Blogging the Past: Part II

5 July 2024cartoon woman sitting at laptop

In our second installment of the “Blogging the Past” Roundtable, we continue our conversation between panelists representing a number of well-respected digital history publications, including Black Perspectives, History@Work, Insurrect! Radical Thinking in Early American Studies, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, Picturing Black History, and Pieces of History: A Blog of the National Archives.

For more on our panelists and their publications, please see “Blogging the Past: Part I.”

*****

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): It seems to me that another benefit of these sites is that they offer the opportunity to democratize scholarly output. In an age when tenure-track jobs are decreasing (alongside institutional support for traditional research agendas) what role do digital history publications play in dismantling academic gatekeeping and expanding the bounds of who can create historical knowledge?

Jessie Kratz (Pieces of History): We often feature unknown or lesser-known stories and documents that may not have ever seen the light of day. We want our readers to take our documents and use them in their research, in their classrooms, in their publications—however they are needed to help tell a more complete picture of what happened in the past.

Menika Dirkson (Black Perspectives): Black Perspectives is an innovative and democratized academic space that features op-ed articles from scholars that are comparable to pieces you would read from the Washington Post or another major news media outlet. In addition to our website, we email notifications about new posts to our subscribers weekly and utilize social media to further circulate our pieces to readers. We primarily feature the writings of academics who hold PhDs and MAs, but also graduate students and on occasion undergraduates, who create exceptional scholarship worthy of publication. However, we do maintain a gold academic standard of publication.

Our blog is an encouraging space that does not restrict contributors based on credentials. In fact, not all contributors to Black Perspectives are historians. Some guest contributors are affiliated with disciplines from the social sciences and humanities like Criminal Justice, Political Science, Literature, and Cultural Studies. Furthermore, our blog is a welcoming space for scholars from all backgrounds. Contributors, especially first-generation academics who may find certain aspects of academia daunting, hierarchal, and exclusive, can gain a low-pressure experience with publication that will boost their confidence, increase their visibility among senior academics in the field, and produce scholarship that can reach everyday people who read history for knowledge and personal interest.

Will Mackintosh (The Panorama): I have come to think of The Panorama as having two distinct constituencies: its readers and the authors who write for it.  I confess to having much clearer ideas about its relationship with the latter than with the former.  I think The Panorama and publications like it fill a number of valuable niches for people with an itch to write about the past.

First, it allows academic authors who regularly publish in scholarly venues to write more informally about their work; in The Panorama, they can engage the kinds of “presentist” and political questions that are anathema to traditional historical scholarship, they can reflect on the pedagogical implications of their work, they can engage in speculation or counterfactual reasoning, or they can just glory in the delicious weirdness of the past.

Second, it provides graduate students and emerging scholars a place to begin to share their work, to develop their authorial voices, and to get a line, however modest, on their CV.  It also offers space for historians working outside of the academy to write about issues of professional interest to them, in a format that is still rigorous but less time-consuming than traditional journal articles.  In thinking about this final category, I am very much influenced that the work that I did with other members of the JER editorial team on the “Material Conditions of Historians’ Labor” roundtable in the Winter 2022 issue of the JER.  As the contexts in which historians labor become more diverse, historical publishing needs to evolve to reflect the needs and interests of the full historical profession.

Sarah Lerch (History@Work): History@Work accepts submissions from across the public history field including academic perspectives, museum professionals, students, activists, educators, etc. By allowing for diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences to be showcased and published, it allows for more seats at the table so to speak. Public history at its core is the presenting of history to/for the public and acknowledges the past, present, and future making of history by each individual. This impetus for equity has been seen at many cultural institutions across the world and placing more emphasis on sharing more diverse perspectives while not shying away from challenging or status quo contradictory conversations.

Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): A trusted, insightful, and free public history platform, Origins’ central mission is to produce historically based, insightful analysis of today’s most pressing current events and to make this knowledge and analytical understanding easily available to a diverse public. In connecting the present and the past, Origins aims to foster a better informed, more thoughtful citizenry.

Steven Conn (Origins & Picturing Black History): This is not what we do. On the contrary, our role is to bring academic expertise to a wider readership, not to turn that readership into amateur historians. Speaking personally, I think historians have done ourselves a disservice over the last generation by not being more aggressive about gate-keeping historical conversations. Part of my goal is to offer readers a serious alternative to the proliferation of historical nonsense available now.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): Absolutely.  That said, our sites can provide professional opportunities to those with historical expertise who aren’t senior scholars holding tenured academic appointments, but the onus is still on us to ensure that the quality of scholarship produced rises well above the unfortunately low bar of “historical nonsense” available freely across the web!

Emily Arendt (Moderator): From the perspective of historical practitioners, what are the potential downsides of contributing to these kinds of publications?

Jessie Kratz (Pieces of History): As the custodians of the archives of the federal government, our role is to make available the original documentation of historic events so people have access to a firsthand account of the past. The blog affords us the opportunity to help place those documents in a larger historical context. As a nonpartisan federal agency, however, we are careful to avoid politically charged or polarizing issues. With the recent controversies surrounding how American history is taught, what is considered “controversial” seems to be a moving target.

Steven Conn (Origins & Picturing Black History):  I think there has been a great deal of talk about making “public history” of this sort part of a faculty member’s professional portfolio but I don’t think too many departments have put their money (or procedures) where their mouths are. Certainly, the 3 of us receive no additional compensation for the work we do – and Nick and I have been at this for over 15 years.

Emily Arendt (Moderator):  For academic historians, the lack of credit towards tenure or promotion can be a real downside for eliciting content: why spend time producing pieces that “don’t count” professionally or don’t provide remuneration?  Although we might argue that reaching a broader audience and providing sorely needed historical context is a goal to which all should aspire, most professional historical practitioners already feel stretched thin.  For those in academic positions, I would advocate ongoing conversations with departmental rank and tenure committees about the possibility of implementing elements of the American Historical Associations Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Scholarship (2023), which includes recommendations regarding, among other things, digital scholarship.

Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): The professional reality here is changing, in great part from the very different digital world we live in now than when the historical profession defined its expectations and due to the forward-thinking efforts of the AHA to broaden the bar of what is accepted professional practice. There is still a long way to go to ensure that public history is accepted professionally on a par. Yet, it is essential for the survival of our field. Historians who write only for other historians risk draining students from our classes since there will be no one in the public arena making the case for the value of historical thinking and approaches. We do offer a modest honorarium to our authors and contributors so that their work is not entirely pro bono; we believe strongly that authors should be paid for their time and expertise (even if just a small amount, which is usually all we can afford from our budget).

Emily Arendt (Moderator): Looking to the future, what do you see as the trajectory for digital history publications? Do you have any new and exciting things we should be on the lookout for?

Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): Digital publications are increasingly the present and are certainly the future of our profession.  Already, most of us read our journals and books in digital forms. And it has become clear that the written word on a “page” isn’t the only, or even the best means to transmit what we have discovered about the past.  Videos, podcasts, interactive webpages, etc., often do better than the written word to bring history alive and engage public audiences.

Sarah Lerch (History@Work): History@Work has a special call out for pitches on generative AI and public history. I am very curious to see how AI will impact education and how people consume and evaluate all manner of digital content.

Menika Dirkson (Black Perspectives): One of the privileges of reading articles published by Black Perspectives is that the blog fully embraces intersectionality, internationalism, acute awareness of current events, and creativity in the historical narratives it delivers to the public. Among some of the most fascinating articles the blog has published are unfathomable historical narratives about how sharks in the Atlantic Ocean that followed slave ships during the Middle Passage devoured both the bodies of enslaved people and documentation on the slave trade, political pieces like how Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students in South Carolina fought for desegregation in the era of the Red Scare and Civil Rights Movement, and even photojournalist articles that explore the social history of postwar urban cities like Chicago. Many of our articles are completely accessible for the general public precisely because they are not filled with SAT words or academic jargon that may be challenging for individuals outside of academia.

This type of readability means that educators can use many of our pieces as reading assignments for students at the undergraduate or even high school level. When academics and everyday people read short pieces with such accessibility, it can lead them to exploring other articles and books on those topics that captured their attention. In fact, when people read the blog regularly, they also discover that some contributors have slowly become some of their favorite authors! For me, contributors (who are also my peers) like Mickell Carter, M. Keith Claybrook, Jr., and Candace Cunningham, not only tell stories in a writing style I appreciate, but their 20th century narratives on Black internationalism, activism against police violence in urban cities, and Black social life in Southern cities respectively are also topics that fascinate me. Overall, Black Perspectives is an academic blog that fills in historical gaps in the scholarship we have on the African Diaspora, educates a general audience of readers, and creates a space for academics to share their knowledge on a platform that values their research and wants to put publication in reach of all who rightfully seek it.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): For our part, we at The Pano look forward to continuing production of great Journal of the Early Republic companion pieces, but also want to encourage readers to submit their own material.  Truly, digital history publications like those featured in this Roundtable serve an invaluable role for both the profession and American society more broadly.

It is my hope that more historical practitioners, especially graduate students, junior scholars, and historians working outside the academy, feel empowered to take part in the conversations these sites help foster.  To that end, our next post in this series will feature sage advice from our contributors with some “tips and tricks” for writing public-facing pieces.

Thanks again to all our panelists for their participation!

Next Articles

Blogging the Past: Part I
In the first installment of our "Blogging the Past" Roundtable, we introduce our contributors and explore the value of public-facing digital history publications.
Blogging the Past: Part II