I had a really good time last night in Lexington, Virginia where I presented a talk to the Rockbridge Civil War Roundtable. The meeting took place in the Preston Library on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute in a room filled with wonderful oil paintings of past superintendents. It was a perfect day to drive to Lexington; the sky was clear and I had enough time to take some photos of the W&L campus along with the cemetery where Jackson is buried. My topic was, of course, the Crater and memory – specifically the ways Confederates and white Southerners remembered or failed to remember the presence of USCTs throughout the postwar period. The audience gave me their full attention and the Q&A lasted for a good 30 minutes followed by individual discussions with those who chose to hang around. I had the benefit of a full screen for my slides which the audience found to be very helpful.
Awhile back I expressed some frustration surrounding a couple of experiences where the audience expressed open hostility to my presentation. I understand the frustration or difficulty that some face when asked to grapple with questions of memory and race. The hostility that I experienced, however, was not a function of some disagreement with my reasoning, but with the topic itself. At one point I was seriously contemplating not speaking to roundtables altogether. It didn’t seem worth it to drive long distances for little if no money and have to drive back feeling rejected. I’m glad that I decided against that. What I am finding is that a good number of people appreciate being challenged or introduced to new ideas. I read Eric Wittenberg’s recent post on roundtables and I appreciate his concerns, but for me the motivation to speak has nothing at all to do with whether it provides an opportunity to sell books, magazines or anything else for that matter. That’s not to say that I believe it to be inappropriate; I actually don’t have an opinion on the matter and I see nothing necessarily wrong with selling books. What I am saying is that the decision to address an audience ultimately comes down to a belief that one has something interesting or relevant to share. I view speaking engagements and even this blog as an extension of my career as a teacher. Perhaps I am painting myself a pompous ass, but I think if we are really honest with ourselves we must acknowledge that any decision to write for publication, blogging, or speaking in public is in large part an extension of a belief that others stand to benefit from what we have to say.
My goals are very simple when I accept an invitation to speak at a roundtable. I hope to give my audience something to think about. Whether they agree or disagree is almost irrelevant. They should walk out of the room with a new question or perspective to consider. I look for the same thing whenever I attend a conference panel or roundtable talk. Please don’t bore me with the same tired stories over and over. Challenge my fundamental beliefs about the past and force me to step back and think critically. I even appreciate it when I am made to feel uncomfortable; I’ve found that most of our attachment to the broadest assumptions regarding ourselves and the world is based more on a need to feel secure rather than serious reflection. My worst fear is that I end my life with the same beliefs about myself and the world around me that I now hold.
Perhaps I still need to be awakened from my dogmatic slumbers.