Letting Go

Yesterday I spent some time browsing through my local bookstore as I still have a substantial amount of money left over from student Christmas gifts in the form of B&N gift cards.  I spent a few minutes reading Harry Smeltzer’s short article on Civil War blogs in America’s Civil War.  Harry did a super job introducing readers to the pros and cons of blogging and a few of the better blogs currently in operation.

What I found interesting was the reaction of the few historians who were asked their opinions about blogs.  Both were direct in their overall concerns that since practically anyone can blog the field as a whole lacks credibility or they simply can’t bother sifting through the morass.  That may be too harsh an assessment, but it’s at least on target.  [Note: See Smeltzer’s comment to this post below.]While I agree that there is a lot of nonsense out there I don’t buy this reaction.  Can’t you ask the same question and substitute Civil War histories for Civil War blogs?  Most of the former is crap written by people who have not business writing history at all.  However, we don’t throw our hands up in the air in frustration we sift through the literature and look for signs of legitimacy.

The bigger problem is that blogging is still relatively new and its place within academia is still questionable.  Many academics blog anonymously rather than risk being shunned by their peers or in the worst case being denied tenure.  Whatever the reaction on the surface I’ve found that roughly half of my readers are from the academic world.  I can’t be sure that they are historians (professors or students), but they are logging on from their school’s servers.  Like any new technology change takes time.  Perhaps the pace is just right as it lends itself to being able to think through some of the tougher questions surrounding methodology/pedagogy.  Whatever the case it seems to me that we are beyond the questions of to blog or not to blog or what do you think about blogs.  The question now is what can we accomplish through blogging.

If anyone has any doubts about the possibilities that blogging offers to academics just check out Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out Of The Stone Age.


144th Anniversary Of Emancipation Proclamation

The most significant result of our Civil War was not that it gave us Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant or some battlefield to obsess over. 

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Sensing The Past

There is a very interesting post over at Boston 1775 on recent studies of the colonial experience and Revolution that focus on how people sensed their environments.  It’s a relatively new trend that although raises some interesting epistemological questions offers a unique perspective on some important historical questions.  I thought it might be useful to mention Mark M. Smith whose work is relevant to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and nineteenth-century America generally.  He is the author of three book, including Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South and Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.  His most recent book is titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  I’ve read the last two.  Here is the description from Listening:

Smith explores how northerners and southerners perceived the sounds associated
with antebellum developments including the market revolution, industrialization,
westward expansion, and abolitionism. In northern modernization, southern
slaveholders heard the noise of the mob, the din of industrialism, and threats
to what they considered their quiet, orderly way of life; in southern slavery,
northern abolitionists and capitalists heard the screams of enslaved labor, the
silence of oppression, and signals of premodernity that threatened their vision
of the American future. Sectional consciousness was profoundly influenced by the
sounds people attributed to their regions. And as sectionalism hardened into
fierce antagonism, it propelled the nation toward its most earsplitting
conflict, the Civil War.

As to the challenges that historians face in utilizing the sensory world to understand change and other analytical issues Bell briefly quotes from a review by John Demos which appeared in the London Review of Books:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a
matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of
measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so
on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty
lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the
senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of
individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through
further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and
(for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . .

Demos may be right regarding his assessment of the sensory in arguing that it only provides context rather than any insight into causation, but this may have more to do with the limits of our ability to interpret the past than the physical/psychological truth about how we interact with our environment and process sensory data.  I assume this is what he means by suggesting that we need a way to "measure" the sensory with the political, etc.   

Demos’s second point – if I understand him correctly – is that the sensory cannot in and of itself lead to action.  This is the old Enlightenment view that draws a sharp distinction between the external world and the processing that takes place in the brain once that information is received through the senses.  Demos seems to believe that only with some kind of "cognitive assessment" will the sensory be shaped in such a way that it brings about some kind of action/behavior or report.  The problem is in trying to pin down what Demos means by cognitive assessment; more than likely he means something along the lines of rational thought or decision making.  There is an obvious weakness in this view: if we pay careful attention to our daily routines we notice that most of the time we are not consciously assessing our environment.  Most of the processing – for lack of a better word – is automatic.  Now you could argue that some type of processing is still necessary; however, it may look nothing like Demos’s "cognitive assessment."  I still think that Demos’s point can be applied to our epistemological limits in assessing historical action.  While the sensory may indeed have causal properties we are not able to translate them into a causal explanation.

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Reenactors As Educators

Over at Civil War Power Tour Joshua Blair
recently commented on the "late unpleasantness" involving a reenactors
attempt at educating a group of students about the Civil War.  The
incident took place at historic Crossroads Village
in Mt. Morris, Michigan.  Apparently the reenactor handed out
enlistment papers to the students until he approached a black student
and commented that he would probably have been a slave.  I recall
commenting on this when the story broke.

I agree with Blair in his overall assessment of the situation:

They [reenactors] are not trained professionals or teachers. Therefore, the people that should be held responsible are the school’s
administrators. Did the administrators
not know that re-enactors are not professionals? If so, why did they believe a re-enactment
would be the most appropriate place for firsthand examination of American
history? There are many other places,
such as museums, that would have been more suitable for a field trip. The administrators should have evaluated the
sources of the presentation before deeming it appropriate for school children.

My only question is whether there is someone in the school
administration who would have been able to pick out any potential
problems with the presentation.  I am skeptical.  Reenactors can be a
useful source of information for a history class.  It is, however,
going to be difficult for the uninformed to be able to acknowledge who
the experts are in their craft and who simply has sufficient funds and
enough of an imagination to want to dress-up as a Civil War soldier.
I’ve run into many more of the latter, but I have to say that it is
quite impressive to watch and listen to someone who really does know
the history. 

When I say "know the history" I mean someone who is familiar with scholarly works
on the subject.  And there is no area more significant in this regard
than our understanding of the history of slavery.  To give you a sense
of how ill-informed this reenactor apparently was just think about the
fact that he could have given this student enlistment papers for a
U.S.C.T.  If he didn’t think this was appropriate, how about giving him
the role of a farmer.  Don’t most people know that there were free blacks in
the North before the war.  How about giving him the role of a fugitive
slave?  Even if there were relatively few in Michigan wouldn’t this have been more appropriate given the setting?  How many black students were in the group and would singling one student out have made for an unpleasant situation?  I don’t know. 

My guess is that this guy did not mean any harm and I agree that the outrage expressed after the incident was probably a bit over the top. 


Have A Safe And Happy New Year!