— Contributors: Madeline Blythe, Shannon Furr, Jason McDaniel, and Jeanne Hoogbergen
This week, participants in App State’s Digital History course (HIS 5595) discussed online publishing, blogging, and academic writing in general as historians think about the digital possibilities.
Several themes emerged. One centered on the collaborative potential of writing about the past online. Sheila Brennan alludes to this as she acknowledges those whose helped her along the way as she wrote Stamping American History. To see that someone has walked the path before you is an empowering process, one that lets you know it can be done (especially for first-generation college students and academic professionals). Another consideration is that online writing can – depending on the format – allow for immediate feedback through comments. This fact raises many considerations, including: How do you have engaging conversation online? How do you decide on which post to comment? What constitutes an effective blog post? How permanent are your ideas when you write online?
Another theme dealt with the purpose behind writing online (as opposed to more traditional publishing). As Brennan and others suggest, one should consider various questions, such as: What has been your journey to (this current point)? What inspired you to write at this particular moment when your journey changes as interests and passions change? An interesting example centered on historian Kevin Kruse, who has earned notoriety on Twitter for responding to “flame throwers” that cherry pick, ignore, or misconstrue the past in order to score political points. When asked about why he engages with these “trolls,” Kruse argues that historians should lend their voices and help audiences see through the machinations of Twitter users who want to mislead the public by citing selective or false history narratives.
A third theme focused on the politics of academia in the digital age. Some scholars take a pragmatic approach, while others (a small but growing number) take a “screw the establishment” mindset and push the envelope when it comes to academic work. The former tend to be more cautious. They value publications in hard copies (i.e. books, print journals) that are historically more “respected” within departments, but severely limit the audience to faculty, students, and university librarians. On the other hand, advocates of digitized publications and formats believe that work readily available online can reach more people and hopefully engage new audiences. However, who – either by virtue of their position within academia, or in their workplace – has the privilege required to challenge ideas about what constitutes scholarship? As academics push the envelope, they are still working within a system that has a clear hierarchy with deep roots in medieval traditions, which can never be said to be progressive from our modern point of view. Thus, anyone who stands a chance at bucking the system still requires a shield from serious consequences – especially the possibility of losing their position within an institution. Thankfully, University of Michigan Press has led the way by publishing physical books that are also freely available online.
A last theme dug into the very nature of writing online. Blogs, for example, can become testing labs for ideas and/or conversational in tone. For example, you can change a blog faster and at any moment, as opposed to the “dead” status of works that are already in print. Books like Learn to Write Badly appeal to many historians because of the insidious nature of academic jargon, which seems to be ingrained during graduate studies but alienates so many readers. Does writing a blog post help form a more conversationalist writing approach? Or is it simply a format that allows you to get ideas off of your chest?
As we concluded our discussions, an unexpected issue struck a chord. The digital turn in history continues to provoke anxieties. For some, an imposter syndrome takes hold and manifests itself with internal thoughts (“Do I belong here?” “How do I make sure no one realized I have no idea what they’re talking about?” Am I doing enough?” “Am I the only person here whose parents were not professors, or didn’t have graduate degrees?” … and so on). Graduate studies, and the higher ed environment as a whole, obscures the fact that both faculty and students have already achieved quite a bit in life. But when you throw in the abundance of digital tools and resources, as well as the steep learning curve to coding and tools like Photoshop, then the anxieties seem to manifest themselves even more. Suddenly, traditional approaches to research, teaching, learning, and publishing seem more reasonable.