Sunday, February 12, 2012

Can Social Media Bridge the Gulf Between Academic Historians and the Public?

[caption id="attachment_2015" align="alignleft" width="236" caption="I may have a few ideas..."][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Of course, I believe that the answer is yes. This summer, I will take part in a panel at the Civil War Institute's annual conference at Gettysburg College with fellow Civil War bloggers Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, and Mark Grimsley. The so-called "gulf" is one of the principal issues that I will be addressing.

Years ago, before the Internet opened the doors for real-time access to just about anyone anywhere in the world, the television historical documentary probably stood alone as the medium most likely to serve as the middle ground on which academic historians and an informed public might relate.

In 1996, historian Gary Gallagher, writing of Ken Burns's The Civil War, noted reactions among academics, who protested the absence of issues falling outside the field of military history (such as the home front, religion, or gender themes) and the public, who focused on the military and picked nits over missing campaigns and the prominence of the eastern theater of war. The two groups could not see eye-to-eye.

But Gallagher really went after academics. They, he argued, were "content to speak to one another in a language that [excluded] anyone outside the university community...a sense of "we know best" [permeated] much of their commentary about Burns." In short, scholars were put off by the public's fondness for battles, generals, and narrative integrity. They wanted "real history" as defined by scholars. One might assume then, that these scholars returned to their studies and continued to ignore the public. Perhaps they proceeded with their dense works laden with esoteric language that no one ever read. Who knows?

Has anything changed? Yes indeed. The advent of blogging and micro-blogging (i.e. Twitter) has extended the reach of those academics who are both ready to accept the literate public into their super-special club, and willing to embrace the tools that make it possible.

The limits of blogging are defined only by the limits of the blogger. Not all blogs are created equal. Academics who blog, and there are a number of first-rate bloggers, are successful precisely because of their openness, their consistency, their engagement with the commenting public (regardless of the comment) and of course, their historical content - often defined not by scholars...but by the public scholars seek to reach. Student-run blogs are also worthy of mention. 901 Stories from Gettysburg, for example, brings the voices of the battlefield to the public - all courtesy of the research of Gettysburg college students. The blog has its shortcomings (there is currently no forum open for discourse), but as it develops it is sure to become a wonderful platform for academics, students, and the public to exchange ideas.

Twitter is perhaps the most powerful, but alas, most misunderstood and misused tool. Many historians, historical institutions, and lay people alike miss opportunities to create and maintain informed conversations on historical matters (in 140 characters or less - believe's possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse. Granted, Twitter can be a number of things - a platform for self-indulgent narcissists with too much time on their hands, or, it can be a media dumping ground - harnessed by would-be marketers for free advertising. Both fail miserably to reach anyone. But with patience and attentiveness, Twitter can (and does) facilitate discourse between academic and academic, academic and the public, and the public with everyone.

In 2012, the University still is what it is (snicker). For now, exclusivity reigns triumphant, and many (but most certainly not all) of its scholars look condescendingly at a public who just doesn't know any better...all the while creating more of the same. But as things change - and they always do - some academics are extending their reach beyond the hallowed halls of academia, breaking traditions, coloring outside the lines, and (if you can believe it) functioning in the real world.

Which means the way we teach and learn history is changing too. Maybe it's time to add my Twitter handle and blog address to my vita. You know...I am not kidding about this.




  1. The last line about your blog address and Twitter handle is right on. I've seen CVs of a few academic bloggers with decent readerships who don't mention their online activities. Why is that? Why would a talk to ten colleagues wind up on the CV but a blog post read by a couple of thousand not get mentioned?

    In my field (law) the fact that my blogs get 120,000 visits per year is considered a major plus. Shouldn't the same be true in the academy?

  2. Pat - I could not agree more with your comment. My guess is because social media is currently outside the accepted practices of the academy. I have been advised by my peers and mentors not to mention it unless it comes up, and if it does, just to talk about my online work as a side gig. I took that advice for a while....but I have changed my tune as of now. If the academy thinks less of me, well be it.

  3. Yup. It's funny how people can come around though. I've chaired several regional immigrant coalitions, been very active in legal professional groups, litigated three fairly important cases, but about a year after I started writing online I was introduced at a meeting and two young women looked at each other with recognition in their eyes and said "the blogger". At first I was taken aback. "Not the lawyer? Not the professor?". Then I realized how stupid I was. My "public law" project online was an important multiplier of my legal and advocacy work. The same should be true for academics. We outside the history departments and the academy need to hear the historian's voice, learn about her research, and interact with her.

  4. From this day forward, I will think of you as Pat "the Blogger" Young. Thanks for pitching in on this :)

  5. Keith, I applaud your efforts to bridge the gap between academia and the "unclean masses" as represented by the social media. Heck, I may even reinstate my Twitter account.

  6. Yes Greg - please do! And thanks :)

  7. "Perspectives," the magazine of the AHA, now has a section where they list their recent tweets and Facebook posts. They're documenting that they're with it!

    Melissa Harris Perry is a great example of one of those real world people going back and forth between the academy and real media but she had her tenure in place before she became a TV commentator or twitterer. So hard to do it the other way around because academics are also social misfits and therefore don't operate with people unlike themselves so well.. The Academy is right to hold everybody to the same levels of credibility in research or interpretation that they do themselves, but they must realize as we all do now, all our institutions are breaking down. Universities by nature are more permeable because the exchange of ideas are the basis of its existence so this has to become more acceptable. Especially because more classes are wholly online now. Students have to go to their natural online resources for information.

    I say you should put your work on your vita because it's really consistently good. You be the guinea pig! :)

  8. Thanks Jena - With all of my heart and soul I believe that education at all levels is undergoing a fundamental shift. I do not believe that the university system that we all know and love will become obsolete, but I do believe that universities and those who work there will have to get on board with how people seek out and discuss history or they will become much less relevant.

    And the vita - completely up to date with Twitter handle and blog addresses. Let's see how that flies :)

  9. Hi Keith, thanks very much for this article, I think it's a hugely important question to address. With the advent of new technologies, academia can either use them to engage the public more or to disenfranchise and marginalise, and given the huge absence of even basic historical knowledge in the UK and US, it seems like the latter process is ascendent at the moment. On my site, I'm trying to address the schism between public and academic history by creating a history of the 20th Century, integrating the popular and the less well known, and placing it in a context. The greatest threat to historical understanding is the de-contextualisation of history, which tends to happen when it is used for entertainment.