Friday, May 25, 2012

A Cosmic America Response to Gary Gallagher on Blogging

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have at long last read Gary Gallagher's recent assessment of Civil War blogging in Blue & Gray. Naturally, like many of my fellow bloggers, I am chomping at the bit to weigh in with a response. Full disclosure: Gary was my dissertation adviser at the University of Virginia, and I have a tendency to agree with (much of...although not all of) what he says. This also means that I can attest to his lack of technological know-how. While I have seen him use a cell phone (an effort for which he was enthusiastically and ruthlessly mocked by yours truly), his admission, "I resist technological innovation of almost all kinds" is hardly an exaggeration.

Gallagher confesses to being a Luddite when it comes to this exponentially expanding  medium, a confession that has led some in the blogosphere to at least imply that he is unqualified to render a critique. Not so. You don't need to be an expert or avid participant in the various media to offer criticism or even question their usefulness. And for a Luddite, he seems to have perused a number of diverse blogs ranging from those given to shameless self importance to others that offer useful information concerning recent publications, unpublished documents, battles, leadership, etc. These categories (and I am not the first to point this out) could just as easily be a reflection of traditional academic publishing  - a format equally diverse.

I am troubled by one particular statement:  "many bloggers delight in pointing out that academic historians — often pilloried as hopeless elitists — have lost much of their former control over the dissemination of historical information." I am troubled because he is heading in the right direction. One cannot escape an us vs. them theme embedded in the blogoshpere. As a greater number of individuals join the blogging community an attitude has infused the medium suggesting to this avid observer that an effort is under way for the voice of the people to supplant the voice of the elite.

But there is something more to add. Is blogging the ultimate in the democratization of history? Gallagher thinks so and I certainly agree. But have academic historians lost their control over dissemination as many claim? Bloggers who in self-congratulatory fashion think that they have dethroned those safely ensconced in the Ivory Tower have sadly missed the point.

Blogging offers the perfect opportunity to bridge the gulf between academics and an informed public. What is happening is not a transfer of power, so to speak, but the beginnings of what may indeed be a paradigm shift in higher education: the scarcity of access is becoming a thing of the past. Academic historians and the public - thanks to the Internet - together have a platform for the mutual exchange of ideas that was once reserved for university professors and their students. Blogging is a vital component in this exchange. If I am correct, and I am an optimist of the highest caliber, blogging combined with the savvy use of social media will act (and is acting) as a humanities accelerant. New ideas, testable data and conclusions, and innovative access to the historical record are instantaneous - if not nearly so. And the work is in many ways collaborative - a primary researcher or author often has immediate feedback.

My own work has already greatly benefited from the blog component of the Cosmic America Civil War multi-media network. I have found scraps of the historical record, written about it with analysis, suggestive research directions, and calls to action, broadcast it around the world, and been happily rewarded with further suggestions, ideas, and pieces of the puzzle - sometimes within minutes. Without question, the wingnuts, crackpots, and yahoos offer their commentary too (I have, for instance, been derided by a group of Alabama white supremacists as a "Yankee metrosexual in purple sunglasses" among other less flattering things) but their useless commentary can easily be dismissed.

Blogging is a great way to get recognition or Internet "fame" (Cosmic America receives thousands of hits every few days - and is growing faster than I ever imagined it would). But more important - it provides an intellectual space, in essence resembling classroom, conference, or roundtable discussion, but big enough to accommodate all who wish to attend.

I suspect that Gary will never join the Civil War blogging ranks, but you never know. Hell, I'll even set one up for him (gratis) and get him started. Wishful thinking perhaps? We'll see.




  1. Keith,

    I liken the current situation - the changing state of information access over the past 10 or so years - to that described by Garry Wills "Henry Adams and the Making of America." In the first half of the 19th century, archives around the world that had up to then been closed to all but a select few keepers of the flame, as it were, began to be visited by a certain class of gentleman scholars, whose wealth afforded them the time and wherewithal to pursue their interests. The barriers then were time and money. The availablity of digital archives, among other things, has significantly reduced those barriers. Topics that were once too narrow - or not "sexy" enough - to justify spending time and money researching are now being looked at more closely, by folks who have the time. And a lot of the assumptions that have been accepted over the years in Civil War History (and it seems to me there are a lot of them that are simply accepted, like the "unprecedented" nature of Longstreet's instructions to Alexander on 7/3/1863) are going to be brought into question. One can ignore all of this if one chooses, because it does take some effort to sift through it all, but I think the result of such an approach is certain. Buggy whips, baby.

  2. I don't see very much history, Civil War or otherwise, being written for, or published on, blogs. Lots of arguing about history, but that isn't the same thing.

  3. I should add that I love a good argument!

    It is also important to distinguish between blog posts and blog comments. Imagine reading a distinguished book of Civil War history -- let's say McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom -- with every crackpot's criticism and every crank's comment included! Sometimes I think the blogging world would be better served if it eliminated comments all together.

  4. I'm sure there was some monk somewhere who, when shown an early, bound book quipped "Sure, it's nice, but it will never replace the scroll."

    I'd agree with Michael that there's not much history on blogs maintained by academic historians, perhaps because they feel the place for that is in their classrooms or in traditional outlets like books, journals, and conferences. After, that's the world in which they live and have to compete. That's not a criticism, and a blogger has the right to manage his blog in the manner he chooses.

    But there is a good deal of history on many Civil War blogs - Michael must not be going to the "right" places. I suggest Michael check out the blogs of Robert Moore, Craig Swain, Ron Baummgarten, Dave Powell, Dmitri Rotov (yes, really), and those of the NPS staffs at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, to name just a few.

    As for comments, can you imagine if McPherson's book also included contributions and criticisms of non-crackpots, like historians with different interpretations (have you read "The Union War")? It's time people start to realize that formats like blogs are not simply another version of "books". They're a different animal altogether. Even e-books will be looked upon as hopelessly limited in a few years. Kind of like the Electric Map.

  5. Harry -- thanks very much for the suggestions!