Is Social Media Scholarship?

Olaf

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.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Writing Online as Public Scholarship: A Success Story

ChineseI just came across Ben Railton’s blog “American Studies.”  I found it on The Octo, a collection of blogs assembled by Joseph Adelman for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Railton teaches American Studies at Fitchburg State in Massachusetts.

I really like his recent post (May 9, 2017) on how he got started with online writing.  In fact, I found it downright inspiring. The lesson: Persist!

Here is a taste:

As of November 2010, the same month when I began this blog, I began trying to write op ed pieces for newspapers on histories that I believed were missing from contemporary debates over issues like immigration and diversity in America. Over the next four years I drafted and re-drafted a number of such pieces, waiting for moments when the particular issue would rise to the top of the news cycle once again and then sending the pieces out to various newspapers’ op ed pages. I apologize to any editors if I’m forgetting them, but as best I can remember I not only never got any of those op eds published (that I know for sure), but also never received a reply of any kind to any of those submissions (other than the automatic form-reply sent upon initial submission). While I didn’t entirely give up on the possibility (indeed, I kept revising and re-sending the pieces when suitable occasions arose), I have to admit that it started to feel like a minor and largely quixotic pursuit within the overall frame of my career, a way to pretend (I wouldn’t have used that particular word at the time, but I’m trying to reflect as honestly as I can) that I was aiming for public scholarly connections and audience beyond those that this blog or my books or other publications could reach.

In November 2014, thanks to the Scholars Strategy Network, and specifically to its then-Media Director (now Executive Director) Avi Green, that all changed. President Obama was preparing to deliver a prominent, televised speech on his immigration (and Dream Act)-related Executive Order, and I was preparing a new version of my immigration histories op ed (now based in part on the many book talks I had given for The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America [2013]). But this time I shared the piece with Avi first, and—after ruthlessly and crucially forcing me to cut it down and make it more engaging—he encouraged me to place it with Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s website on all things American politics and society. With the help of Avi’s contacts there, my revised immigration op ed, “No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally,” was published on TPM Café; the piece would go on to receive more than 110,000 views, land at #4 on the list of TPM Café’s most viewed posts from 2014, and become the first of more than two dozen biweekly pieces of mine for TPM (and a model for the pieces I’ve written and continued to write for numerous other websites, including my most recent ongoing work as a blogger for the Huffington Post).

There’s a lot that I could say about that moment and what it meant for me, but I think my main takeaway would have to be that it, and thus Avi and SSN, helped me realize for the first time the unique and vital role that short-form online writing can play in a 21st century public scholarly career…

Read the rest here.

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

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Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

Schoenbachler: "Bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with the public."

Matt Schoenbachler

On Sunday, in my weekly “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” post, I linked to Professor Patricia Limerick’s response to Nicholas Kristof’s February 2015 New York Times column, “Professors, We Need You!”  If you read this blog, you know that I have done several posts on the topic.  (You can read them here and here and here ).  In the end I argued, contra to most of my colleagues in academia, that when Kristof’s chides academics for staying in their ivory towers, writing jargon-filled prose, and not engaging more fully with public audiences, he is basically correct.


Limerick, the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians, used her inaugural column to rally American historians to show Kristof just how much he is wrong about academics on this front.  Here is a taste of her column:
Kristof…labors—and writes—in darkness when it comes to a grounded knowledge of the everyday lives of hundreds of historians working in multiple institutions, locales, and enterprises.
I need to hear from historians employed at universities and colleges who travel back and forth across the borders of the academic world…
If you are a historian based in academia and also engaged in the world beyond the borders of your campus, please write me. Tell me who you are, what your field is, what you teach, what you write about, and what sort of activity—working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.—you engage in outside your university or college. If you involve your students in these enterprises, all the better—please let me know about how you may have, for instance, hitched up the writing and research assignments in your class to the public benefit…
“I write this in sorrow,” Kristof ended his column, “for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses.”
We now have the opportunity to relieve his “sorrow” and to deepen his admiration for “the wisdom found on”—and actually transported and distributed far from—”university campuses.”
Matthew G. Schoenbachler, a Professor of History at the University of North Alabama and a reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, saw the link to Limerick’s column and asked me if he could respond.  Rather than include his remarks in the comments section below, I thought his message deserved a post of its own because I think he is on the mark here:

I appreciate what Professor Limerick is trying to do in her call for American historians to send her examples of historians engaging people outside the classroom. In responding to critics such as Nicholas Kristof who contend that that most academic work is irrelevant, she rightly asserts that historians engage the public far more than most people know, “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”

Doubtlessly, thousands of professional historians could give abundant examples of all or most of the above. But when and if Limerick tabulates their responses, her project will signify little or nothing. For the problem is not that historians don’t reach out to the public—the problem is that such effort is essentially pro bono—the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities. The fact that such endeavors go on at all warms my one-point Calvinist heart (total depravity in case you’re wondering).  

Ask yourself: How many historians are awarded tenure, promoted, or find employment at a more prestigious university by “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”?

Exactly none.

In a sense, Limerick’s project resembles the conservative contention that massive inequities in wealth distribution can be alleviated through charity rather than the imposition of progressive taxation (yes, I realize I just made a completely implausible analogy between historians and the wealthy, but bear with me). At issue is not the individuals in the system or their character; it is the system itself. And bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with public and ten thousand testimonials to the essential decency of most professional historians will change nothing. 

We should be far less concerned with giving “aid, comfort, and affirmation to our critics” and far more concerned with advocating the creation of institutional means that will encourage and reward professional historians’ engagement with the public.
Thanks, Mark.  It may be time for some serious reform.  

Feel free to fire-away in the comment section below.

More on Kristof’s Editorial About Academics and the Public

Charles Dickens gives a public reading in 1867

Academics cannot seem to let go of Nicholas Kristof’s February 15, 2014 New York Times op-ed “Professors We Need You!”  (And I am apparently one of those academics who can’t let go because I continue to blog about it. I weighed in on the piece here). 

Over at History News Network, Jim Downs of Connecticut College explains why it is often difficult for academic writers and historians to find their way into popular magazines and other outlets.  Here is a taste:


This past summer, I queried TIME magazine to publish an article on new research that I conducted on the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history. June 24, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the night when 29 gay men were killed in an arson attack in a bar converted into a church. The editors at TIME jumped at the story, but when it came to interviewing the remaining survivor, who I located, TIME insisted on assigning one of their star reporters to conduct the interview. They claimed that as a historian I did not have the skills to conduct the interview, and that according to their protocol, they had to have their own reporters do it. While that seemed reasonable, the story almost went to print with the reporter listed as the only name on the byline and I would be listed at the end of the article as simply providing research. Under the auspices of journalism, my research, my framework and my writing almost got erased from the story.
I write these examples, not because I have sour grapes, but rather to offer concrete evidence of the struggles that academics face when they attempt to get published in mainstream magazines. Further, my argument is simply that there are limited opportunities in the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers in which academics can reach broader audiences; journalists and freelance writers certainly face these limitations as well. That said, I am simply attempting to argue that Kristof’s critique neglected the fact that it is very hard for academics or any other writers for that matter to reach broad audiences. The sheer will to be a public intellectual is not enough; one needs access and often an Ivy League imprimatur after their name.


And this:

Finally, one of the most astute observations that Kristof later made in his blog that has also gone virtually overlooked is his claim that “when professors do lead the way in trying to engage the public, their colleagues sometimes regard them with suspicion.” This is absolutely true. I cannot even begin to document the cruel and mean-spirited responses that I have encountered as I try to engage the public. Not only do most scholars snub insights that scholars, like me, make in the mainstream publications, but they seethe with insults about my desire to publish in this genre. The negativity that I have encountered from within the academy has been more of a detriment to me continuing to reach out to the public than anything else. Further, the fact that I emulate scholars, like Harvard Professor Jill Lepore, who writes for The New Yorker, or even Timothy Patrick McCarthy, another Harvard professor, who is a leading social activist, as important voices within national conversations, has only branded me with the scarlet letter a for adulteress — to the academy.

Kristof is Right About Professors

Kristof is on the mark

In case you missed it, Nicholas Kristof’s February 15, 2014 op-ed in The New York Times has a lot of academics angry.  In a piece entitled “Professors, We Need You,”  Kristof chided college and university professors for failing to speak to a wider public.  Here is a small taste:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience  This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.  Rebels are too often crushed or driven away…

…A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.  As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals–or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Kristof’s article recently came up during a talk I was giving at Columbia University in New York. Someone in the audience thought that I should be angry too.  After all, I have been trying to do this public work for several years now.  (I wanted to thank him for mentioning this!). Why didn’t Kristof acknowledge those scholars who are attempting to reach public audiences?

But I was not angered by Kristof’s piece.  I read his article as an affirmation of some of the stuff I have been doing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, through speaking engagements, and through books like Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?  I don’t know what other public scholars thought about the piece, but I think it is still fair to say that those of us who are doing this kind of public work are in the minority in the historical profession.  Yes, things are changing. The American Historical Association has been encouraging scholars to write for public audiences and a growing number of historians are using social media effectively (although many of them are still just writing to other scholars). Yet in the end bloggers, Facebook users, Twitterstorians, and those of us who try to write in accessible prose for non-specialists still fall under Kristof’s phrase, “There are plenty of exceptions, of course….”

A few years ago I was chatting with a prominent historian who holds an endowed chair in an Ivy League history department.  This scholar had been doing a lot speaking and lecturing to public audiences, so I asked him what his department thought about all of this work.  He said that his department chair was not happy about it and wished he would get back in the archive and start producing more original research.  Academic scholarship, after all, was what he was paid to do.

I commend all of the blog posts written to call Kristof’s attention to the work that so many scholars are doing to reach the public.  But we are just not there yet.  Kristof’s piece stings because it is on the mark.

OK, I need to stop writing.  I am speaking in Messiah College chapel in an hour.

Call for Papers for Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History: "Christian Historians and Their Publics"

I am really looking forward to this conference. When it comes to putting together conferences for Christian historians there is no one better than Jay Green.

Here are the details:

CHRISTIAN HISTORIANS & THEIR PUBLICS
The 29th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History
SEPTEMBER 25-27, 2014
Pepperdine University, Malibu, California

Contemporary historians have a somewhat complicated relationship with “the public.” We long to have public audiences who will be challenged and shaped by our work, but most of us tend to produce highly specialized scholarship and write primarily for other scholars. When we do address the public, our often myth-busting strategies can come across as patronizing, contemptuous, and even politically motivated. As historians, who are our “publics”? And what  responsibilities, if any, do we owe them Are there public venues for historical understanding that we should be exploring? Does our  peculiar identity as Christians have any bearing on the publics we address, what we have to say, or how we say it? Are there Christian ways of thinking about and doing public history? Is there a Christian public for our work as historians? The Fall 2014 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History will gather at Pepperdine University in beautiful Malibu, California, to explore these and many other questions related to Christian Historians and Their Publics.

Christian historians’ vocational responsibility to the church

Should historians seek a public platform? Why or why not?

The status and quality of popular history written for Christian audiences

Responding to popular Christian social memory

What professional Christian historians have to learn from “the faithful”

Historians and social media

Undergraduate classes as public audiences

The encounter between “popular” and “professional” Christian historians

The Christian historian as public intellectual or public scholar (not the same thing)

Christian museums and historic sites

Writing institutional histories

Writing congregational histories

Writing local history

Writing school curricula

Negotiating professional convictions and public needs/tastes/assumptions

Roundtable discussions of great historical books that managed to nd large, general audiences

Christian faith and advocacy history

Documentary Filmaking

Christian historians in government 

Responding to history-themed film

History as entertainment/pastime

Historical authority in public

The historian as expert witness

The historian as political activist

The historian as journalist/pundit

The historian as Wikipedian

Inequality, justice, and public history

Public history, empathy, and the Christian historian

Individual paper or complete session (preferable) proposals may be sent to

Jay Green
Department of History
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, Georgia 30750
jay.green@covenant.edu
huntington.edu/cfh/conference.htm

submission deadline: 15 March 2014