spectacular as John Gallagher’s recent debut in The New York Times

– but while I have been publishing research for a couple of years now, it’s a new and exciting phenomenon to be mentioned in other people’s writings. I remember feeling something similar when a review article on maritime history mentioned a conference I had helped to organise, and when someone I had just met said they had read something I wrote. These are pretty small things; it’s a far cry from, say, a rock star hearing other people singing their songs, or something like that. Nor are they likely to affect my h-index’ (something most humanities scholars don’t seem to care or even know about – and quite rightly too). Nevertheless, they are a form of recognition, a sign that people notice your work. If academics, for the most part, cannot expect fame or fortune, perhaps it’s not too much to hope for footnotes.


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