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.

24 thoughts on “Talking Past Each Other: Academic Historians and Blogging

  1. Francis Gallo October 7, 2012 / 4:56 pm

    Does this mean you are from here on going to be helpful and informative to folks who, like myself, need all the help they can get?

  2. M.D. Blough October 7, 2012 / 5:13 pm

    Brooks-It’s amazing how often people refuse to believe that their declaration that something is the last word on a subject is not enough to put an end to debate and discord on the subject. For instance: Chief Justice of the United States Roger B. Taney and Dred Scott.

  3. Francis Gallo October 7, 2012 / 5:31 pm

    The soul, uneasy and confined from home Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

  4. Al Mackey October 7, 2012 / 5:49 pm

    I’d like to see another panel discussion in a couple years to see if any perspectives have changed. Perhaps then we can get to some discussion about what blogging can do that hasn’t yet been done, or hasn’t been done enough.

  5. Al Mackey October 7, 2012 / 6:30 pm

    “Does this mean you are from here on going to be helpful and informative to folks who, like myself, need all the help they can get?”

    Personally, I’ve found Brooks tremendously helpful, but don’t expect him to just spoonfeed you the answers. I’ve found we learn best by finding it out and thinking about it ourselves, and Brooks will wisely facilitate that.

    • Francis Gallo October 7, 2012 / 7:43 pm

      I don’t think I expect Dr. Simpson to spoon feed me the answers. I think would LIKE him to spoon feed me the answers. I am constantly reading about this period and frequently trying to resolve questions that, to me, are critical to understanding the issues that led to this war. I started following this blog as a sort of faut de mieux, expecting that I might find some help. I found something, all right, and some of it actually has been helpful. But frankly, I find the idea of posing a direct question rather intimidating. Hence my supplication. The response “Maybe” did little to alleviate my anxieties.

      • Mark October 7, 2012 / 11:28 pm

        >> I am constantly reading about this period and frequently trying to resolve questions that, to me, are critical to understanding the issues that led to this war.

        I’m not trying to hijack the thread, but in my opinion it all comes down to books. Not sure if this has ever been done here or not, but it would be interesting if we’d ask blog readers to list the top ten books they see as critical to understanding certain aspects of the CW. I’ve been reading on this topic also for awhile now and I’m amazed at what I’ve come across recently that is really illuminating.

  6. rcocean October 7, 2012 / 6:58 pm

    I enjoyed the whole thing, so I didn’t want to be TOO CRITICAL but Peter Carmichael questions seemed at times so “old-fashioned”.

    I’m glad people like you blog. And speaking of Disconnects. There’s a big disconnect between educated civil war readers and people like Levin. I don’t need someone ramming issues of “Gender, race, and class” down my throat in every Civil war discussion. I don’t read Civil war history in order to oppose or support some 21st Century political agenda disguised as history.

    • M.D. Blough October 8, 2012 / 12:28 am

      In the first place, try paying attention to the name of Kevin’s blog. It’s “Civil War Memory” and, as Kevin says on the Home page of his website, “If you are interested in the history of the Civil War, historical memory, and history education you’ve come to the right place.” Furthermore, Kevin isn’t “ramming” anything down anyone’s throat. If you don’t like his blog’s approach, there’s a very simply solution: Don’t read it. If all you want is the strictly who shot who and where approach to Civil War history, there are plenty of opportunities to do exactly that. Kevin’s made it clear that his site goes beyond that. But, please remember, the deadliest war in our history did not occur in order to give subsequent generations a hobby. If you read absolutely nothing except what was said or written during the Civil War and the decades leading up to it, you’d find out exactly how obsessed the people of that time were with those issues.

    • Kevin October 8, 2012 / 3:24 am

      No one is ramming anything down your throat. Just like Brooks I blog about what I find interesting. No one is forcing you to visit my site. 🙂

      • Pat Young October 8, 2012 / 7:49 am

        Tell that to the man holding a gun to my head and demanding that I visit CWM

  7. Pat Young October 7, 2012 / 8:44 pm

    I enjoyed the panel, but Peter C.’s questions were a bit too much reflective of a yearning for the world before blogging. “Oh for the golden age of 1999”.

    Also, the audience should have been populated with academic historians seeking paths to the people through the web. I would have liked to see an active discussion about platforms, social networking initiatives, etc.

    Instead of asking you to defend your very existence as bloggers, the questions he should have asked should have begun with “How do I get started”. Here are a few others:
    1. Should historians who only want to blog occasionally group together a la Emerging Civil War or set up their own blog even if it is updated only a ew times each month?
    2. Apart from their role in promoting blog posts, do tweets and facebook postings serve to add value to the historian’s interactions with the public?
    3. Do “conflicts” between academic bloggers hurt the practice of history, or do they draw the public interest to an exciting throwdown?
    4. Do the outre comments harm the blog or do they serve as examples of how history is remembered and used?
    5. How do you develop an audience/a voice/stuff to write about?
    Perhaps other readers can suggest questions for a future panel.

    I think you perform an extremely valuable service with this blog. I know that a lot of us appreciate your insights.

      • Pat Young October 7, 2012 / 9:23 pm

        Hey, at least Prince was looking to the future, apocalyptic as it turned out to be, when he wrote that. Plus he had scantily clad young women, which is more than I can say for your video.
        “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”

          • John Foskett October 8, 2012 / 7:33 am

            By the way, you can still have Thomas. He’s playing as well as anybody right now.

  8. Brad October 7, 2012 / 9:50 pm

    This blog allows one to feel like an eyewitness to some discussions that I might not be able to otherwise attend. Along with Kevin’s blog, the one I look forward to everyday.

    Thanks for doing it.

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  10. Al Mackey October 8, 2012 / 7:33 am

    Have you found blogging and other forms of social media enhance your experience as a professional historian (I assume they do), and if so, how?

  11. John Foskett October 8, 2012 / 7:41 am

    I’m not sure i even understand the debate at this point. The Internet is little different from publishing. It can be a source of highly-informed, thoughtful discussion or a platform for ignorant ranting. The fact that academic historians might take advantage of it to convey what they know is hardly a bad thing.

  12. Francis Gallo October 9, 2012 / 5:39 pm

    I have a question for the community. I was reading the book titled ‘Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney’ by James F. Simon and in it he discusses Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. In it he accuses Sen. Douglas, former Pres. Pierce, Pres. Buchanan, and Chief Justice Taney of conspiring together to nationalize slavery. He accused Douglas of leading this cabal with his sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska act. Simon points out that Buchanan was out of the country when the K-N Act was passed and “Taney had nothing to do with the legislation.” (James F. Simon-Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney pp. 142-144) It makes me think that perhaps Lincoln was a bit over the edge, perhaps even paranoid to a degree. It makes me wonder about his mental faculties given that he was known to be ‘melancholic’.

    The silver tongued Lincoln we know. The self educated and talented lawyer we know also. But Lincoln the paranoid schizophrenic is not on the top ten best sellers list as far as I know. I would welcome your comments on the subj..

    • Al Mackey October 9, 2012 / 8:49 pm

      He was a politician trying to get votes for his side. Note the three accused men were all Democrats.

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