Reflections on Start-Up Culture and the Humanities
Historians like to travel. The ones I know like the feel of diving into a pile of old papers, unwinding a spool of microfiche, pulling down books and boxes filled with all sorts of paraphernalia. When you’re trying to document someone’s life or experience or a moment in time, you need those sources. Archives are your destination.
Pre-modern historians don’t really have “an archive” to travel to. There are no front-page newspaper stories to dig up from the Roman Empire or official collections of government papers to peruse about palace life in Constantinople or Milan, and rarely are there any kinds of first-person handwritten journals or diaries about the time — at least, none that haven’t been rearranged by later mischief-makers and monks (sometimes one in the same). But none of that means pre-modern historians lack a destination.
For many years, my own research has been focused on cities: Rome and its harbor town — Ostia — at first; but in recent years I’ve been able to explore a bit more widely, like towns in Sicily, for documents written on stone that tell an overlooked story about social differences among Christians during the complicated period after Christianity’s legalization. More recently, I’ve been looking into the environs of Athens, to piece together an outsider’s perspective on what happened to Roman society in the fifth century. Cities are useful data sets. They provide a setting for some of the loudest voices of their day, like the band of men known as “Church Fathers”; and the evidence from those cities can often land like an effective counter-punch in one-sided discussions about Christianity, Rome, society and culture.
There’s more to the humanities than questioning, just as there’s more to the digital world than technology
This year, I taught a course for historians-in-training, a seminar on the cities of the Late Antique world. As a classicist, this is what excites me the most. For me, there’s no need to scrub centuries of time and fast-forward from Rome towards pop culture. The reception of the classical world is something you can do by simply turning the page from one ancient year to the next. That’s what our seminar did: reading the latest scholarship on the later life of the Roman Empire, working through historical and archaeological problems, and generally getting up to speed on methods and approaches to learn more about urban life. Their final assignment, I told them at our first meeting, was going to be a bit of a challenge: They would need to take something that didn’t have “an archive” and to turn it into one: a website about Late Antique cities.
To build it, they were going to have to draw upon a set of skills that they were probably not thinking they would need during their academic training in the humanities: collaborating with each other, learning to manage multiple projects, adapting to a culture of responsibility towards a team lead, or boss; diving deep into research and practicing how to communicate what they found; writing together, not individually; developing an appreciation for art, design, and user experience — even script writing and video and audio editing. None of them, I guessed, would be good at all these things. But I wanted them to work with each other to figure discover what they already knew how to do well — because the humanities, even the digital humanities, will always be at their best when the people practicing them are fully themselves. To their surprise and mine, they knew a lot.
I learned to trust people’s talents at an unexpected time in my career and in a surprising place. After receiving tenure, I left higher ed for a few months and went to work in the office of a internet start-up in Austin. My boss, Shawn Bose, was a successful entrepreneur who had taken his knowledge of the tech world and turned it into an online shipping phenomenon. When Shawn was ready to turn to slightly more daring ideas, like creating a social platform for spiritual seekers, he asked if I would help out. Looking for something to push me out of my comfort zone, I said yes. That summer, I worked along amazingly smart people, having conversations about data analytics, marketing, design, company communications, outreach, journalism, and the tech industry. What I left with was the realization that people with humanities backgrounds have a skill set that is both valued and wanted in the world of industry. One trip to South by Southwest later, that’s when I knew I wanted to bring a bit of Austin back to my classroom in St. Louis. The cities website project was born.
I’d like to say “That’s when the ‘Living Late Antiquity’ website was born.” But my team would probably object. From start to finish, from launch party to the site’s organization, this has been their endeavor, their sweat equity — and that includes the site’s name, Living Late Antiquity. Seven weeks into our time together, I scheduled a brainstorming session, outside our usual classroom space, where I told them the goal was to figure out how we were going to present this information to the public. I gave them no hints (there was no secret answer); a little help; and a bit of mentoring. My goal was to set the tone, early on in the project, that they should do something they were going to be proud of but to set high expectations, too: They were going to have to do a lot. That included some basic things (like how to imagine what the site looked like, what it was called, or how to organize so much material), but it also extended to some experimental ones (like making a video). Seven week later, I’m immensely proud of all of them.
During their time on this project, they really did learn to value each other’s knowledge (from editorial expertise to expertise about Islam) and to think like a team and to solve problems by talking with each other. They even socialized a little bit to a world outside the quaint carriage-and-buggy information-delivery world of the “modern” university: ditching emails and Microsoft Word attachments for other, more effective ways of working with each other. Slack kept our email boxes empty. Trello kept our project managed. Weekly meetings kept us honest with workflows and challenges. Even now, when I walk into some university meetings, I can still feel like I’m traveling back to the Stone Age. At least this team of future academics knows there’s another way.
As we prepared for our launch party, we talked about challenges, accomplishments, future iterations (naturally) and regrets. I want to end this post by mentioning of the things that I learned, something I didn’t know would be important until the very end: storytelling. It’s natural for anyone to get excited about an idea, and it’s natural to want to share that excitement. As a historian, I know first-hand what makes me excited and passionate about this period; it was a time when three great monotheistic faiths met for the first time in the same setting, and it raises questions that have driven my research and writing — big, resonant questions like, “Can people who hold monotheistic beliefs (belief in one God) live in a pluralistic society without having to change it to conform to their values?”
But there’s more to the humanities than questioning, just as there’s more to the digital world than technology. And what keeps us human is the thirst and hunger for good stories. That’s what I wanted my team to practice, too. The irony is that, when the seven of them finally sat down to write an “About Page,” things didn’t go very smoothly. They went through multiple versions of trying to explain what they had done. Each draft hit a road bump. They referred to themselves as “students”; they wrote about being “in a class”; they itemized everyone’s interests, they way you read a list of academic bibliographies in an edited volume. In my best and most generous impersonation of Tim Gunn’s mentoring style, I told them I didn’t think they were doing themselves justice. They needed to tell a better story of who they were and where they’d come from over the course of this project. Their final draft nailed it. Whether they stay in the academy or not, I will be the first to celebrate the launch of their careers.