One of the characteristics of blogging that I view with ambivalence is the practice of blogging about blogging. I know that some bloggers like to discuss this issue every once in a while, and some have offered powerful cases for the importance of social media as a way for historians to communicate. I’m not so sure I want to join that chorus, although I agree that historians ignore social media and the internet at their peril given how people interested in history go about gathering information and opinions.
I admit that I feel a bit ill at ease about being on a panel on blogging at next month’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College …. not because of the company (Kevin Levin and Keith Harris) but because it’s not clear what I have to say. I try not to tell other historians what they should and should not be doing, and in the case of blogging, I’ve already heard complaints about this session from non-academic bloggers who feel excluded. I’m surprised I haven’t heard anyone complain that it’s Charlottesville-centric (or that Gettysburg College and the University of Virginia share the same school colors). My purposes in blogging are mine, and others may have different ones. However, the impact of blogging (on bloggers as well as on the audience and the discussion) is interesting, and I must confess that after years of engaging with carious forms of social media, blogging is my preferred venue of communication (although I remain fond of the well-moderated discussion group).
Today I’d like to look at a subset of the category of historians I call academic historians (as opposed to professional historians … there are people who practice the discipline of history as their profession [or as one of their professions]). Academic historians are employed by educational institutions to teach history. Some will define that level as applying simply to the college and university level, but I’m not prone to exclude folks.
There are blogs run by academic historians in several fields. However, I’m not aware of impassioned debate about blogging in those fields. Maybe someone can enlighten me. I am very aware of the impassioned debates about blogging in the area of Civil War studies. That debate takes several forms, and those forms tend to distort the debate. For example, not all Civil War bloggers are amateurs/buffs/non-professionals/non-academics. This blog suggests as much. So it’s wrong to present a debate as “us” (academics) versus “them” (outsiders). Nor would I speak of bloggers as a collective unified group. Rather, I like to name names, lest in characterizing the behavior of certain people, I tar other folks with the same labels.
It is clear to me that academic historians in the Civil War period are divided about the principles and practice of blogging. Indeed, I’d argue that academic historians who blog in the Civil War period often face criticism from their peers who feel uncomfortable about blogging or the exchanges that occur on blogs. I know I have. I’ve been chastised for failing to defend friends who are the subject of other bloggers’ ire, for example, as if I should rise to the defense of the guild as a whole. However, I note that some of my academic peers sometimes make themselves scarce when it comes to academics attacking fellow academics … and we’re not just talking about in print. I know of one well-known professional (non-academic) historian who was so wounded by what he read here that he’s adamant about vetoing my presence on conference programs (perhaps because he’s shying away from a face-to-face confrontation) … unfortunately for him, he doesn’t always control who’s on a program, as he has doubtless discovered to his dismay in consulting his obligations for June 2012. I’m well aware of other forms of petty behavior on the part of professional and academic historians toward their peers, so it strikes me as amusing when I hear the anguished cries of pain that someone’s been targeted by a blogger.
Note: I would not retract a word I said from the post that wounded that sensitive soul. If anything, I was too nice. You would think that someone who’s been in the give-and-take of the political world in New York would grow a thicker skin and own up to his mistakes.
That observation in turn brings me to something else I find amusing … although we’ve heard several complaints about blogging from academic historians, I can assure you that they constitute a rather healthy proportion of the lurking audience, and they don’t shy away from contacting other folks who are the subject of critical blog entries. That impression was confirmed recently at a professional meeting, where someone brought up the subject of blogging to me and thanked me for defending them. It turned out that the only reason the academic in question knew about the original blog post (which appeared on another blog) was that a well-known Civil War academic historian who does not blog contacted him about it. In short, trust me: just as a book reviewer knows that the one person who will read that review is the author of the book, so too should you know that academic historians, one way or another, will become aware of most if not all of what is said about their work in cyberspace, whether it’s good or bad, informed or uninformed, on the mark or a stray shot, from people who post under their names or from folks who disguise themselves, and so on.
I’m sure that in speaking bluntly as I have that I’m bruising some folks’ egos right now (and that they’ll be telling each other about it on e-mail). And I can assure you that I might lose some more opportunities to speak, write, or make some money because of someone’s hurt feelings. This says far more about them than it does about me, because at least I’m not whispering something behind their back or sharpening something to stick in said back. If you can’t stand the heat, turn off your monitor.