About a year ago, I wrote an essay for my friend Joshua Hedlund’s blog PostLibertarian. Although my essay briefly discussed libertarianism, I was more interested in the contested nature of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” within a political context and how those terms have changed in meaning throughout American history. At the time of that post, I had recently graduated from undergrad and was a teaching assistant for a school in St. Charles, Missouri. I was still hesitant about starting my own blog, but was asked to write a bit about my observations on the 2012 Presidential election, to which I happily accepted. Was it the best essay I’ve ever written? Probably not. Do I agree with everything I wrote at that time? Probably not. Nevertheless, I worked hard researching and writing that essay, and I think there are points worth discussing in it.
Well, I got an email from WordPress today saying that I had received a “pingback” from the essay. Somebody at an online political discussion forum cited my work to make some sort of argument about George Washington and liberalism. I’m not really sure what the exact argument was about, but the citation reinforces the fact that what you publish online is very public and easily searchable on Google, Bing, etc. For that reason, I take great pains to make sure my content is as clear and articulate as possible, because I know many critical eyes are looking at my work.
I had a major LOL moment, however, because “a proud adherent of the Constitution” (whatever that means) named “Jimmyb” from Texas responded to the original poster who cited my work with the following:
Why do you insist on making a fool of yourself? You are out of your league, and The Google will not alleviate lack of knowledge on the subject… Spare me your quote by a recent undergraduate with a degree in history and music performance [ME!]. As I said, you cannot learn this on The Google. How embarrassing. If you have to Google your replies for this discussion, you have no business being involved.
Rather than addressing the content of my essay, “Jimmyb” dismisses my essay and the person who cited it because it came from Google and from someone who recently graduated college, apparently. Such a tactic is often referred to as a genetic logical fallacy, which involves judging something as good or bad based on where or who it came from. Second, I find it quite ironic that an anonymous poster at an online discussion forum can claim to have this wide knowledge of constitutional history while making potshots at people who put their name on their work. Finally, “Jimmyb” misunderstands my argument and takes it out of context, so at this point it is worthless to engage in any further discussion on that front, especially with someone who wants to post things anonymously.
The main point I wanted to bring up, however, is that “Jimmyb’s” comments do challenge us to question the value of blogs in fostering constructive discussion and making sound arguments about history. I am reminded of some comments my friend Bob Pollack made at his blog Yesterday…and Today after one of his blog posts was cited in a New York Times article on Julia Dent Grant a few months ago. He stated the following about blogs:
The problem with most newspaper articles and blogposts (yes, this blog included) is that there are usually no source footnotes and no peer review. In the case of the Disunion series, I don’t know who is reviewing or approving the articles the Times is running. Regarding sources, the articles are not footnoted, although they do list source references at the end of the article. This, of course, is only somewhat useful in identifying the source of specific information related in the article.
John Fea, a history professor who also blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, has also engaged in a similar discussion, asking his readers whether he should be considered an “Academic Blogger” or a “Blogger Who Is an Academic.” To wit:
At what point does “academic blogging” cease being academic blogging and become something else? On one hand, The Way of Improvement Leads Home has been successful because I have credentials as an academic historian. On the other hand, I write about a lot of things for which I do not have any specialized training. For example, my thoughts on politics are often tempered by a kind of caution and prudence that comes with being a historian (or at least I like to think they are), but in the end I am expressing my opinions just like everyone else.
In my opinion, the essay I wrote a year ago and my blog today are not academic resources. This website is a personal blog that discusses academic content, but I am not an academic blogger. I have credentials as a trained historian and certified teacher (although that wasn’t good enough for “Jimmyb”), but much of what I write here consists of opinions and questions I have about history. That said, I have learned a lot from reading other people’s blogs, and I don’t hesitate to cite the work of other bloggers on this website (although I have yet to cite a blog post on an academic research paper. I’ve seen academic papers that have done so, however, and there are Chicago guidelines for properly citing blog posts).
“Jimmyb,” dismisses those who use Google for scholarly content, but the fact of the matter is that the younger generations are going to Google first–not scholarly books–when engaging in research for history projects, whether we like it or not. How do we use Google as a source of empowerment? Does all scholarly content need to come from a .edu or .gov website, or can a .wordpress.com site provide useable content for scholarly projects? What about Wikipedia? Does the author of this content need to have certain academic credentials to be cited by others online, or can anyone’s work be cited? For me, good content trumps the medium in which the content is produced. Of course books are important for our scholarly endeavors, and as Bob mentioned, scholarly books often benefit from the peer review process. But it seems to me that if somebody has good content to share online, we should take that content seriously and focus our criticisms on the content of that work rather than the credentials of the person writing the content. There are instances in which credentials may play a role in historical debate, but content is more important. I have no problem if somebody thinks my essay on liberalism and conservatism is wrong, but I’d rather have my content criticized rather than my credentials (or lack thereof).
By the way, if anyone wants to read about the changing linguistic nature of “liberalism” and “conservatism” from somebody with fancy Harvard credentials, I point you to Jonathan Hansen’s 2003 work The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920.