I was updating my cv the other day and noticed a sharp discrepancy between the number of professional and non-professional talks that I’ve given and plan to give this year. Between 2004 and 2005 I travelled to 9 Civil War Roundtables. I have as yet to talk at a roundtable this year and I am not scheduled to do so until 2007 when I will talk at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable. The number of professional or academic talks over the same period, however, has risen sharply. I’ve been asked to give talks this year, but have resisted for one reason or another. Gas prices are high and many roundtables fail to cover travel expenses. I simply can’t afford it. That said, the real reason I haven’t done more of these talks is that I no longer enjoy giving them.
Roundtable audiences tend to be interested in the same tired stories and I tend not to play along. My talks work if I stick to straightforward battle discussions such as the talk I do on the Crater. I find that when I combine battle talk with memory and race audiences tend to lose focus or in many cases show apparent displeasure that I would introduce such controversial and sordid detail. On one occasion following a talk I gave on William Mahone’s postwar political career an elderly woman approached me an scolded me for “ruining” her view of a perfectly fine Confederate officer. I am tired of having to go through the nonsense surrounding debates over race and secession. Whenever I present a Crater talk I inevitably get the comment or question referring to the “thousands” of black Southerners who fought for the Confederacy. I end up spending more time on that then the subject of my talk. And if it’s a long drive home I spend the time second guessing my original decision to go because in the back of my mind I knew all along that there was a good chance that such a situation would develop. I have to admit that as a teacher I am frustrated with myself for feeling this way. Blogging is one way of filling the hole that has has resulted from fewer speaking engagements. I can post what I want and by now it seems I have a fairly regular group that enjoys and profits from my ideas and research. And new people are introduced to the site on a regular basis.
I am much more comfortable speaking in academic settings these days. At first I was a complete basket case, though much of it was a defensiveness on my part – a feeling that I didn’t belong. I am now way beyond that point. The discussions following the talks are much more engaging and focused on the topic at hand. Of course, there is always the questioner who is more interested in hearing himself talk, but that is a price I am willing to pay. I have found that academic Civil War historians are on the whole a pretty cool group of people. It may happen that at some point I will return to more casual settings, but for now no one is knocking down the door and I am perfectly fine with that.