Historians and the Digital Landscape: Prelude

Over the last week, I’ve noticed several quasi-heated discussions about historians and what some call “the digital landscape” (which may soon turn into a battlefield and for some is already hallowed ground).  There’s been a discussion about the quality of online primary sources that raises some interesting questions about quality control (but precious little in the way of solutions).  At the same time, an interesting reflection about the discussion about black Confederates (in which it is advanced that the issue’s basically been settled and is now something of a distraction) called forth a response in which the use of the internet by the public and in education as a source of scholarly knowledge was highlighted.  That in turn sparked an exchange between Kevin Levin and Matt Gallman (see the comments section following Kevin’s response) over professional historians and the digital landscape, especially blogging (which Gallman dismisses as a hobby).  This came at the same time that I was reading about the origins of Mother’s Day from professional historian and blogging hobbyist Heather Cox Richardson (and other professional historians have left comments in the section where Levin and Gallman have traded views).

One thing I’ve learned over the years is just because the internet allows one the opportunity to offer an immediate response does not mean that one should respond immediately.   That’s especially true given the tone of Matt Gallman’s remarks, which strike me as a bit provocative and perhaps provoking.  Moreover, there is a more serious level at which this conversation should take place, because I think teaching historians (and teachers in general) are beginning to realize that students’ increased dependence on online resources opens the door to all sorts of information and misinformation making their way into education.  I know I’ve had some teachers report to me that when students are asked to defend their sources, they respond that they found it on the internet, as if everything there must be true.  Professional historians may continue to point to their books on the shelves as representing their contribution to knowledge, but they ignore this seismic shift at their peril.  Yes, I know some folks tend to overestimate the wonders of the net, and I’m also aware that some of this has to do with the virtues and vices of the democratization of authority (the internet opens up the world of historical discussion and scholarship to people who are not professional historians or who are professional historians who have fared poorly in more traditional paths of publication).

In short, this should be a serious discussion, and it deserves more than an immediate response.  It deserves serious thought and some detachment from the comments that have spurred these reflections if it’s to mean anything more.  I’ll get there, but I won’t rush. For now it’s back to copyediting/indexing and so on.


13 thoughts on “Historians and the Digital Landscape: Prelude

  1. Jimmy Price May 9, 2011 / 9:32 am

    If Gallman thinks that blogging is for the ignorant masses, why would he take the time to write two lengthy comments on Kevin’s blog?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011 / 10:03 am

      I know Matt, and we’re friends. We have disagreed in the past on some things, and we have different recollections of some events. All I would ask is that you understand that Matt Gallman speaks for Matt Gallman. The moment we have “Matt Gallman” = “all professional academic historians” is the moment we get into another one of those food fights. Better simply not to go there.

      Look at it this way … at least my hobby didn’t get swept.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011 / 8:07 pm

      BTW, I don’t think Matt meant to leave that impression, and I’m sure he would contest that characterization.

  2. TF Smith May 9, 2011 / 9:38 am

    Having seen more than a few current undergraduates whose concept of documentary research is a google search, I think professional historians and teachers should be engaged in the e-scape more so than they are; asking one’s grad students to participate in building a website for each given course could be a way to expedite building the content for a site that would focus on a given professor’s specialization, link to others in the department or the field, and allow for some interaction between students and instructors other than in the seminar.

    I’ve seen this used in the secondary ed department at my campus, which because of our state’s requirements, amounts to a graduate level program; similar efforts in my department, which focuses on seminar and research projects at the graduate level, are somewhat more limited, but something I think would be worth trying.

    I also see a website as a useful adjunct to a thesis/dissertation effort, especially one involving – potentially – oral and public history projects.

    The biggest caveat is, as Kevin Levin’s site demonstrates, the time demand
    of a “public site” with enabled comments of course; simply serving as moderator is a demanding task.

    Could be reqarding to explore, certainly – don’t know if the tenure committee would view such time spent as contributing to publication, university service, or what-have-you, however. Grant seeking, perhaps?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011 / 9:59 am

      I’ve given the students the option of crafting a website as a final paper, and, yes, I do cover the online world in my historical methodology course. Indeed, the last time I did it coincided with the flap over Confederate History Month in Virginia, so we were able to track the evolution of a debate in real time, and it was very interesting.

      You touch on something else, something that I think professional historians are reluctant to discuss: the value assigned such activity. I mean this in two ways: professional value (how much is online scholarship valued, including the fact that it reaches out to a community) and monetary value (scholars on line are giving it away for free, although the result may be that some opportunities come our way that involve compensation … it’s more of an investment model, as it were). If the profession understood and valued this sort of thing, and if there was financial support for this sort of activity, then more historians would do it. Professional historians have traditionally unvalued the worth of their services while at the same time collectively they go after whatever they can get, which drives compensation down (you risk, “okay, if you won’t do it, I’ll find someone who will”). For a profession whose members often make much of the value of their professional identity, all too many of them are willing to sell themselves rather cheaply.

      • TF Smith May 10, 2011 / 4:34 pm

        Very good points re professional and monetary value; do you think the average department chair could make the case to his/her dean?

  3. Robert Moore May 9, 2011 / 10:20 am

    I’d certainly say that his remarks were written to provoke, and, is it just me, or did I detect a sneer in that remark that nobody blogging history out of Yale? That seems incredibly strange (and, uninformed/unaware?) considering GMU’s Dan Cohen holds a PhD from Yale, and, together with Roy Rosenzweig (PhD, Harvard), put together a fine primer re: digital history, which actually gave merit to blogging history, yet didn’t necessarily align practioners as “hobbyists”. Blogging is, after all, part of digital history.

    Certainly, there are history bloggers who are hobbyists, but there are also history bloggers who do so as practioners… and “practitioners” is a title that does not necessarily require a degree. History done well is the key, and “done well” in this day and age requires, I believe, a firm appreciation of the impact of the electronic environment… not just as a consumer (yes, we’re all aware of some great resources that have become available online in the past decade… and yes, we use them too), but as one who knows how to market good history.

    We have to ask… out of the two… one who is clearly reluctant to leave the traditional practice (and attempts to minimize the impact of anything other than that practice), and one who weaves traditional practice with digital practice… who has a better grasp of their audience, and who has the greater potential to reach a larger audience? Is not academic writing limited in its reach? Granted, it isn’t just academians who read academic works, but, really, which has the greatest potential for the wider dispersment of information? Is it not important that good information reach the largest possible audience? At what point does the traditionalist become so entrenched that he/she cannot see his/her position being overrun and compromised in the largest possible audience by… less than good history?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011 / 11:13 am

      I am pleased … no, I couldn’t be more pleased … to see how Matt Gallman’s comments have given us all food for thought. I wager he’ll read this for amusement. 🙂

      I think the online environment is here to stay. It’s changed the landscape of scholarship and education. It’s also offered a new “challenge to authority,” in that people without the usual license to practice (a Ph.D.) practice history online. Some parts of the argument are not all that different from previous efforts to disparage Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and Ken Burns for being non-professionals who pandered to a wider audience. Better, I think, for professional historians to engage with the online world and deliberate on how and why to do it, and what it should mean to do it, not whether to do it.

      But that’s just me. 🙂

      • Kevin May 9, 2011 / 11:30 am

        Should academic historians pay attention to social networking and other digital tools? Can these tools enhance traditional practices and revolutionize others? The folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for Digital History at George Mason University have answered these questions in the affirmative. http://chnm.gmu.edu/research-and-tools/

    • Robert Moore May 9, 2011 / 10:41 pm

      Ah… pardon the first paragraph regarding the Yale thing. I misread the passing reference made by Dr. Gallman over at Kevin’s blog.

  4. Ray O'Hara May 9, 2011 / 11:16 am

    railing against blogging and and the coming digitalization of everything will be as effective as King Canute trying to command the tide.

  5. lunchcountersitin May 10, 2011 / 11:44 am

    I think most people who blog do so out of a desire to communicate with an audience – an audience that might be far-flung, and consist of unknown and even unexpected readers. Bloggers wish that they could get several thousand hits a day; the reality is, most get several thousand hits in a month… if they’re lucky.

    When blogging is looked at in this way – as a tool for people with an interest to communicate with others – I don’t know if there’s such a thing as blogging “too much” on a subject. If a blogger is bringing something to an audience that might otherwise have been unseen – then some good has been done.

    I think that if, for example, Mr Gallman feels he has learned everything he needs to know, or wants to know, about Black Confederates, then that is a personal judgement he can make, and I can’t begrudge him for that. But at the same time, there are others who do have a more intense interest, and who want more information or discourse on the subject; I don’t begrudge those people for that either.

    Jimmy Price does a very fine blog on the USCT. Probably 98% – or more – of the American public couldn’t care less about this subject. But for those who are interested, his blog is there for them. There’s no downside to his site.

    I would add this. As the traditional media faces its challenges, I perceive that there is a greater need for “knowledge experts” to communicate “to the masses.” In the past, we could get so much information from experts in newspapers or in general interest magazines. As the press… withers… it is very useful that scholars reach out to mass audiences.

    I am loathe to say scholars must do this, and I know there are some who complain that scholars don’t do enough to counter what they see as bad history (or bad science) being propagated on the Internet. After all, blogging takes time, and I understand that some people simply don’t have the time for that. But it is a great service to the community when scholars do make the effort, and I appreciate blogs such as this one and so many others on the subject of the CW and related topics.

    – Alan Skerrett

    • Ray O'Hara May 10, 2011 / 1:44 pm

      Magazines and newspapers are dying, the internet has destroyed the retail music store, Tower, Strawberries, all major chains gone, BordersBooks gone I there any Booksmiths left.the retail market in music and soon in publishing is devolving into the hands of the artist, direct downloads of games, music and books is the future.

      You don’t want to be the last buggywhip maker as they say.

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