U.S. Intellectual History Blog

(VERY) Post-OAH Meeting Wrap-Up, Part III: Blogging and Our Profession

I wanted to wrap-up my short (but temporally extended) series* on the OAH with a post on blogging-related program activities at the OAH Meeting (this post does not concern the many other history bloggers who blogged the OAH itself….it’s meta, but not that meta).

The (now inevitable?) panel on blogging, entitled “Blogging History: Explorings in a New Medium” occurred at 1:45 pm on Friday, March 27. Or rather it would have occurred at 1:45 pm had the organizers of the panel been able to get their computer to successfully communicate with their projector. After establishing its professional credentials via its technological prowess, the panel lurched to life about twenty minutes late. Chaired by William T. Youngs of Eastern Washington University, the panel assembled a diverse group of excellent and successful historically-oriented bloggers to discuss and display their various approaches to blogging.**

Larry Cebula from Eastern Washington kicked things off with a presentation on his Northwest History blog, which won the 2008 Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog. Cebula’s presentation focused on his blog’s entries about primary materials on the history of the Pacific Northwest. While that’s the focus of the blog, Northwest History also has more general posts about history…especially online. Independent scholar J.L. Bell followed Cebula. Bell is the creator of the excellent Boston 1775, which, as its name suggests, focuses on primary materials concerning life in the Massachusetts capital at the start of the American Revolution. Bell spoke about being a non-academic historian, and the many ways in which the internet has made it easier for him to find and share information about 18th-century Boston.

Mary Schaff, who blogs at the Washington State Library, spoke about the possibilities of institutional blogs. She was followed by the University of Western Ontario’s William Turkel, who spoke about his recently shuttered Digital History Hacks, which focused on new ways for historians to use computers and the internet. Finally my former colleague at the University of Oklahoma Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway, both now of UC Davis and founders of the 2008 Cliopatria Award-winning group blog Edge of the American West, addressed the ever-burning question of whether or not blogging is worth the time. Discussion, naturally, followed the presentations.

Overall the panel was interesting but un-earth-shattering. The panelists certainly represented SOTA blogs and engage in the medium for a variety of reasons. Kelman and Rauchway said they began to blog because they wished to reach a broader audience. Blogging is Bell’s primary means of communicating his historical interests. Schaff’s blog communicates information about the Washington State Library that previously would have been communicated in other media (a less-frequently updated website or, before that, a newsletter). And Turkel’s blog seemed like a natural place for his professional interest in digital history. All agreed that history blogging at its best was valuable, but that many, many history blogs quickly become moribund, or (as Cebula noted) revert to blogging about politics instead. As pretty much everyone knows, we get very little professional credit for blogging. But Turkel was quick to point out in discussion that peer-review is a technology that could in theory be extended to a blog, at which point the logic of discounting blogging as scholarship/creative work would begin to disappear.*** And both Turkel and Schaff pointed out that, among the academic disciplines, history is well behind the technological curve. Blogs are so 2004 (perhaps in four years we’ll be having OAH panels on the professional uses of Twitter).

At their best, history blogs also act as places to network and exchange ideas with other historians, a kind of non-stop conference (with no registration or travel costs).**** I do think there’s a kind of tradeoff between attracting a large audience of non-historians and engaging in such conversations. To be blunt: we tend to be interested in somewhat different things than non-historians are (as the comment sections on the History News Network attest).

I do wish the discussion had been a bit more intellectually lively…but perhaps that’s the price of blogging’s success. I imagine a panel entitled “The Scholarly Paper: Explorations in a Medium” that had a series of presentations by first-rate historians about the different kinds of papers that one might publish would also provide little that was unexpected.

One other blogging note from the OAH Meeting. Thursday night’s plenary session “The 2008 Election as History” took place in Town Hall Seattle, a beautiful former Christian Science church that was designed in 1916 by architect George Foote Dunham, who was–like seemingly everyone else–apparently a relative of Barack Obama. In fact, the session really consisted of a number of prominent historians discussing their personal relationship to the 2008 election and its outcome. Many of these talks were interesting and moving (videos of all of them can be found on HNN), but I think I would have preferred to hear the same panel actually discuss the 2008 election as history rather than the 2008 election as autobiography.

I mention the panel in this post because one of the participants was McGill’s Gil Troy, who spoke about blogging the election for HNN.***** Troy’s talk began with five, mostly sensible, rules that he set up himself as a historian-blogger, which concluded with the following:

Fifth, and finally, keep ‘em guessing – as to where I stand politically. I have always said that the best compliment I can get, at the end of a contemporary US history class – or when invited back by a TV producer — after having tackled major, controversial issues, is when I am asked: “Professor Troy, I’m confused, are you a liberal or a conservative?” I believe my job in the classroom – and as a blogging historian – a historiblogger? — is to avoid plunging into partisanship, and to stimulate debate rather than dictate thought or preach to the converted. I also think that partisan positions have become too rigid and frequently simplistic in this country, whereas our job as academics is to embrace the complexity of reality even at the cost of ideological consistency. I take as my standard, the words of New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch, who said, “if you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

In this spirit, I try to avoid what we could call the Zinn not Zen of History (Howard Zinn), marshalling the forces of history to prop up my own contemporary partisan position. Historians should use the public platforms we are privileged to be offered to give historical perspective rather than partisan screeds with some historical camouflage.

But much of the rest of the talk consisted of Troy aggressively plugging his preferred political position–centrism–and describing the ways in which he devoted his blogging of the campaign to a similar end. Indeed, his latest book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, seems entirely devoted to marshaling the forces of history to endorse a particular political position.

This did not go over well with the assembled historians, who spent much of the question period pressing Troy on whether “centrism” was even a meaningful political position or a kind of political tautology (i.e. a successful president’s policy will become mainstream regardless of how people may have responded to such policies before his presidency).

My problem with Troy’s position was somewhat different. It’s entirely possible to take the view that professors have no business speaking politically in their professional role as academics. This is essentially Stanley Fish’s view. Clearly, however, Troy does not share this view (nor, for what it’s worth, do I). But rather than engage with the politics of those with whom he politically disagrees, Troy denounces them for using history to political ends. But so far as I can tell, that’s exactly what Troy does (and more power to him, say I). Troy’s real difference with Howard Zinn is that he disagrees with both Howard Zinn’s politics and Howard Zinn’s reading of history. Indeed, I suspect Troy views those two disagreements as connected. Which is why it’s a little disingenuous for him to denounce Zinn for using history to draw political conclusions. Of course, Troy did not invent this rhetorical tactic. One of the infuriating tics of David Broder-style centrism is its careful political deployment of shock and surprise at the very existence of politics.

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* Previous posts in the series can be found here and here.

** It was, in effect a state of the field panel…though it was not a State of the Field® Panel.

*** In my institution, though one receives much more credit for a peer-reviewed publication, one receives some credit for a non-peer reviewed one. And for the life of me, I cannot think why a (serious) blog entry shouldn’t count as much as any other non-peer-reviewed pub.

**** I pointed this out during the panel’s discussion, fwiw.

***** A video of Troy’s talk can be found here, or, if you prefer to read it yourself, as a blog entry here.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Thanks—for this post and the series in general.

    As a historian who himself seeks the/a “vital center” and admires some degree of centrism, I’m tempted to defend Gil Troy. But I understand your position on Troy using Zinn’s tactics to defend a different political position. You can’t denounce using history to defend a position, and then in good conscience do the same yourself.

    Of course there’s nothing wrong with centrism because of this. It’s Troy’s tactics that are wrong. He has to show, not tell. You have to concede that politics can enter at some level—it’s a question degree, not kind. Troy has to develop a version of events that is more compelling than others. And then “the times” make a difference. Zinn found a receptive audience because of his times. As such, time will tell if there is an audience for Troy’s kinds of stories.

    On blogging and the demands of our profession, well, one has to do what he or she enjoys. If you do that well, meaning blogging, and relate it to history, I believe—I have faith—that the profession will find a way to recognize useful and high-quality means of presentation. For blogging is simply an alternative means of telling (short) stories, of relating the past to the present. It’s just another medium. Professional history is about content, and not everything we produce is captured well by only peer-reviewed publishing mechanisms for books and articles. Historians have always wrote for magazines and newspapers. Some of that writing is now going into blogging.

    Anyway, great post.

    – TL

  2. I don’t think that Stanley Fish’s spate of recent columns on avoiding politics on campus exactly say “that professors have no business speaking politically in their professional role as academics.” I think he has been saying that they have no business doing so in their professional role as teachers.

    At least in my view, this is a much more defensible position than Troy’s, which simply cannot be generalized too far beyond history. For those working in, say, law, public policy, philosophy, economics or political science, such restrictions would be impossible and undesirable. Then once you’ve opened that door at all, it seems a little weird to carve out this special burden for the historian.

    On the other hand, one might also argue that his idea sounds better than his own interpretation of it. His desire to “stimulate debate” and to resist the lure of “frequently simplistic” partisan positions is one with which it’s hard to argue. I personally just happen to think that the vogue for “centrism” and “bi-partisanship” is merely another symptom of the disease of vapid public discourse, rather than its cure.

  3. At least Gil Troy is consistent. The rhetorical strategy you describe is exactly the one used in his biography of Ronald Reagan (/Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s/, Princeton U.P., 2005). Tellingly, he says about himself (both in the book itself and in publicity for the book), “I come neither to bury Reagan nor to praise him.” This is a rough paraphrase of Mark Antony, in Shakespeare’s /Julius Caesar/, who also poses as a neutral voice, then uses rhetoric to to stir up his hearers to adore the dictator they had thought they hated. Troy is equally disingenuous when he adopts his “keep ’em guessing” pose.

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