History Communication in Action

Last week I responded to an op-ed written by Jason Steinhauer, who in recent years has been a passionate advocate for encouraging academic historians and others to embrace the role of History Communicator. Steinhauer recently assumed leadership at the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University. As I understand it, Steinhauer wants departments to teach and for those already in the field to learn how to effectively engage the general public and share their knowledge through social media and other platforms.

In my response to Steinhauer’s op-ed I took issue with the assumption that academic historians and other professionals need to assume the role of gatekeeper based on their areas of expertise and credentials. The problem is that social media precludes the existence of anything resembling gatekeepers.

That is not to say that I don’t believe that academic historians should not embrace opportunities to share their knowledge of history with the general public through social media. They should and, of course, they are doing just that, but historians need to come to terms with the fact that they do not occupy a privileged place among the cacophony of voices that make up the Internet.

From what I have seen thus far it looks like Steinhauer is focused on the communication of historical knowledge with the general public. As important as this is, however, I want to suggest that academic historians can also play a role in communicating the process behind the books, articles, and essays. Most people have very little understanding of how professional historians carry out their research or that there is a process or set of skills at all.

History Communicators can leverage social media not simply to describe the process that goes into writing history, but by encouraging their audience to take part themselves. I was reminded of this last night in response to a Facebook update that focused on my ongoing book project about the myth of the Black Confederate soldier and the history of Confederate camp slaves. I spent the day thinking about why Confederate officers outfitted their slaves in military uniforms. Historical research and writing is driven by questions. Questions often evolve as evidence is collected, but historians are often faced with multiple and competing interpretations of the available evidence. You see this emerge almost immediately in this thread.

One of the nice things about introducing the process of researching and writing history on social media is that it brings together people from very different backgrounds, who can offer a wide range of perspective to the question at hand and all on a level playing field.

Questions quickly lead to new questions, which in turn lead to suggestions to look outside the discipline all together for additional perspective. New evidence comes to light from individuals, who may not be focused directly on the subject at hand. Most importantly, the thread reveals that doing history is often a collaborative effort. The perspective of any one historian is always limited and can always benefit from outside assistance.

The black Confederate narrative is one of the most pervasive myths found on the Internet today. It is a narrative that is highly politicized and it is one that sends people of varying beliefs scurrying for their respective camps. What I would like to see as part of an agenda for History Communicators is an emphasis on peeling back the layers to expose some of the mechanics of the process and some of the challenges involved.

  • How do historians formulate and revise their questions?
  • How can different types of evidence be interpreted?
  • What do you do in the face of multiple and competing interpretations of a given source or artifact?

…and so on.

I could easily write short essay or op-ed about the subject to educate the public, which I have done, but there is also something of value in trying to defuse a controversial subject like this by posing what appears to be a simple question that quickly reveals an underlying complexity.

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9 comments… add one
  • Jonathan Dresner Jul 14, 2017 @ 16:06

    The problem is that social media precludes the existence of anything resembling gatekeepers.

    I’ve always like this about social media, going back to the blogging days. Invoking the authority of one’s education or position just doesn’t carry the weight of having evidence, citations, clear ideas.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2017 @ 16:44

      I completely agree. I have benefited from the insights of non-academics as much as from the academics. Most people have something thoughtful to share that is worth considering.

  • Forester Jul 14, 2017 @ 13:57

    Have you ever read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire? The oppressor-oppressed dichotomy sheds light on the complications of slavery and Reconstruction, although that’s my interpretation of his work (we wasn’t writing about the Civil War).

    He was writing about education and the relationship of the colonizer and the colonized, but I think the ideas can be applied to slavery. It was written in Spain in the ’60s.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2017 @ 16:42

      Will definitely look into it. Thanks.

  • woodrowfan Jul 14, 2017 @ 7:42

    my G-G-Grandfather noted in his memoirs how they often wore whatever clothing they could find, especially in the last half of the war. He noted he was a captain (honorary, a chaplain) but dressed in a private’s uniform because his captain’s jacket fell apart. In one story during a very rapid retreat (they were running for their lives under fire) that he still stopped to grab an abandoned piece of solder’s equipment that was better than his… They grabbed what they could….

  • Ruth Taylor Jul 14, 2017 @ 4:13

    One of the dangers of calling academic historians to focus on communicating directly with the public is that it is not primarily their job, and not recognized as their job by the academy. Consequently, many simply are not that good at it. And that can be alienating. There is an assumption about shared data-sets and worldview in the academic world, particularly within a field, that does not translate well to the general public. This is the gap that organizations like mine (historical societies) are trying to fill. Not to dumb down or oversimplify or pander, but rather to serve as effective translators.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2017 @ 4:26

      Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      One of the dangers of calling academic historians to focus on communicating directly with the public is that it is not primarily their job, and not recognized as their job by the academy.

      It may certainly be the case that administrations/departments are still struggling to find ways to formally acknowledge public outreach, but I think more and more historians entering the profession understand that they have an obligation to engage the public. We are talking about a generation that has never known anything other than a world that includes social media.

      Consequently, many simply are not that good at it.

      No one taught me how to blog or utilize other social media platforms as a means to share my research and reading with the general public. It takes practice and a little experimenting. The nice thing is that we live at a time when it is possible to find the platform that is right for an individual’s personality and professional focus.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      I suspect that they are no better or worse than what you will find in any other discipline.

  • fundrums Jul 14, 2017 @ 2:36

    Great discussion. One thing that popped into my mind is that it may have been a sign of stature to have your slave outfitted better that other slaves who did not have uniforms. In other words it refeclected on the slave master how his servant dressed. Just a thought.

    – Michael Aubrecht

  • Robert Colton Jul 14, 2017 @ 2:34

    A great explanation of how historians, academic or otherwise, need to seek different views than their own.

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