Working with Roy

Contributed By Elena Razlogova

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What follows is a speech I wrote for the special AHA session in Roy’s memory on January 5, abridged to avoid duplicating my other post on this site.

I worked with Roy at the Center for History and New Media for ten years, from 1995 to 2005, and he also was my thesis adviser form 1998 until I graduated in 2004. I will talk about what it was like to work with him at the Center and to have him as a mentor. And because my relationship with Roy was mediated by technology I’ll talk about Roy’s relationship with technology as well.

Several times in conversations with Roy I heard him speculate why there are not more hit TV series and movies about historians. TV shows and films about doctors and cops are popular, he used to say, because they are always urgently needed to save lives somewhere. If only we could come up with an emergency that would urgently require an intervention by a historian, played perhaps by Nicholas Cage or Angelina Jolie, who could rush to the scene and save the day, the discipline would have much better representation in American popular culture.

I think Roy was skeptical about this possibility. However, in some ways, working with Roy was like this imaginary action movie. It was exciting and it was full of emergencies.

I began working at the Center as its only employee. The center was Roy, Mike O’Malley, and me, with a standard Mac desktop for a server, located in a closet in a former student dormitory, with only six web pages on it. Of course, now there are dozens of historical websites and tools produced at the Center, but for the first few years we only had two or three. Eventually, we could afford top-of-the-line equipment and put it in a secure facility with multiple backups, but for the first few years that wasn’t an option. Web servers crash. Roy however, refused to acknowledge that fact. Once on an anniversary of 9/11 Jim Sparrow and I accidentally unplugged the machine that was serving millions of connections to our September 11 Digital Archive, and could not restart it for several minutes because the database got corrupted. For Roy, who was pacing back and forth watching us trying to repair the damage, every second our historical data stayed offline was agony.

There were times when Roy would drive in to GMU’s Fairfax campus himself on a snow day—a real emergency in Virginia—to restart a crashed server as soon as possible. Roy never asked me outright to drop everything and spend 5 to 10 hours trying to work out the problem but he had a way of pausing on the phone, or nervously walking around in person that conveyed the message very well.

I can’t say I didn’t resent the havoc Roy’s work ethic did to my social life. If I had a dinner engagement, I cancelled it. If I was on vacation in San Francisco, I had to go into a closest café with wireless to solve problems remotely. Immediately after arriving to any city, I looked for Starbucks coffee shops (that were guaranteed to have wireless access), to be ready in case an emergency would occur.

Once I was on the metro right before Ballston station on my way to work when I got a call from Roy. It turned out that Pennee Bender from the American Social History project was presenting on our History Matters site at a conference. Her presentation was to start in 5 minutes and she just discovered that the search page didn’t work. I had to get off the train, out of the Ballston station, into the Starbucks, and fix the search in 5 minutes—as always for Roy, failure wasn’t an option.

At first I was surprised at how seriously Roy took every glitch, but then I realized that he did this because he had a strong sense of purpose and a clear idea of how to accomplish it. For him, history only made sense as a democratic project. He believed that digital media could democratize history, and to this end he produced historical websites, spoke at innumerable meetings, wrote grant proposals, and promoted collaborative and open source scholarship. Keeping the server always on was just a minor manifestation of his larger vision and his determination to accomplish it.

Working with Roy as a student resembled an action film in a different way—the emergencies where all mine and he was the one who saved the day. Quite simply, I would not be a historian today if it wasn’t for Roy. I’m Russian, and it would have been impossible for me to finish school if I didn’t have a job at CHNM at the same time. He had to fill out mounds of extra paperwork to hire me, and when my American visa got delayed for two months, Roy didn’t give up and kept the job open for me when he didn’t have to.

Many students claim being close to their advisers—Roy was generous in ways that this common phrase doesn’t really describe. He would be always happy to meet with me, and always enthusiastic about my work, but when a conversation would approach a conclusion, he would just say “Ok” with a certain inflection, and I would know that I had to get out of the office so he could move on to other work. We communicated as much over email and instant messaging as in person. Roy once told me how he and Deborah, working on two separate floors of their house, simultaneously got emails with links to the YouTube video of Stephen Colbert mocking President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Only later did they realize that they were watching the video on different computers at the same time. One could imagine that Roy and Deborah sometimes communicated by email in the house as well. But in my case, the way Roy used email was much more valuable than any heart-to-heart conversations we didn’t have.

It was remarkable enough that Roy could answer an email within seconds if it was about Center business, but what I appreciated even more was that when I asked him to help with my own work his responses were just as fast. During the celebration of Roy’s life in December, people were offering statistics on thousands of emails they got from Roy. Here are some statistics on how little time it took for Roy to get back to me over email about my research.

Reading and commenting on my book prospectus: 17 hours

Reading and commenting on reader reviews of my book manuscript: 9 hours

Answering a question about my dissertation: 10 minutes

Answering the last question I asked him, about a book we both had read, on September 26, 2007: 2 hours.

How Roy found the time to reply this fast, I have no idea. He knew and communicated with so many people in the US and beyond—when I was about to move to Montreal to teach Roy sat down with me and gave names of a half a dozen digital humanities scholars he knew in Canada. In September 2005, over iChat, I asked Roy to read something of mine, and as always, he immediately agreed. Then he tried to figure out when he would actually do it. Here is what he wrote on IM:

Roy Rosenzweig: maybe not this weekend

Roy Rosenzweig: but monday

Roy Rosenzweig: maybe

Roy Rosenzweig: i have plane flight and hopefully could do then

Roy Rosenzweig: i have picnic tomorrow and then antiwar march

Roy Rosenzweig: and then various people are staying over

Roy Rosenzweig: i have conferences all next week

I know that what he had done for me he did for hundreds of other people. Thanksroy.org is full of testimonies of people he helped. I think he was such a perfect mentor precisely because one didn’t have to be his favorite student or colleague to count on his help and unwavering support. His commitment to social equality was not just academic, it encompassed everything he did—researching working-class culture, helping students, going to antiwar rallies, and lobbying for open source scholarship. Many brilliant historians exist but I haven’t met anyone as ethical and committed as Roy. He provided more than conventional history instruction; he taught by example.

Roy was always there when one of his friends, colleagues, or students needed help yet anything more than a cursory expressions of gratitude made him uncomfortable. I got so desperate about this that when Roy asked me to write a letter in support of a grant the Center was applying for, I used the letter to thank him for many things he had done for me, and then asked him to proofread it to make sure that he actually looked at the words. Among other things, I wrote, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that my years at CHNM”—and as Roy’s student—“transformed my understanding of the purpose and practice history. I will always be grateful for this experience.” Thanks, Roy.