No One Needs To Give You the Opportunity to Speak

Nina Silber, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight

The other day I posted two videos of some of the most respected Civil War historians writing today.  The group had taken part in a conference sponsored by the Citadel and were asked to share some thoughts about popular misconceptions of the war as well as the upcoming sesquicentennial.  Anyone familiar with Civil War scholarship is familiar with their names as well as their scholarship.  However, there was some frustration expressed in response to the videos, not because of anything having to do with the content, but with the decision to invite the same cast of characters.  One reader expressed it as follows:

Give us the opportunity and we’ll speak, but I’d wager that the producers of these videos sent out an e-mail blast to the usual suspects, and no young scholars. It’s the nature of the profession that those better established will have the podium, and those of us in the beginnings of our careers will be struggling to have our voices heard. In general, and especially in public history, we’re all having a tough time getting that podium because the folks inspired by the centennial are still firmly ensconced in the positions they obtained thirty and thirty-five years ago. Give us a microphone and we’ll talk your ear off, but until someone offers us the stage we can’t help out with any efficacy.

In one breath you ask “where are our younger scholars taking an active role in this?” and in the next you claim that “no one would give such responsibility to young people today.” It is this major disconnect, this distrust of us to do justice to the history, which keeps our voices out of the sesquicentennial. We are an ipod and youtube generation, but that doesn’t diminish our interest or scholarly aptitude.

I certainly understand the frustration and, to a certain extent, I sympathize with such a view.  However, it rests on a faulty assumption and that is that we need to wait for someone to give us the opportunity to speak.  I am the first person to admit that it’s always nice to receive an invitation to take part in an academic conference or panel discussion and other such events that have a traditionally scholarly flavor.  But to be completely honest, these types of events make little sense to me in an age of social media.  Events such as this are opportunities to catch up with friends and check out new books.  The sharing of ideas could be done much more effectively online.   I do my speaking and connecting with people here.  This is my podium and this is where my voice can be heard.  I connect with more people in one day here at Civil War Memory than I would in roughly 10-20 standard conference presentations. [Update: Let me just clarify that I am not suggesting that the traditional conference format no longer has any value.  I should have been more careful with how I characterized such events.  Of course, I attend these events to listen to top-notch scholars and, on occasion, to share my own ideas.]

As much as I respect and enjoy listening to the folks included in those videos those are not the voices that will be heard over the course of the next few years.  It’s going to be those individuals who figure out how to effectively utilize the many social networking tools that are currently available.  Consider my friend, M. Keith Harris, who recently finished his PhD in American history at the University of Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles.  Keith specializes in the Civil War and historical memory [see his, Slavery, Emancipation, and Veterans of the Union Cause: Commemorating Freedom in the Era of Reconciliation, 1885-1915, Civil War History - September 2007, pp. 264-290] and he is also a fitness nut.  Keith does not currently hold an academic position, but that has not prevented him from finding interesting ways of sharing his knowledge and building an audience.  You can find Keith at his blog, Cosmic America, on Twitter, and on UStream, where he is currently in the middle of a series of lectures on the Civil War.

Whether you approve of Keith’s style or not, he is not sitting around waiting for someone to provide him with an audience.  He is creating one from the ground-up.  The author of the above comment is right to point out that this is an iPod and YouTube generation, but that is not something that ought to be frowned upon, but rather embraced.  It’s exactly the generation that has the potential to revolutionize what it means to engage in scholarly discourse as well as connect with others.

You want to make an impact?  You want to be heard?  Just Do It!

24 responses... add one

Kevin:

If conferences and roudtables “make little sense to me in an age of social media,” then why do you continue to speak as such gatherings (such as the NC State conference in the Spring) and promote and advertise your contributions at such Civil War gatherings with such regularity? I guess I don’t understand why you would participate in something that you have such serious reservations about and also why you would privilege one form over the other. I think its great that we have so many avenues to explore.

Hi Pete,

I do it because it is still an effective way to share ideas, which I am not denying. I enjoy listening to folks like you as well as the social side of it. This post could have been written more carefully, but my point is to suggest that we no longer live in a world where we must wait around for someone to give us an audience. There are many ways to be heard through the use of social media. I was responding more to what I perceived as a sense of helplessness than anything else. And it might be worth remembering that my limited success in being invited to such gatherings is, in large part, due to the popularity of this site.

My bigger concern is that the traditional conference format is becoming a thing of the past and I don’t see too many people thinking through ways to address this. Consider the recent introduction of what are called unconferences: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-results-of-an-unconference/24222 So, you are justified in reigning me in, but I hope my main point is understood.

I hope this doesn’t mean that you are not going to invite me to any future conferences at Gettysburg College. :)

Oh, my. Here’s Kevin telling people to assert themselves, then first trying to get Pete Carmichael to give him an invitation to a conference, only to discover he’s not answering e-mail and ignoring invitations? Give someone else a chance, people! :)

Kevin’s point about his blog as a form of self-promotion and self-advertisement is one folks should take seriously. I’m pondering other ways to address the issue of how people who want a place at the podium can make their own podium, but I also understand the notion that sometimes this seems like a closed circle in which the same names appear again and again. That said, there are reasons why those names appear, and one of them is the work those people have done. And that said, nevertheless one risks hearing the same themes over and over again if you invite the same people over and over again (which is why the interviews intrigued me … even if I had a fairly good idea of what I might hear).

Kevin’s other point about alternative ways to communicate in a new age of communication’s also on the mark, but I really have to do some old school footnote checking and proofing. So I’ll return to that later on my blog, when I have time to organize some thoughts and suggestions to advance this conversation.

Thanks for the comment, Brooks. I just want to clarify that I did not intend to dismiss the point about seeing the same faces over and over again. It’s a good one. Another way to make the point is to say that while only a select few were in attendance at the Citadel to hear this particular line up of heavyweights it was only through the use of social media (YouTube) that they are introduced to the largest number of people.

Of course social media have made it easier to have one’s voice heard. But there is another edge to that sword. For every CWMemory.com there is a BlackConfederateSoldiers.com. Perhaps for those of us who are not scholars the conference serves the most useful function of all, it vets the voices we will hear. It may be difficult for younger voices to break in to the A-list of scholars who receive invitations to speak. But those of us who will attend, or read the papers presented stand a good chance of getting solid research and analysis, not family tales and 21st century political conflation.

Marianne,

You are absolutely right, Marianne. That is one of the challenges that this new medium faces. One need look no further than the recent debacle surrounding the 4th grade Virginia history textbook. Thanks for pointing this out because it once again gives me the opportunity to clarify my thinking. I guess this is what happens when you try to write something at 5:30 in the morning.

I am sympathetic with those who find it difficult to break into more formal gatherings of historians as was expressed in the comment quoted in the post. It’s desirable because it helps to further one’s career and offers an important opportunity to bound ideas off of fellow scholars. What I was addressing was the narrower concern about not having a voice. I think we are living at a time when everyone can have a voice. Again, we still need to figure out ways to sort through the noise, but that is a somewhat separate issue. Thanks for the comment.

I might also suggest that conferences can invite speakers but many more (at least from what I see) ask you to submit ideas. Examples include (but are not limited to and though most of the deadlines have passed for this year it’s something to consider for those that have not in 2011 or 2012):

Virginia Association of Museums annual conference
The Public History of the Civil War symposium in Raleigh in March 2011 to which you have posted up here
Virginia Forum
University of Memphis’ Department of History Graduate Association for African-American History
Association for the Study of African American Life and History Conference in Richmond in October 2011. The deadline for paper or panel submissions is April 30, 2011! Perfect opportunity for “unknown” scholars to present some fascinating work from what I saw at the 2010 conference. (http://www.asalh.org/96thconvention.html)

There are others but that’s a start to organizations seeking papers from anyone. Therefore it’s the perfect opportunity for your voice to be heard!

I did invite you and I never heard back! Did you get my email to your gmail account? I will have to look at the unconference web site. Sounds intriguing. I think the “art” of presenting papers, by the way, is the real problme at academic conferences. When someone reads a paper for 15 to 20 minutes and rarely coming up for air to even acknowledge the audience, I feel like ether is seeping into the room.

Pete,

Check your FB Messages. Sorry about that.

The mode of presentation is my big problem as well, but I have to admit that I usually fall into the same trap when taking part. Sometimes it’s a challenge just to get a projector in the room not to mention internet connection. My other issue is that conferences function to bring folks together for a short period of time, but they don’t offer opportunities to continue the discussion. Why not post the papers online either before or after the event to further interaction between participants? Why do I need to sit there and listen to a paper at all when it could be easily posted online, which would give those interested time to really digest it and offer more constructive feedback. I find it difficult to maintain my concentration after 10 minutes and by the third paper I am looking for the closest exit.

RE: Posting speeches or Powerpoint presentations on-line after a conference is over –

I could not agree more. The process of posting materials on-line is trivial. It’s very frustrating that these items are not provided after the conferences are over, which would allow both attendees and non-attendees to review the information and perhaps do some follow-up review on their own.

Ah, but Peter, when they’re droning on, we can be doing sudoku. I much prefer the soporific scholar to the guy who thinks he’s tech savvy, creates 112 PowerPoint slides and proceeds to read the text printed on each one. The flashing light alone keeps observers from remembering any questions they might have had.

Certainly not. As one of those “tech savvy” folks, I tend to use PP slides for photographs only, usually because I am talking about a particular exhibit or monument and need the images to explain my point. I absolutely refuse to bring a paper up to the podium to read and must admit that I roll my eyes whenever anyone else does. Dr. Carmichael’s reference to ether slipping into the room is perfect!

I might also add, as someone in his early 20s, it is possible for the younger generation of scholars to gain the stand. But it’s not about someone giving you the microphone, you have to take it for yourself. Take the initiative. Find some colleagues with similar interests, put together a panel, and see what happens. Do I expect to be on a panel with Silber, Gallagher, and Blight anytime soon? No way. But I’ve done my fair share of talking and am now heavily involved with the sesquicentennial work over at NCPH. You can’t sit back and wait for interest in your scholarship to mature like a fine wine, you need to be proactive about it.

Kevin,

This is a minor point, but didn’t one of your readers, not you, make the comments attributed to you?

I agree with Marianne, if I understand her correctly. Conferences are important. Information does need to be vetted by professionals in a professional forum. I think that what you and other bloggers do by blogging that is equally important, is bridge the gap between the academic community and the general public. Also, I see nothing constructive coming out of an argument that may pit older, established historians against a younger generation. Both are needed–the young and the old. That gives depth and continuity to not only the profession of history, but to the writing of history itself.

Sherree,

I hope we can move beyond what was a sloppy sentence about the value of academic conferences. Let’s all agree that academic conferences, etc. have their place. Let me also point out that I am not simply talking about the value of the blogosphere. It’s been my social media tool of choice, but there are plenty of other tools that offer very different avenues to building community. Gerry Prokopowicz has done a fabulous job with his online radio show, but think about the possibilities of UStream, podcasts, and Blog Talk Radio to name just a few. Like I said, it’s going to be the individuals who utilize these tools creatively to share solid content and build audiences.

Yes, I agree, and understand the possibilities that new technology offers. I particularly appreciate the openness of the new social media, since when I attended the university, there really was an “ivory tower” mentality among many academics, creating an atmosphere of almost total inaccessibility to faculty.

The flip side of this, though, is that the possibility exists that the profession of history may become trivialized. I said that the possibility exists, not that it is happening. (Did you have too many cups of coffee today, btw? If so, you are certainly entitled, since you remain rather even tempered day in and day out on this blog,)

Have a great day, and please keep up the tremendous work that you are doing!

Thanks Sherree. I agree that the possibility exists for such a scenario, but from what I can tell scholars are already out there in large numbers utilizing social media to extend and enhance their mission. Keep in mind that I started blogging after seeing how an academic effectively utilized the format. Academic historians are quite capable of trivializing their profession without worry at all about social media.

Again, my point is a simple one: In this day and age there is absolutely no reason for young historians to think that they are being denied a voice in any kind of academic or public discourse about history.

You’re welcome, Kevin. And thanks for your response.

Again I agree with you. Academics, and men and women in other professions, can and do trivialize their work without the help of social media, so I see your point. Also, young historians do have an unprecedented opportunity to be heard today.

You seem to have created a sort of template with this blog, as I have indicated before. By that, I mean that you have creatively developed a down to earth style of delivery of scholarly material, that is, at the same time, quite sophisticated, and this keeps your readers engaged, as well as helps to educate them. In addition, your blog is a vital resource center for a lot of people, and information is effectively disseminated, so yes, by all means, please do keep up the good work. The Civil War blogosphere would not be the same without CW Memory. Not by a long shot.

Kevin – first of all, thanks you for the kind words. It is funny because I have been thinking quite a bit about this very subject recently – so much so that I have gone as far as to outline an essay/article concerning history and social media. Trust me on this one – I am a fan of the academic conference – I have attended many and spoken at a few. But what I find is that there is a certain “members only” culture surrounding such conferences. This insular nature of academia is what has turned me off from pursuing the traditional career path that so many others in my field take. No judgments here…it’s just not for me.
As you mention – those who insist that they have not been “given” the opportunity to speak seem to be overlooking what is perhaps the most significant transformation in disseminating knowledge since the invention of the printing press. Years ago, I had my doubts about the usefulness of Twitter, Youtube, and other social media outlets – but that has since gone out the window. I now engage in conversation with more people each day than I ever did in any classroom or conference. These are people who have a thirst for knowledge and can relate to my colloquial style. Oh sure…I have run across my share of idiots – some of whom are downright nasty. But all of that matters little when compared to how valuable social media has been in terms of – what’s that…oh yes – learning. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing?
The fact is – communication is changing at an unbelievably rapid rate. Research can (and will) be published in real time – as it unfolds…not necessarily in published books – but in segments of 140 characters and two-minute video clips. We need to get used to this and embrace it. While there will be any number of yahoos and other assorted pinheads out there talking about black Confederate soldiers, evidence and sound argument will speak for itself.

Peace,
Keith

Hi Keith,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Your voice is an important one in all of this, which is why I highlighted your efforts in this area. You said: “As you mention – those who insist that they have not been “given” the opportunity to speak seem to be overlooking what is perhaps the most significant transformation in disseminating knowledge since the invention of the printing press.”

You nailed it.

Hi–There are conferences and then there are conferences, and people who may not know about these things might learn something from the difference.

First, there is the conference sponsored by one’s professional organization. This could be the Society of Civil War Historians, the Southern Historical Association, the American Historical Association, or the Organization of American Historians (among others, but for us these are among the biggies). In most cases, people who want to present at these conferences send in a proposed panel or paper to a program committee (although program committees also extend invitations for certain panels). One is not paid for these presentations: they are part of professional service, although often institutions pay for expenses.

Second, there is the conference where an organization invites you to present, and where some form of compensation is usually involved. Sometimes that compensation’s significant, other times it is minimal. Usually it’s significant enough. In the example under discussion, that’s the type of conference … http://www.citadel.edu/shss/

Usually these conferences are open to the public: sometimes, as with Gettysburg College’s summer institute, it’s a week-long exercise where scholars come and spend some time with people who pay to attend for the week (I’ve always enjoyed my time there).

These videos were taken in addition to the formal presentations at the Citadel conference.

I happen to think these presentations work best when they are also taped for future telecast (we’ve seen that here with Bruce Levine’s presentation on Black Confederates, for example). I know that some of my presentations over the years were recorded for future broadcast by C-SPAN and other organizations, and the practice maximizes audience.

So people can seek to go to the former kind of conference; the latter is a different sort of exercise. The field is also much, much different than it was in the late 1950s, and there are far more academic historians in it now.

As Kevin and Pete suggest, it may well be time to rethink much of this and to use what we now have at hand to do things a bit differently. But different conferences serve different functions, and I don’t think that’s altogether clear from what I’m reading.

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