Read This and the War Is Won: Can Blogs Save History?

History is a slow moving discipline. A historian’s gravitas among peers usually starts with a dissertation, which in itself starts only after grueling qualifying exams and the inner soul struggles of a prospectus. Then, in many cases, comes the sisyphean-feeling experience of applying for money to get to an archive. Primary sources are painstakingly assembled, a draft is written, and rewritten, and then a committee reviews it to decide if the work merits a Ph.D. After that comes the often lengthy process of revising the dissertation to turn it into a book. If this abridged summary of the road to being a serious scholar makes for dull reading, well, that’s kind of the point. This lumbering, deliberate process shapes how historians think, which is why it is easy for them to dismiss the faster pace and improvisational nature of digital media. But in doing so, they do nothing to make history more engaging to the general public.

For one, digital media challenges a time-tested approach to scholarship, which David Parry describes as “filter-then-publish.” Such gate keeping exists for good reason. Ideally,  modern historians are trained to be skeptical of their own biases, or at least cautious in their assumptions. Developing that kind of critical thinking, alongside the mastery of voluminous historiographies, takes a lot of time. Most consumers of history don’t have that kind of time, and are often content to rest on their own, comfortable assumptions about the past. Several years ago, for example, I taught an upper-level history class on World War II in Europe, where I took pains to illuminate the complex circumstances that led to the German defeat of France in 1940. I showed evidence that most French soldiers—contrary to popular belief—did not surrender en masse, and generally fought quite valiantly, and I gave a detailed account of the long-simmering political turmoil that ultimately manifested in the divide between Vichy and Free France. My lectures drew from well-documented sources by esteemed historians like Richard Overy, Ernest May, and Omer Bartov. After all that work, several of my students still joked that the French army asked Hitler if he preferred red or white wine with the Rhine Valley.

And now, any of these people can start a blog. . . and there is a good chance their readership could easily outstrip that of Bartov’s insightfully researched in Mirrors of Destruction.

But there is good news. Historians can start blogs too, and use them to reach a wider audience. Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett argue that “blogs can help keep an interested audience informed where history would otherwise lose them because of the commitments required by dedicated study and reading.” This may not give historians the magical power to change people’s most stubborn assumptions, but blogs’ shorter length and faster turnaround time can give historians new tools to engage readers. Most importantly, historians can apply their knowledge in something closer to real time. Eric Rauchway, for instance, recently called out Hillary Clinton’s strangely white-washed view of Reconstruction in The Edge of the American West, a blog he co-founded with Kathy Olmstead. A more traditional, peer reviewed method of publication would render the point moot, whereas Rauchway’s timely post discusses the 2016 presidential campaign in a new light.  

Blogs are also an opportunity for historians to flesh out ideas with a new, less formal, “quick and dirty” approach to scholarship. Take, for example, R.E. Fulton’s piece, “She Looks the Abortionist and the Bad Woman.” This brief article explores the links between abortion, physiognomy, and the social conventions of “good” and “bad” women. In all, Fulton’s piece is more of a shot across a topic’s bow than a fully developed argument, but this is also seems to be by design. Through blogs, scholars can posit new ideas and initial research, and develop them through a dialogue with their peers. Jude Webre does something similar in his review of Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, where he addresses other scholars by first name and links his text to their own works.

Cummings and Jarrett point at that such work will not necessary earn anyone tenure or a promotion. The day in which the blog topples the monograph may never come, but history blogs may very well do something more important: make scholarly history interesting.

–Will Greer


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