Friday 28 June 2013

What's in an Ngram

I'm late to a couple of games here - first the great Dusty Bookcase blog of Brian Busby, and then (via his great post on the change from L M Montgomery to Lucy Maud Montgomery)  to the fascinating, time-wasting, and somewhat useful joys of Google's Ngram Viewer.

This is the tool that graphs the appearance of terms in google's library of ebooks. Admittedly, this isn't a perfect database, but what emerges from it can still be very intriguing.

I started with something that had been on my mind, the novelist Ralph Connor. I'm waiting for an article I've written on Connor to appear in the May 2013 issue of Histoire Sociale/ Social History. So I plucked in the name of Ralph Connor and compared it to L. M. Montgomery. I had written in the article that Connor was by far the better known novelist in the early years of the century. Here's what emerged:

I thought that perhaps I was missing something so I also then included Lucy Maud Montgomery:

It's always nice to have something that you already think to be the case confirmed (confirmation bias and all). I knew from other documents that Connor had been Canada's leading author in the early years of the twentieth century, and certainly that he had been widely popular outside of Canada as well, especially in the United States. But I thought I'd do one more comparison so I compared Connor with Anne of Green Gables, thinking that this one term might have often stood in for Montgomery herself.

This probably gives the best representation, showing Connor as the more popular novelist in the early 20th century, but not by as much. And the real change came, as I suspected, in the midst of the rise of CanLit in the 70s and especially with the Anne of Green Gables films and then the Avonlea TV series in the 90s. 

Finally, I thought I'd test out the book I'm currently writing, on the afterlife of Mackenzie King. Here is how he fares: 

And here again I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mention of King soars after he dies - that it is in this context that he enters the great meaning-making machine of public memory. I was a bit surprised to see the most mentions came in the late 50s, early 60s as I thought the peak might have come in the 1970s. But I wasn't at all surprised to see that mentions start to fade away in the 1990s to today. So this argument I'm developing about the way Mackenzie King mattered to a couple of generations of Canadians in the years after he died, might not be that far wrong after all. Thank you google Ngram.

Thursday 27 June 2013

A fair biography of whom???!

If you worked in a bookstore, what would you say to someone who asked you for a 'fair' biography of Hitler? Would you throw them out the door? would you be unable to speak, your jaw on the floor? or would you show them what was in stock?

It's a question addressed in a wonderful blog post over at stevereads - and my guess is it should have many academics squirming.

This is all à propos of a review in the latest TLS on Pope Piux III.  You know, Hitler's favourite Pope.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Where Wars Happen

Reading through C P Champion's latest essay in The Dorchester Review on '1812 & theFathers of Confederation' I could have been thinking several things:

-   that Champion loves to wield historical evidence with a burning poker, thrusting it into the eyes of left historians - reminding folks that the war of 1812 used to be part of a left history narrative of defiance of American dominance, à la James Laxer; simply repeating the inane line by Ian McKay in a letter to Canada's History Magazine that contemporary 'Ottawa, its streets bedecked with War of 1812 banners, has the martial air of ... 1930s Berlin'; or castigating a host of Canadian history bloggers on the way they have hysterically attacked the Harper government's war of 1812 commemoration schemes.

- that, for all of its vitriol, Champion’s essay nevertheless remains interesting and makes some solid and sober assessments of its topic. After quoting Heritage Minister James Moore making a rather abrupt and too strong assertion of the link between 1812 and Confederation Champion goes on to write that while not all would agree with Moore,:

‘Still, many of the delegates at Charlottetown and Quebec in 1864 did have family, friends, or neighbours who were participants in the War or victims of American pillage. Their family experiences comprise at least part of the Canadian and Maritime establishments’ collective memory of 1812 and its antecedents, the Revolutionary War and the flight of the Loyalists. Some of the delegates were descendants of officers deprived of their property and livelihood in the American War. But even those immigrant delegates such as Macdonald,  George Brown and others who settled in Canada after 1814 had also been exposed to memories of the War of 1812 in their youth, at school, in church, in the periodicals they read, and on the political hustings.

The rest of the essay then is a detailed, biographical level uncovering of these personal stories, the way chance and circumstance combined to connect anyone with anything.

But mostly what I was thinking was this:

- that the places where historians debate these issues is changing. We still write books and publish scholarly articles that take months and years to emerge. But when it comes to actually talking about our profession in an on-going fashion, in almost real-time (and sometimes in what seems like super-fast-time) it is on blogs, on twitter and the links one gets in these venues to newspaper op-ed pieces, literary review website and the like.

- I know this is a bit like a fish saying that water exists. But oddly it seems that this might still need to be said. Champion takes on a number of scholars who have staked out positions, but it’s notable how many are bloggers, and how many comments he quotes come online.

- For those scholars already blogging or on twitter or commenting on these kinds of sites, this is all too obvious. My sense, though, is that this is still a minority in the profession. Am I wrong?

Image Source: Dorchester Review

Monday 17 June 2013

From the Archives

A story from the Montreal Gazette on 9 December 1954 gives a glimpse of a different era in our national archives. The material comes in a column by Arthur Blakely who wrote on political happenings in Ottawa. The column opens up proudly noting how many new collections of private political papers that the archives is collecting, including the papers of every Canadian prime minister since 1867 with the exception of Bennett (papers at UNB). Most are open for research, though some like the then recently deceased cabinet minister Ian Mackenzie were to be closed for some time (in that case until 1975).

So that in itself is a story - a time when journalists were trumpeting the many new collections of private papers that LAC gathered into the national fold.

And then of course there is the now quaint idea that historians were to be treated with some respect: that is, Blakely notes that many papers are closed but 'they are available to serious historians but not to scandal seekers.'

I wouldn't exactly go along with the distinction all of the time. But one does hearken back to a time when LAC acknowledged and appreciated the special relationship between the national archives and the scholars of the nation's history. Elitist? Absolutely. But also a bit more honest than today.

Image: LAC website.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

History Quiz Anyone?

History Today has put out there new history quiz today. They billed it as 'the web's toughest history quiz'. I didn't think so at first but it gets harder.

Give it a try here.

Disclosure: for some amazing reason, I scored 10/12 even though I was guessing as the quiz went on... Fun though.

Thursday 6 June 2013

On being plagiarized...

Plagiarism is a triangular and not just two-way relationship. I confess to mostly thinking about plagiarism (when I'm obliged to think of it - which is of course every time I mark) as being just between the student and me. Not so.

Over at the LRB blog, Charles Hartmann describes what it felt like to be the plagiarizee.   The poet thief changed the title and butchered the metre, but he says that the worst was that, as he put it, 'the plagiarist assumed my poem was too obscure for anyone to discover his theft'.

My closest brush with being 'stolen' was finding an online essay for sale that was based on an article I wrote. In absolutely brutal prose, someone was selling an essay that students could submit in any class that might have assigned my article and, for some odd reason, based an assignment around it. At the time, I was actually a bit chuffed. A compliment of sorts. But I did want to correct the grammar.

Any historians with plagiarizee experiences to share?

Tuesday 4 June 2013

A Different Kind of 'Bad Debt'

Debt has been on many of our minds in recent years. If regular student loan or mortgage payments don't shove it into your mind each month, then the economic collapse that blew out of the US real estate debt bubble in the autumn of 2008 at least meant that it has been in the news and bookshelves regularly ever since.

As Margaret Atwood reminded us in her presciently timed 2008 Massey lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, we haven't always been on such intimate terms with red ink. The Victorian moral censure against masturbation and gambling and so much else also included debt. It was based on an old, if often unobserved by the elite, scepticism towards money lending.

So much of this dripped away in the years since the Second World War. Along with state lotteries and liquor stores where you could actually see and touch the bottles (how titillating) came new and friendlier ideas to debt. The CPAC documentary series on The Fifties has a good section on this in their  episode on 'The Good Life'. They tell the story of Peoples Jewellers founder Frank Gerstein, the man who believed that everyone should have diamonds, and that he would extend credit to everyone. Just because someone didn't have $10, he said, doesn't mean they shouldn't buy a diamond. And so it went. Banks and car companies soon followed in his footsteps. We changed from a society where, as editor Clark Davey put it 'Debt was probably the single greatest sin you could commit with your clothes on' to one where almost everyone has a credit card, and average household debt is now extraordinarily high.

On the weekend, the Dalhousie historian Shirley Tillotson wrote in the Toronto Star about a great example of how our time has changed since the 1930s. She writes about the idea of 'conscience money' and relates it in a timely way to the expense claims of one sort-of Senator from PEI. It is worth a read. (see here).

Come on Shirley. Finish that book!

Monday 3 June 2013

Museum of Civilization isn't alone...

Where do old museum exhibitions go to die? A decade from now some Canadian journalist is going to ask this question, and perhaps write an article quite like this one by John Kelly in the Washington Post. But while Kelly's article about the National Museum of American History is wistful, my guess is that the one to be written about the Canadian Museum of Civilization - and what happened to its exhibits when it became the Museum of Canadian History - might be a tad more vitriolic.

Still, it's interesting to see that what is happening in Ottawa doesn't happen in a vacuum.