Round Tables and Square Pegs (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on April 21, 2006)

I’ve read with interest recent commentary on Civil War Round Tables, and I feel drawn in multiple directions, in large part because I have had a rather diverse experience with CWRTs over the years, and so I would not want to offer overall generalizations about them.

Let me begin by saying that I have had some very good experiences with CWRTs.  Usually I have not received a cent for these appearances, although one CWRT (in Fort Worth) gave some money.  Among the CWRTs I have visited where I’ve been treated rather well are the ones in New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Cincinnati; I appreciate the help of the St. Louis Round Table in helping to fund a presentation at the Ulysses S. Grant NHS outside St. Louis, and over the years I’ve spoken at local CWRTs, where, like Mark, I believe a matter of local service is involved.

I believe I’ve been spared some of the experiences of my peers precisely because of where I’m located, because, frankly, it’s too expensive for some CWRTs to have me speak due to travel costs.  The same goes for tour groups who visit battlefields or do other things: it’s just too much for them to fly me in and sometimes have to pay for an extra night in a hotel.  Both the Mosby Heritage Society and the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been very, very kind to me, and I appreciate how they have treated me: they have been marvelous hosts, and they have compensated me for my time and effort.  So have Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute.

As a teacher, one of my experiences has been that when speaking in front of a significant number of students, my attention is drawn to the occasional student who’s reading the newspaper, checking a cell phone, whispering, or even recovering from a long night out.  Needless to say, I have interesting ways to deal with such behavior, and there are few repeat offenses (or offenders) in a class.  However, it took me some time to understand that sometimes the behavior of a few people tended to make me jaded about the class as a whole.  That was unfair to the other students, especially those who were responding as best they could to the challenges presented in my class (I’ve always been known as “tough but fair”).  I think that the same reaction colors my response in some speaking engagements: there are a few people who for one reason or another annoy me, and that can turn one sour in a hurry if you aren’t aware of it.

So let me explain some ground rules and expectations that I carry into these encounters.

First, I’m not a traveling bookstore.  I’ve never carried with me books to sign.  There are plenty of ways to obtain my writings, and frankly I think it’s somewhat embarrassing, even humiliating, to assume we are there to peddle our wares.  If I want to publicize something, there are far more effective ways to reach a far larger audience.

Second, I don’t speak before general groups in order to sell books or to make money.  I don’t see my appearances as a book tour.  It’s flattering to have people ask me to sign books, but I don’t travel to sell books: that would be financially counterproductive.  An honorarium is always appreciated, but in some cases I’ve actually helped groups out by not charging certain expenses so they can use that money to do preservation work.  There are much better and easier ways to make more money in the same amount of time; if anything these trips eat into the time and energy I have for such enterprises.

Third, I speak because I suppose people want to hear what I have to say about something.  I don’t have a folder of recycled talks.  I do what I can to make each talk fresh and different, and the instances where I have returned to a previous talk are rare.

Fourth, although many people are very appreciative and kind, I do detect in a few members of the audience some of the traits Mark has highlighted.  I don’t think a CWRT or any other group is doing me a professional favor by having me come and talk.  Rather, what I’m doing is a professional courtesy.  I am very surprised when people in other white collar professions treat me in ways they would not be treated, and expect me to give away for free knowledge and insight for which they would charge … and then assume that I should be grateful for that opportunity.  What makes that even more amusing is to hear mumblings afterward that some people ascribe to me behavior they exhibited in my presence: some folks actually like to demean what I do by saying, “that’s your opinion,” “I know better,” or whatever.  I don’t think they would take that so kindly if they were the “expert” being consulted; if you are going to treat me that way, then why have me come in the first place, and why do you show up?  This said, these encounters with smugness and condescension are the exception, not the rule, in my experience.  Then again, I’ve never spoken before some of the groups Mark and Kevin Levin have mentioned.

Kevin Levin has discussed audience expectations and interests, and I understand his frustration.  I understand that in some cases, my talks will focus on military issues such as generalship and military operations: audiences also like my discussions of civil-military issues.  In less than two months, however, I’ll speak on Reconstruction at the Ann Arbor CWRT, and generally I try to see how to make my interests mesh with audience expectations so that I can introduce them to new ways of looking at things in such a way as to entice them to do so.

There are broader issues here that transcend the issues associated with speaking before a general public.  There are, indeed, multiple publics interested in the American Civil War, and they have different agendas and expectations.  There are also multiple ways of writing about the Civil War, and those people who write those books and articles have different aims and interests.  How those two groups interact with each other, how they interact within those groups, and how they interact with other groups (say, how Mark, Steve, and I interact with members of our profession who are not Civil War historians or who approach the study of the Civil War era with some preconceptions I’ll term “interesting” … all those issues are best left to other posts.

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2 thoughts on “Round Tables and Square Pegs (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

  1. You wrote that before you came to Ann Arbor; I’m sure we would have made the list of RTs that treated you well ;-) I’d love to get you to come back.

  2. I do have to say that if your talk at CWI was anything like you do at any of the CWRT’s then they have no point to complain. I found it very informative and took a lot away from it. I have spoken in the past at CWRT’s and the worse I’ve had to deal with is individuals of the older generation falling asleep soon after the talk begins.

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