How You Can Become a Civil War Historian

In this short video the Civil War Trust’s Garry Adelman shares his thoughts about ‘becoming a Civil War historian.’ Garry hinted to me last year that he was thinking about working on just such a video.

Unfortunately, Garry gets a bit too bogged down in drawing a distinction between the public and academic historian. In 2016 the boundaries between the two have become increasingly fuzzy. The only thing such a distinction accomplishes is to make people feel defensive or raise the tired question of who is and who is not a historian. No need to mention it in order to make what I think is a helpful point.

What I like about the video, however, is the scope of the kinds of skills that are essential to sharing one’s love of history. Rather than worry about public v. academic history it might help to think in terms of what Jason Steinhauer refers to as “history communicators.” Much of what Garry references fits neatly into this more generalized understanding of how history is currently being taught in a wide range of settings.

One of the things that I value about the field of Civil War history is that it includes a wide range of voices with different backgrounds and training, which moves us beyond the academic v. public (or even popular) historian discussion.

It captures more and more how I reflect on my own work.

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4 comments… add one
  • Ken Hoffman Jan 31, 2016 @ 16:15

    I’ve been labeling myself a “public historian” but I like “history communicator” better. I teach free history courses to residents of my county at the city library on a variety of subjects, but the history of U.S. slavery and abolitionism and various aspects of the Civil War make up about 75% of them. The courses consist of four to eight classes held once a week. I assign weekly readings from one academic history book related to the subject, and each class is about 1/3 covering the reading, 1/3 me lecturing on some specific theme related to that week’s reading, and 1/3 general class discussion (which the class participants seem to like the best).

    The difficult part about this is advertising the classes. The library did not follow through on promises of notifying library card holders about my current course and history departments at 3 local colleges not only ignored requests to help, but also seem to have ignored my offer to support history majors and grad students in giving their own history presentations at the library over the summer. So much for their deep concern about the general public’s knowledge of history. For almost all academics, Civil War memory is a lot like the weather; everyone’s complaining about it but no one is doing anything about it.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2016 @ 16:55

      I teach free history courses to residents of my county at the city library on a variety of subjects, but the history of U.S. slavery and abolitionism and various aspects of the Civil War make up about 75% of them.

      Good for you. I am sure your students appreciate the commitment.

  • Christopher Coleman Jan 31, 2016 @ 9:38

    Well, considering he was trying to cram a lot into four minutes, overall not bad. But I would take issue with the definition. A historian is someone who is perceived as a historian strikes me as a little dodgy; traditionally, the notion of history has to do with the written word. The era before writing is called Prehistory and someone who writes history is a historian. This is not to say that tour guides aren’t very knowledgeable on history, as are many Civil War collectors and re-enactors. Garry Adelman also seems to be thinking of history as a profession–i.e. getting paid to do history. No doubt both academics and working public historians would assent to that; but remember Gibbon, Parkman and quite a few other famous historians were never paid for their efforts, other than whatever royalties they may have realized for the writing efforts (often minimal or nil). Of course this does not even touch on quality–there is bad history just as there is bad literature; but that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2016 @ 9:48

      But I would take issue with the definition.

      This is why I think it is better just to steer clear of that issue entirely. Garry could have made all of his points by focusing on how those of us who are passionate and knowledgeable about the Civil War go about interacting and ‘communicating’ it to the public. We have a wide range of voices in this field with different skill sets. Let’s find ways to push those boundaries further in a way that promotes good history.

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