Digital Summer School: Tropics of Meta

Distinguished urbanist Matthew G. Lasner of Hunter College recently completed his term as Exhibitions and Media Bibliographer for the UHA newsletter, and in his outgoing comments he shared some wry and accurate advice with editor Hope Shannon: “I’m certain far more of our members would be interested in digital projects, new websites and tools, etc. than in a list of exhibitions that have already closed (which what I’ve been serving up the last several years).”

In his remarks, Professor Lasner actually paralleled our internal discussions at The Metropole. With the explosion of the interwebs, digital scholarship has taken on a new life and importance within the field of urban history and in the culture more broadly. There are so many worthwhile online sources, so how does a historian began to tackle them?

The Metropole, a digital project in its own right, wants to be part of the solution, and so from July through August we will be running Digital Summer School. Much like our Member of the Week format, each week we will highlight a different online digital project. We’ve tried to create a diverse list (particularly in terms of subject matter, geography, and demography), but more generally the goal is to increase the visibility of each project while hopefully sparking discussion regarding the place of digital scholarship and the role of digital scholars both within the field of urban history and more broadly among the general public.

With this in mind and on the eve of the World Cup, The Metropole wanted to provide a launch the series with Tropics of Meta (ToM) which itself just launched “The Other Football,” a new initiative coinciding with the famed international soccer tournament. Undoubtedly, ToM has been covering much more than football over the past eight years; it has served as a digital clearing house for a variety of academic pursuits. Senior Editors Alex Sayf Cummings and Romeo Guzman give us the inside details on one of the internet’s longest running academic/culture blogs.

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ToM co-founder and Senior Editor, Georgia State University Historian, Alex Sayf Cummings

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Tropics of Meta (or “ToM”) was founded in early 2010 by Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft. Its goal was to bring together early-career scholars, both in-grad-school and just-out-of-grad-school, to create some kind of online forum for discussing their own work and historical scholarship in general. The aim was to provide a space for the feeling of camaraderie and intellectual community that many of us found lacking as we moved into the dissertation-writing, postdoc, and junior faculty phases of our careers. At first, we did not know exactly what form it would take, but we settled on a blog platform.

Our original audience was really ourselves and our small network of historian friends. We did not think much about traffic, site stats, or social media outreach in the beginning. However, over time our roster of contributors expanded, and with it the reach of the site; we soon began to run into strangers at conferences who said they liked the site and read it regularly. Since our focus is very general — “historiography for the masses” is our motto, and the site ranges from urban studies to legal history, from sports to foreign policy — we tend to grab a readership across disciplinary bounds. Our main audience remains within academia, but we also attract a good deal of traffic from general-interest readers who find articles by searching terms such as “civil war total war” or “female gremlin” or “what was the orginal purpose for sanctuary cities” online.

 

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ToM Senior Editor and SEMAP co-founder, Fresno State Historian Romeo Guzman

What do you hope people take away from it?

We really want ToM to show that scholars can use an online platform to present original research and synthesize scholarship in a way that is engaging for any reasonably intelligent and curious reader. We also try to cultivate a voice that can be intellectually serious but also wry, funny, and freewheeling, while still focusing on publishing substantial, longform writing.

ToM has hosted a variety of different digital and public history projects over the years — the South El Monte Art Posse’s (SEMAP) East of East and the Valley Public History Initiative’s Straight Outta Fresno and The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno State). As the co-director of SEMAP and founder and director of VPHI, Romeo Guzmán has served as director or co-director on all these projects, as well as an editor at Tropics, with Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, and Ryan Reft contributing as editors on various initiatives. Sean Slusser, an adjust at Fresno State and PhD Candidate at UCR is the co-director of Straight Outta Fresno. In all these projects, Tropics of Meta has served as a space to promote the original work of students, faculty, and independent scholars; to invite community members to contribute to the archive; to share what we are collecting; and to begin to use digital archives to actually publish scholarship.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Tropics of Meta has really come to fruition through the unstinting effort of our editors and the generosity of dozens of contributors who freely shared their creative work over the years. It’s an extraordinary thing considering the fact that early-career scholars — nervously sweating the job market or awaiting decisions about promotion & tenure — have no definite assurance that this work will “count” for them in professional terms. We do believe that writing for ToM has redounded to the benefit of many of our contributors, though, as digital work is increasingly valued by the academy and the public at large. (Numerous contributors have had their pieces re-published widely by major news outlets worldwide, while others have found career opportunities in part because of their work for the site.)

One of our biggest challenges has been developing a collaborative structure and workflow that makes sure pieces get solicited, posts reviewed and edited, feedback given, books reviewed, pieces pushed out on social media, and so on. We’re all pretty allergic to having a hierarchical structure and did not want to recreate a little mini corporation, but having some kind of effective organizational communication is really a necessity. We’ve tried different ways of collaborating over the years (Gchat and Google Docs, Slack, and so on), and we’re still feeling our way through this even now. What has worked very well, though, is our current structure: senior editors and associate editors, who solicit new contributions, spearhead new projects, and edit and give feedback on posts; a larger team of senior writers who contribute frequently; and a digital content coordinator who focuses on our social media outreach.

 Where do you hope it goes in the future?

With all these projects Tropics of Meta serves as a really important place-holder. Instead of waiting for the entire project to be done or for a digital collection to be created, we are able to improvise and build and share as we go. To use language from SEMAP’s East of East, in many ways our digital presence allows us to center the community and public and to remain in touch. The process itself is really important with or without a goal, but we are also always thinking about ways to translate the work into bigger projects of lasting significance, such as an actual digital archive or a book manuscript. For example, East of East: The Making of Greater Mexico, 1700-2017 (edited by Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, Romeo Guzmán, and Ryan Reft) is currently under review at Rutgers University Press.

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Playing Cards for “The Other Football” project

So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say “greatest achievement” or “unique insight”?

That is a great question. We think Tropics of Meta and SEMAP are similar in that they are ultimately grassroots projects in the sense that they happen because we dedicate time and energy to them. For the most part, they aren’t housed in an institution. So perhaps one of the greatest achievements is getting so many folks to believe in our idea and to lend their time, energy, and expertise. Perhaps also the credibility that we’ve gained and doors that have opened up as a result of these projects. Guzmán, for example, got a job as a public historian based on his work with SEMAP. And of course, it’s pretty awesome that we’ve convinced so many people that a small working-class community east of East Los Angeles is vital to understanding the history of Southern California and California in general.

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Jaime Ramirez playing card (front) from “The Other Football”

In general, we have just come to understand that the so-called borders within the field of history — between public history and… non-public (?) history, digital and non-digital, academia and the public, institutions and local communities — are far more porous than people often think. Sometimes they hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to engage faculty, students, activists, artists, and community groups, young and old, scholar and non-scholar, in really dynamic conversations.

What have you learned about Fresno or what surprising aspects of Fresno have been revealed to you through your projects?

We just started The Other Football this spring, but we’ve already learned so much about soccer in Fresno and more broadly about soccer in the U.S. It’s a cliche to say that immigrants brought soccer to the U.S., but it’s absolutely true. The history of immigration to the United States can’t be separated from the history of soccer in the valley. Perhaps the most clear example of this comes from the work of Guzmán’s undergraduate student Tyler Caffee. His work has shown that it was an Iraqi immigrant who brought soccer to Visalia and started its first high school soccer team.

The other insight relates to a lot of conversations about soccer in the United States. The

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Jaime Ramirez playing card (back) from “The Other Football”

USMNT’s failure to make it to the World Cup has raised a lot of questions about U.S. soccer and its pay-to-play system. Often times folks will use “formal” and “informal” to describe soccer worlds in the U.S., pay-to-play vs “Sunday Leagues” (or adult leagues). From Fresno, we’ve learned about the vital role that folks who move between these two worlds can play. For example, in 2018 Fresno welcomed its first professional soccer team: Fresno FC. This USL team was made possible because of the groundwork that the PDL team Fresno Fuego had created. Fuego was successful because it brought together these different soccer communities. There are a ton of really important individuals who made Fuego possible, but I’ll just mention one to illustrate this point. Jaime Ramirez, Fuego’s first coach, attended Pacific University and eventually became the men’s head coach. As a head coach at one of two four-year universities, he has created a club team (pay-to-play) for kids in a working-class neighborhood, coached adult teams in the San Joaquin Valley, and recruited first generation college students. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of his former players — Tony Alvarez — spearheaded the founding of Fresno Fuego. In short, the movement of individuals between these two worlds is vital to the healthy growth of soccer in the United States. I think we’d do well to find ways to replicate and encourage this type of movement.

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