Talking Past Each Other: Academic Historians and Blogging

Reflecting back on last June’s panel on Civil War blogging at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, I continue to be impressed with the disconnect between many academic historians and blogging, at least when it comes to the Civil War era. Peter Carmichael’s queries seemed to me to resemble questions posed in public by Matt Gallman (and, to a lesser extent, by Gary Gallagher), which might be why I was prepared to answer them … especially when the conversation first focused on that issue that seems to bother so many academic historians so much, the discussion about black Confederates in the blogosphere.

Regular readers know I am tired of discussing the propriety of discussing certain issues, and I freely admit I’m becoming impatient to hear it brought up again and again as if the previous discussions did not take place. I find this especially irritating precisely because that particular issue no longer attracts much attention and no new ground is broken. I’ve also come to accept as part of the business the comments made by some professional colleagues to me privately about blogging which are in clear disapproval of the whole enterprise or some aspect of it (and I’m amused when other colleagues ask about these conversations and pretend they don’t happen because they are not part of them … what is it about the word “private” that you do not understand?). So let me make a few observations:

First, blogging represents a way for me to engage with the general public … not my fellow academic peers. I choose to discuss what is of interest to me, and I respond to what is of interest to my readers. I’m under no obligation to discuss what my peers may feel to be important, whether it’s life in the North during the war or the very concept of a nation at war. It’s up to the people who want to hold forth on those issues in the blogosphere to create their own blogs and commence those discussions.

Second, I reject the notion that I serve in any way as a gatekeeper in the blogosphere. Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would think otherwise, or why the concept of gatekeeper functions in this environment. The blogosphere basically rejects authority by assertion. Anyone can participate in the discussion. Sure, a blogger may decide that someone’s become destructive to those conversations and decline to give them a forum, but those people are free to establish their own platform. Certain bloggers are seen as more credible than others, but that also holds true for historians as a whole.

Third, the blogosphere’s a part of a larger internet environment. Increasingly people turn to that environment for information and conversation. We need to understand more about the interaction between audiences, search engines, and information in cyberspace. Educators understand that the internet offers opportunities as well as challenges when it comes to educating students. We need to teach critical thinking skills when it comes to assessing online sources. Too many academic historians in higher education don’t seem to understand the implications of these innovations in technology, although I notice that many K-12 teachers do.

Fourth, I remain struck by the irony that historians of the Civil War who study the subject of memory (and various distortions within) in the past seem oblivious to the fact that some bloggers are actively involved in discussions about Civil War memory today. Scholars can’t complain about popular misconceptions held by members of the public if they are unwilling to engage in such discussions. Who else are they supposed to engage? Each other and each other alone? If that’s the case, then it should come as no surprise that scholarship’s impact is limited, and it should be obvious who’s to blame for that. To claim that certain battles have been “won” in the face of a great deal of evident to the contrary amuses me, because history is an ongoing conversation between past and present that changes as today’s present becomes tomorrow’s past. I’m sure other historians have believed that they’ve uttered the last word and that certain interpretive battles are settled (or “won”), only to discover otherwise. After all, haven’t you smiled when you’ve heard the word “definitive” when attached to a book? There’s no such thing, regardless of what publishers want you to believe.

In the end, I was disappointed in the discussion at the CWI precisely because it seemed to me more of a defense of blogging than a discussion of its possibilities. I found the questions from the audience far more helpful in that regard. Indeed, you may now have questions of me … so ask away.