The Historian’s Lab

July 21st, 2014

Image via the researcher's website

Image via MIT History website

It’s not just scientists who have “eureka moments”—MIT historian Christopher Capozzola clearly remembers the epiphany that hit him nearly two decades ago in a coffee shop and that became the kernel for his first book. Now this associate professor of history tells SPECTRVM why humanities scholars join scientists and technologists in seeking federal funding to support groundbreaking research.

Tell us about your eureka moment.
It was March 1997 and I was sitting in the coffee shop diagonally across from the National Archives in Washington. I had spent the whole day reading records of the Selective Service system during World War I, trying to figure out who was in favor of the draft, who was opposed. I suddenly realized the reason it was impossible to enforce the draft: the Selective Service didn’t know much about the population. There were no birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, passports, or Social Security cards. I realized that one of the important things the draft did in World War I was document and establish official identities for Americans.

This kind of insight can only come from reading piles of letters and not quite knowing what you’re looking for. I never would have gotten there if I hadn’t also been reading other histories about the draft, and social theories about the power of the state. This moment led to my first book, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen, and more importantly, helped me advance big questions about how Americans understand their relationship to the federal government—what it means to them culturally, not just in terms of laws and regulations, but how they think about it. These are questions not just for historians but for all Americans.

What role does research in the humanities play at a research university like MIT?
Just like in the sciences, there are new discoveries and new ways of thinking in the social sciences. There are historical topics that no one has researched that people need to understand. And it takes access to archives and libraries, and the time to think about things in new ways, to create new knowledge. In my field of 20th-century American politics, as political documents are declassified, we need someone to go in and dig, and find new things.

It sounds like the same process a scientist goes through in the lab.
That is absolutely true. For historians our laboratories are libraries and archives. It’s where we play around with the raw materials, where we make discoveries.

We experiment. We put one set of theoretical ideas about how society is structured, how culture works, next to the raw data—that might be a set of letters, or oral histories—in the same way that a chemist puts a theory against a particular set of chemicals in a reaction.

What are the challenges to securing federal funding in the humanities?
One of the key places that humanities scholars depend on for funding is the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has a broad mission to support individual scholars, publically accessible institutions, and people who teach the humanities.

But getting that funding is harder than ever. In fact, last year’s funding rate for NEH research grants was 7%—it received 1,252 applications and awarded 88 grants. One reason is there are more applicants for funds, but there are also constraints on funding that have hampered the NEH and its sister institution, the National Endowment for the Arts. They were better funded through the 1970s, but by the 1980s, funding had become highly politicized. Every year we have to fight, not just for more funding, but for these two agencies to exist. There is a substantial component in Congress that would like to zero them out.

If you ask me why there should be an NEH rather than an array of 20 foundations to which I might apply, I think the key is to have one national body with the broadest possible mission to support the best research, which doesn’t necessarily have to meet the particular goals of one foundation or one corporate sponsor. As with a lot of science funding, agencies can gamble on the long term in ways that corporations, and often foundations, cannot.

Capozzola is co-curator of The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I 1914–1919, a historical exhibition commemorating the centennial of the war, which will open at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, in Spring 2015. After touring Europe, the exhibit will return to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, in 2017.

Related: The Power of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT

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