How Has Blogging Changed Scholarship? Has It?

At the Civil War Institute’s evening session last night, Peter Carmichael suggested that blogging had somehow transformed the nature of scholarly discourse in a less civil direction. He may well be right, although the decline of civility is by no means limited to blogging. But his assertion leads to another question: has blogging indeed had an impact on historical scholarship? Has it in any way changed the way we conduct scholarly discourse, or how historians reach out and contact a larger population? In short, are things the same, or are they different, why, and how?


24 thoughts on “How Has Blogging Changed Scholarship? Has It?

  1. The other Susan June 21, 2014 / 1:31 pm

    Considering how far we’ve come since the 1990s I have to surmise all this shaking things up has been good for us. I don’t think it’s any more or less civil though, just more connected, the real world has always been this crazy, it’s all up to the historian on whether or not he or she wants to venture out of his or her study and deal with it.

  2. Sandi Saunders June 21, 2014 / 1:44 pm

    Blogging has allowed the agenda driven ideologues to “challenge” both history and the interpretations of historians at a level never before available so widely. No effort beyond having internet access or cable TV is required. Scholarship, research, levels of education and even facts are less, if at all relevant to the idea. Having the rallying cry that “history is written by the winners” has legitimized the notion that just because you disagree with what is written in history, any history, that validates your POV. But IMHO, the disdain for education and the educated is the more proximate cause of this “challenge”. Scientists are wrong because you don’t agree with “Climate Change”. Historians lie that the Civil War was “over” slavery and because they do not vilify the politicians you think deserve it. Government has no authority because they do not interpret the Constitution as you do. Conspiracies are covered up to protect the government…when it is the party you do not support. On and on it goes.

    It is essential that the educated and the credible also blog IMO. Propaganda not refuted credibly is accepted too easily.

    • Jimmy Dick June 21, 2014 / 9:44 pm

      I agree with you on this. Let me add something that should give us hope. In a political discussion with a friend who has very opposite political views compared to mine the issue of the IRS and the TP audits came up. This is on Facebook. He started the discussion with a status post on his page. I commented on it. He replied that he did not like what I said and from that point on was going to delete all of my comments that he disagreed with. If I continued to post things refuting his opinions he would block my attempts or unfriend me.

      Actions like his reflect the real problem. People that unfriend, block, or delete opposing views are just ignoring what they don’t want to hear. They really are creating an echo chamber where anything they disagree with gets eliminated.

      Now, when we start applying factual evidence to support our opinions or historical interpretations we run into a group of people that choose to disregard anything that conflicts with their opinions. That is what I like about academic blogs. If you don’t bring facts to the table, you won’t last long. Unfortunately, there are some that don’t see it that way, but then they keep bringing up the same things over and over again which are not supported by facts. I am glad that a majority of the American people do look for facts to support their opinions and interpretations and are willing to listen to historians instead of propaganda driven heritage folks.

    • Joshism June 22, 2014 / 8:23 am

      As I like to put it: the biggest drawback of the internet is that it gives a voice to people who shouldn’t speak.

  3. Ethan Rafuse June 21, 2014 / 6:17 pm

    What evidence did Pete point to in order to support his argument? I am not saying I disagree with him, but am curious as to what he pointed to and who (if anyone) he called out.

    • Al Mackey June 21, 2014 / 9:42 pm

      No evidence. It was just Pete trying to poke the tiger.

  4. JMRudy June 22, 2014 / 5:48 am

    I was standing in the back of the room chafing at those words, Brooks.

    I’m more inclined to say that “blogging,” which really simply seems like shorthand in this conversation for the broader movement toward a social web, has removed gatekeepers. You reminded me of that long ago when I was complaining about microphones and established voices. A blog is different from a monograph or a peer reviewed article in that the apparatus needed to produce them is less onerous and therefore quite a bit quicker.

    I think blogging has changed how *some* Civil War scholars do the work. There used to be almost a silently agreed upon air of secrecy. Some folks hoarded their research, locking it away until the article hit the pages of the journal or the book hit Borders’ shelves. Some even after that hoarded the thoughts, responding to many questions on academic panels with glib, “the answer to the question is in my book.” (That happened a dozen years ago during my CWI scholarship year to hilarious effect among the high schoolers present.)

    Now, I see a penchant to share research-in-progress. We find something, we say something. We let the comments sections of blogs or Facebook posts work as a sort of peer review, with far less selectivity.

    What I think bothers Pete (and Gary, and most of those who complain) is twofold: this model is radically open, meaning that voices aren’t weighed by their institutional credentials. In essence, every reader needs to judge the quality and veracity of a comment or post themselves rather than relying on a stratified system. We’ve seen some of the problems this can cause, I’d argue more in truly social mediums where Lost Cause memes tend to fester endlessly. But I have faith that Americans are building their “sniff test.”

    The second leg of that lack of gatekeepers is that sometimes *we* get things wrong, or find new evidence that contradicts ourselves. In the slow moving world of peer reviewed, metered, meatspace publishing, there would be plenty of time to measure our arguments, contextual use everything and make sure it’s “right.” But now, when I can post a blog entry from the very research desk at the National Archives about a cool discovery as the folder holding that discovery lays open beside me, we make “mistakes.” We tell incomplete, half-constructed stories. To me, that’s awesome, as it gives a broader community a peak inside your researcher brain. But I value incomplete, conflicting and shifting narratives above all else. The faster they shift and the faster they become more complicated, the better. There is real value presenting raw materials and half-baked concepts rather than fully packaged and complete history: it hopefully helps build historical analysis capacity in the average Joe.

    I, for one, think history needs to be a conversation that’s not limited by print publication cycles, peer review committee responses, the whims of journal editors or the tastes of academic press book purchasers. The faster the conversation moves, the more we all can learn from each other.


  5. E.g. Schwetje June 22, 2014 / 6:25 am

    Blogging and subsequent commenting exposes readers to the the wealth of sources available that they may never come by on their own. Debate often spirals into name calling and pettiness but that’s to be expected when the topic of the CW is discussed.

  6. John Foskett June 22, 2014 / 7:55 am

    If we’re talking about blogging by such as yourself, I believe that it has been a positive development. Without blogging we non-experts could only pose questions and engage in discussion at the infrequent seminar, battlefield tour, or book signing. I don’t see any significant compromising of academic integrity on such sites. As with anything else, there will be the occasional dust up but that can (and does) happen in the academic/expert arena no matter what the format. The problem, of course, is that any idiot can start blogging and that’s where the vast majority of problems seem to reside. As with everything else on the internet, the user must be qualified to sort out the worthwhile sites from the junk purveyors.

  7. M.D. Blough June 22, 2014 / 9:04 am

    I think blogging can be a very positive thing in rebutting propaganda masked as history. People trying to rewrite history to fit an agenda is nothing new. Look at Jubal Early and the SHSP. We are still battling the Lost Cause. However, there are resources available to us in getting the facts and getting them out that simply didn’t exist in Early’s day.

    • Dan Weinfeld June 23, 2014 / 6:27 am

      GOod point. And don’t forget that Columbia Univ gave us the Dunning school, whose effects we still live with. Can bloggers be more damaging.?

  8. Rosemary Kubera June 22, 2014 / 10:56 am

    Seems blogs always have been snarky. I’m not sure they’ve evolved one way or the other but verbal discourse of the type seen on CSpan and YouTube re the Civil War has gotten kinda wonky. In 2011 talk was generally pleasant and easy to understand. And Internet searches found several reallly great talks, including yours. It is hard to find new info today. It is hard today to find clear talkers. Today there are a lot of inside jokes, some seeming quite snide to the listener who is not an insider. I learned everything I know about the Civil War in the past few years. Last year around the time just after Gettysburg talks/lectures became harder to understand. Some speakers, not you, are kind of slap happy, imo. Or seriously vague. If I were just trying to get into the Civil War I’d be totally lost. For example, I’m not sure what Dr. Carmichael was saying about R E Lee on Saturday… He wasn’t joking around — he was speaking above my level of knowledge. I needed more background paragraphs ….. and, respectfully, Dr. Simpson, I got lost when you were joking around though I was able to figure out the Virginia Tech reference when the Virginia Tech guy identified himself at question time. I know the audience at the Civil War Institute is specialized and expert…. but the talks were carried on CSpan so perhaps in the name of teaching the speeches could have included more background or situational set-up. Of course, my brain could be lost in fog….

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 22, 2014 / 2:09 pm

      It’s a characteristic of a talk given to a group that is also taped for a larger audience that the speaker is speaking both to the audience and the camera. No one who isn’t present should really worry about “inside” jokes, although Al Mackey’s appearances during question session of televised talks is rather widely known, making him one of VT’s most visible historians. 🙂

    • Al Mackey June 22, 2014 / 3:12 pm

      Well, I’m the Virginia Tech guy. 🙂 Brooks and I go back a ways, and if you read his bio you’ll see a connection in that both of us did our undergraduate work at institutes of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia. FYI, he started setting his comments up the afternoon before he spoke. Anyway, the more you read historians’ books and blogs, and the more videos of them you see, the more you’ll understand the inside jokes. Take a look at videos of Pete Carmichael from November or March 2013 and see how he’s dressed, and then you’ll understand the scarf references.

      • Rosemary Kubera July 1, 2014 / 3:21 pm

        I thought, Dr, Mackey, you were sweet when you resonded to Dr. Simpson at the end of his speech.
        It isn’t inside jokes I mind. I rather enjoy figuring them out when my fav talkers/writers are involved.
        It’s when egos collide and jokes/comments get, well, snarky that I feel uncomfortable. I’m a lover not a fighter – yeah, sure, I’m a Cvl War fan but this War is … educational. (Biggest Cvl War nasty snarkers I encounter online aren’t on this blog, btw)
        Since, Dr. M,, you brought it up, I say leave the man and his scarf (not shawl !!!) alone. I bet no one sharked Dr. Simpson’s zouave grandpas about their genie pants.
        There it is. That’s it from me…
        Who says blogging don’t foward scholarship, huh?

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 1, 2014 / 9:57 pm

          As Peter himself has featured his love of scarves, I fail to see your point. He understood the humor, and so do the people who like him and hold him in high regard.

          Now, “Dr.” Mackey … that’s a different matter. 🙂

          • Rosemary Kubera July 1, 2014 / 10:34 pm

            I’m so outside the inside

          • Al Mackey July 2, 2014 / 8:23 pm

            I guess I should cancel the order for new business cards with “Dr. Mackey.” 🙂

        • Al Mackey July 2, 2014 / 8:22 pm

          Well, it’s very kind of you, Ms. Kubera, but I’m not a Dr. No Ph.D. or M.D. here [or any other doctor degree]. I have a master’s degree in a field outside history. Just wanted to make sure the record reads correctly there. 🙂

          I should say that Pete Carmichael is a friend of both Brooks and me, and he laughs as much as anyone else at the scarf comments.

  9. Bob Nelson June 22, 2014 / 2:31 pm

    If Peter thinks that discussion on the Civil War blogs has transformed the discussion in a “less civil” direction, he obviously wasn’t around back in the early1990s or he has selective memory. Need I mention alt.war.civil.usa? Also other groups such as “Fields of Conflict” who once were a battleground for radical opinions/discussion on both sides. If anything, blogs and the few remaining Yahoo newsgroups today (unless you count debates/arguments with the Flaggers) are largely politically correct and very mild compared to what happened twenty-five years ago.

  10. jfepperson June 23, 2014 / 7:21 am

    Most professional historians avoided the early Internet discussion forums. (Brooks and Mark Grimsley and a very few others were exceptions.) But the rise of social media means everyone has their own forum now, and there are many history-oriented blogs out there, and the vitriol that we veterans recall from the mid-90s on USENET is a new—and unsettling—experience to some folks. As has been noted, this can have the effect of boxing us all in to our own little echo-chambers, which I think is a very bad thing.

    • Phil Leigh July 4, 2014 / 4:21 pm

      Agreed. A great majority of CW blogs and forums are echo chambers that almost always reflect little more than the ideology of the host(s).

      But the Internet is profoundly impacting CW history in four ways.

      First, it provides commoners reasonable access to a large number of original documents and public domain books, for which Google is particularly helpful.

      Second, Amazon marketplace is a convenient and economical place for non-academics to get many out-of-print and used books. It is often better than temporary inter-library loans for which my service limits me to three simultaneously.

      Third, places like Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace permit economical self-publishing. One example – to which I have no connection – is Joe Walker’s “Harvest of Death” that apparently became the “go to” book about the battle of Jenkins Ferry. Many readers evidently discovered it after becoming curious about the battle as it was portrayed briefly in the movie “Lincoln.”

      Walker cites one advantage of self-publishing is the comparative ease with which he can offer new editions with corrections and additional information.

      Fourth, the WWW also makes it less difficult for commoners to find commercial publishers and promptly learn how to comply with their submission guidelines.

      The chief benefit of the four factors above is that a new wave of previously silent non-academic authors will steadily contribute more to CW historical writing.

      • Brooks D. Simpson July 4, 2014 / 6:12 pm

        I’m not sure what you mean when you speak of the “ideology” of a blog’s host. Perhaps you mean interpretations and perspectives, in which case the observation’s unexceptional. After all, columns in the NYT‘s Disunion blog also reflect the interpretations of the authors who appear there, and that’s been a haven for non-academics to express themselves (many academics have simply ignored it).

        Your comment draws the usual tiresome distinction between “commoners”/non-academics and academics, but on further examination the distinction disappears or becomes meaningless.

        Anyone could research in an archive. They need not be academics. Just ask Bruce Catton. The internet makes more archival material (and newspapers) open to more researchers, period.

        The same can be said for the various book-buying services as well as ebooks and books online. Everyone benefits from that. Interlibrary loan was a very tedious way to conduct research.

        Yes, the internet facilitates self-publishing. Sometimes this is a boon. Sometimes it is not. I think the internet can be used as a way to update and correct texts, but again, that’s not limited to non-academics. Ask Michael Burlingame and Vernon Burton.

        I find the fourth reason marginally useful at best (non-academics have always had access to various publishing outlets, as the examples of Catton, Shelby Foote, and Stephen Sears show).

        So I would question how you framed “chief benefit,” for the real question is whether access leads to better quality. Ease of research helps in the right hands; ease of publication far from guarantees better published work.

        Kevin Levin would be the first person to tell you that his blogging has helped his research endeavors, and so he’d see a link between blogging and better scholarship that evades your vision.

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