I am a scholar of the history of Britain and its empire who is especially involved in questions of state expansion, the contestation of property under capitalism, and the how state and property concepts are recorded in the landscape of the built environment. These themes informed my first book, Roads to Power, which examined Britain’s interkingdom highway and its users from 1740 to 1848. They also inform my current research into rent disputes and land reform for my next monograph, The Long Land War, which profiles three moments in the history of property: the Irish Land Court of 1881 and its invention of rent control, the ideology of “squatting” in post 1940 Britain, and the creation of the “participatory map” for contesting legal boundaries in Britain and India in the 1970s and 80s.
My longue-duree stories of property have involved me in questions of “distant reading” and the adaptation of new tools for analyzing and synthesizing the masses of written material produced by the British state. Since 2008, when I was awarded the first “digital history” position in the nation, I have been publishing about application of computer technology to the history of keywords and concepts. In 2012 I released Paper Machines, an open-source toolkit to help my students enjoy distant reading technologies. In 2014, my second book, The History Manifesto (co-authored with David Armitage) discussed the potential effect that digital analysis would have on questions of periodization, graduate student training, and audience in the discipline of history. I have continued to refine my personal use of digital techniques such as topic modeling and visualization in R through interdisciplinary research seminars. My current collaborations have produced several papers about topic modeling and the distant reading of Hansard’s record of debates in the houses of parliament, two of which are currently under review or revise and resubmit in various journals.
My research on Britain and digital analysis directly inform my teaching. The bulk of my courses reflect in their titles one of the most relevant questions for the continued relevance of our discipline – capitalism in the longue duree – although the material of the course typically comprises an introduction to British social, political, and economic history. Courses such as “Landscapes of Capitalism” are designed to offer British history to the largest possible audience in the university, attracting undergraduates from the business school, arts, or engineering, and offering them a rigorous but intriguing acquaintance with major turning-points in the expansion of the British state, together with a disciplinary introduction to the methods of cultural history, social history, close reading, map reading, and distant reading with computers.
While my first book on state-building and infrastructure in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain (Roads to Power, Harvard 2012), my work has steadily moved forward in time and broader in geography to focus on the history of British ideas about property rights, land law, and agronomy in international governance and development conversations in the nineteenth and twentieth century, a story about lawyers, map-makers, and peasant rebellions since 1870 that stretches from Ireland to India. The transnational range and institutional breadth of this story have forced me to turn to digital methods, because of which I have become a designer and developer of software for historians, in particular, Paper Machines, a free toolkit for historians who wish to perform a “distant reading” of large-scale textual corpora, particularly those associated with modern institutions like Parliament or the World Bank, by using algorithms to visualize how the official mind’s concerns change over time and space.
I am an assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University. Born in Dallas, Texas, I received my AB from Harvard University, and then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge before completing my PhD in History at the University of California, Berkeley, after which I continued on to postdocs at the University of Chicago and the Harvard Society of Fellows. I was Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History at Brown, and I elected to come to SMU without coming up for tenure at Brown in 2016 after the birth of my first child.