Farewell to Cosmic America

Every week I click through several blogs to see what my peers are discussing (sometimes it is several times a week, depending on the frequency with which a blogger posts and how much commentary those posts elicit). Today I learned that Keith Harris has decided to end Cosmic America for reasons he can best explain at his blog.

I think that it is harder to end a blog than to begin it (although it is hardest to sustain it). There are several blogs and several bloggers who have virtually disappeared from public view, with few if any posts to their name over a long period of time, who have not faced the fact that their inactivity is telling them something. It reminds me of sports stars (Bryan Trottier and Bernie Williams come to mind) who have found it difficult to file retirement papers.

This lag between the end of a blog and the willingness to make that explicit is the same as the lag between leaving a blog and having that understood by others, as my experience in leaving Civil Warriors suggests. It takes a while for people to see that as some blogs appear, others disappear or change in fundamental ways (which is the case in several instances). Some bloggers can’t take that final step. That’s too bad. Blogging, after all, is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and for many of us it is only part of who we are as historians (and people) and what we do.

Keith isn’t going anywhere (as careful readers will note), but many of us will miss his distinctive sensibility and perspective on his blog.

Alternate Futures And The Practice of Self-Exclusion

One of the more interesting aspects of recent discussions about how the future of practicing history might look is how some people complained that they were excluded from Gettysburg College’s The Future of Civil War History conference. That’s not the first time I’ve heard this complaint: I also heard certain parties grouse about the fact that they were not invited to participate in last June’s panel on blogging at the Civil War Institute, and then there was all that whining about content and controversy/confrontational blogs. The recent comments about exclusion smack of an academic/non-academic divide that I for one find about as tired as the academic/public historian divide that I see in various places. It’s there, of course, in part because some people say it is there, in part because there are remnants of it there (enough to keep the trope alive), and in part because it seems to serve the interests of some people to keep it there as a way to complain about one thing or another.

One answer that been offered is that there was nothing preventing these people from attending the conference and making known their perspectives. That’s true, but I’m not sure how attendance without a clearly defined platform for the expression of one’s views (except in response to a presentation) would have served these parties well.  Although there was a session on digital history, there was nothing devoted to social media and blogging (for which I am thankful). Some people see the future of practicing Civil War history and engaging the public as an opportunity to talk about social media, blogging, and the like as part of that future. This is not exactly new: groups are developing smart phone and tablet apps for touring Civil War battlefields, and other fields have cell phone numbers where visitors can call up and listen to descriptions and interpretations of sites (I saw this implemented during a recent trip to Valley Forge). And goodness knows there’s enough about the theory and practice of blogging out there, even if I find that theme ultimately exhausting but far from exhaustive. Just do it, I say. If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to read blogs (I find humorous the declarations of people who say they don’t read blogs, but who appear to have very detailed understandings [and misunderstandings] of their contents). Let’s just move on.

However, when it comes to the world of social media, blogging, and other forms of interaction and presentation, I wonder whether those people who claim they are excluded understand that the airing of their complaints on blogsites and social media reveals that they have at their fingertips the best way to address the issue about which they complain. There is absolutely nothing preventing these people from working together to set up their own virtual conference that they would carry out online through blog entries, podcasts, and streaming video. They really can’t complain that someone’s excluding them from a conversation when they have it within their means to hold the conversations they want to hold and to share their views across cyberspace.

Part of the discussion about blogging in academic circles (and I should note that there are many more academics who consult various blogs and other social media than some people like to admit, if the feedback I get from academics who read this blog is any indication) concerns issues of gatekeeping, authority, and so on, issues discussed last June. My frustration with that conversation is how little it seems to achieve, for the same people offer the same complaints as if we’ve never spoken, and at times rely on rather dated characterizations of blog content and discussions that show me that they are truly stuck in the past in more ways than one. But the irony with complaints about exclusion from such conferences as that recently held at Gettysburg College is that the very critics of authority and gatekeeping outside the academy crave the recognition and admission that an invitation to speak would provide … when their very existence demonstrates that they don’t need any of that to do what they do. They have it in their own hands and with their own keyboards to be heard and to be the new world that they want.

In short, there’s much to discuss about what happened at Gettysburg several weeks ago, and not everyone’s going to agree on everything. That shouldn’t matter: if anything, these discussions are a sign of the conference’s success. For those of you who feel unjustifiably excluded from the conference and who claim that you have a place in shaping the future of how we practice Civil War history, be the change you want to see.