How to Join the Conversation

Last month there was quite the little explosion on Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory.  No, no, it wasn’t about black Confederates.  In fact, it all started innocently enough when Kevin posted some videos of historians responding to questions.  They were major figures in the profession, and someone noted that younger historians were absent from the videos.

One poster observed:

Give us the opportunity and we’ll speak, but I’d wager that the producers of these videos sent out an e-mail blast to the usual suspects, and no young scholars. It’s the nature of the profession that those better established will have the podium, and those of us in the beginnings of our careers will be struggling to have our voices heard. In general, and especially in public history, we’re all having a tough time getting that podium because the folks inspired by the centennial are still firmly ensconced in the positions they obtained thirty and thirty-five years ago. Give us a microphone and we’ll talk your ear off, but until someone offers us the stage we can’t help out with any efficacy.

I felt the same way when I was young, too.  Then I became one of the usual suspects.  That’s called the cycle of life … although I did not get my position thirty or so years ago, for at that time David Blight and I were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, studying under Richard H. Sewell.

However, as Kevin pointed out in a subsequent post, if the prime concern one has is to get on the stage to express themselves, they don’t have to wait for an engraved invitation.  He’s right.  Blogging has allowed many people to join the conversation.  Some do better than others.  Various discussion groups also allow people to speak to various audiences, although the history of online discussion groups is a cautionary tale.  But surely one could network together with other scholars of like interests to produce one’s own video representations … which will reach a wider audience that the proceedings of a conference that are not recorded for future broadcast, or a presentation that suffers the same fate.

There are two basic types of conferences.  The first is the conference put on by a professional association, many times as part of the annual meeting (the American Historical Association’s annual meeting is happening right now, in Boston, Massachusetts).  Graduate students, junior faculty, and other beginners in the profession scramble to get on these programs, submitting proposals for a session (a chair who serves as master of ceremonies, several papers, and a commentator or two) to a program committee, which decides the fate of such proposals.  That’s part of getting professional exposure (or a way to secure institutional funding for your trip to the meeting).  One isn’t paid to present a paper.  Then there is the other sort of conference, where people are invited to come and speak … and in the vast majority of cases are compensated, sometimes handsomely.  This latter format was used to bring the scholars featured in the videos together, and, yes, many are the usual suspects, because they’ve earned that status … although some people use that status to maintain their own position at the expense of others, and so on.  However, people want to see the usual suspects, or at least a good number of them among the presenters.

What to do before one becomes one of the usual suspects is another matter altogether.  Here younger scholars, especially those who are tech-savvy, need to work together to devise new formats to present their views.  As Kevin has pointed out, Keith Harris does just that in Cosmic America, a series of broadcasts and now a blog with its own somewhat off beat style (and I mean that in a good way … I think).  As he puts it, “You’ll find me on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumbler (just click the buttons in the top right of this page). You’ll also catch me turning up at academic conferences, speaking engagements, and on the battlefield – always with a camera or video recorder in hand bringing it all to you. I welcome comments, discussion, whatever – whether you love me, hate me, agree with me, or think I am a jackass…just let me know.”  Kevin Levin has made himself into a player in discussions about Civil War memory, teaching the Civil War, and black Confederates in a blog that grew from more diverse origins.  Yet blogging represents just one way of doing this sort of thing, and the advent of new technologies means that other ways for people to enter the conversation of their own accord are being developed every day.

So, instead of wondering why no one’s asking you to talk, make yourself heard … and work with others in devising better ways of accomplishing that goal, individually and collectively.  Far be it from me to tell you what to do or how to do it … I’m just suggesting it can be done, and it’s up to you to do it.

3 thoughts on “How to Join the Conversation

  1. JM Rudy January 7, 2011 / 7:56 am


    Thanks to both you and Kevin for the helpful and encouraging comments on my concerns. The discussion they sparked, I think, was useful. We do live in a much different world. I was assigned your 1996 general history of the war as a text in my undergrad “Intro to the Civil War Era,” in 2004. Books seemed like a one way street then. Now, a scant seven years later, it seems like nothing to us to have these types of conversations across the spectrum of the historical profession, established and up-and-coming.

    However, my comments were read a little off what I had intended. The conversation was a little slanted toward the academy.

    I’m a public historian, trying to gain a foothold in Federal public history. I’m in a pretty good place right now, hopefully with a “real” job in a few months, but I’m watching talented young person after talented young person be rejected because post-centennial rangers are still lingering in many of the positions that they were given thirty years ago. I’m also watch new hires go to aging second-career military nuts over talented, young synthesizing historians.

    I think to some extent that pockets of the public history field went stale, or are headed there, as a result of boomers hitting retirement age apathy and not caring about innovation any longer. Those of us that want to innovate and move the field forward, integrating the latest scholarship from the ivory tower into the public consciousness using new techniques, are unable to find a way in. That was truly what I meant by, “getting that podium.” Seeing the usual academic suspects just seemed to reinforce the feeling in me.

    That having been said, I’m working the gears toward blogging partially inspired by the commentary. Another Public History friend and I will be debuting soon. Hopefully we can turn a few spades of new ground and not get in too much trouble.

  2. Keith Harris January 8, 2011 / 7:57 am

    Thanks so much for the mention – and yes…I do take the “offbeat” part as a compliment 🙂 I struggled for a while to find my platform to discuss history. I did not really want to move in to a university setting. I suppose going online through all the usual suspects seemed kind of obvious. I had no idea just how quickly people would take notice.
    My point is – it is not difficult to be heard…but you have to say something first! You pretty much nailed it on the head! Happy new year!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s