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Roy Rosenzweig’s Solution to the “Desperate Struggle” of the Academic Life

Last updated on January 30, 2017

I’m revisiting Clio Wired: the future of the past in the digital age as part of a preliminary survey of digital history (in an ever-so-tentative exploration of a possible dissertation topic). The collection of essays is significant for its wide range of topics – the authors explore Wikipedia, digital preservation, impacts of new media on education, and the challenges of creating accessible (i.e., free) content in scholarly journals – and its willingness to consider the interplay of medium and message in the digital age.

When I started re-reading yesterday, however, I barely made it through the introduction – not because it was tedious, but because it was so blasted inspirational.  Anthony Grafton’s opening essay is essentially a lovingly written, extended eulogy to historian Roy Rosenzweig (1950-2007). I encountered Rosenzweig’s work while reading for my archives capstone in spring 2014, so I’m not overly familiar with his work outside the archives/digital history sphere – but I sincerely hope to read more of his work eventually because his scholarship, at least according to his friends, is striking for its passion, dedication, innovation, and collaborative spirit. As Grafton notes in his introduction, Rosenzweig worked in a Brooklyn shoe factory to gain firsthand insight into the experience of the blue-collar workers he studied as a labor historian (see Eight Hours for What Will). He was an also an early adopter of computer technologies and participated in/co-founded multiple publications, both print and digital (most notably Radical History Review).

The piece I love most about Rosenzweig’s work, though, is his collaborative spirit. Most of his writings are co-authored or edited volumes and, according to his peers and friends, cooperation and exchange were the hallmarks of his scholarship. Grafton, reflecting on this aspect of Rosenzweig’s legacy, recounts:

“He was still in graduate school when he took up what became a lifelong practice of collaboration – a radical innovation at the time. In those days historical work, whatever its methodology, was usually monastic in its form. Each scholar worked for him- or herself, locked away in a carrel, engaged in a desperate struggle to master the sources before being overcome by melancholy or crippled by writer’s block.” (Clio Wired, Kindle Edition, Loc. 118)

My goodness, that sounds familiar. That “desperate struggle” is far and away the most difficult piece of the academic life for me – it is the thing that initially prompted my current leave of absence and the thing that consistently has me questioning whether this academic life is ultimately worthwhile. But here’s the hopeful piece, the piece that bid me pause halfway through the introduction. Grafton quotes Rosenzweig’s co-author and friend, Elizabeth Blackmar (The Park and the People: A History of Central Park) as she reflected on Rosenzweig’s solution to the “desperate struggle:”

“What do you do when you don’t know what you are doing? You organize a reading group; you form a collective to produce a journal, you make sure that all of your friends know each other–whether in person or as legends. You give other people drafts of your work to read and read theirs and talk to them. Roy helped us all collectively to gain the confidence to do our creative work, and he helped many of us find jobs, housing, roommates, and life-long friends.” (Clio Wired, Kindle Edition, Loc. 123)

This is the sort of historian I want to be – the kind who intentionally and persistently seeks out academic and personal connections with other scholars. And there’s no reason I can’t be that sort of historian and educator. I think I often use the geographical distance that currently separates me from my peers as an excuse, but honestly, it’s usually just simple laziness that prevents collaboration and connection. I’m not sure how formal or informal those connections will look moving forward, but I want to make space for that lifeline – by sending emails, communicating on messaging and video apps, and meeting in person when possible.

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