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.1 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?
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.
The following quote from an article about art education seems to have broader implications:
Early excitement for the Internet’s democratic potential has been replaced by a complicated marketplace of competing agendas of consumption, entertainment, social networking, and political action that continues to offer both opportunity and exclusion. Increased participation is coupled with a persistent digital divide, a gap in who has access to digital technologies and who does not, illustrating that ‘disparities in technology access and use are related to socioeconomic status, with income, educational level and race among the factors associated with technological attainment‘ (Mehra, Merkel, & Bishop, 2004, p. 782). Opportunities for participation have evolved through the advent of social media, mobile computing, and increased access to computing networks. These opportunities continue to be shrouded in inequitable distributions of access and expertise, functioning as a ‘new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind’ (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, & Robison, 2006, p. 3).1
For me, such concerns about access to and literacy in visual culture raise a question in a different debate: open access. How open are so-called open-access publications? Besides the question of digital access, who possesses the requisite know-how to locate such academic works, not to mention read, understand, and critically engage with them? Open access might be desirable, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that academically sound, openly available scholarship will automatically be freely accessible to nonacademic readers.
Aaron D. Knochel, “Assembling Visuality: Social Media, Everyday Imaging, and Critical Thinking in Digital Visual Culture,” Visual Arts Research 39, no. 2 (2013): 13–27, here 15. ↩︎
I’ve been off RSS readers for a while, in part because of Google’s exit from the game, but also because of information overload. Thinking about using it again and revisiting some old stomping grounds in the blogosphere, I found Dan Cohen’s relevant comments on Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know. Seems I am in good company with my occasional ignoring of information—ignoring that I prefer to think won’t lead to, might even prevent, ignorance.
I treat Twitter rather cavalierly too, as if it were a place to hang out, learn stuff, share things, and then leave—sometimes for longer spells. If I view all these information inputs in social terms, this is a perfectly rational way to engage with the Twittersphere. If I worried about missing some bit of news, some fascinating article or weird event, I would never get anything done and my mind would become a still murkier mess. Besides, meaningful ideas and conversations tend to have longer lifespans, and they make themselves felt in other contexts.
Dan’s piece, indeed his whole blog, reminds me of another thing. Much ostensibly older writing on the web has value, and sometimes we should take a moment to read bits of it instead of gulping down and spewing forth a remixed version of the latest clever insight or rant. (I’m talking about myself here, bigly, uh, big league.)
If we pass around quotes on images without even a hint of the quotes’ origins, aren’t we part of the problem?
Uploading one’s dissertation to the Internet Archive is certainly not for everybody, because publishers will not want to publish something that one can get elsewhere for free. Nonetheless, I took this big step after initially just making it available on GoogleDocs and Dropbox, where I had the freedom to delete the file. After careful consideration, I have concluded that any articles or book I write will be substantially new pieces of scholarship, not just recycled, even when I draw heavily on my empirical findings and analysis. Read more
Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”
In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.
I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.
This piece originally appeared on this day on my old history blog, Clio and Me. The links have been updated.
This short piece appeared on this day on Blog Catalog’s blog. At the time the site was a hybrid blog portal – social networking site with an active community. Instead of reproducing the whole piece here, I link to the version saved on the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine for the sake of context. (June 2018)
Too often I come across an interesting piece of information on a blog that does not contain links to the author’s sources. That’s too bad. All I can do at that point is shrug my shoulders and wonder if the story is true. Then I’ll probably close that browser tab and go somewhere else, because I won’t risk experiencing similar frustration with a second story on the same blog. Of course, if the story is really important to me, I can do further research on Google, which is fair enough. At the same time, though, what reason have you given me to go back to your blog? None. Offer me a good, well sourced post, though, and I will be back.
My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea. Read more