Eight Years of ToM: The Agony and the Sextasy

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We started this blog back in the earliest days of 2010 – literally, at the AHA in San Diego.  Ryan Reft and I had been talking for a while about starting up some sort of historical project, but we did not know what shape it would take.  If anything, we envisioned a message board or forum for some of our academic friends from grad school to keep in touch, share work, and discuss scholarship as we all scattered to the winds in our various ways.  (Pavel Shlossberg, Joel Suarez, Amy Heishman, Nur Murphy were there early on.)  Being out of grad school, we had lost the web of relationships and dialogue that comes from embeddedness in a community of scholars. ToM was originally intended to supplement or stand in for that.

Some of us had been bloggers since the early 2000s, but I had almost always seen it as a zone of semi-personal expression among a small group of friends — social media, basically, before the term was coined — even if whatever we were writing on LiveJournal was technically free and open to the public.  Even when it was becoming clear that blogging could actually become a career or at least a source of professional advancement by 2005 or so, I didn’t really see it that way.

Certainly, when we launched ToM in 2010, we were ignorant of the broader community of historical of academic bloggers; there was no Nursing Clio or Notches at the time, and the scholarly blogs that did exist we did not really know about. We were frankly unaware of what field of discourse we were entering into, or what we hoped to achieve intellectually or professionally with it.

We were flying blind. (Here’s our first ever post.) It was not even until a few months had passed that Ryan started parsing out our traffic stats, which I didn’t know existed.  We began to learn about what posts do better than others, what people search for, what they click on — even though the exact science behind these patterns remains a mystery to us.  We’d like to think that those considerations are not our main priority, especially since we don’t have to worry about raising money from advertisers or subscribers.  But the existence of a metric like traffic stats begins subtly to shape one’s thinking over time, almost irresistibly.

We still don’t know why some pieces break out in a big way, get reposted and recirculated from Copenhagen to Kolkata, and others (that are often quite good) sink like a stone.  We’d like all of them to get read by everyone.  But we do know that an astonishing array of undergrads, grad students, faculty, independent scholars, creative writers, artists, and activists have contributed extraordinary and innovative work to a lonely money-losing enterprise — so many that we lost count a long time ago.

Historians and other scholars are still trying to take stock of what it all means, even now — this big change in the way people think, write, and publish.  One of the letter writers for my tenure review was generous enough to note that, while ToM did not quite equal peer-reviewed, historical scholarship in a journal or monograph (a point I agree with unreservedly), it still had significant value, resembling the “little magazines” of the Left and the literary sort that proliferated in the intellectual culture of the 1930s. That is pretty much what we’ve been going for.

You can read about South Asian b-ballers in the suburbs of Atlanta, the politics of thrash metal and food trucks, the texture of fabrics and tiles in Karachi, the lives of migrant farmworkers in Southern California, the history of sanctuary cities, even the unsettling dynamics in gender in forced feminization narratives.  You can follow our collaborations with the South El Monte Arts Posse, which has resulted in a rich archive of scholarship, oral history, and creative nonfiction, as well as our more recent projects like Straight Outta Fresno or the Dog Days Classics series.

Throughout, our goals have always been to better understand the human experience, to champion the idea of learning and writing for its own sake, and to promote the mode of empathy that, in my view, is the unique contribution of History as a discipline.  We live in a big and wide and capacious world with too much to learn.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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