Category Archives: profession

Ray Mohl

I suppose every human culture depends on elders who are willing not only to teach the young, but to listen to them. Back in graduate school, I was writing about freeway revolts with a methodology that consisted of figuring out which Ray Mohl article was most relevant to a given section. Yet when I met Ray in person, he treated me not as a receptacle of his wisdom and knowledge, but as someone from whom he himself could learn.

That may have been true at the edges; one of the pleasures of urban history is that each city has its particulars, so another detailed case study is always welcomed. But more than that, Ray was a fundamentally patient, gentle, and curious man. His was a face I always delighted to see at a conference, and I mourn that I won’t see it again. Ray, I miss you.

For more on Ray’s work, see In Memoriam: Raymond Mohl

Rick Perlstein’s Link Rot

I am a big fan of Rick Perlstein. I love his Nixonland, not least for the way it changed the way I think about midterm elections, and I look forward to reading The Invisible Bridge.

I feel sorry that Perlstein must waste even a moment dealing with the absurd charges of copyright infringement presented by Craig Shirley, an author who apparently has no understanding of either copyright law or the norms of scholarship. Shirley’s claims could be sillier only if he sued for “$2,0000,000,000 (two trillion dollars).”

That said, I share Shirley’s frustration with the decision by Perlstein and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, not to include the footnotes in the printed text of The Invisible Bridge . Instead, Perlstein has posted the notes only on his website.

Yes, it sounds like a good idea. As John K. Wilson writes, “Online citations are a perfectly legitimate means of sourcing—in fact, Perlstein’s approach is superior to conventional footnoting because it allows readers to click on many of his sources and read the original work themselves, which is hardly the tactic of a plagiarist.”

The problem is that such citations can vanish quickly. Consider, in particular, this claim at the start of the Notes section of Nixonland: “A continually updated hypertext version of these notes will be available at my Web site,, so that readers, wherever possible, can explore Nixonland‘s source materials on their own.” (p. 750) Now try to find that “continually updated hypertext version” at It isn’t there, at least not anywhere I could find it.

The printed edition of Nixonland includes the notes, so the disappearance of an electronic version of those notes isn’t a disaster for that book. But since the online notes are the only version of the references supporting The Invisible Bridge, their disappearance would greatly diminish the value of an important work.

I faced this challenge on a smaller level myself, when I learned that for production reasons, it would be impossible to incorporate footnotes to a new preface into the existing notes for The Great Society Subway. Fortunately, the wonderful librarians at George Mason University offered to host an electronic version of the notes for the preface to the paperback edition of my book. I am confident that the Mason Archival Repository Service will be serving data long after has expired.

I suggest, then, that Perlstein not rely on his own website, but instead archive copies of the footnotes with libraries that are committed to preserving digital scholarship.

Twenty-five states offer academic exceptions to FOIA laws

In a recent law journal article, Ryan Fairchild helpfully compares the freedom of information laws of all 50 states to see how they might govern requests for material from public universities. He finds that Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have the best laws in place.

[Ryan C. Fairchild. “Giving Away the Playbook: How North Carolina’s Public Records Law Can Be Used to Harass, Intimidate, and Spy.” North Carolina Law Review 91 (2013): 2117–2178. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]
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New York Times Reads Professors’ E-Mail

The New York Times obtained “hundreds of emails and other documents” about public university professors in Texas and Illinois through Freedom of Information requests.

[Kocieniewski, David. “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward.” New York Times, December 27, 2013. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]
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Happy goldfish bowl to you, Professor

Over the past three years, various activists have filed public records or freedom of information requests for the e-mail of professors at public universities. In March 2011, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested some of the e-mails of Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy asked for similar e-mails sent among faculty and staff at public universities in Michigan. Then the American Tradition Institute sought the e-mail correspondence of Michael Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia.

At the time, the tactic was new, and experts speculated on the potential effects on academic freedom. However, those ideas remained largely speculative. The University of Wisconsin withheld messages sent to and from Cronon if they were “records related to professional organizations” or “intellectual communications among scholars.” And a Virginia court held that Mann’s e-mails were exempt from disclosure based on Virginia’s exclusion of “Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education…in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues.

These decisions limited the impact of the requests. But two more recent cases in states with less nuanced public records laws show how little privacy faculty at public universities may expect.
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