All posts by Joseph Yannielli

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and RunawayCT.

On Being Quoted by the Simpsons

I will always have a soft spot for The Simpsons. Although I no longer watch the show religiously, it was an important part of my childhood, and I paid homage to it one of my first academic journal articles. During its heyday in the mid-90s (when I had to sneak around my parents’ prohibition in order to watch it), the show developed a reputation for unusually intelligent, iconoclastic humor. It was a smart, politically-conscious show, with smart, politically-conscious writers. The Simpsons seems to employ more Harvard graduates than McKinsey & Company – the writer’s room is essentially a jobs program for the Harvard Lampoon. Naturally, therefore, its central villain, the inimitable C. Montgomery Burns, is a Yale man (class of 1914). With his absurd anachronisms and ruthless, mustache-twirling embodiment of corporate capitalism, Burns is easily one my favorite characters. So when I heard that the show put out an episode about his return to campus, I could not resist.

A clip from The Simpsons episode “Caper Chase,” season 28, episode 19.

To my surprise, the episode makes direct reference to an essay I published two years ago, establishing that Elihu Yale was a slave trader. The piece, which I wrote in a few hours in response to a conference, probably receives more attention than all of my more traditional scholarship combined. During the debate over the renaming of Calhoun College, it appeared on reddit and the Wall Street Journal, made its way onto Wikipedia, and was tweeted out by historian colleagues and celebrities such as Ann Coulter (which, I will admit, made me throw up a little in my mouth). In the episode, it forms part of a larger joke about liberalism gone mad at Yale. On a tour of campus, Burns encounters teachers who were fired for celebrating Columbus Day, students who call him “worse than Hitler,” and signs that read: “Shakespeare is murder” and “Eli Yale was a profiteering slave trader.” Aghast, he wonders aloud if Yale is “still a coven of capitalism, where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue” – and he gets in a good crack about “ruthless media disruptor Samuel F. B. Morse.”

When Burns attempts to endow a Department of Nuclear Plant Management, he is thwarted by students, who are described as “highly-entitled wusses.” Instead, school administrators point out that they “need to hire more deans to decide which Halloween costumes are appropriate.” The latter refers to an actual incident sparked by a memo about racist/offensive Halloween costumes, which made national news. Although the episode does not mention the recent rebirth of Calhoun College as Hopper College, the subtext is clear. This is neither the time nor the place to rehash those debates. (You can read my thoughts on Grace Hopper here.) But the implication that students seeking redress for social injustice are “wusses” left me feeling deeply uneasy.

Students on campuses across the country face unprecedented economic pressures, shameful levels of sexual assault, and administrators eager to capitalize on “diversity” while doing very little to support underprivileged students. These same students have every right to demand a space free from racism or discrimination, and those of us on faculty and staff have a moral obligation to stand with them. By ridiculing and dismissing student protestors, the writers of The Simpsons are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of using their position of tremendous privilege and authority to question the status quo, they use it to attack a vulnerable population. Instead of speaking truth to power, as in some of the show’s greatest episodes, they seek to undermine the relatively powerless. Of course, no group or idea should be exempt from parody. The ability to laugh at oneself demonstrates humility, strength, and self-awareness. And to be fair, the episode attempts a muddled critique of Trump University and the for-profit education industry. Yet the whole tone of the campus visit feels hackneyed and mean-spirited rather than fresh or funny. The writers’ clear desire to be the next William F. Buckley results in a ham-fisted diatribe that stands at odds with the show’s subversive tradition. (PCU did a better job with similar material over twenty years ago. David Spade’s tirade at the film’s end about “whiny crybaby minorities” shows that not much has changed.)

I understand the argument of some pundits who think that student protests about costumes and memorials are misguided or absurd. With the Trump administration rolling back protections for disadvantaged groups and the environment at a blistering pace, fussing over the names of buildings seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But justice comes in all forms, and our colleges and universities should embody the change that we want to see in the world. As Craig Wilder argued recently: “Campuses are not museums for the emotional and psychological bigotries of the alumni.” Reckoning with that truth is an important victory and will set the stage for other victories in the future. That Elihu Yale or Mr. Burns would no longer feel at home on campus is a good thing. Although it can be a long and arduous process, successful student movements prove that evil money can indeed become virtuous.

The Long Goodbye

“What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet,” seems to be conventional wisdom these days. To quote the definitely not hysterical or hyperbolic headline used by the New York Times: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” Like much conventional wisdom, though, when you actually investigate them, these slogans turn out to be complete nonsense. The Internet is not some kind of perpetual memory machine. The “right to be forgotten” laws in the EU and the 1 million+ URLs Google has evaluated for removal over the past year alone are only the most visible tip of a vast subterranean system of digital decay. Consider all of the missing pages, broken links, and buggy websites that we encounter on a daily basis. Some of this misplaced material can be found with a few minutes of dedicated sleuthing, but a great deal of it will be lost forever. Consider all of the hand-wringing and discussions and lengthy policy studies within the digital humanities community over the issues of preservation and sustainability. If the Internet is forever, why is maintaining a digital project such a big problem?

homestar404Online artifacts are a lot like biological organisms: they are born, they live, and they die. Even the terms used to describe their transmission, such as meme and “going viral,” draw on evolutionary theory. And in this new Darwinian frontier, survival is not automatic. The web is littered with half-finished, abandoned, lost, or outdated digital humanities projects. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is poor institutional support. IT departments are often loath to commit any resources to maintain sites or databases created by students and faculty. (I have encountered some pretty egregious examples of this.) And academic institutions have been slow to realize that support for digital projects is a core part of their basic educational mission. A handful of exceptional sites have endured, with strong institutional commitments. It took two years, a $100,000 grant, and a team of staff and student workers to resuscitate the Valley of the Shadow project, which ended in 2007. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which debuted in 2008, just won a major grant to recode the entire site and add new data and foreign language translations. Most projects are not so lucky. And when scholars are forced to trudge out on their own, with little or no long-term support structure, we all suffer.

I had some fun with the problem of sustainability in my Digital History course last year. One of our core texts, Digital History: A Guide... by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, has an entire chapter on preservation. Although the book itself is a decade old, the concepts and analysis remain remarkably fresh, and it is still a popular touchstone that is widely assigned in DH courses on the undergraduate and graduate level. Given the rapid pace of technological development, however, a new edition is badly needed. DH staples, such as Omeka and WordPress, or even Twitter and Wikipedia, were not yet on the radar when the book was published, and many of its examples are comically outdated. The authors spend several paragraphs discussing Jim Zwick’s famous website: “Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898–1935.” So I asked my students to evaluate the site for themselves. Of course, this was an impossible task, since the site no longer exists.

If done carefully and respectfully, I have found that tricking my students with phony texts or assignments like this can be both fun and enlightening. In this case, I offered to treat the entire class to an expensive meal if any one of them could find me a copy of Zwick’s site, in any format. Despite vigorous efforts on the Wayback Machine, Google, and even the Darknet, no one could find any trace of it. I gave them the entire semester to complete the challenge, and they still turned up nothing. Aside from a few tantalizing reviews, this huge, popular, exemplar DH project had been completely wiped from the face of the earth. Zwick’s death in 2008 means that the site, and all of its related data, guides, and analysis, will probably never return. At least in its original form, it has been lost forever. What goes on the Internet does not always stay on the Internet. (My students received a pizza lunch at the end of the semester anyway.)

dennisnedryAnother reason for the diminishing returns of existing DH projects is the publish-or-perish cult that dominates mainstream academic work. It is more advantageous to your CV, and way more exciting, to move on to a sexy new project than to spend all of your time and energy updating or preserving work that you did years ago. Although I try my best to maintain my legacy projects, I am as guilty of this as anyone. I did not update the underlying infrastructure or theme for this blog for years, and only did so recently because the server that hosted it was scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, Yale has committed to supporting my digital projects for the long haul, even after my graduation. They gave me a new domain for this site and an updated platform with admin privileges and server-side access. So I will be able to continue to maintain the site now that I have moved on to another position at some podunk school in New Jersey. I will be able to update the overall feel and UX for the site, make it more responsive and mobile friendly, and adapt to any new changes on the tech horizon. (A big shout out to Pam Patterson, Trip Kirkpatrick, and the rest of the ITG staff for offering a wonderful legacy support structure. I could not have kept this site alive without them.) Meanwhile, archived snapshots of earlier versions of the site are available on the Wayback Machine. Unfortunately, it is not a complete archive. Contrary to popular belief, not everything is automatically indexed by the Wayback Machine, or Google, or other similar services. When I realized this a few years ago, I had to go back and manually request the Machine to crawl and capture this site, page by page. If any folks out there know a better way to ensure that your site is archived on a comprehensive and regular basis, please get in touch.

A post about preservation and sustainability seems like a fitting way to close out this blog (or at least this iteration of it). When I started this site about five years ago, I was one of maybe two or three grad students at my university who had any interest in digital tools and methodologies for research and teaching. There seemed to be a pressing need for a voice in the History Department, or in the humanities more generally, to raise the profile of DH work and show something of the potential and excitement of this new area of scholarship. Material on this blog has been featured on Digital Humanities Now, HASTAC, the Historical Society, and other places, and has hopefully contributed in some small way to that goal. This year, Yale launched a multi-million dollar Digital Humanities Lab, which has been many years in the making. Carol Chiodo, my co-blogger and longtime associate, is one of the founding staff members. I can’t really claim that this site contributed much to the establishment of the DH Lab at Yale, but I hope that it at least helped to add to the groundwork or general milieu that made the Lab a logical possibility. Certainly, the site has benefited my own career, building bridges to new topics, allowing me to meet new colleagues from all over the world, providing conference invites, interview requests, and job offers. It allowed me to preview some of my more serious scholarly work, or respond to pressing issues, or just vent some of my pent up silliness. Even if I do not have much time to continue to grow this site in the years ahead, I plan to keep it alive for as long as possible, and I promise to make sure that it is archived and accessible for future generations. Because in the rapidly evolving digital world, permanency is not something that can be taken for granted.

The Logic of the Antislavery Movement

The following is the text of a presentation I gave at the Antislavery Usable Past workshop at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. For more information about the conference and the paper, please click here.

I would like to talk about two things today: capitalism and abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. I am interested in both of these things, and I think they are related in an important way. First, I want to dwell for a bit on capitalism as an interpretive lens for understanding the problem of slavery and abolition. And that leads me to this quote:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about fascism.

– Max Horkheimer (1939)

This is a famous quote. We can call it the Horkheimer thesis. It’s quite controversial, but it’s also very true, and most of the controversy is about the extent of its true-ness. There also seems to be a nineteenth century parallel to the Horkheimer thesis. There is no direct quote, but it might be paraphrased as follows:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about slavery.

-Edward Baptist
Sven Beckert
Seth Rockman
Caitlin Rosenthal
Walter Johnson
Dale Tomich
etc., etc.

We might call this the new synthesis in slavery studies, which has emerged rather quickly over the past two or three years (although it’s rooted in earlier work and much older debates in the field).

While earlier work tended to focus on individual slaveholding economies and the extent to which they were capitalist, or pre-capitalist, or feudal (or whatever Eugene Genovese thought slavery was about), this new work sidesteps those questions by exploring how African chattel slavery was integral to the entire process of capitalist globalization. Although they did not have all of the benefit of hindsight, contemporaries recognized this curious phenomenon as it was unfolding, and this brings me to the following quote from Marx:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

-Karl Marx (1846)

This is a great quote to use with students in classroom discussions, or as an essay prompt (Do you agree with Marx? Why or why not?). In a way, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is an extremely elaborate answer to this question. The new synthesis on nineteenth-century chattel slavery also helps to explain, at least in part, why slavery continues to persist in the modern global economy. If slavery is integral to capitalism, at least in some sense, and if we are living in an age of unprecedented capitalist hegemony, as pretty much everyone seems to agree, then of course slavery will continue to be a problem. And it will continue to be a problem, I would like to suggest, until we fully acknowledge and understand the central role that various forms of unfree labor play in capitalist economies. And this brings me to the topic of abolitionism.

If, as the new synthesis suggests, one cannot talk about slavery without talking about capitalism, then the same must be true, at least to some extent, about abolitionism. If slavery is integral to capitalism, then antislavery must, at least in some way, be about anti-capitalism. Now, I don’t want to suggest that abolitionists were running around in Che Guevara t-shirts, waving AK-47s, and talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat (although a minority of abolitionists, I think, did stuff that could be considered roughly equivalent). Many, if not most, abolitionists sought a limited form of capitalism, without excess greed, or excess wealth, or excess exploitation. In that sense, their views were very similar to those recently articulated by Pope Francis, and they can be traced, in part, to the same egalitarian traditions in the New Testament (in its Catholic form, it’s known as Distributism).

As most of you folks probably know, there is an extensive literature on the relationship between capitalism and abolitionism, stretching back to Eric Williams, who set the terms of the debate, for better or for worse, back in the 1940s. But it’s been relatively quiet over the past few decades, and it remains to be seen how the new synthesis in slavery studies will challenge what we know about abolitionism. Even if the answers are not clear at this point, however, it should not stop us from asking the questions.

George JulianIn thinking about the lessons of antislavery (the question of this conference), it occurred to me to investigate what the original abolitionists had to say about this. What lessons did they see in their movement? As it turns out, they said quite a bit, and some of them even said stuff about capitalism. One of the most important moments, when abolitionists gathered to collectively reflect on their movement, was the big “Antislavery Reunion” in Chicago in the summer of 1874. And one of the featured speakers at this reunion was George Julian. A congressman from Indiana, Julian was an old-school abolitionist, a lawyer who had helped organize both the Free Soil and the Republican parties. His long involvement in the movement had led him to some of the same conclusions that Marx had reached earlier, and he also anticipated some of the conclusions of the new synthesis in slavery studies.

Julian’s speech in Chicago was aptly titled: “The Lessons of the Anti-Slavery Conflict.” And in this speech he devoted a large amount of time to what he called “the slavery question in other forms.” One of the most important lessons of antislavery, Julian argued, was women’s rights. This will come as no surprise to students of first-wave feminism and its deep roots in abolitionist political culture. But equally, if not more important, according to Julian, was the struggle against capitalism. “African slavery was simply one form of the domination of capital over the poor,” he argued.

The system of Southern slavery was the natural outgrowth of that generally accepted political philosophy which makes the protection of property the chief end of Government. It was only the strongly-emphasized expression of the maxim that ‘capital should own labor’…The labor question, as I have often said, is the natural successor and logical sequence of the slavery question. It is the slavery question, renewed in other forms and generalized. The abolition of poverty is the next work in order after converting the African chattel into a man, and the Abolitionist who does not see this fails to grasp the logic of the Anti-Slavery movement.

-George Julian (1874)

Not long after Julian gave his speech about capital and the persistence of different forms of enslavement, the abolitionist conventioneers gathered to celebrate the American Missionary Association. “It alone of all the earlier Anti-Slavery organizations retains a vigorous existence,” read their report. “It embodies much of the old Abolition feeling,” they continued, “now happily turned toward the intellectual and moral culture of the freedmen.” So, in other words, here was another antislavery lesson.

Founded in 1846, but with roots reaching back a decade earlier, the AMA was the largest, the longest-running, and the most wide-reaching abolitionist organization in the United States. Although best known for its educational work among former slaves, the AMA supported similar efforts among Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, and the white working class. And its foreign department included stations in Canada, Egypt, Haiti, Hawaii, Jamaica, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, and the Marquesas Islands, among other places.

The AMA’s Mendi Mission, located in what is now southern Sierra Leone, was its flagship project for almost four decades, running between 1842 and 1882. Established as an extension of the Amistad slave revolt, the mission was a transatlantic branch of the Underground Railroad and a key frontier of action and imagination in the global contest over slavery. The mission also challenges conventional interpretations of the Civil War era. Well over one hundred ministers and teachers of different genders, colors, and backgrounds served as a bridge linking religion and politics across two continents, and their attempts to reconstruct Africa prefigured and complimented postwar southern reconstruction. There is a lot more that needs to be said about the AMA and the Mendi Mission, but in the time that I have remaining, I will limit myself to some of the missionaries’ experiments in free labor and labor discipline, because this is where I think the African-American story of the Mendi Mission intersects with the big, macro-level, global capitalism story that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk.

I should point out that by “free labor,” abolitionists meant free as in speech, not free as in beer. (Although I think there are some interesting tensions in that language.) There is a modest body of literature on the free produce and free labor movements, but surprisingly little on the movements’ African dimensions. As it turns out, agricultural production was a longstanding project at the Mendi Mission. As early as 1839, mission founder Augustus Hanson had suggested farm work as a path to racial uplift. Abolitionist missionary William Raymond concurred. “The slave trade will not be stopped,” he prophesied, “and the people raised from their degradation, until their attention is directed to the cultivation of the soil.” By the 1850s, the mission’s geographic headquarters at Kaw Mendi boasted a small field, which supplied root vegetables and other staples for local consumption. The African men who worked on the farm were intended as living advertisements for the free labor system, and the missionaries kept meticulous records of their attendance, productivity, and wages. Although the mission was never self-sustaining, manual labor of this sort was considered important. Working on the land would encourage discipline and “manly independence.” By occupying idle hands and minds, it would prevent the cycle of civil war that fed the slave trade. Most importantly, it would provide an economic alternative to mercantile networks in tobacco, rum, weapons, and slaves.

The Mendi missionaries made several attempts to introduce an export economy in free labor cotton and sugar. Although cotton grew naturally in the region and Mende weavers carried on an extensive clothing trade, the missionaries’ goal was to increase output on a global scale. Henry Miles, a leader in the Free Labor movement in the United States, encouraged these efforts. It was, he wrote to his African colleagues, “useless to attempt to put down slavery by argument or even by legislation while we persist in upholding the slaveholder by acting the part of agents in commerce for his benefit.” After his son, Richard, signed up for the Mendi Mission, Miles sent cottonseeds and facilitated contact with free labor manufacturers in Manchester, England.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the missionaries saw a golden opportunity to enter the global marketplace. Since “American Slavery owes its continued existence and power to the great and increasing demand for cotton,” they reasoned, a new supply from African workers would put the entire system out of business. Although retired from the mission by this time, abolitionist celebrity George Thompson proposed a 500-acre cotton plantation on the West African littoral, complete with its own city, over which he would “have just as full control, as any king.”

So that gives you a sense of some of the stakes involved in this project, and the big plans that American abolitionists had in store for the African economy. And it’s worth pointing out that it was not only the Mendi Missionaries doing this. The missionaries maintained active links with the African Civilization Society, the British Freedmen’s Aid Society, Liberian settlers, the Basel mission on the Gold Coast, and other groups attempting similar free labor experiments. Pro-slavery apologists even floated fanciful ideas in the 1850s and 1860s to send southern American slaveholders and overseers to Africa to teach labor discipline to the allegedly “lazy” inhabitants. To these men, the entire continent was “only a great wilderness of loungers.” Abolitionists sometimes fell into similar rhetoric, but unlike their opponents, they placed the blame for African “degradation” on the slave trade and its legacies within the global economy.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Mendi Mission was the John Brown steamship. Named after the militant abolitionist, who had led an ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, the ship was a symbol of the bustling economic transition that the missionaries hoped to accomplish in Africa. In fact, it was the first mercantile vessel of its kind in that part of the continent. As a representative of the mission, it refused to transport spirituous liquors or other material considered harmful to African industry and progress. Constructed in the early 1880s, as the memory of John Brown began to be supplanted in the United States by the defeat of Reconstruction and the culture of reconciliation, the John Brown steamship also sent a message that the memory of radical abolitionism would live on, outside the borders of the United States.

Of course, all of these utopian schemes for the economic transformation of Africa were no match for reality. Most free labor projects failed miserably due to a lack of funds, poor organization, or tropical disease. Where it took hold, an increase in legitimate commercial activity actually tended to bolster indigenous forms of slavery. At the same time, the Mendi missionaries faced strikes, desertions, theft, and a general lack of interest in their strict labor regime. Although the missionaries eventually established a moderately successful lumber mill at Avery station, near what is now Mano on the Bagru River, the settlement was never self-supporting, and the mill was eventually destroyed during the anti-colonial “Hut Tax” Revolt of 1898.

It would be easy to conclude that the Mendi missionaries did not learn the lessons of Marx, or George Julian, or the new synthesis in slavery studies. But that is not really true. Most of the missionaries were at least vaguely aware of these issues. And most missionaries realized that economic transformation alone would not be enough to completely abolish slavery. All of the missionaries recognized the central role of warfare in the perpetuation of African slavery (and slavery more generally). In fact, we can still see this today, in places like Iraq and Syria. “Put an end to war,” wrote missionary James Tefft in 1854, “and the slave-trade cannot be carried on. Stop the slave-trade, and there remains no cause for war.” Of course, exactly how to go about stopping war, or exactly how to go about stopping the slave trade, were complicated strategic questions.

Barnabas RootThere was an interesting split among the Mendi missionaries on this issue. Some of them, perhaps the majority, felt that British, or American, or French imperial forces were necessary allies of the mission. Providing the secular stick to the mission’s cultural carrot, these forces would pacify the African landscape and create a more business-friendly environment for foreign investment and trade. Others felt that such efforts were counter-productive, merely replacing one form of warfare with another. And they tended to support the rights of indigenous African communities to determine their own fate. Missionary Barnabas Root, who was educated by American abolitionists in Africa, and who led a church in Reconstruction-era Alabama before returning to his home, made this point clear. Rather than forcing foreign cultural norms on West African people, he wrote in 1876: “I am strongly in favor of going half way to meet the people in these respects when it can be done…I would prefer that Christianity come unattended by that officious hand-maiden modern civilization.”

So what can the experience of abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the nineteenth century teach us about eliminating slavery in the twenty-first century? It is difficult to summarize such an extremely complex and important history in a short talk. But, even with this very cursory overview, I think we can discern two broad lessons. First, if we want to fight slavery effectively, we need to develop a more robust critique of global capitalism. Campaigns such as Slavery Footprint, which are a positive development, are not sufficient. No movement for free labor or fair trade, by itself, has ever succeeded in abolishing slavery. If we remain silent about capitalism, then we cannot talk about abolitionism. Secondly, if slavery is rooted in, and feeds off of warfare, then anyone interested in the abolition of slavery should be working alongside groups seeking an end to war – especially the culture of war that favors quick solutions by throwing guns and missiles at a problem, rather than long-term structural change. Without a more sophisticated appreciation of the intimate relationship between capitalism and slavery, and without participating in larger coalitions with groups working for a culture of peace, the movement against modern-day slavery will not succeed.

Prelude to an Open Access Presentation

This week is the eighth annual Open Access Week, and people all over the world are hosting events and liberating archives. For me, on this particular week, open access means sharing a conference paper. Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend a gathering of young scholars at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, in Hull, England. Part of the Antislavery Usable Past, a multifaceted, multiyear project funded by the British Government, the workshop brought together those working on both historical and contemporary forms of enslavement. The organizers asked us to reflect on the “lessons and legacies” of previous abolitionist movements. The topics ranged from slavery in the Middle Ages through present-day anti-trafficking and reparations campaigns, and the participants were super friendly and supportive. I got to meet some new European colleagues, and I even got to hang out with Shamere McKenzie, who runs an NGO for slavery survivors. My paper, entitled “John Brown in Africa,” looked at capitalism and the lessons of missionary abolitionism.

Under normal circumstances, I would never publish a conference presentation. They are works-in-progress, lacking proper citations, full of half-baked ideas and assumptions, and directed at a small group of experts – hardly appropriate for the unwashed masses. The paper that follows is no different. Yet the conference message of learning from the past to inform the struggle against slavery (and its legacies) in the present, deserves a wider audience. And the fortuitous conjunction with Open Access Week convinced me to cast aside my objections in this case. So, with all of the customary apologies for its flaws and in the spirit of open access, I will post the full text of my presentation as a separate article. Links embedded in the text will point to some of the original slides that I used in my talk (or the occasional outside reference). And, as always, your comments are welcome.

Digital Histories’ Greatest Hits

Greatest hits albums are a prickly genre. The format is simple enough: a compilation of an artist’s most popular singles, sometimes with a few rare or unreleased tracks thrown in to sweeten the deal. Many of these albums are just a cheap cash grab for big studios, an opportunity to sell the same song twice. The invention of the mixtape provided the first challenge to this model. In the age of iTunes and Google Music, why not just build your own playlist? There is also something profoundly offensive about reducing an entire career to a handful of catchy tracks. How would one create a greatest hits album for Beethoven? Or Neal Morse, for that matter? Some of his best songs are half an hour long. Would Danzig’s greatest hits be his entire discography?

Danzig’s Greatest Hit?

On the other hand, if it is done well, a “best of” album can offer an entry point into a broader musical world. Neil Young’s Decade and Queen’s Greatest Hits are often ranked among the best albums of the twentieth century. If artists are given the opportunity to remaster or remix old material, the result can be fresh and enlightening. Although it is rare, academic historians sometimes publish career retrospectives of their work. No one will compare them to the genius of Freddie Mercury. But they have their moments. Jill Lepore’s The Story of America and Marcus Rediker’s Outlaws of the Atlantic are good recent examples. Bloggers sometimes include a “best of” category to help introduce readers to their oeuvre. And, as I wind down my work on this site and begin the transition to a new phase in my career, I thought I might do the same for Digital Histories.

Over the past five years, I have published several dozen articles on this site, from historical and pedagogical essays to website reviews and technical guides. Printed together as a single document, they add up to about 130 pages. I was a little late adding Google Analytics into the mix, but I still have a pretty decent picture of what articles readers find most useful. So I compiled a “Top Ten” list as a separate page. I also added a link to the page at the top level of the site, where new visitors can easily find it. These are not necessarily the most important articles on the site, or even the most representative, but simply the ones that have attracted the highest number of unique page views according to Google.

Surprisingly, articles cross-posted on other blogs did not top the list. Some articles with inbound links from other websites did not even make the top ten. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media only account for about 10% of inbound traffic. Simple keyword searches (called “organic searches” in SEO lingo) make up most of the rest. So articles with popular search terms, such as “derrida” or “course management” or “slavery footprint,” tend to rank higher on the list. The posts on WordPress as a course management system and Elihu Yale as a slave trader were breakout hits. But others I consider significant did not even rate. My essay on teaching with runaway advertisements, which was included on HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project and generated some interesting conversations, did not make the top ten. Perhaps that is because most folks are reading it on HASTAC. As a rule, newer posts tend to have more page views than older ones, which may indicate that I have improved my blogging skills over the past several years. Or maybe it means that nobody clicks on older stuff. Readers of online content tend to follow the shiny penny and then quickly move on to something else.

What are some of your favorite “greatest hits” compilations? Is this a worthwhile subject for digital scholarship? How do we curate the best work? Should we even care which of our projects attract the most hits or have the most likes? Is not trying weird or unpopular things an important part of our mission? We simply do not know what will be important or impactful five or ten or twenty years from now. If we focus only on what is trending this minute, do we lose sight of what might be useful in the future?