Backstories

James Marten is professor and Chair of the history department at Marquette University, editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, and President of the Society for the History of Children and Youth.

Historians@Work celebrates the “journeys” we historians take in doing our jobs.  Some are literal, some figurative, but all originate in the research we undertake.  My own research inspired me to become involved with the Society for the History of Children and Youth, a small but vibrant organization with members from twenty different countries.  I served as the Society’s first secretary-treasurer for a decade and have attended all of its biannual conferences (including two that I hosted here at Marquette).  Find out more about the Society at http://shcyhome.org/

My commitment to the Society and to the field led me on several different kinds of journeys this summer.  Only one is complete; the other two are barely begun.  And although my responsibilities did require me to take an actual trip this summer—our 2013 conference was held at Nottingham University in the UK at the end of June—the real journeys that I undertook this summer had more to do with stretching into new roles and responsibilities that directed my focus away from my own research and publishing and toward helping others bring their own scholarship to fruition.shcy-logo

Oddly, the least interesting traveling in all of this was the actual trip to England. Although Nottingham boasts a beautiful campus, that’s about all I saw of this historic city—no Sherwood Forest, no castles, not even the so-called “oldest pub in England” a couple of miles from campus.  Mainly I just went to panels and meetings and a couple of official dinners.

Indeed, the more important part of this “journey” began nearly nine months earlier, when I was appointed co-chair of the program committee.  Program committees have the responsibility not only of creating an interesting theme (we chose “Space and Childhood in History”), but also to balance any number of interests and manage numerous logistical items. Although the Society normally has between 200-300 members, we still received more than 80 individual paper and 60 full panel proposals—perhaps 320 people wanted to get on the program.  The committee, with the co-chair in New York and the other members in California, Germany, and Australia, did all of our work by email.  Over the course of about four months, we exchanged hundreds of messages in which we rated proposals, reconfigured panels, debated the pros and cons of topics and methodologies, brain-stormed about possible chairs and commentators, and, finally, worked out a schedule that offered a logical progression of papers while at the same time meeting the demands of about 220 participants’ often conflicting personal schedules.

We could only accept just over half the proposals, and had to choose from papers submitted not only by historians, but also by scholars in literature, education, sociology, criminology, health sciences, and even architecture.  We had to decide whether to invite an established scholar with a proven publication record or a graduate student who might be giving his or her first paper at a professional conference, whether we needed three or four panels on “spaces of death in childhood,” if there was room for yet another panel on children during the Second World War, and if papers on adults writing about children were as important as papers on the experiences of children.  And always we had to ask the question: how could we guarantee a geographic diversity and balance in the topics as well as the presenters that reflected the makeup of the Society and of the proposed papers?  The conference went well, and the committee generally felt good about the program (although one long-time member whose panel was not accepted may never return to the Society!).  We truly felt like we were helping to shape the field in important ways.  For more about the conference, including a full conference program, see http://shcyhome.org/conference/2013-conference-cfp/.

The other two “journeys” that I mentioned have really just begun, but each of them provides insights into other facets of the way in which the historical profession work.  On July 1 I became editor of the SHCY’s official publication, the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (don’t get me started about why the name of the journal is slightly different than the name of the Society!). Published three times a year, each issue contains five or six scholarly articles, a piece on some sort of current policy issue, an “object lesson” on an example of material culture related to childhood, and eight or ten book reviews.  “My” first issue will be volume 7, number 1; prior to my taking over, a team of editors working mainly at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Amherst College, and Rutgers University, had founded and edited the journal.  Not only do I have to learn the routines and procedures that they successfully established—including the “ScholarOne” software in which I manage all submissions, peer reviews, correspondence, and editing—but I also have to learn something about Asian or medieval or even ancient history (although most of the articles we’ve published have been on western Europe and the United States since 1750 or so, one never knows what manuscripts will appear) and compile my own list of what I hope will be scores, if not hundreds, of potential manuscript and book reviewers.  At the same time, we’re beginning to develop a much larger web presence for the Society and the journal on our website, and I’ll need to recruit authors to write blogs and produce other content.  This is an increasingly common ambition for all publishers of books and journals, and just another way in which this editorial “journey” represents the ways in which scholarship and the wider world intersect.

mangle board

A Swedish-made replica of the horse-shaped handle of this “mangle board”—an early method of pressing clothes—has become the official symbol of office of the President of the SHCY. It replaced an inflatable magic wand that the previous president, who lives in Sweden, let his grandchildren play with. It didn’t survive.

Finally, I embarked on one other passage this summer: as president of the SHCY.  I’m a little sheepish about this; it’s odd in our little world to have a president also act as editor.  But I’ll only be president until our next conference in 2015; I’ll be editor for at least five years.  Being president of a small academic society is a little bit like chairing a department, but with fewer day to day responsibilities.  Over the next two years, the Executive Committee and I need to put our membership on a more stable footing and to continue our efforts to make the Society truly international in scope and membership by the time we meet again and my presidency ends at the 2015 conference in Vancouver.  For instance, how do we expand our annual article prize to include scholars who work in languages other than English?  How can we use the website to welcome professors and graduate students so warmly that they want to join?  What sorts of activities—workshops on teaching children’s history, off-year conferences shaped by specific topics or intended for regional audiences, on-line writing seminars for small groups of graduate students—will help the Society retain members and also play a role in shaping the field?  We have lots to talk about.

These somewhat mundane but still, in their own way, rewarding components of the academic journey don’t count as “scholarship.”  We usually refer to them as “professional service,” and they are, indeed, a way to serve one’s friends and colleagues in the field.  As such, they provide a way for me, at least, to balance the very insular and even self-absorbed process of producing scholarship with working together with others to advance the field.

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