Does Civil War Memory Deliver Content or Controversy?

It’s been a while since I posted about blogging, but Robert Moore’s recent post on the distinction between content and controversy blogs, along with Brooks Simpson’s response, have moved me to offer a few observations.  First, the distinction itself makes very little sense to me, especially when you take a broader look at the blogosphere.  Just spend some time reading political blogs.  Regardless of the intent of the blogger it’s the subject itself that is necessarily controversial.  Perhaps all the blogger can do is control just how controversial or confrontational the content appears to be.  I often feel as if I am in the position as I explore for myself and my readers this slippery landscape called Civil War memory.

I’ve been blogging for seven years now and I still love it.  To me, blogging is unlike any other type of writing and it should be for the reader as well.  I tend to think of it as something akin to a jazz composition.  There are certain conventions and subject matter (motifs) that I try to stick to, but within it there is hopefully a good deal of free form and creativity (solos).  I want my readers to experience as many emotions as possible as well as to reflect on what I write as I do in response to your comments.  In short, I want my readers to be entertained as much as I want them to learn something.  I love the freedom of being able to quickly share what’s on my mind even if it is not clearly articulated.  Of course, I know that certain topics are hot button issues and are likely to spark controversy, but than again I don’t see how such issues can be avoided on a blog about memory.

I don’t mind admitting that at one point I read a great deal about how to build an audience and how to bring readers back on a regular basis.  I’ve thought a great deal about blog themes, typography, blog clutter, and even the color palette that you experience.  The changes that you’ve seen to this site over the years is me trying to perfect a crucial component of this medium.  In other words, with blogging it’s never simply about the content.

My favorite Civil War blogs are well written, thought provoking, and spicy.  I don’t regularly read blogs that function primarily as archives for primary sources or offer detailed analyses of the action at the West Woods or Little Round Top.  Most of them are just downright boring and since I don’t know anything about the authors/editors of many of these sites the information itself is unreliable.   On the flip side I can think of one Civil War blog that delivers a great deal of confrontational material and almost nothing in terms of content that is worth reflecting upon.  I don’t regularly read that site either.  Blogging is whatever you make of it, but it’s a certain mix that results in a loyal and expanding audience.  It’s that mix that I’ve been playing with over the years

Whether we admit it or not it’s an audience that the vast majority of bloggers want.  As we all know most blogs die within three months owing to a dearth of ideas on the part of the blogger and especially because of the lack of an audience.  The vast majority are nothing more than echo chambers.  We want to know that people are reading, but it actually takes a hell of a lot of work to build a loyal following.  The realization that no one is visiting and that in all likelihood you have nothing of interest to say to begin with can be a huge blow to the ego.  I felt it at times that first year.

In the end and regardless of how you label or categorize what I write on this site, my hope is that you come back and come back often.  That to me determines how far the “ripple” travels.  For me that ripple includes a book, a column at the the Atlantic, and an increasingly larger network of professional connections and opportunities.  I am not just tooting my own horn, but pointing to the real power of blogging or social media presence generally.

The Skyping Classroom

Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.

This week I will be working with Professor Greg Pfitzer’s students at Skidmore College. The class is the Civil War in American Memory and students are reading David Blight’s article “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South” in Ailce Fahs and Joan Waugh eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture along with a recent post I wrote about commemoration activities in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Students are required to respond on the post and I am going to make every effort to respond to every comment. Please feel free to share your thoughts through the week as well. As we did a couple of years ago, once the assignment is concluded we will debrief with a Skype conversation.

Continue reading “The Skyping Classroom”

I Believe in a Silent Rational Majority

Today I read a Facebook update from a history professor, who is dealing with the fallout over a recent essay on Antietam that he published in the Wall Street Journal. Like everything else he writes, it was a thoughtful essay, but it should come as no surprise to those of you familiar with sites with unmoderated comments that the article received a great deal of negative and abusive feedback. Unfortunately, this professor chose to correspond with one particular commenter, who has over the years also leveled his attacks on me for my supposedly anti-Confederate/South views. Like many of my most vocal critics, the individual in question does not live in the South. In this case he lives in Long Island, New York. The correspondence eventually made its way to the office of the president of the professor’s college.

I certainly understand the frustration and that sense of futility when reading comment after comment of such vitriol and having to deal with nasty personal emails. I’ve got a file of hundreds of such emails. While teaching in Virginia I had to deal with regular telephone calls and emails sent to the school headmaster. Just this past week I was called a Nazi on another website and recently I complained about the quality of feedback that followed one of my recent essays at the Atlantic. It’s an unfortunate part of the online world.

I could offer a few words of reassurance and advice to this professor. First, don’t correspond with these people. It accomplishes nothing and what you write will likely make its way to the Internet as was the case here. It is important to keep in mind that the comments section of most sites is likely to be populated by people who feel the most defensive. The vitriol and name calling is a reflection of their ignorance and inability to engage in an intelligent discussion. The only resort is to shut down any and all discussion. I do my best to remember that the vast majority of people who read what I write will never leave a comment on the blog or communicate with me personally. They may not agree, but hopefully they will consider what I’ve written and pass it along through one of the many social media channels. I believe in a silent rational majority.

Maintaining a blog or other social media platform is not for everyone and I certainly understand that, but it is hard to sympathize with people who dabble in the web 2.0 world. It is safe to say that this professor’s job has not been threatened one bit by this correspondence. In the future he can refrain from publishing articles on sites that allow for unmoderated commenting or he can refrain from publishing online entirely.

Informing your community that there are ignorant and hate-filled people out there is not news. What I want to know is how we can respond in a constructive way to this environment. What responsibilities do we as teachers [k-12 and beyond] have to prepare our students to engage one another in online communities? The maintenance of a vibrant online world has become essential to our democracy. Where else but the classroom can we learn to be civil to one another?

Most people who experience the nastiness of online discussion throw up their hands and abandon the idea completely. It takes a lot of work to maintain an online space that nurtures passionate and thoughtful exchanges. Just ask Ta-Nahesi Coates.

My response to all of this is Civil War Memory.  What is yours?

RIP Marc Ferguson

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

Over the years I’ve come to consider a small number of you as part of my online family.  I read your comments with great interest and I’ve learned a great deal as a result.  Our online communities are all too often shaped by the worst elements in our society such as ignorance, hatred, and  dishonesty.  I like to think that Civil War Memory is a place where you can exchange ideas and engage one another in a thoughtful way.

With that in mind I am sad to report that over the weekend Marc Ferguson passed away.  Marc was a frequent commenter here going back almost to the beginning. I could always count on Marc to leave a thoughtful and challenging comment in response to my posts.  During the research phase of my Crater project he emailed links to online collections and other resources he thought I should check out.  Marc was incredibly helpful when I moved to Boston.  He suggested places to visit and even offered helpful advice once I began to look for employment.

I knew Marc was sick, but we still talked about getting together.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  I am going to miss having Marc around as I know many of you will as well.  My thoughts today are with his family.

Preserving Civil War Memory at Gettysburg College

Calling all digital historians and archivists: If after reading this you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section.  I will make sure they get passed on to the right people.  Thanks.

Imagine signing on as the Systems and Emerging Technologies Librarian and being told that the library recently purchased two blogs.  For Zach Coble of Gettysburg College the question now is what to do with Civil War Memory and Keith Harris’s Cosmic America.

This is an exciting project for Gettysburg College.  Although the Library of Congress is also archiving this site it’s nice to know that it will made available at Gettysburg as well.  I’ve suggested before that I think we have to begin to shift our understanding of historical memory in the digital/web2.o world.  Blogs and other social media tools have democratized the sharing of history  further than anyone could have imagined just a few short years ago and it also has made it possible for a much wider demographic to share their own understanding of the Civil War and its legacy.  As a result the categories that frame our understanding of the evolution of Civil War memory will need to be revised if not discarded entirely to make sense of the sesquicentennial years.  It is my hope that this site will function as a unique window into the world of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It looks like they found just the right person to take the lead on this project:.

It’s exciting to explore new forms of scholarship, but we’re not exactly sure what to do with the blogs. Although the blogs are currently active they will not always be, so we must determine how we want to preserve them. Since none of us are experts in digital preservation, we are trying to understand at a conceptual level how best to approach this project.

This initiative has required us to think of larger issues concerning the library’s role in digital curation. Should libraries even try to preserve blogs and other digital content? Are we equipped, in terms of technology and staffing, to take on this kind of work? Can’t we rely on the big names in the field like the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive to take care of this?

As an employee of a cultural institution, I’m biased to believe that libraries (as well as archives, museums, and others) have a responsibility to preserve cultural content as it fits within the mission, goals, and collection development policy of the organization. I also believe that institutions need to take responsibility and work to inform themselves so they can properly care for the digital materials in their own collections.

The agreement that I signed includes other resources (digital and hard copy) as well, but any discussion of that will have to wait until we sort out some of the details.  I will be sure to provide additional updates as this project evolves.