Monday, March 30, 2015

Q&A with New JHS Editor Annette Timm

Mathew Kuefler, the editor of the Journal of the History of Sexuality for the past ten years, is passing the torch to Annette Timm, an associate professor of history at the University of Calgary, Canada. A contributor to past issues of the JHS, Timm has published articles for other journals, chapters for books, and her own works, The Politics of Fertility in Twentieth-Century Berlin and Gender, Sex, and the Shaping of Modern Europe: A History from the French Revolution to the Present Day, which she co-authored with Joshua A. Sanborn. 
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Her current work in progress is Lebensborn: Myth, Memory, and the Sexualization of the Nazi Past. Timm has co-organized conferences such as the 2011 “Popular Sex: Mass Media and Sexuality in Germany,” which was combined with PopSex!, an exhibition of archives from Berlin’s early twentieth-century Institute for Sexual Science and original work by artists in Calgary and Berlin; and the 2007 “Democracy and Intimacy: Toward a Moral History of Postwar Europe.”

To help readers learn more about the new editor of the Journal of the History of Sexuality, I conducted an interview with Annette Timm. She discusses her scholarly background, the future of the journal, and the important role of academic journals.

Could you tell us about your academic background, and how your research has prepared you for your new role as editor of the Journal of the History of Sexuality?

I received my B.A. in history from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and both 

Annette Trim
my M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern European History from the University of Chicago. When I began writing my dissertation, I was most interested in the history of health care. (This certainly had something to do with the experience of being a Canadian in the U.S. during Clinton’s first administration.) But my interest in eugenics and population politics in Germany— the various efforts of twentieth-century regimes to increase the birth rate— quickly led me to issues of sexuality. I had chosen to focus the dissertation on all aspects of these policies before conception because I wanted to be able to employ a truly relational approach to gender with an equal focus on men and women. But focusing on everything leading up to conception of course meant focusing on sexual choices. I looked at venereal disease control and marriage counseling, because health officials believed that these were the areas of health care where they could exert the most influence on individual Germans’ choices about when, with whom, and with what intentions they should have sex. (Before penicillin, venereal diseases frequently caused sterility and congenital disease, and in my time period, marriage counseling was primarily eugenic.) In revising the dissertation into a book, I refined my argument to insist that these efforts to create a sense of duty around sexual choices were central to the social construction of the German citizen during most of the twentieth century. Turning the “personal is political” slogans of the sixties and seventies on their heads, I argued that it was only after sex was somewhat reliably separated from reproduction that the justification for the worst intrusions into private decisions in the sexual sphere ended. Sex, at least for heterosexuals, could become private again. In Germany, this story was intertwined with the process of overcoming two dictatorships and reestablishing rights to individual bodily integrity. But I believe that similar stories could be told elsewhere and that the demise of a notion of the duty to reproduce was one step on the road to sexual freedoms and family rights for gays and lesbians. 

As I was writing this book, I was influenced by the fact that I was simultaneously co-authoring a broad overview of gender and sexuality in modern Europe. In Gender, Sex, and the Shaping of Modern Europe, which will soon be published in a second edition by Bloomsbury, Josh Sanborn and I made a very conscious effort to demonstrate that the history of gender is always rather centrally also about sex. We consciously picked historical moments that would best demonstrate how the various sexual identities with which Europeans became familiar over the course of the modern era were formed in processes that were imbricated and interdependent with each other. In other words, we felt that previous overviews had too neatly sealed off the histories of women, men, homosexuals, and heterosexuals from each other, and that much could be learned from the effort to understand how moments of transformation in the political history of Europe almost always also involved some reconfigurations of how people categorized themselves as sexual and gendered beings. 

Around the same time, I also started work on my Lebensborn book, which isn’t quite finished yet. Lebensborn was a program started by Heinrich Himmler with the intention of preventing pregnant single women from aborting their babies. He set up a system of maternity homes across Germany and German-occupied Europe, particularly in Norway. Various mechanisms to protect these women and make it possible for them to hide their pregnancies from families and employers were put in place. The secrecy surrounding this part of the program (it was not otherwise secret— every member of the SS had to pay contributions to Lebensborn) led to all kinds of rumors about it. It is still common today for people to talk about Nazi breeding farms where young nubile BDM girls were supposedly matched up with strapping SS dudes for the purposes of impregnation. The fact that this never happened did not stop the rumors, and I will spend half the book talking about what actually happened in the homes and the other half exploring the explosion of interest in this sexual side of Nazism after the war: everything from low-brow porn like Ilse: Shewolf of the SS to supposedly high-brow fair like The Night Porter and novels like Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. Why are we so titillated by the idea of Nazi sex? I will argue that this phenomenon can’t just be dismissed as nazisploitation; it says something about how Nazism is remembered and understood, and it can be detected in the most supposedly scholarly explanations for the mechanisms of Nazi power and success.

Given my propensity to work on overlapping projects, I also started to collaborate with Michael Thomas Taylor (at the time a colleague at the University of Calgary, now at Reed College) and Rainer Herrn (a founding member of the Magnus-Hirschfeld Society and a researcher at the Charité and the Humboldt University in Berlin). Michael is a specialist in eighteenth-century German literature, and Rainer is an historian of medicine, who has written a book about transsexuality in Germany. In many intense discussions, we found common ground, and our initial plans for a conference morphed into something much bigger and ongoing. We curated an art exhibit, PopSex!, where we asked the artists to directly respond to the incredible images of sexual diversity left behind by Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. The goal was to make this history both accessible and relevant to the public, and it certainly worked. The reception was fantastic, and the three of us continue to collaborate on projects exploring the ways that sexual knowledge has been disseminated. A combined conference volume/exhibition catalogue for PopSex! will be published soon. Our current project, which will also result in an exhibition, is exploring the transmission of knowledge about transsexuality from Germany to the U.S. All of this has moved me from my early focus on heterosexual sex to a much broader interest in investigating all sexualities. Having started as a typical archive-hound kind of historian, I’ve gained some skills in areas like the historical analysis of literature, pulp fiction, film, and medical imagery.

In sum, because it has spanned quite a few (I won’t say all!) aspects of human sexual experience, my research has prepared me to some degree for the vast areas of history and the interdisciplinary nature of the contributions that we receive at the JHS. But no one, I think, could ever be totally prepared to edit a journal like the JHS, because we cover the world and all time periods. There is always a feeling of plunging into the unknown when I receive a submission about an area of history that was not previously in my wheelhouse. This is where our peer reviewers come in, of course! But I also find this part of the job incredibly inspiring and invigorating, and knowing how much I would learn was one of my reasons for applying to become editor.

What plans do you have for the JHS? How do you envision the journal changing under your direction? 

This is a good question and one that I haven’t even quite had the time to think about. I think the journal is already as open to as many perspectives on the history of sexuality as it could possibly be, so I see no reason to change anything there. I am also certainly as dedicated as past editors have been to what I would call a tolerantly historicist approach. What I mean by this is that the journal will continue to publish only articles whose primary purpose is the description of historical context and change, but there will always be room for various disciplinary approaches to these histories. I’ve been discussing the possibility of some additional features with the editorial board, such as the idea of publishing translations of otherwise inaccessible scholarship, but the general scope and structure of the journal will remain the same for now.

Most of the changes I’ve been working on have to do with raising the journal’s profile by getting some new online services in place. This is very much a work in progress, but the first step was to move our everyday management processes to the online journal management system called Open Journal Systems. (You can find us and enroll as a reader, potential author, or reviewer at!) Eventually, I will use this platform as a way to communicate with our readers and contributors in a more active way. I have dreams of opening some portals for online discussion, but given how long it took just to set things up on OJS, this is still very much in the planning stages. If people have any ideas, send them my way!

Matt Kuefler, your predecessor, is a medievalist, and you specialize in the twentieth-century. Will the focus of the journal’s content shift toward new areas of study?

I hope not! I think that our mandate is already as broad as it can be, and I would not want to see the journal somehow creep towards my own specialty, which was already well represented. I sincerely hope that people working on earlier time periods will be just as likely to think of the JHS as a venue for their work. I will certainly handle them with as much care as Matt handled the modern submissions, and I have help. Matt has continued to offer advice, and I can also rely upon our excellent editorial board, where we have a wide range of specialties represented. There are, I suppose, some inevitable synergies in one’s own area of expertise. A few people I’ve met at conferences in my own discipline have already considered submitting to the journal just because I made them more aware of it. But on the whole, I want to adamantly insist that the range of historical subjects we cover is one of the things that makes the JHS special, and the only limitation we face in terms of times and places covered is the variety of submissions that we receive.

Do you plan to produce any special issues of JHS in the near future? You mentioned sexual citizenship as a possible theme.

Yes, I do have plans to produce a special issue on sexual citizenship. I provided one definition of what I think this is when I described my research. But there are many other approaches to the question of how sexual identities influence and are formed by definitions of citizenship, and an open discussion would be very worthwhile. There seems to be a small explosion of research into these questions right now. I still kick myself that I listened to the anonymous reviewers of my Politics of Fertility book and replaced the term “sexual citizenship” with a slightly more neutral “sexual duty.” I now believe that even if not everyone would define the term the same way—there are some who see it as a positive assertion of possibilities for emancipation, while I was happy to see the end of it in German history— there is a discussion to be had. I am in the process of organizing some conference panels for the 2016 meeting of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which will be in Calgary. I plan to recruit interested scholars and pick papers to publish in a special issue of the JHS from these contributions. Other special issues are in the early planning stages. For instance, a group of scholars has also contacted me about a special issue on war and sexual violence, and that looks like a very real possibility.

What would you like to convey to prospective authors about the submission process of JHS?

I would like them to know that we really do publish articles about all times and places. I have had nervous queries from potential authors asking whether we would consider an article about a particular region or country that they don’t see represented in our previous articles. I always answer that the only reason that we haven’t published anything on, say, Andora or Bhutan, is that no one has submitted an article to us about those places. Finding reviewers would be a challenge, of course, but not an insurmountable one, because people who do the history of sexuality almost always have an international perspective, and because sexual knowledges and practices cross borders.

This insistence on breadth leads me to the second bit of advice for potential authors: Before you submit your article read it again with the eyes of someone who is not an expert in your specific field. I intend to keep this journal the kind of publication where readers read more than just the one article they were searching for when they found us. I believe that the history of sexuality is and will remain a field where transnational conversations are both a central question of our research and critical to the arguments we make today. This makes it imperative that we make the effort to speak to one another clearly and without resorting to the shorthand common in our subfields. So I’d ask prospective authors to edit their articles with an eye to accessibility before they submit it to the journal.

In “Clarification of ‘scholarly article,’” a FAQ that you wrote for your students, you state journal articles provide “insight into how historians come up with the generalizations that you read in text books—they piece together a multitude of smaller stories.” That’s a succinct yet lucid description of the value of scholarly articles. Could you elaborate on the importance of academic journals such as the JHS and the small stories that they cover?

Oh, how funny that you found that! I wrote that ages ago and haven’t actually looked at it in a very long time. I wrote it because I had grown increasingly frustrated that when I told students to use scholarly journal articles for their research papers, they generally didn’t have the slightest clue what I meant and would cite newspaper and magazine articles instead. I want them to use journal articles, because even if they are sometimes esoteric they provide a snapshot of research into a specific historical question, and they are of necessity succinct and self-contained. They are a much better model for students writing essays than books, which can appear overwhelming and a little too definitive. More than books, where the footnotes have often been pruned, articles tend to make it obvious where historians are getting their information and that the argument being made is a work in progress that is often a small piece of a larger project. Not all articles are “small,” of course. Some tackle the big questions of the discipline as a whole or provide overviews of entire realms of research. But in a book-based discipline like ours, we tend to forget just how critical articles are to providing the stuff of history— the necessary investigations of the most on-the-ground questions without which we would not be able to make our larger generalizations. Chapters in edited books serve the same purpose, I would argue, and partially by accident I’ve published more chapters than articles myself. But they are harder to find and often transformed by the goals of the editors and the needs of the collection. Journal articles are still where we can produce our most succinct and independent contributions to the field, and as historians we generally do so in language that is accessible to all educated readers.

Your question, though, inspires me to make a small plea. When we talk about the value of scholarly articles today, we need to be mindful of certain threats to their continued existence. Last week I went to a very interesting presentation about the impact of new digital technologies on historical research. I agreed with much of what was said. But I raised my hand to protest when we were informed that we would soon be facing a new kind of peer review. We heard about efforts afoot to develop algorithms that will scour the internet for scholarly blog postings of 1,000 words or more and will then choose the ones that had been liked or forwarded the most to feature on university-sponsored web sites. The idea is that all the “likes” were clear evidence of peer approval and that therefore this process would much more easily and quickly identify the stars of the discipline and the ideas that deserved dissemination and reward. The administrators in the room were thrilled. I was not. I objected that peer review is not and should not become a popularity contest. Perhaps more importantly, I think we need to fiercely protect scholarly journals (particularly those like the JHS that are published by university presses on a non-profit basis) because good scholarship takes time. It needs the slow process of feedback, reflection, rewriting, and effort spent polishing the final product to make real contributions to knowledge. It is not a quick opinion dashed off in the hopes of getting a bunch of likes. Indeed, the most earth-shattering articles in our discipline are those that initially are not very well liked, because they overturn cherished arguments or methodologies and insist that we all go back to the drawing board. This is not a service to knowledge that blogs can perform, and I think that one of my main jobs as editor is to ensure that these independent and sometimes iconoclastic voices continue to be heard.

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