In Astoria, Oregon.
Is insidious destruction of our democracy by a bureaucratic samurai with the soothing voice of a boys’ school headmaster even more dangerous than a self-destructive buffoon ripping up our values in plain sight?
As a historian who sometimes teaches about Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have to give Trump credit for one thing: His constant upending of the broad political consensus that emerged after World War II and the Cold War means that basic historical terms are constantly making it into the news and national discourse as quasi new problems, new questions. As upsetting as these times are, as abhorrent as Trump is, it is hard to deny the value of Ron Elving’s reaction to the president’s recent statement about being a nationalist: “We are about to have a national conversation about the word nationalist.” And Elving wants to offer nuances to the term’s meanings in past and present—well, as much as anyone can in some 1,100 words. See the whole article at NPR.
In light of the recent Learning by the Book conference, it makes sense to reblog this piece, which I first posted on History of Knowledge on February 3, 2017, when we were just getting started and were working out what we thought the thing was. The question was not as self-evident as regular bloggers might think, certainly not at a research institution rooted in Germany’s powerful academic traditions.
In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me. Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?
Sometimes disseminating the results of experiments, demonstrations, or other research can yield widely accepted knowledge built on questionable foundations through a kind of distorted translation. This seems to have happened with the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Two people who heard a recent talk by Alexander Haslam tweeted about Haslam’s key findings. Read the thread by Jay Van Bavel and then the one he links to by David Amodio. They talk through the lens of their field, and they help break old stereotypes about human nature. I can’t help but think, however, that there is a broader story about knowledge production and circulation here.
We tried something new in connection with a conference called Learning by the Book. The conveners asked participants to submit a blog post to History of Knowledge in lieu of precirculated papers. One of the conveners, my colleague Kerstin von der Krone, did most of the coordinating work, prescreening posts for length, permissions issues, and content. Then I edited them, trying to ensure they spoke to a multidisciplinary audience, not just specialists in their authors’ respective fields.
Of thirty-seven potential posts, we managed to publish thirty-five on a rolling basis between May 2 and June 5. Four of these were crossposted on the Recipes Project and edited by Jess Clark instead of me. One piece wasn’t published because of an unresolved copyright issue and another because the author had trouble conceiving of a short blog post that spoke directly to the conference’s concerns while giving the original research context a much more cursory treatment. These numbers tell a success story. An overwhelming number of scholars, from graduate students to senior scholars, were able—and willing—to convey their core ideas in only 1,000 to 2,000 words. And they did so to good effect.
Sometimes, scholars will read aloud what they precirculated to conference participants. I experienced only half the conference in person, but the papers I heard generally did not duplicate the blog posts. Some presenters made their blog contributions a foundation on which to build fuller versions of their posts, while others consciously used the blog format to present a specific aspect of their work, presenting other sides of the story in the conference room. A great example of the latter strategy was offered by Jennifer Rampling, whose blog post focused on an alchemic experiment in the lab, but whose talk dove into the alchemy manuscripts and how they were read.
One participant also suggested that blogging before conferencing forced participants to prepare better because their ideas were being made public in advance. Moreover, the process of writing and revising can force one to become clearer about one’s own positions.
The higher volume of activity on History of Knowledge lead it to garner many times its normal number of readers, thereby expanding the reach of the conference, getting ideas to an audience many times its size. Conclusions synthesizing the results are missing, of course, but what a way to get a first draft! If all history is an act of interpretation, why not make earlier iterations of that work public for other scholars and for engaged members of the public?
Reader engagement (visible in visitor statistics and in reader engagement with our accompanying Twitter posts) and the discussions at the conference itself underlined that knowledge as an object of historical inquiry can open productive dialog across seemingly impermeable disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. (Researching what hashtags to use for which communities on Twitter helps too.)