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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why the **** are you doing _that_?

[Written for Symeon, alumni magazine of the Durham University History Department, and published in their third (July 2013) issue, pp. 41-47 -- slightly revised, shortened, but also illustrated,]

“Why the **** are you doing that?”  
Researching the American Stove and Its Industry

By the time that this issue of  Symeon goes to press, I will have given the last lecture in my thirty-eight (or maybe forty)-year teaching career, and will be preparing for the final bit of examining (hooray!) and then, alas, the terminal paycheque.  When you reach this stage in a job, and indeed in life, it’s natural to become reflective.  I find myself at a curious point in time, the first I can remember since adolescence, when I no longer have any career plans, other than to stop having a career a few years earlier than I need to.  Shifting my attention from work to life, there at least there is, I hope, something to look forward to, apart from an absence; but, to be realistic, a lot less than there is to look back on.  I am in transition between one form of existence -- I have been at university in one capacity or another since I was seventeen, in 1969 -- and the next, which is much less structured and familiar: retirement!  In this circumstance, I have begun to try to retrace my steps and wonder why I have done some of the things that I have.  This has already led to a memoir of my years as a postgraduate, which has been published in a management journal this summer (as a lesson in how not to be an efficient research student).  I enjoyed writing that so much that I used my research blog to do something similar and answer a question that quite a few people have asked me in the last few years, and which I have chosen as the title for this essay.

All academics with jobs like those we are privileged to have in Durham, where there is an expectation that we will always be engaged in research leading to high-quality publications, have to be able to answer their own version of the “why the ****” question.  We have to be able to account for ourselves -- to ourselves and our students, but also to our colleagues, our immediate superiors in the department and then up the managerial line inside the university, our peers in other places, and the national bodies (research-funding agencies, the Higher Education Funding Council in its regular national research assessments) on whom our careers also depend.  

If you can’t answer this question, and keep answering it, and provide the evidence (in the shape of a continuous stream of good publications and other research outputs) to prove that you are telling the truth, then you will not enjoy a very jolly experience in the modern university -- indeed, you won’t even get your foot on the first rung of the job ladder.  Annual appraisal meetings will be embarrassing.  Career reviews will be awkward.  Promotion will not happen.  Your salary will get stuck, and then decline slowly in real terms.  You will have a hard time justifying getting the time off teaching and everything else that you claim to need for undertaking the research that, the evidence of your non-publications suggests, you are not doing.  Nobody else will want to offer you a job, or a nice visiting fellowship, or even an invitation to come and speak (naturally enough, if you have nothing much to say), and in due course your own university won’t want to keep you around either.  You will have become “dead wood” -- not a happy fate, good neither for the self-esteem nor the bank balance.

This is one of the hardest parts of the academic career, and also one of the traditional justifications for the immense amount of freedom we still have to control our time and to set our own agendas. The assumption has been that we need these privileges in order to be self-motivated and, in our own modest ways, creative, and that we can be trusted to use them wisely.  But, just in case this assumption is too optimistic, our colleagues and our employers have decided to check up on us, increasingly closely since the Good Old Days of the 1980s, when lunchtime in “The Shakespeare” could last three or four hours and involve little solid sustenance apart from the yeast residue in the bottom of the beer glass, and some of the department’s (then) star teachers never had finished and published anything significant, and some of them never would, and they were not thought much the worse of for it.

Students, including some of the most able, who can write excellent essays when asked a question and given a reading list, often find themselves stressed or even completely stumped when we take away their comfort blankets, and ask them to set their own questions and decide, more or less by themselves, what they will read, and why, and what tools they will use to analyze it.  Independent research is meant to be difficult.  But what students don’t always appreciate is that we (or at least some of us) find it difficult ourselves, not just at the outset of our careers, but throughout them.  In my experience, deciding what to do, and why, has always been much harder than actually doing it, which has usually been quite straightforward and even enjoyable -- giving me the sense that I have been fantastically lucky, getting paid increasingly well for pursuing a hobby (reading and thinking and, to a lesser extent, writing about history).

My doctorate kept me busy through most of my twenties, and even when I had published it as a book, The Right to Manage, in 1982, I still had bits and pieces left over that I could turn into lesser publications over the next few years.  I also had the ideas suggested by my own research and the other people’s I had read that helped me the first time I really had to answer the “what the **** next?” question, around my thirtieth birthday, soon after I got my job in Durham.  I floundered around for a while, pursuing not-so-good plans before I found one with more promise, and then I made that good idea last me as long as I could stretch it.  Too long, in fact -- research is the fun part, writing is harder, getting what you write published hardest, and if you do too much research you may end up writing too much (as I did on my second book), and then taking yet more years unwriting (editing, cutting) in order to produce something publishable.  I didn’t want to be quick with my second book, I wanted to be thorough, but I overdid it.

Well, by the time I had reached the end of that long road I was fast approaching fifty.  I had always published just enough other stuff along the way (articles, chapters in books, an edited book with collaborators), and good enough, to keep my nose clean and, in due course, earn me promotion. But when my second big book, Bloodless Victories,  was finally out (in 2000) I found that I had fired off almost all the shots in my locker, and had to answer the “what the **** next?” question again -- not as a Lecturer, but this time as a Reader (a title that is supposed to reflect research achievement) and, after 2001, Professor -- someone to whom more is given and from whom it is only fair that more should be expected.

What to do?  The good thing about a lengthening career is that you accumulate knowledge, ideas, questions, a sense of what is do-able and how to go about it.  Much of this intellectual capital is quite specialized, and it can lock you into doing more or less the same thing over and over again.  Most of us follow this line of least resistance -- modern academic research is organized into proliferating sub-fields, and most of us are quite comfortable staying within our little boxes -- though it can become increasingly boring, and feel rather pointless.  I had done that for almost thirty years, turning myself into one of the go-to guys for the history of relations between American employers and their workers throughout much of the industrial era, between the 1860s and the 1950s.  But  a dozen years ago I felt that I had exhausted that once-rich but narrow vein, or at least done about as much digging in it as I ever wanted to.  

So how to find something new to keep me busy?  I have always made a habit of following any interesting leads within my research even if they don’t seem to be very closely related to what I’m supposed to be doing at the time, and even if I can’t think how to use the off-topic stuff I find. This isn’t a deliberate strategy; actually, it’s a form of self-indulgence, or a symptom of my lack of single-mindedness.  But the upside was that, when I decided to do something a bit different, I found that I already knew enough about it to be able to proceed quite swiftly along a new track. [See Endnote]

Why stoves?  I knew that the industry had been important, its past intersecting with a number of themes in the history of business and technology in which I and other scholars were interested, but I also knew that it was almost completely neglected.  So there was an opportunity, a gap for me to fill. I knew that its history was researchable -- there was primary source material in half-a-dozen major US research libraries -- but not overwhelming, perhaps a dozen archive collections in all, some of them quite small, so I could hope to cover the lot.  I did not want to spend forever on another big project -- having frittered away much of my thirties and forties on Bloodless Victories, I figured that I only wanted a question big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my fifties.  I didn’t embark on it immediately after finishing the other project -- I was tired and disillusioned, partly with a sense of the futility of putting so much effort into a book that, as it turned out, few people could be bothered to buy, read, or use, partly because of the tide of charmless and incompetent managerialism sweeping into the university at the time. But once I had decided that I wanted to stick around Durham for a while longer rather than retiring immediately, I knew that I would have to answer the “what are you doing?” and “why are you doing it?” and “what is the outcome?” questions again, and I would have an answer: stoves!

What has surprised me is how much there has been to find out, and how interesting it has all been. In the beginning, perhaps, this new and final research project was more than a bit instrumental: it would meet some of the job-related needs of a middle-aged professor approaching the end of the paid part of his career.  But it quickly became much more than that.  It became fun.

Part of the fun was just the field research.  Between 2005 and 2009, I spent about three weeks a year in the United States -- in Detroit, Troy, Albany, New York City, Philadelphia, and the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware, where there are two wonderful specialized research libraries. As well as the enjoyment of reading and discovery, there was also the pleasure of reversion to the simple and solitary life of the graduate student on the road, eating in downmarket neighborhood restaurants and staying in B&Bs that sometimes contrived to be quite nasty though not particularly cheap.  The bare-bones lifestyle was partly a matter of lack of choice for the visiting researcher dependent on his feet for local transport -- for three days in Detroit I survived on coffee and Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, because there was nowhere to eat that I could safely walk to from my nice B&B after darkness fell (Question: "Where's it safe to walk?" Answer from bored, knowing receptionist: "Maybe across the parking lot out back"), and coffee and Otis Spunkmeyer was all they provided in the rooms -- but it was also a consequence of trying to live on the lavish research expenses a generous department and faculty were happy to provide.

Another part of the fun was the character of the archival materials I was reading.  All of my research career up until this project has been spent in the Age of the Typewriter, and even when my primary sources have been manuscript, not printed, they have mostly been the products of college-educated professionals working in and for bureaucratic organizations -- in other words, boring people not unlike me.  But the last few years have taken me back to the 1810s (and, for printed sources, well before).  I have had to learn at last how to cope with handwriting of differing kinds and qualities. Years of reading exam scripts turns out to have been good preparation.  Any problems deciphering fading ink on yellowing paper have been heavily outweighed by the pleasures of unmediated contact with the minds of early-nineteenth-century men, some of them barely educated, others (recent German immigrants) operating in a language that was new to them, almost all, it seems, writing straight from the heart and the gut, sometimes with great wit and eloquence.  Business correspondence where, for example, partners accuse one another of being unChristian thieves, murderers, liars, assassins, drunks, and cheats, is far more enjoyable to read than the much more pallid, considered phrasing of later generations.  

I have moved far away, not simply from the Age of the Typewriter, but from the world of managerial capitalism.  The history I used to write was mostly a history of organizations, and few even of the most important historical actors that I came across ever became familiar to me as fully realized individuals -- they were almost all one-dimensional men, only knowable through some of their public, work-related words and deeds.  But within the last few years I feel that I have encountered a bunch of interesting, very old acquaintances, inventors and entrepreneurs in a world of small-scale, informal, very personal business, about some of whom I now know and understand far more than I ever did about the people whose lives have ever crossed my path in other, much more recent, archives.

Then there is the pleasure that comes with working on any new topic -- the lack of familiarity with sources, issues, appropriate analytical techniques, etc.  The research on the history of industrial relations that occupied me for almost thirty years didn’t prepare me to deal with, for example, the design of consumer goods, or nineteenth-century systems of commercial credit, so I had several years of almost continuous learning of stuff that was new to me, and usually I couldn’t even turn to existing scholarship and take a shortcut to understanding it, because there wasn’t any.

Finally, there has been lots of enjoyment from having been fortunate enough to work in the Age of the Internet.  For most of my career, I have had to adjust to the fact that most of my research sources -- not just the archival materials, but even many of the contemporary public documents, books, magazines, and newspapers -- are thousands of miles and hundreds of pounds (in airfare) away, so “research” was something I could only do from time to time.  A few weeks or at most a few months in the United States would enable me to accumulate a pile of stuff that I could take home and think about, but if that thinking told me I wanted more, I had to wait until I could go back again.  

Now the situation is transformed.  Thanks to the Making of America project, the Library of Congress’s wonderful “American Memory” website, and then Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust, and other American information enterprises that are either not-for-profit, or free to use, and generally both, I can now access a wider range of printed primary sources than is available in all but a handful of the best research libraries in the United States.  And I can do this from any web-connected laptop, anywhere, anytime, and at no cost (to me, at least).  Research has turned into an activity I can simply weave into my ordinary life, and do whenever I have the free time and the inclination.

Of course, not a lot of archival holdings have been digitized, and there is still plenty of nineteenth-century printed material that needs to be visited and read in the few (in some cases, the only) American research libraries holding a copy.  But even here the information revolution makes new ways of working possible.  Gathering material on research trips has become much more efficient, and cheaper, now that most archives and research libraries allow users to take their own digital photographs rather than having to rely on photocopying.  I have gone a step further than that, by hiring researchers (usually local postgraduates, recruited by email) to go into archives for me and to do either intelligently selective or in some cases all-inclusive digital photography jobs, so that I can acquire thousands of page-images for just a few pennies each.  Free file-sharing sites enable my researchers to upload the stuff as they do it, and I can strip it off, download it, and work on it at my own pace, on my own screen.  Work that would have taken me several weeks away from home, thousands of miles, and almost as many thousands of pounds, has been done for a few hundred, from my desk.

The result of the information revolution is therefore that gathering material for my project has been much more efficient, less interrupted and frustrating, and much cheaper than it would have been even a decade ago.  Of course, one still has to make sense of all the reading and shape it into some kind of coherent package -- a talk, an article, eventually a book.  But even here there are new ways of working that I find very rewarding.  For example, something that I  have done for years (ever since I bought my first primitive computer in 1987) is to organize masses of scraps of information, some of it quantifiable, some of it not, about organizations, industries, companies, and individuals, whatever I have been working on at the time, into databases.  I was always aware that much of this information was tied to a particular place as well as to a specific time, but even when Geographic Information Systems became available, they were much too complicated for an amateur to use.  But now I can use Google as a sort of poor man’s GIS, and see the shape of my data in a new way, and also communicate the results via simple maps.  

I can also share some of what I find and think about, without having to wait for or depend upon formal publication.  I can write an informal report on work in progress, or take a particularly nice document or piece of data, and “publish” it myself -- on my research website or here on my blog.  I wouldn’t pretend that either of these has much of a readership, but the quality of some of the people I have come across through them makes up for their lack of quantity.  Research is quite a solitary business, and particularly when you are working on such a peculiar, neglected topic as I am, you are bound to think from time to time “Why am I doing this?  Am I nuts?  Will anybody, anywhere, ever find it at all interesting?”  Publishing stuff myself, as I go, has answered the third question, at least, in the affirmative, and has put me in touch with people who are happy to read my work in draft and share their own work with me in return.

Finally, my stoves have served the crude, basic purpose a modern academic’s research effort is supposed to.  They have resulted in four good articles, three of them rather long, in three good journals with an international circulation, and a bit of recognition (one prize, and quite a few citations). In other words, they’ve provided me with something to talk about in my annual staff reviews, something to point to when asking for a pay rise, and something for my department to enter into the next national assessment of the quality of the research outputs of British universities, which takes place later this year.  They will translate into a modest but worthwhile stream of income for the department from 2015 until 2020, years after I have retired, and everybody, including me, will I hope be happy.

-- o -- 

[Note: this version is a bit too neat and tidy. What it omits is that there was an intermediate stage between the Philadelphia book and the stoves project, just as there was between the end of work on my first book, c. 1981, and my firm commitment to the Philadelphia project in the mid-80s.  In both cases, I made a sort of false start in a different direction.  From the mid-1990s, when I wasn't revising the Philadelphia manuscript or doing other bits and pieces of research and publication as opportunities presented, I thought my next project would be a history of the US metal-casting industry, about which I wrote and published a couple of articles.  But I couldn't see a way of giving it much shape -- no clear narrative, few identifiable players.  A growing interest in stoves and the stove trade came out of that work -- focusing on one important and distinctive branch of the larger industry was intended to be a way of finding the structure my broader research hadn't provided, and so it turned out; though the dimensions and shape of the work have been very different from what I expected.]

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