Category Archives: Social Media

Social Media Discourse

I have some of the best conversations with people on social media,  especially on Twitter and Instagram. These talks can be very productive, whether or not folks agree with what I have to say. In fact, I find debate and discussion so helpful that I offered my sincere thanks to my social media following for the collaborative efforts that resulted in my book on Civil War veterans.

But – there is another side of this coin – the trolls…particularly in our current political climate. They seem to be appearing in greater numbers than ever these days. The conversation generally goes like this:

  • Call something with which you disagree or do not understand “fake”
  • Get asked to explain yourself but have nothing of substance to offer
  • Rant incoherently about “liberals”

Have a look at this recent exchange on my Instagram feed after I promoted a Podcast episode that involved gender topics. I’ve blacked out the instigator’s Insta handle because….well just because.

So my friends, if you would like to discuss gender studies, let’s go for it. But please for the love of all things holy – try to bring some common sense and intelligence to the table.




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

Screen shot 2014-01-07 at 9.10.39 AMYears 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.

But any potential for a sustained conversation emerging from this medium quickly withered on the vine. 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? Well…there is certainly hope for a bright future. 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.

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 me…it’s possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse or at best using it as a virtual bulletin board. 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 2014, the University still is what it is (snicker…more on that later). For now, exclusivity reigns triumphant, and a significant number (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, defying convention, 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. And yes, I’ve long ago added my Twitter handle and blog addresses to my vita. You know…I am not kidding about this.

With compliments,


Tweeting from the Hallowed Halls

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 6.26.36 AMTwitter. The good news is that scholars and educators world wide have embraced the social media giant with gusto. The bad news is they aren’t doing a particularly good job at it. Well, many aren’t anyway. There are a few out there who seem to really understand the platform and have used Twitter ways that will have some sort of lasting significance.

You may be asking of what I speak. You may also be thinking that I should mind my own business. You may just want me to go to hell. Well, I have been threatening to write a short piece on how Twitter and those in education (not just historians) can make a meaningful splash on Twitter now that so many have waded in neck deep. And yes…people have asked me to do so. So here you go.

The trouble as I see it is that academics and others in education have misunderstood the platform. They have overlooked the “social” part of social media. Academics have largely used Twitter as a broadcasting platform; they have created an environment of endless links to other sites, news stories, announcements, and personal updates with little interaction. In a sense, though not entirely analogous, this is what happens on celebrities’ promotional Twitter feeds. Or even worse…it’s what clumsy salespeople do to awkwardly promote their products and services. In short: it’s advertising. And one other thing…(and this applies to Tweeters across the board) what’s with all the inspirational quotes? Stop it.

Is broadcasting beneficial? Is it useful? Yes and yes. On both counts – of course it is. My own Twitter regularly broadcasts information about my latest blog posts (it’s all automated) and any scholarly activities that I am working on. In addition, I regularly Tweet interesting information that pertains to well, just about anything, but usually relates somehow to history specifically or education in general. But that is only a small fraction of what you will find on my Twitter feed. And ultimately, none of the broadcasting is at the heart of what I am trying to do.

Twitter is about conversations. And this simple notion is unfortunately lost on most users. In academia, these conversations could easily be meaningful and function to serve the greater good – or if you like, build on the (sort of) altruistic activity of adding to the wealth of human knowledge. But let’s be honest here, altruism aside, these conversations can serve to build one’s personal reputation. While some may want to keep their Tweets private, as it were, most of us don’t. And thus, here we have the opportunity (yet unrealized in most cases) to let the world know that we have something to say. And what’s even better…we have the platform to listen and engage with others who, not incidentally, might also have something important to say. See how this works? And if Tweeting can somehow be personally beneficial – then all the better. Reality check – there is an element of self-promotion (or brand awareness) infused in every Tweet. Don’t try to deny it.

No matter how you slice it, Twitter should be a great virtual gathering spot. It should be the Internet cocktail party, the online post-conference hang out session. It’s where we should go to exchange ideas or create new ones. But unfortunately – it’s not. The dull broadcasting of information (and little else) offered by academics and educators may be the greatest missed opportunity in modern education.

Case in point: the other day my  University of Virginia Alunmi Association Magazine arrived in the mail. I flipped through and found an interesting article about Allen Groves, the UVA Dean of Students. By all accounts, Dean Groves is a genuinely caring man and an asset to the University. I look forward to meeting him one day.

To illustrate the Dean’s popularity, an insert – Ruling the School – proclaims that Groves is popular on social media and has over 6,000 followers on Twitter compared to Duke’s dean of students, who has a meager 22. Well, the magazine failed to provide Dean Groves’s Twitter handle (well, played, editorial staff) but I did a little digging and sure enough, there is Dean Groves and his 6403 (as of December 2013) followers.

But nothing is really going on. Here is a golden opportunity for Dean Groves to speak directly with a clearly engaged student body and thousands of alumni. And it is just not happening. Instead are a number of Tweets linking away from Twitter, showing campus pictures, congratulating athletes, and forwarding UVA announcements. Let me go on record as saying that this information is perfectly welcome. I would be surprised if someone in his position did not Tweet along these lines. But the crucial element is missing. There is no conversation to speak of. Groves only follows a handful of people (less than 150), which indicates to me that he is not really interested in conversing with his audience at all. I can see no response, no dialogue, no questions, and no answers.

I ask Dean Groves, in the most respectful manner that I can muster, to reconsider how he uses this revolutionary platform. Imagine, if you will, what could be done on this public forum in terms of enhancing the student experience. In the article, the author (Michelle Koidin Jaffee) mentions that you are outspoken in support for students of various backgrounds. Great! Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be involved in a meaningful conversation about this profoundly important topic on Twitter?  Think of what might be accomplished. And let’s look beyond that. Consider how such a conversation could bring prestige to the University. Think of what a mutual exchange of ideas could do for our Academical Village in terms of….academics. The potential here is really quite unprecedented.

But most importantly, I extend these thoughts and considerations to everyone involved in education and scholarship (historical or otherwise). What can we do to make Twitter less of a virtual bulletin board and more of a community for interaction, debate, and the simple exchange of ideas?

Your comments are welcome.

With compliments,





A Few Words About Blogging and History

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Discussing blogging with Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin at Gettysburg College.

Recently, historian Heather Cox Richardson posted on The Historical Society blog a brief summary of the benefits of blogging, tweeting, and texting for the historian. The post quickly caught on among those scholarly types who are Internet savvy and interested in such things. I picked it up from a Twitter retweet and retweeted it myself, and then several of my followers proceeded to retweet it too. I guess you could say that the post went about as viral as it can in our little world.

I found her points to be right on the money. In sum, and I am paraphrasing here:  blogging is short, sweet, and relatively easy when compared to writing an article length or longer academic piece. It’s fun (yay), it forces you to write clear and concise prose, and it allows for a sense of humor. Bloggers do not need to be overly theoretical or use jargon and esoteric language. Both blogging a tweeting provide the platform for an author’s personal style to shine through. Both are informal – and who doesn’t love informality? Finally, she notes that blogging, tweeting (and I suppose texting) allow historians to share their enthusiasm with a larger audience. Yes indeed.

But I would add just a couple of other things to the list. First, blogging and tweeting can (and often do) function as extensions of what historians do. I speak, naturally, of primary research. I use my blog and twitter account for historical inquiry – engaging archivists, specialists, and other historians who have access to documents that might take me months or years to find (or not find) through traditional research methods. While I relish days spent in dusty special collections departments (I am not being sarcastic here, I think we all have a thing for crunchy old documents) sometimes I need information faster than it would take to get the funding and fly wherever to sift through archival boxes for something that may or may not exist. A blog post or a quick tweet generally yields results within twenty-four hours – if not sooner. Second, I use both blogging and tweeting as a teaching platform. I receive questions from people who are interested in history, other teachers, and high school and college students regularly. So regularly in fact, that I created a Youtube program called Office Hours designed specifically to address some of the questions. The show (usually a few minutes in length) got such a good response that I am developing an extended half-hour format with a real studio setting, editing, and everything (stay tuned).

I am pleased that social media have found a home in academia and that (many) historians are embracing the possibilities that social media offer. We are finding ways to incorporate Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, etc for the benefit of historians and students alike. And…this is just the beginning. My next book will be in many ways a reflection of the scores of conversations of have had with both colleagues and an informed public on Twitter, Facebook, and in the comments section of this and other blogs. And of course…I will discuss this at length in my acknowledgements section.

With compliments,