Tag Archives: Academia

On the Books

158046-bestsellers-lrgGreetings all!

I have just been listening to historian Edward L. Ayers interview fellow blogger Kevin Levin on NPR’s Backstory  concerning his recent post on Civil War Memory. The topic: history bestsellers in 2014.

In the post, Kevin offers his observations on a few salient characteristics shared by the authors on the list. Among those enumerated, notable is that most of the authors are journalists – not academic historians.

Kevin’s reasons behind this? Well, for one, it’s because journalists tell an entertaining story (which implies that academics don’t…but more on that later). And ultimately, that is what the reading public wants: entertainment. But more importantly, these authors have much more far-ranging influence than your garden variety academic. They benefit from exposure on television, in the press, and they have a strong social media presence. With this I think Kevin is pretty much right on the money. Take it from me, I know a robust Internet presence helps sell books (see what I did there?). In a follow-up post, he counsels academics, and I would agree: if you want to keep up, you had better get to work.

Get to work indeed. Many (though certainly not all) academics are missing out on an enormous opportunity to engage with the general public precisely because they do not take advantage of the instantaneous and world-wide connections provided by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Let’s take the journalists…I can assure you that they have things covered in the exposure department.

But popularity aside, are these journalist-author-personalities up to the challenge? I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.

Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.

So while Kevin might call for academics to get on board with the 21st century and reach out to a world of potential readers, I would add that journalists should up their game as well – perhaps hit the archives and the historiography a little harder. And as a side note or a story for another day, I would be thrilled if academic historians would not only reach out to but also write for a broader audience. To my friends in the hallowed halls – dial down the esoteric language. It sounds so…academic. You’ll just wind up writing a better story, and that’s a good thing.

As always, feel free to weigh in here.

With compliments,

Keith

 

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,

Keith

A Few Words About Blogging and History

Picture 2 13-18-45
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,
Keith