H-Civil War: Scholarly Resource or Just Another Message Board?

I´ve been meaning to comment on this for some time, but wanted to see how long it would take the editor to jump in and cut-off the message thread which started with the excellent review of John Coski´s study of the Confederate flag.  While late is better than never, clearly this discussion (if you can even call it a discussion) went on much too long.  The review should have led to a discussion of the merits of Coski´s interpretation and/or the reviewer´s contribution.  Instead we got the all-too-common nonsense that failed to go beyond one´s own opinion as to the proper display of the flag or the author´s own historical interpretation that indicated no understanding of the secondary literature.  Very few of the messages (I stopped reading after 10) contained anything which indicated that the author had actually read the book.  The message thread reads like any of the current crappy message boards that you can waste your time reading. 

H-Net was created as a forum for scholars to share research projects, ask questions, and engage in serious dialog that contains analysis rather than an airing of one´s opinion.  My guess is that most of the other H-Net forums do not suffer from this problem.  However, in the case of the Civil War everyone is an expert.  I am tired of hearing from people who wish to share their views of whether Sherman´s and Sheridan´s marches were immoral or whether they believe the Confederate flag is a racist symbol.  This has little to do with serious research.  And as I just mentioned there are plenty of forums that will eagerly embrace this shallowness. 

I call on the editors of this particular forum to exercise tighter control over the kinds of messages that can be posted to the listserv.  If individual parties continue to abuse the forum then they should be temporarily suspended or permanently banned.  H-Net is a valuable resource, but you know that something is wrong when you begin to think of their emails as SPAM. 

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6 comments… add one
  • Shawn Aug 2, 2006 @ 13:32

    Hello to all following this thread,

    I share many of the feelings and concerns voiced by Kevin, Mark, and Ken. While I am new to H-CivilWar, I have been a participant on H-War since it’s inception in the early 90s. I remain subscribed mainly because I feel it is a way to remain connected to the academic world even though I no longer work in it. But there is very little that passes for actual informed discussion and I end up deleting well over 90% of the posts without reading them. It is distressing, but I am finding there is indeed a new nexus forming around groups of serious bloggers. Perhaps what is needed is for the process of self-selection to continue, and new on-line communities will aggregate into networks where the discussions will be more informed and useful.

    As a sidenote, regarding the discussion on H-CivilWar that Ken Noe referenced, that particular poster moved the basic elements of that thread over to H-War. That resulted in the H-War post linked to below, where the poster in question was called out in a way I have never seen on any of the H-Hist boards. I am suprised the moderator let it through, and as of yet, there has been no response.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2006 @ 7:03

    Hi Ken, — I like the idea of having to apply for permission to post on the listserv. The qualifications would have to be worked out, but I am so disappointed with the quality of posts that if it were decided to leave it to active professional historians affiliated with universities I would have no problem. It would be enough to be able to peruse the posts to get a sense of what is happening in the field rather than the constant emotional airing of one’s personal opinion. At least the Announcements are still worth checking in with every once in awhile.

  • Ken Noe Aug 1, 2006 @ 11:16

    Kevin and Mark:

    Kevin, if you stopped around post ten, then you probably missed my e-mail, which anticipated your comments:

    “Mark Lause writes, ‘If we distinguish between history and “heritage,” perhaps there could be a separate list for Civil War heritagians. (Actually, I think there are already a few dozen of them.)’

    I’m not sure I’d use the word “heritagians,” but certainly there are several message boards and blogs on the net where one can find 24/7 this same general discussion and its familiar corollaries argued ad nauseam by the same folks, at least one of whom now is debating it here. I’ll be the
    last person to stifle a debate, but I do find myself wondering about the direction of this listserv if we’ve come to this here. Perhaps a better
    course would be for all the participants to first actually read the Coski book and debate its merits?”

    George Rable later made similar comments, but to no avail–the “discussion” went on unabated for the next several days.

    When I signed up for H-CivWar way back when, I had to fill out an online form proving that I was engaged actively in teaching or research. Indeed, I think I had to include a university affiliation. Obviously, that has gone by the boards over the years, given that the person who set off the latest fireworks to my knowledge fits neither criteria. Perhaps in the age of the blogosphere, being a frequent poster on a dozen sites counts. Still, as that listserv has evolved away from being a place where teachers could write to teachers, more and more academics simply have moved on, as I’m probably about to do after a decade. I agree with Mark that the blogs as a group are filling the place once occupied by the listserv, as the recent discussion on social vs. military history indicates. Still, in some ways I miss the old H-CivWar. My wife the librarian has listservs where she can talk about library issues with other librarians. Given the growing numbers of Civil War websites available to all, I find myself a little jealous about no longer having something similar.

  • Mark G. Jul 31, 2006 @ 20:17

    My impression is that comparatively little good discussion takes place on H-Net Discussion Networks. A lot of them seem to have little more than calls for papers, conference announcements, etc. H-War tends to be the most active of any that I’ve seen. I haven’t looked in on H-CivWar recently; my last impression was that it seemed pretty ho-hum.

    This is certainly not the fault of the editors, who devote a lot of energy to making the networks run and who occasionally will organize a symposium to try and jump start a good exchange. The problem is mainly with the very academics H-Net exists to serve. Few consider participation in H-Net discussions worth their time. And indeed, the professional reward for participation is zip. Goose egg. Nada. Zilch.

    Those who do participate often invest little thought in their comments, and this has the effect of exacerbating the problem: bad discussion drives out good. But the same problem exists in the blogosphere.

    I guess the question in my mind is what can be done to improve the situation: what architecture and reward system would create good, vigorous exchange? I submit, just to put the idea out there, that I’ve been intrigued by the synergy that sometimes occurs when you have a constellation of blogs focused on a fairly specific subject; e.g., the American Civil War. There must be close to twenty ACW blogs now, and I’ve seen several occasions where a post on one blog inspires a post on another blog — frequently two or three blogs — with each post also generating its share of comments. It’s an interesting dynamic.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2006 @ 2:18

    Marc, — I understand what you mean, but I am not interested in using H-Net as a window into the contentiousness of the subject. There is enough of that already.

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 30, 2006 @ 13:58

    I’m a little surprised that you, being an astute observer of Civil War reception and memory, are not more fascinated than annoyed with such discussions as recently occurred on H-CivilWar. It shows just how alive and contentious the subject is; and also the extent to which it is a hot-button subject through which contemporary social and political conflict is expressed. There is a similar phenomenon that occasionally erupts at H-World.

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