I found the reaction to posts appearing here and elsewhere over the last few days to be quite educational. As I suspected (from the statistical and record-keeping aspect of administering a blog), traffic was heavy, including a good number of hits from academic institutions (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s been my experience that a good number of academic historians savor these sorts of pointed exchanges … they just do so in private (it’s called lurking followed by e-mail). At least I admit to watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” (precisely because I think it’s a wonderful situation comedy presented as a reality show).
In his comments Matt Gallman claimed that he did not know of a professional historian who behaved as he believes Dimitri Rotov has conducted himself. The counter example is all too ironic. Long time readers of Kevin Levin’s blog will recall that John Stauffer appeared as a recurring subject (and occasionally as a direct participant). He once charged another historian with being homophobic because that historian saw fit to question Stauffer’s speculation that Abraham Lincoln enjoyed an intimate relationship with Joshua Speed (see here and here). That followed a discussion the previous year over the relative merits of the scholarship concerning the State of Jones, in which somewhat tempered responses followed a somewhat less tasteful outburst. Kevin offered some reflections in a post that contains other links for those interested in such things.
I don’t see a lot of difference between the tone of Dimitri Rotov and John Stauffer. Indeed, my own experience suggests that John’s prone to engage in more than a little distortion and prevarication at times. He can also be quite blunt and headstrong. However, I don’t want to single him out. If anything, John’s major shortcoming may be in saying what he believes in public, whereas I know of colleagues who would say the same things in private, but would not want to be held accountable for their gossip. That’s what my private e-mail suggests about some folks.
Recently I was was quite critical of a colleague’s behavior and bearing in a private e-mail to another colleague. I counted both people as good friends, but I was frustrated (as was my associate) by the other person’s behavior. What happened next was interesting. My friend sent out a work message to (among others) the party with whom I was unhappy … and failed to notice (until it was too late) that he had forwarded the entire exchange, including my criticisms (don’t you hate when that happens?). I got an e-mail from my associate offering profuse apologies. I simply shrugged it off. Perhaps, I responded, it was best to have this all out in the open, especially as this issue had gotten in the way of getting work done on several fronts. Moreover, I hadn’t said anything that I would not have said directly to the scholar in question … at the time, I was simply pondering how to say it before my associate unwittingly did it for me.
All of this is to say that historians are human too. That should come as a surprise to no one. I find it funny when non-historians, emboldened by fake screen names or infused with keyboard courage, go after historians, then whine that when a historian comes back that their reply is unprofessional and beneath them … in other words, these whiners admit that their own behavior is contemptible, and that other people are (or should be) better than they are. Some folks can dish it out, but they can’t take it. Some folks claim to deplore certain internet exchanges, although at least, unlike others, Matt Gallman admits that he finds them amusing (as do other people whose public disdain for such exchanges barely conceals their private hunger for more). What folks may want to contemplate as they squirm uncomfortably about this subject is that the internet breeds a new incivility. The absence of the face-to-face component is important. I know of people (including academic historians) who won’t own up to what they’ve said, in private or in print, when confronted with it; I’ve known historians to absent themselves from conferences rather than deal with critics one-on-one. I’ve never had that problem.
Maybe it’s the hockey player in me.
But I’d appreciate it if we had an end to such self-serving grandstanding about expected norms of professional behavior. I have found that decent people behave decently and honestly, regardless of their occupation. People treat with respect and civility those who treat them with respect and civility. If someone has to put on a polite face for the public, fine: but never forget that it’s only a mask.
Extraordinarily well said Brooks.
“But I’d appreciate it if we had an end to such self-serving grandstanding about expected norms of professional behavior. I have found that decent people behave decently and honestly, regardless of their occupation. People treat with respect and civility those who treat them with respect and civility. If someone has to put on a polite face for the public, fine: but never forget that it’s only a mask.”
>> “But I’d appreciate it if we had an end to such self-serving grandstanding about expected norms of professional behavior.”
+1 Things can get contentious in any debate, but it seems like when people start focusing on how you present facts, descriptions, views, etc., it’s almost never about how you said it. It’s trying to impugn your character or intimidate you into invalidate your arguments without using argument.
I am reminded of an exchange that took place a few years back between historians Mark Kishlansky and John Adamson over Adamson’s interpretation (re-interpretation perhaps) of the role of the aristocracy and House of Lords in the English Civil War. Kishlansky accused Adamson of shoddy, misleading use of sources and other offenses, and Adamson defended himself with shots against Kishlansky and his spurious attacks. Tthings got progressively nastier as the argument went from articles in professional journals to letters in The Times Literary Supplement. Perversely entertaining though…
Perverse indeed. In years past this would be, I imagine, carried out in private. Now, with the internet, many know what takes place. I wonder what their students and college administrators think.
Actually, many of these exchanges used to take place in the pages of professional journals and book reviews, so the public nature of the exchanges are not new. Have they become less civil as people mistake internet exchanges for conversation (as opposed to prose)? Yes. But one other aspect of this should not be overlooked … the behavior of the general public. Once upon a time someone would actually have to do some work to contact you. No more. An e-mail, a comment, whatever … it’s easy, and people say things that they would never say face-to-face. Let’s put it this way … I’ve never had to moderate or block a professional/academic historian from this blog. You can guess about some of the people who have earned this honor. Yet we don’t ask what their employers, clients, or friends think. Maybe we should. The culture of incivility is far from limited to academics.
>> I’ve known historians to absent themselves from conferences rather than deal with critics one-on-one. I’ve never had that problem.
Well here’s a great compliment for you. My impression is that your purpose is pursuing the truth, and you see your method as including trying to clear obstacles that one finds in the pursuit when it is a public one. I don’t say that because I agree with you most of the time, or at least I don’t think so. I just like your no-frills or workman like approach to things. But I think we need more academics that do their craft at least partially via blogs as you are, not because social media is all the rage now but just because it is an important social function. I’m sure it is time-consuming so it is easy for me to express appreciation since it requires little or nothing of me to participate, but maybe in the future grad students who wish to teach that study under you will also be expected to participate at some point and level. In that case blogging or arguing for your views in public won’t be an extra thing to add to your duties, but incorporates and replaces some current ones. I guess you could call it open source education.
So I think we may be witnessing a revolution in education. Now I don’t know how this affects the funding model for education, but I suspect some professors will rise to the top and have a broader audience while others will sink into obscurity and compensation will follow that one way or another. Maybe the university will have less power over professors and advancement will be less political. I’d pay a subscription fee to have access and possibly participate in this sort of discussion. Just my thoughts.
It really is true there is nothing new under the sun. These exchanges mirror in so many ways the dust ups in print some of the leading figures of the Civil War had with each other after the war. It works much the same way today as it did then. Someone puts something in print which makes another person feel publicly aggrieved on behalf of themselves or an associate. Fire is returned and it goes back and forth out of all proportion.
So, I don’t really think human nature has changed for better or worse. Maybe what has changed is a fading of what were thought of as good manners, coupled with a technology which allows people to respond instantly (eliminating the chance to think twice, then think again, then forget why we were vexed).
Why manners matter is they allow us a form to work within which allows a person to make an argument while taking care not to offend persons you disagree with. In reading some of these exchanges there are interesting points being made, but the writers are sometimes loose with their characterizations of each other and their viewpoints to the point where the insults and slights become bigger than the discussion itself.
We should try a bit harder to appreciate each others interest in history (which gives us common ground). And, at the end of the day, we should just be thankful Jubal Early never had a blog.
Dear Lord, no! Please. 70-80 years of Lost Cause Mythology was the result of that!
Thanks for the comment. Sometimes, of course, people lose sight of the distinction between addressing the post and attacking the poster. Folks don’t see the comments I reject or the places where I decline to go. Recently a Confederate “heritage” advocate has taken to holding forth about me and other so-called “anti-Southern” bloggers on a Facebook group that seems to be populated by people who love to call people names, accuse them of being disturbed, and so on. I see no need to give that sort of behavior any further attention, because it serves no useful educational purpose (other than, perhaps, suggesting the quality of mind and character of some of those people). That’s why folks who reduce some blog exchanges to battles of personalities miss the point. If that’s what I wanted to do, I could do it very easily, just by giving these people a forum.