Why I Resigned from the Editorial Board at *Civil War History*

By now many of you have received or will soon receive the latest issue of the journal Civil War History which includes a lead article by Earl Hess titled, “The Internet and Civil War Studies.” The article suffers from a number of fundamental methodological problems that will be apparent to anyone who reads it. The article has already led to a pretty heated discussion on twitter, in part, because I announced my resignation from the editorial board.

I want there to be no question as to why I stepped down. It has very little to do with the article’s methodological problems, though I think some reflection is in order over how it made it through peer review. My concern is with a quote that appears on p. 228 in the section on social media. The author relied on responses from two surveys that asked historians about their experience with social media. One of those responses was included, which you can see below in the attached image.

Let me be clear that I have no problem with fellow historians expressing disagreement with my scholarship. This is one of the reasons we have academic journals. That said, I fail to see how including a quote that refers to me anonymously as nothing more than a ‘self-promoter’ advances anything meaningful in the pages of this journal. Readers learn nothing about what my blog is about or how I have used it over the years to advance my goals as an educator and historian.

I am not even acknowledged as a historian in connection to my blog. Over the years I’ve explored subjects on the site that resulted in the publication of three academic books. Ultimately, it came off as little more than a cheap shot that should have been flagged by the editors.

Since when did an academic journal become a venue for character assassination? I would love to know how anyone on the editorial staff or board would feel to see themselves treated in this way. Unfortunately, neither the editor or book review editor of the journal appears to understand the difference between a legitimate scholarly disagreement and personal attack.

I was invited by the editor to write a response to the author, which I declined. As far as I am concerned, this is not a matter of debate. More to the point, historians now have other means of expressing their concerns on various matters. Ah, the irony.

In addition to stepping down from the board, I have no plans to renew my subscription to Civil War History.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

32 comments… add one
  • Robert Colton Sep 7, 2019 @ 2:35

    Unfortunately, many academics are arrogant and petty and are separated from the lives most of us have. I think your blog is very well done and have learned a lot from it. Please keep your excellent work.

  • Jimmy Dick Sep 7, 2019 @ 4:12

    I am pretty confident that this has more to do with the Ivory Tower engaging in a turf war than anything else. Your blog is an excellent source of scholarship that has the outstanding capability of engaging with a wider audience. Academic historians need to engage that wider audience instead of avoiding it. We’ve seen some of them doing so and I am willing to bet those historians are seeing their monographs sell more copies than those who do not. I would not be at all surprised if the anonymous respondent was also one who resented the new reality where a Ph.D no longer is a requirement to be a historian. The times are changing. The dinosaurs are not happy with the change.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 4:22

      Academic historians need to engage that wider audience instead of avoiding it.

      That’s just it. They are, which is what makes much of this article so irrelevant. It completely misses how historians are embracing digital tools.

      • Jimmy Dick Sep 7, 2019 @ 18:30

        I think it is just a few of them doing the complaining. If I am not mistaken, didn’t Allen Guelzo complain about digital history before? Also, since you stated in another post that the survey was taken from 2013 to 2016, it is obviously dated. This whole thing is looking more and more like someone’s personal animosity towards digital history and online blogging being given the spotlight and that is not reflective of what is taking place in the wider academic world.

  • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2019 @ 4:37

    Here is what I wrote on my own despicable blog:

    “It is funny that one of things academic historians object to about history on social media is the making of snarky comments by anonymous authors and that right here in a scholarly journal we see a snarky comment by an anonymous author!”

    I know that none of this has been pleasant for you this week Mr. Levin. but the support you have received from other historians and, as importantly, from your readers, should assure you that the opinion of the Anonymous Historian is not shared by many of those most passionate about history.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 4:48

      I appreciate that, Pat. Again, I have absolutely no problem reading a disagreement about my scholarship in the pages of an academic journal. I wouldn’t even be this upset with the anonymous comment if there had been some attempt to provide information about what the blog is about and some description of me has an author/historian.

  • Karen Hunt Sep 7, 2019 @ 8:22

    I see this reference, and I recently read the NYT oped where Bret Stephens abused his position to attack a scholar. I remember past abuses in the last several years as well.

    A fair number of editors seem to have quit trying to control the content in their media. Oddly, this comes when heads of social media sites are beginning to realize they need to start trying to control their own content.

    The world is changing in many ways, some of them pretty nasty.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 8:32

      The peer review process is a little different. The vetting process should have caught the methodological flaws of this article, not to mention the personal swipe at me. This was a failure on many levels.

      • Joshism Sep 8, 2019 @ 5:54

        It’s disappointing that someone as experienced as Earl Hess would write something with serious methodological flaws.

  • paineite Sep 7, 2019 @ 9:20

    I am a published and peer reviewed historian and I strongly support your actions and point-of-view. You are doing great work. Don’t let the BS get you down.

  • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2019 @ 9:49

    It’s horrible that someone as accomplished as Hess feels the need to write such a horrible piece in the first place. From anonymous sources, are you kidding me?

    But take solace in the fact that the best they can do is attack you as opposed to your research; which seems to be ignored.

    • Rob Wick Sep 7, 2019 @ 10:07

      “From anonymous sources, are you kidding me?”

      That’s what really seems beyond the pale here. Obviously, the person filling out the survey wanted to remain anonymous, which I guess is their right. To still use that quote, however, is just plain wrong.

      Kevin, have you reached out to Hess at all to ask why he felt it necessary to use such a source?

      Best
      Rob

      • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 10:17

        I have not and I have no plans to do so.

  • Meg groeling Sep 7, 2019 @ 9:57

    I am so sorry this happened, Kevin. Until one has a book published, there is no way to understand the pressure to sell that book. I am still getting used to including the fact that “First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, is now going to be published by Savas Beatie” is now supposed to be included in everything I touch. You have been my role model on how to do this without actually stuffing something down an unwilling throat. Thank you. It all reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s song that includes the line, “stoking the starmaker machinery behind a popular song.” Those of us w/o a doctorate must keep working. Change is slow to come, but it will eventually happen because you and others have paved the way so nicely. Thank you.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 10:18

      Hi Meg,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. Congratulations on your forthcoming book, which I very much look forward to reading.

  • Msb Sep 7, 2019 @ 11:24

    It’s very unfortunate that some members of academe seem to want to avoid taking part in discussions in the public marketplace because they’re difficult. I would think that would merely increase the importance of the task and professional historians’ responsibility to perform it. And the cheap shot at you is just tacky.

  • Edwin Thompson Sep 7, 2019 @ 14:11

    Hi Kevin

    I usually don’t post on your site because my thoughts are the same as this anonymous historian. For example, I find your highlighting a single sentence to attack someone’s comment can be misleading. It’s intimidation and you miss the overall thought. However – I agree that a historian using anonymous is odd. And I also think you can edit your blog and comment as you see fit – it’s overall a decent blog and it’s your creation. I periodically check you blog because you post interesting topics on the Civil War.

    Searching for Black Confederates got a review from David Blight – and it was a good review – that carries weight on Civil War history. I’ll read your book because historical myths are everywhere on many historical topics – and Black Confederates in the Civil War is one of them. Sounds like you made a good contribution to the historical record. Anonymous comments were no reason to resign – in my humble opinion.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 14:14

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment, but perhaps you can explain what you mean here:

      For example, I find your highlighting a single sentence to attack someone’s comment can be misleading.

      Thanks.

  • Edwin Thompson Sep 7, 2019 @ 14:31

    I did. Read my comment. Thanks for posting.

  • jgoodguy Sep 7, 2019 @ 14:42

    I am reassured to find that historians are human after all with all the frailties of humanity, pride, prejudice and so on just like me.

    This may be a paradigm shift, where fundamental assumptions and practices are changing and the former practitioners are stressed as their world changes. The way history is consumed has changed fundamentally. Instead of history distributed by books, journals and professors as gatekeepers of knowledge, there are now many sources of knowledge. Instead of the library with the card lookup and sending a librarian to the dusty stacks, I can find interesting things with a click of the mouse at home.

    Like democracy, there are downsides. There are lots of ‘secession is legal’, ‘it wasn’t slavery’ and legions of ‘Black Confederates out there. OTOH there are websites like this(and Pat’s) that excel as information sources.

    Keep on going please.

  • Rob Wick Sep 7, 2019 @ 16:07

    “The article suffers from a number of fundamental methodological problems that will be apparent to anyone who reads it.”

    Kevin,

    As I don’t have access to the entire article yet, could you elaborate as to what you believe the methodological flaws to be? Are they prevalent throughout the article, or just in the highlighted page?

    Best
    Rob

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2019 @ 16:55

      The article relies on a survey handed out to Civil War historians from 2013 to 2016. Needless to say, a survey even from 2016 is already outdated in terms of many of the topics covered in this essay.

      • Joshism Sep 8, 2019 @ 6:04

        This would seem to me to imply that, in your opinion, it’s not possible to drawn conclusions from any modern survey on the internet and Civil War studies because by the time it takes to receive a meaningful number of surveys, review the survey contents, produce an article, have that article peer reviewed, and publish the article the information will already be too outdated to be relevant. Would you agree?

        I think the survey being 2013-2016 is a mistaken decision, even if it had been published in 2017. Having the survey take place entirely in 2016 i.e. immediately after the end of the Sesquicentennial.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2019 @ 6:15

          Not necessarily. It depends, in large part, on what questions you are attempting to answer.

          • Rob Wick Sep 8, 2019 @ 17:33

            In rereading the article page highlighted, I found it interesting in the last paragraph Hess writes, evidently without irony or self-awareness, “Other respondents were frustrated that social media levels all to the same status of “expert” with thoughtless blog postings by anonymous people taken as seriously as scholarly articles that have been vetted by the author’s peers.” Anonymous people, indeed.

            Kevin, if the article hadn’t mentioned your blog by name, I can only assume that you would still find the points made by Hess to be challenged by the methodology used. Joshism brings up a valid point, to which you responded “It depends, in large part, on what questions you are attempting to answer.” I am curious, then, as to what questions you believe should have been answered, or asked? Until I can get a copy of the entire article, I cannot comment on its finer points, and I think you are 100 percent justified in your anger and disappointment in what has transpired, but if you truly believe Hess’ article to be fatally flawed otherwise, I would like to know exactly how it should have been done in your view, if you believe it should have been done at all. Of course, if you don’t want to take the time to do that, I understand, but I feel you could take what is clearly bitter lemons and turn them into some type of lemonade by providing a point of view that rises above Hess’ cheap shot. Given that one can rightfully say that your blog has been a solid example of what can positively be done, I think yours would be a voice many would want to hear.

            Best
            Rob

            • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2019 @ 1:10

              “[I]f you truly believe Hess’ article to be fatally flawed otherwise, I would like to know exactly how it should have been done in your view, if you believe it should have been done at all.”

              Honestly, it would take much too long.

  • Billy Wetherington Sep 7, 2019 @ 18:08

    I have always enjoyed reading history, but it’s been mostly “popular” history though I’m not sure what popular versus scholarly means. I considered a major in History in college and perhaps have pursued a career as a historian. However, they were too often such boring damned classes. Scholarship isn’t just for scholars and it has be meaningfully presented to laypersons or what’s the point.

  • JM Coetzee Sep 7, 2019 @ 19:03

    Hess isn’t 100% wrong. And he’s citing a bunch of opinions about blogs. You say you’re not mad about methodology, but you’re mad about this choice he made. So take it up with the journal. It seems questionable to me to use an anonymous source since you can’t even verify it’s an actual historian in the field, right?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2019 @ 1:23

      I did. I resigned fro the board.

  • Margaret D. Blough Sep 8, 2019 @ 14:53

    Kevin- I am stunned that Earl Hess would put his name to this and allow such a personal attack by someone who won’t put their name to the comment. It deprives the reader of the full ability to evaluate the credibility of the accuser. Quite frankly, other than sheer cowardice, I can’t imagine any reason that would justify a request for anonymity under these circumstances.

    I’m not sure how this article advances academic discovery and discussion. The internet and its search engines are real and widely available. That particular genie is never going into that bottle. We’re in a period of exploration and experimentation as to what the benefits and weaknesses of these changes are. It also involves, IMHO, the existing experts in the field being willing to educate newcomers as to the reliablity of sources, etc.

    Adding first the major legal online research data bases and, later, electronic filing with courts had profound impacts on lawyers. There were huge benefits to it but they come with huge demands as well.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2019 @ 15:01

      I have a lot of questions as well. The whole thing has been incredibly disappointing, including the responses from people at the journal who I considered to be my friends.

  • Brad Sep 12, 2019 @ 4:14

    That excerpt is a crock of you know what. Jealousy, in my opinion. Some of those people wish they could connect with the public like you do. My only complaint is that you don’t post as much as you used to! As others have said, don’t stop. This blog has been an incredible source of information.

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