Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

Historians (and Students of History) Influencing Public Policy on Capitol Hill and Beyond

Are you familiar with the National History Center‘s “Congressional Briefings” program?

The Center’s Congressional Briefings program aims to provide members of Congress and their staff with the historical background needed to understand the context of current legislative concerns.  It does so by bringing leading historians to Capitol Hill to provide non-partisan briefings on past events and policies that shape the issues facing Congress today.

In the last year, the Center has sponsored forums to help national legislators understand the historical context behind of a host of policy issues, including incarceration, tax reform, the Ukraine crisis, and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  On December 4, 2015, the Center is sponsoring a briefing on the Voting Rights Act.  (I would love to see them do one on religion and the American founding.  I think a lot of GOP legislators need to be informed on this issue!)

This is an outstanding program.  It is yet another way to bring historical knowledge and thinking skills to some of the most important policy issues facing the United States today.

I was aware of the Congressional Briefings program, but I did not know that the National History Center had extended it to college students until Amanda Moniz, the Assistant Director of the Center, brought the Mock Policy Briefing Program to my attention. It is featured in her article in the October 2015 issue of Perspectives on History

Here is a taste:

This fall the National History Center is introducing the Mock Policy Briefings Program, modeled on our own Congressional Briefings by Historians initiative.

The inspiration for the Mock Policy Briefings Program comes from concerns and questions of colleagues and students. Last fall, in an address about the state of civic engagement in the United States, National Endowment for the Humanities chair William “Bro” Adams remarked that the humanities are the intellectual guardians of civic participation and challenged us to think about how we can strengthen civics education and practice. Later, one of the participants in our briefing last winter on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Mark Von Hagen of Arizona State University, told center staff that his students were surprised to learn that he, a historian, was going to Washington to brief congressional staffers.

The Mock Policy Briefings Program responds to Adams’s challenge and students’ curiosity about historians’ public role, along with broad concern in the discipline about declining history enrollments. The program has three goals. It aims to foster students’ understanding of the value of historical perspectives for policy decision making. It seeks to enhance students’ civic engagement by asking them to connect their historical studies to policy-making conversations. And, finally, it aims to help students recognize and showcase the skills and habits of mind they have gained from their history education.

This fall, Temple University’s Jessica Roney has incorporated the briefings model into a course on the history of the City of Brotherly Love. Examining local history within the context of national and international developments, her students will craft a briefing to bring a historical perspective to an issue currently facing Philadelphia policy makers. Members of the class are working both individually to research potential topics and collaboratively to choose and prepare the issue for the class briefing. Once they have identified appropriate policy makers and held a dress rehearsal near the end of the semester, they will hold the formal event before an audience of Philadelphia policy makers. (I am honored to have been invited to attend and offer feedback.) The final assignment for the course is a blog post reflecting on what students learned about how history shapes current policy considerations and how they can apply those lessons going forward. Watch AHA Today (blog.historians.org) to learn more about the students’ experiences.

Read the entire article here.  I especially recommend the section on how other history professors are using this model for student engagement with the past and the present in their classes.  This is definitely something to think about after I return to the classroom in Fall 2016.

Historians Against Slavery Conference

What is Historians Against Slavery?  It is “a group of scholars who bring historical context and scholarship to the modern-day antislavery movement in order to inform activism and develop collaborations to sustain and enhance such efforts.”  The organization was founded in 2011 by noted historian of abolitionism James Brewer Stewart.  The current co-directors are Stacey Robertson at Central Washington University and Matthew Mason at Brigham Young University.  

It is a group that you should now about.

Those connected with Historians Against Slavery are meeting this weekend at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.  It looks like a great conference.  The conference theme is “Using History to Make Slavery History.”  Presenters and moderators include Ed Baptist, Paul Finkelman, Randall Miller, David Blight, among other U.S. and international scholars.

You can follow the conference on Twitter #has15.  Here are a few tweets that caught my attention:



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