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Contingent Magazine

Historian Erin Bartram had no plan B when she published her painfully honest “quit lit” essay in early 2018. She was sick of being on the crappy tenure-track job market, sick of making $28,000 as a visiting assistant professor and, perhaps most of all, sick of people telling her how good her work was, to keep researching and writing no matter what.

“‘But your work is so valuable,’ people say. ‘It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it,’” Bartram wrote at the time. “Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?”

Two years later, Bartram’s plan B is taking shape: she’s got a part-time job that she loves designing and delivering education programs at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Connecticut. And while she doesn’t have a full-time job that supports her academic research (that work is “DOA,” she said recently), she’s helped create a venue for -- and which values -- another kind of writing. 

That venue is Contingent Magazine. The online history publication, now beginning its second year, is written primarily by trained historians working off the tenure track or outside of academe altogether. Its target audience is those who appreciate and enjoy history, but not necessarily academics: the magazine has some interesting traffic sources, such as high school history course websites (in additon to college and graduate school course sites). Articles are edited by historians but not peer reviewed in the traditional sense.

Contingent is funded entirely by readers, most of whom are graduate students and contingent academic historians pledging small donations. Some 210 are monthly sustainers and receive a few extra benefits. The site had 23,000 views in December. And, central to its mission, the magazine pays every single contributor, from $25 for short “postcards” from conferences, up to at least $500 for features.

Published pieces include those in a series on the historical underpinnings of Star Wars, the enduring meaning of Forrest Gump, food, immigration, colleges closing and Watergate. There have been articles on addiction, political candidates, the Civil War and revisionist history. Anything good goes. Sometimes contributors write up “field trips” to museums and historical sites, all of which reveal something about the process of doing history. Lists of books and journal articles published by non-tenure-track historians in 2019 were especially popular, and even resulted in some extra sales for book authors. And Contingent answers readers’ varied questions about the discipline of history.

A recent “Mailbag” column -- that’s Contingent-speak for answers to reader questions -- tackles, for instance, the historical cliché “Don’t we have to judge people by the standards of their time?”

“Not all historical inquiry is explicitly about judgment, and not all historical judgments are about good and bad, but neither are these things outside the boundaries of historical practice,” reads part of the Contingent primer. “Some discomfort with the idea of judgment seems rooted in the notion that judging the goodness of someone else’s choices is somehow unfair, especially if it’s lacking in understanding. But historical judgment isn’t inherently knee-jerk or ill-informed.”

Instead, the piece reads, “it can be, and most of us would say it should be, about learning, understanding and assessing.”

Bartram wrote that one up. And she doesn’t just write for the magazine -- she co-founded and edits it, along with two fellow historians: Bill Black, visiting professor at Western Kentucky University, and Marc Reyes, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Connecticut. A web designer, Emily Eston, Judaica Digital Humanities Project Coordinator at Penn Libraries, also maintains Contingent, as does a larger board of directors.

A Magazine Is Born

Contingent’s origin story is worth telling, since not everyone was initially sure that the concept would work. In the middle of 2018, as Bartram was making good on her promise to leave academe, Black -- whom she knew primarily through Twitter -- messaged her about an idea: Shouldn't there be a place for historians to publish that isn't a blog, an academic journal, or all about political "hot takes"?

Bartram was interested. Then she thought Reyes, whom she’d met in her doctoral program at Connecticut, as a possible third partner. Discussions followed over email, Twitter and Skype, as did some sink-or-swim work on establishing a nonprofit organization and fundraising. There was an initial pledge push to fund the building of a website, some early content and the creation of a logo that purposely eschewed stereotypical “history” images of old books and the like.

Looking ahead, the editors put out the call for more pitches, including over social media. Historians answered.

Around the same time, last January, Bartram -- armed with Contingent stickers -- attended the American Historical Association meeting. The site had just gone live for a soft launch.

“We were not publicly known outside of a small circle” at that point, Bartram said. “A number of scholars said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to get it off the ground if you didn’t pay people?’”

But paying people was always nonnegotiable.

“I had been in three years of [visiting] positions without any research support,” Bartram said, “and I think it’s deeply unethical to ask people to share the research that they spent their own money without paying them. It’s a Ponzi scheme, where you are paid to do one part of your job and you pay to do the other.”

Bartram said that the magazine is also an opportunity -- even a challenge -- for anyone who’s ever wanted to “do something” for adjuncts. That is, they can donate and give non-tenure-track scholars a kind of “second life.”

At this year’s AHA meeting, earlier this month, Bartram heard different things -- mostly congratulations and “I didn’t think it would work!”

Conferencewide, there was much talk about how historians need to do more to engage the public in their work, to demonstrate its value.

As Contingent is aimed at the public, do its editors consider themselves to be leading the field in some, even small, way?

Bartram was neutral, saying she’s focused on what she can do to advocate for a field she loves, and not on the bigger, structural problems it faces (think adjunctification and devaluation of the humanities).

“What can I do? I can start a magazine with my friends and edit and pay scholars for their work,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think it will change things structurally, but it matters to the people who get $250 per piece.”

Black, Bartram’s co-founder, had a similar take.

“We wanted this to be a grassroots effort. If this was based out of a university department or think tank or something like that, the vision of what it was going to be would have been polluted by different kinds of incentives. This was going to be a thing we did for us.”

At the same time, Black said, “We very much hoped when we were starting Contingent up that we would be a model for other folks to follow and pick up on.” It’s “one thing to say that historians should write more with public audiences in mind, and what we want to stress is that that call can’t exist in an economic vacuum. It has to make economic sense for people to do that work.”

Even tenure-track professors, who are compensated for research, don’t always have the incentive to do public outreach, Black noted, due to the traditionally research-heavy values of promotion and tenure committees.

In any case, he said, “It’s a wild time. It certainly seems like there’s a lot in the air right now.”

One Team

Reyes, Bartram’s and Black’s co-founder, said there’s a strong sense of collaboration among the editors even though they work remotely -- Reyes most of all, as he was until very recently a Fulbright fellow in India.

He’s also “proud of the types and topics of the articles we have run so far,” from features to photo essays to a cartoon. One of Reyes's wishes for the future is that Contingent continues to attract such interesting, diverse pitches from contributors.

Speaking of contributors: Reyes said the best part of Contingent is working with them, as “seeing their work go from pitch to publish is such an exhilarating and rewarding experience.”

Looking back on a year of articles, one that sticks out to Black is “Mr. Kay,” published in April. The piece details not only the life of Mr. Kay, an “Issei,” or Japanese immigrant who came to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, but also what it feels like to “fall in love” with someone, something or some time from the past while doing archival research.

“How do we, as historians, care for those we meet in those manila envelopes?” preserved in those archives, the article asks. “How we do understand the emotions the work of history provokes within us?”

Black’s historical sensibilities run romantic, judging by his short list of favorite articles and the way he talks about them. But beyond being romantic, if tragic (Kay always hoped to return to Japan and never did, dying poor and alone in Chicago) the “Mr. Kay” story embodies what Contingent is all about: making transparent the work -- process-wise and personal -- of doing history.

There is no need to separate the historian from the history here. That, in turn, reminds any reader who ever fell in love with history why they did so in the first place. Indeed, if there’s any thread running through all of the pieces on Contingent, it’s a deep affection for history and all that it comprises.

The author of “Mr. Kay,” Sonia C. Gomez, an associate member at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago and a senior associate at the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, said she started writing parts of it back in her second year of graduate school, in 2012. It look eight years to find Kay (a pseudonym) the right home, she said recently.

“I had some ideas and feelings about the materials I had uncovered, but I had no clear objective when I visited the building where he once lived and started to write about him,” Gomez said. She always knew, however, that a “traditional academic outlet was not where I wanted to go with his story and the other stories he represented.”

Gomez was immediately interested in Contingent when she heard about it on Twitter, and she even donated to the start-up fund.

“The idea of contingency in academia deeply resonated with me” at the time, Gomez said, as she was then a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and “keenly aware of my itinerant status.”

In addition to recognizing contingency, Gomez said the magazine fills “several gaping holes in academic history.” There's the history-is-for-everyone piece, she said, “which is incredibly important for many reasons -- including the continued existence of history as a discipline in the 21st century.” And circling back to the essence of Mr. Kay, Gomez said, “There’s the piece about demystifying the historian's craft, peeling back the curtains to show how we, historians, actually do history.”

For the record, Gomez said the process of working with Contingent also was pleasant.

“The editors were so very supportive and their questioning really pushed me to think more analytically about the story I wanted to tell.” Gomez is “grateful for the opportunity to have worked with them and have Mr. Kay out in the world.”

Stephenie McGucken, an adjunct instructor of art and design at the University of Tampa who earned her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Edinburgh in 2018, wrote a piece on medieval relics in Star Wars for Contingent’s series on those films and fandom. She also said recently that she’d been thinking about such a piece for a while (“medievalism and Star Wars really go well together,” she added). So Contingent’s call was the push she needed.

“I thought it was a great venue to explore those ideas for a more general audience that has intersecting interests.”

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