Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?

This should not be read as an exercise in self-indulgence, but as some thoughts in preparation for a talk that I must present to a room full of academic historians at the annual meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians this coming October in New Orleans. 

There is an ongoing conversation concerning just about every aspect of the Civil War and it is taking place with little involvement on the part of academic historians.  You can find these discussions on countless message boards, listservs, blogs and privately maintained websites.  Topics range from the ever popular battlefields and commanders to complex questions of secession, emancipation, the law, and the role of women.  The content of these debates and discussions reaches a far larger audience than any published book or journal article and yet academic historians for the most part continue to write for one another even if a few of their titles appear on the bookshelves of the local Barnes and Noble.  I don’t mean to impugn all academic historians.  It is worth noting that there are individuals in the field who have made it a point to reach out in various ways, whether it is speaking at a local Civil War Roundtable, leading a battlefield tour or speaking to groups of students.  It is worth pointing out that those who specialize in the Civil War and related subjects are lucky to work in a field where there is such a deep interest on the part of the general public. 

The question is whether academic historians should be more aggressive in engaging the general public more directly and if so, how.  A related question is whether this can be done in a way that makes a difference through showcasing a historian’s specialization or current research interests.  I’ve found blogging to be an ideal format in both regards.  This blog has been in operation since November 2005 and during that time I’ve maintained a focus on a fairly narrow range of subjects related to memory and public history.  Throughout this period I’ve engaged readers from all walks of life, both within the United States and as far as Italy, India, Australia, Japan, and Poland.  If my stat counter for Typepad is an accurate indicator of daily visits than Civil War Memory attracts just under 1,000 readers each day.  A little over half are regular readers with the other half visiting as a result of a keyword search – the largest percentage having Googled their way to the site. 

It is this latter group that I want to briefly discuss.  It is impossible to know why these individuals are searching for information on a given subject, but the popularity of certain searches based on Google’s page ranking system presents one way to gauge the relative success of a blog.  Consider a search for the phrase "Civil War Memory" which was popularized a few years back by David Blight in Race and Reunion.  Given the title of this blog it should come as no surprise that it would appear close to the top of the list, but in this case it is ranked at No. 1.  Other topics that have received a great deal of attention include both the Civil War Centennial and Civil War Sesquicentennial which are both ranked at No. 2.  Keep in mind that Google does not rank a website based on content but by the number and quality of the links to that site.  As for my current research on the battle of the Crater a Google search for "the battle of the crater" or "William Mahone" ranks this blog’s category page for that subject at No. 11.  [Note that these page rankings are time sensitive and are likely to change.]

One of the most controversial and misunderstood subjects has to do with so-called black Confederates.  Over the past few months I’ve focused a great deal of attention in hopes of challenging some of the central assumptions which continue to lead to dangerous misrepresentations of race relations and less than satisfactory interpretations purporting to explain the presence of large number of black southerners within Confederate armies.  A Google search for "black Confederates" lists a post from this blog at No. 17 only after a number of websites constructed by various SCV chapters.  On a related note a search for "Stonewall Jackson slavery" lists this site at No. 6.  My point in listing these searches is not to toot my own horn, but to point out that history blogging has the potential to reach a large audience that tends to look for information through search engines such as Google. 

Professional historians are trained to contribute to a body of scholarship through careful research and thorough analysis which is ultimately judged in the form of a monograph or journal article.  This must remain the core of the profession, but at the same time, historians are increasingly aware of a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.  As I’ve pointed out before, with the Civil War Sesquicentennial set to begin in 2011 Americans will be confronted with important questions about how to think about and remember this important moment in our nation’s history.   Published studies will no doubt increase as they have in connection with the anticipation of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth; however, it is likely that most people will not follow up their curiosity about a particular Civil War subject by purchasing or reading a book.

13 comments… add one
  • Excellent discussion! I admit to having a slight chip on my shoulder when it comes to certain academic types. It comes from where I work and is completely irrational…but it is what it is and I just try to deal with it.

    I think for some folks, discipline aside, they just haven’t made the paradigm shift just yet. Some folks just can’t get their arms around the notion that the accessibility of the web has changed the way we publish things. It is no longer necessary to jump through all the paper publishing hoops to get your book/movie/music out there. I’ve heard some folks make the complaint that there is no editor going over the work or there is no way to vet the content of intellectual property. I cannot disagree more. The nature of the web means EVERYONE is effectively an editor and it is the task of the reader to post corrections where corrections are necessary.

    Sometime ago I made some incorrect statements on this blog regarding the Lincoln Bicentennial. They were simply comments. By the time I got home another reader had emailed me to correct my statements. THAT is an editor making his position known. THAT is vetting of content.

    I also think there might be a technophobic thing going on here. Some academics have a problem where while they know their subject matter intimately and may well be lauded as an expert, they can’t seem to begin to understand anything else. It’s not that they are incapable of understanding the Web or blogs because they are clearly very intelligent people. The reason for the seeming inability to grasp it escapes me and frustrates me to know end.

    I’m personally surprised that more academics don’t have blogs or personal sites. What they discuss doesn’t have to be a finished product…at least I don’t believe it’s a requirement that everything that flows from their minds has to be a finished, footnoted, and indexed piece of work. Bruce Schneier is one of the IT world’s leading researchers in cryptography. He has an active blog and his thoughts and ideas help drive the conversation. No one expects everything he posts to his blog to immediately find it’s place beside “Applied Cryptography” on the bookshelf but he always adds to the ongoing conversation. That’s what I would like to see from the History academics. We Plebs are already into the discussion, it’s time for the academics to follow.

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  • Kevin,

    Excellent post. As a thought exercise, every academic should trade out the phrase Civil War in your piece and insert their specialty. I’m going post a link to your site with just that suggestion.

    Granted, not every academic field has a sesquicentennial coming up, but there are constant anniversaries and reminders out there for many fields. There are occasions to remember all kinds of events and knowledge.

    My experience in readership is much like yours, but on a smaller scale. I average about 140 visitors a day (excepting weekends), and about 1/3 of those are regulars. Like you I am most interested in the Google searchers.

    As an anecdote, more related to philosophy than history, many moons ago I wrote a long, involved post on the meaning of linear and non-linear thinking. Anywhere from 5-10 Google hits a day at H&E come from people trying to understand what others mean by “linear thinking,” even when they couple their search with Wikipedia. Mine is the de facto Wikipedia site for understanding the phrase linear thinking. I later wrote a follow-up at the other weblog with which I’m involved, U.S. Intellectual History, and that post gets a number of regular visits as well.

    I recount the anecdote to underscore your point about how information is distributed and understood. Whether a philosopher has already discussed linear thinking elsewhere, in a journal or book and with more subtlety and depth than me, it is my post that gets the visitors. Sad? Maybe. True? It seems so.

    – TL

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  • Should Civil War Historians Blog

    yes, but do it in private, and wash your hands afterwards.

    Seriously, I’m not sure how many write well enough to maintain a good blob. But a well-written blog (like this one) is informative and interesting. It’s also why I like LG&M.

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  • Kevin,

    Great insights. I would add that more professionals ought to participate in various discussion groups. I’m in a discussion group that includes Brooks Simpson and Al Nofi. The professional historians bring not only a wealth of knowledge about the subject matter but also perspective on proper use of sources and historical analysis. Add to that their broad knowledge of the scholarship, both current and past, and they quickly become very valuable members of any discussion group, as long as the members are actually interested in learning. Admittedly, not all groups are like that.

    Regards,
    Cash

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  • One thing to keep in mind regarding Google pagerank is that there are some factors that go into that calculation that are external to the number and quality of links. The most obvious of these has to do with adjustments Google makes based on what hosting platform you use. For instance, WordPress blogs don’t even get mentioned in Google searches unless their traffic is obscenely high. The reason? Three years ago, WordPress was caught trying to game the system by selling file space within their domain to advertisers as a way of pumping up those advertisers’ Google rank. Google retaliated by manually zeroing out WordPress’s page rank — an action that has had profound negative consequences for WP users more than for the company itself. On the other hand, Blogspot has seen its pagerank suspiciously inflated since Google purchased its parent company. As a Blogspot user myself, I’m not complaining — but it does show that the rankings aren’t quite as fair as they seem.

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  • While I love your blog and am a regular reader, my hope is that your posts will lead the casual searcher to read more deeply whether they buy a book or borrow it from the library.

    Recently, Lewis and Clark came up in a conversation at work. A coworker asked, “Who are Lewis and Clark?” I was struck absolutely speechless until I finally managed to blurt out, “You should have learned about them in grade school!” which I admit was an impolitic response. After about an hour when I had gotten over my astonishment, I recommended that she google Lewis and Clark and that she also read Stephen Ambrose’s excellent book on the expedition.

    This may seem a bit off the topic of the Civil War, but I find the ignorance of history among even people I respect and count as friends appalling. The usual excuse?

    I hated history in school. It was boring.

    So I thank you, and other educators like you, who teach that history is not just names and dates. It’s about real people who lived real lives, from Presidents to slaves. I was lucky enough to have a teacher in 6th grade who sparked that interest, and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

    So if a google search leads to a blog and then to a book, the searcher is better off and so are we all because not only does the searcher learn something, we all benefit because she learned something.

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  • “I recommended that she google Lewis and Clark and that she also read Stephen Ambrose’s excellent book on the expedition.”

    No! Ambrose was a plagiarist and the book in general is not very good. Try Ronda’s _Lewis and Clark Among the Indians_ and work outward from there.

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  • Also: A fine post, Kevin.

    Of course historians should blog–or at least some should. The problem for academics is that blogging is a lot of work and that it does not “count” for anything in the traditional ways of measuring academics–scholarship, teaching, and service. Blogging isn’t scholarship because few posts involve original research (a massive exception is J.L. Bell’s superb blog Boston 1775) and also because blog posts are not peer-reviewed before posting. Blogging doesn’t count for teaching because the people who come to our blogs are largely not the people we are paid to teach. An argument could be made to include blogging under service, but it will take decades to convince university administrators of this.

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  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments:

    Wayne, — I have no doubt that I will have to preface my remarks for some of the more senior members of the audience, but the field is growing and the younger generation of scholars have had much more exposure to the possibilities that the web offers.

    Tim, — Glad you enjoyed the post. I agree that scholars in any number of fields can and should take advantage of blogging as a way to address anniversaries and other notable historical milestones. Obviously, in my field of interest there is a more immediate concern given the proximity of the sesquicentennial, Lincoln’s bicentennial, etc. This is one of the reasons I was so upset to see Brian Dirck give up blogging. He is a top-notch Lincoln scholar and we could have used him to address various misconceptions and outright mistakes so often made by the general public.

    Woodrow, — I have no doubt that there are plenty of scholars in this field who write well and in a way that can potentially engage a wide spectrum of Civil War enthusiasts.

    Cash, — I’ve said before that I tend to stay as far away from message boards as possible. My biggest problem is that I find it so difficult to follow individual threads and so many discussions end up trailing off into nonsense. The other problem is that there is almost no way to gauge the credibility of participants. I know the work of Brooks Simpson, Al Nofi and over time I’ve learned to value your comments, but it is difficult for me to imagine doing so on a larger scale. The blogger acts as a point of reference around which discussions take place and this seems more focused.

    Jeremy, — You make an excellent point re: Google’s rankings. Thanks.

    John, — Thanks for the kind words. It can lead to something positive, but it all depends on the credibility of the individual maintaining the blog.

    Larry, — You make a good point re: the payoff (or lack thereof) for academics who blog. I’ve suggested before that it should be seen as service from the point of view of the university. You are probably right about the likelihood of that ever happening. There is also the additional problem of focus given that many history blogs shade off on a regular basis into politics and social commentary. Could that count as professional outreach? That said, I’ve tried to keep the focus on our responsibilities as historians. As I stated in the post historians who work in this field are lucky to have a large audience that they could potentially reach if they chose to do so. Given the talk about professional responsibility in this regard it seems to me that blogging is ideal. As to the time involved I think that the gang over at Civil Warriors has it just right. Certain participants contribute more than others, but they post often enough to keep their readers interested. It would be nice to see a few more group blogs.

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  • Blogging can serve an educational function: a way for scholars to reach an audience and interact with them. It can serve a discussion function: Ideas and concepts can be challenged, sharpened and refined by informed bloggers.

    What it can’t do is perform a research function, or an complex extended argument function. Blogging is writing that is like talking. A book like Freehling’s Road to Disunion couldn’t be reproduced in blogger form. It’s too long, too deep, too well researched and too complex.

    At two paragraphs I’m skirting the edge of the attention span of many blog users.

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  • Kevin: there’s writing well for fellow academics and then there is writing well for a general audience. I think they’re two different skills. I agree many professional historians can do both but I’m not certain they all can, at least without a good editor.

    That brings up another point. A good editor is a life saver when writing for a journal or when writing a book. I don’t think anything I write for a blog will be as good as something I write with my eagle-eyed editor there doing their thing. They really are a critical part of the publishing process that do not exist as part of the normal blogging structure.

    Also, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I find reading long pieces on a computer screen difficult. (By “long” I mean approximately more than ¾ of a screen.) I either skim long articles or, if I am really interested, I print them off. If you’re going to have longer, more detailed blog entries you need to do two things. 1. Make sure that they can be printed easily (not all websites do this by a long shot). 2. Reverse the normal academic style of putting your conclusion at the end, and use the newspaper form of putting the bottom line up front to accommodate the “skimmers.”

    Finally, I want to second Larry’s points. I have my own website which is semi history-related. It’s centered a particular collectable, however, which I use as a springboard to delve into history. It takes some time that would probably be better spent working on my book or an article and it certainly doesn’t appear on my CV! But I have received emails from students (high school and college) that have used some of my pages as sources for papers which is a nice feeling and, I think, evidence that I’ve done at least a tiny bit of educating the public.

    I think you have a good idea. I don’t want to discourage it, but I think these are some issues to consider along with the aforementioned peer review.

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  • Matthew, –I agree entirely with your points. Check out Brook Simpson’s most recent post which is the beginning of a three-part series based on his presentation at the OAH: http://civilwarriors.net/wordpress/?p=299.

    Woodrow, — Of course I agree that not all historians can write for a popular audience, but that seems to me to be a non-issue. I agree that the blogging format is not ideally suited to research, but it is useful for making relatively short points of analysis based on the examination of a primary source or in response to a fellow historian’s interpretation. There are plenty of other examples. Thanks again.

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  • Kevin,
    I agree with your point about message boards to a degree. With well informed contributors, they have a lot to offer an amateur like myself. However its democracy at its rawest, lots of cranks and muddle.

    Reply

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