Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Future of Civil War Era Studies - A Response to Stephen Berry's Top Ten List

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I recently read an intriguing article in the Journal of the Civil War Era by historian Stephen Berry of the University of Georgia. Berry accounts for the quieting of hotly debated big issues that have dominated Civil War studies for the last several decades. Slavery - we can pretty much agree on that. Where the war was won and lost - well, maybe. The modernity of the South - sure. Self-emancipation - of course, so long as you give at least some credit to the Union army. Confederate internal divisions - yes there were some, but again...the Union army, remember? So, with "many of these old debates quiescent," Berry asks, "where does that leave us; where do we go from here?" Berry then proceeds to offer his top ten list of where we are actually going from here. I will not trouble to list them here - you can read them for yourself.

I will, however, offer a few notes of my own. Berry's list strikes me as only an ever-so-slight adjustment to what Civil War historians have been up to for, well, as long as there have been Civil War historians. If Berry is right, then we are not really going anywhere, not breaking new ground, not keeping up with the times. If anything, we would only be adjusting an existing format to conform to current trends in scholarship. Yes, trends like environmental history and transnationalism will certainly begin to dominate Civil War studies programs. The focus away from microhistory to the larger sweep of events will undoubtedly prevail, for the time being anyway.

And such scholarship is well and good - but as projected, these movements in Civil War Studies reflect the tendency of many scholars to encapsulate themselves within the hallowed halls of academia. Berry's concern with how new studies will fit with the existing tenure system, how they will be funded and received by the NEH and other organizations, and whether or not we are killing the war our fathers built suggests that same old system of Civil War Era studies is merely getting a fresh coat of paint.

But with certainty...and in very short order, Civil War Era studies will no longer be defined by the same old system. I would not imply that the discipline is inexorably sinking and that Berry is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But I would say that there have been profound changes in how we read, research, teach, and absorb - even feel, see, and hear Civil War history. And I would also argue that Civil War Era studies is steadily moving away from the confines of the university and in to the hands of an informed public. Berry touches on this - but only with the delicate touch of someone who does not wish to stir things up too much. After all - tenure is quite possibly at stake.

Case in point: number four on the list, "It Is No Longer 'Cute' To Be A Luddite," accents the development of Digital Humanities 2.0. A move beyond the simple storage of information (the 1.0 version) and the necessity of digital skills and technical savvy. Berry notes that the whole system must either "reboot itself or get the boot." As clever as that statement is, Berry's preoccupation with dissertators' technical skills misses the the crux of how digital humanities is entirely restructuring the discourse between teacher, student, and the public. Single-author monographs will not simply be yielding space to Internet collaborations, they will be engaging them. And Internet collaborators will be (and are quickly becoming) a wide cross section of individuals of all stripes and walks of life - many well versed in Civil War history - points Berry fails to note.

There is little "future" in the forum article – albeit innovative points of focus, Berry's top ten list nevertheless appears to be offering conscious constructions to fit the current mold of academic scholarship. Are Civil War scholars in essence sharpening a pencil we already have - remaining content to speak an esoteric language and move about in areas reserved for the academic elite? Scarcity of access is quickly becoming a thing of the past. And as more and more leave the fold to embrace an informed public, traditional Civil War scholarship (in its current incarnation) and its conventional means of production and highly selective dissemination will be of less utility - and indeed...of less relevance.

The Future of Civil War Era Studies? I offer number eleven for Berry's list - it's going viral.



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