Because we all live in an era of climate change, I mostly think in terms of the history of land and water: who got evicted; who controlled the water; how land was mapped, owned, connected, and used, and what stories we tell about those displacements that have shaped the world that came after. I am also a scholar of history who uses machine learning, statistics, and other big-data methods to approach the traditional concerns of the humanities.
Before I began to code, my work followed the study of dead languages, critical theory, and the human record of the built environment as an archive of everyday experience. These themes still fill my writing: the experience of eviction; the history 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. I am still trying to understand how the landscape is a repository of state power, and how the filter of landscape shapes the everyday experiences of ordinary people.
Most of my research follows themes like the history of the state and the experience of the landscape as they flow through Britain, which deserves our attention as arguably the first nation in the world to become modern. My first book, Roads to Power, examined Britain’s inter-kingdom highway system from 1740 to 1848. My next monograph, The Long Land War, tells the history of ideas about ending eviction, especially around the mid-century rise of “land reform” at the United Nations and its satellites. 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 economic development.
I learned to code when I was ten. My mother, the computer programmer, handed me a copy of her BASIC manual and told me that the best way to learn was to read: and so I did. In college, I left coding behind in favor of what I considered harder subjects: dead languages, human geography, critical theory, and deconstruction. After all, I reasoned: everyone in high school knew how to code; very few understood history or political change.
After a long time trying to understand political change, I realized that I still had a great deal to say about the nature of texts as objects, and these questions lead me back to code. 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. My current work focuses on using machine-learning and statistical approaches such as “topic modeling” to understand the history of Great Britain, especially as it intersects with the history of concepts about property, rent, and eviction.
In order to involve students in the frontier of research, I frequently teach "lab" style courses where undergraduates and graduate students work on some problems at the intersection of Machine Learning and political history, asking questions about whether data can reveal problems hitherto obscure to specialists. I also teach traditional lecture courses on the history of Britain, capitalism, and landscape. These courses typically share with students an introduction to the methods of cultural history, social history, close reading, map reading, and "cultural analytics," or digitally-produced distant readings of history by the light of computation.
I am Associate 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 also previously Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History at Brown.
After the birth of my first child, and I elected to come to SMU without coming up for tenure at Brown — despite holding a chair and having years left on my contract -- a story I partially tell in "Leaving Behind the Yellow Submarine.” As a writer who believes that the creative process is part of telling stories that compel readers, I had faith that the context of a collegial department, however removed from the Ivy League, would be crucial to my happiness, productivity, and continued ability to take risks with my research. The proof that the bargain worked shines clear.