Exploring the Past Turns 5

Photo Credit: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/explore/helicopter-cake/

January 1 marks the fifth anniversary of creating Exploring the Past. Establishing on online presence to share thoughts, ideas, and scholarship with interested readers and to network with other history scholars has been immensely rewarding for me on a personal and professional level. I initially created this website as an avenue to work on my writing skills while I was a graduate student at IUPUI and to contemplate (in a public setting) what studying history meant to me. I continue to write here for those same reasons, but as a professional public historian I’ve also worked to discuss challenges I face in my work and to contribute to larger conversations within the field about fair employment practices, “public engagement,” and interpreting difficult histories.

Through this blog I’ve written more than 400 posts and have received thousands of comments, most of which came from real people and were positive in nature. I’ve developed strong real-life and online friendships, have been offered speaking and writing gigs, and have felt a sense of personal accomplishment from this blog. Most notably for this year, through this blog I was offered a regular writing position at the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog Muster, which has put me in contact with some of the finest Civil War scholars in the field and has challenged me to become a better writer.

What guides me in my public writing is the belief that historians should make their work accessible in content, style, and location. Historians will continue writing in long-form mediums like books and journal articles because the field needs “slow scholarship” – scholarship that needs time for comprehensive research, thinking, and evolution over a long period of time, oftentimes several years. But blogging is a unique art form in and of itself: the ability to break down a complex topic into 100 to 1,200 words is a challenge not easily accomplished even by the best historians. History blogging oftentimes reaches an audience much broader than the one reached by books and journal articles, and it forces writers to put their best foot forward when making an argument that will reach an audience beyond the confines of the academy or the museum. I consider my public writing an extension of my work as a public historian and it offers me a chance to discuss topics that I may not get to discuss in my regular job.

I believe 2017 was a major year of growth for me as a historian, intellectual, and scholar. I gave several talks, including one you can see here in which I discussed controversial public monuments; I wrote a journal article on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret that now looks to be published next year; I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education; I made huge strides at work, where I’ve taken on increased responsibilities, including developing education programs for schools and senior groups, running teacher workshops, and conducting historical research; and I wrote five online essays that in my belief constitute some of my best writing:

Conversely, my personal success was marked on this blog with a good number of negative, personally insulting, and trollish comments – more than the previous four years combined. I attribute part of this development to the internet in general, where efforts to improve the public discourse are Sisyphean in nature, but I also believe it’s reflective of this blog’s growing readership. If a post shows up on Google and ends up being shared by a few people who may love or hate what you have to say, you’ll quickly find out that people from all parts of the globe will find your writings, for better or worse.

What was particularly strange for me was the number of negative comments on blog posts that I wrote several years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect writer, and the work of improving one’s writing is a process that takes years to develop. There has been a noticeable movement among Twitter users to delete old tweets that could be harmful in the present, and more than a few times I have contemplated deleting old blog posts here that no longer reflect my thinking (and there are a good number of them here). I have made mistakes over the past five years and it would be easy to remove them. At the same time, however, I believe this blog is in some ways a tangible story of my growth and development as a historian. It is a personal archive of sorts, and I choose to leave it as is not just for others but for myself.

2018 will start with lots of exciting projects and I look forward to seeing what happens from here. As always, thank you for your readership and support over the past five years.

Cheers

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Becoming a Regular Contributor to the “Muster” Blog

A couple weeks ago the Journal of the Civil War Era announced that they had overhauled the design of their blog, Muster. A couple days after that I received an email stating that the blog was looking for writers to contribute essays on a regular basis, and that I was invited to join the team. So…I’m very pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to Muster. I will be writing roughly five or six essays a year and offering a particular focus on interpreting the Civil War era within a public history setting, although that will not be my only focus. I’ve written previously for Muster before becoming a regular contributor, with the most recent essay focusing on the Frank Blair statue at Forest Park in downtown St. Louis.

The team of regular correspondents now writing for Muster is truly outstanding, and I am greatly honored to have been asked to be a part of this exciting initiative. My first essay as a regular correspondent should be up next week – we’ll see what happens from here!

Cheers

 

A Quick Note on a Few Site Updates

To kick off the new year I’ve done a little bit of maintenance work on the website that I’d like to share with readers.

My Resources page has been updated to include some of my better writings from 2015. The collection spans back to my first days blogging here at Exploring the Past back in 2013. It’s a good way to keep track of writings that would otherwise be hard to find though the search function on the website.

I have also created a Google Doc that contains all of my open access publications from other websites and papers I’ve presented at conferences. You can view that document here. I will also leave a permanent link to the document on my Curriculum Vitae.

Please take a look at these writing and enjoy (hopefully).

Cheers

A Brief Reminder About My Disclaimer and Comment Policy

On the Disclaimer page of this website I state that I reserve the right to moderate comments at my discretion. I operate this website as a private citizen and provide a comment section in the hope that others will join in fruitful conversation with me, but this site is not an unrestricted free-speech zone. If you say something insulting towards me or other people who leave comments, use vulgarities, or talk/rant about things that are completely off topic and irrelevant to the discussion at hand, I will delete that comment. This is my platform, and I am under no obligation to make it your platform.

This website has always been a place for discussing 19th century history, especially Civil War-related topics, but events related to the recent actions of institutions around the country to take down or alter Confederate iconography have aroused my interest as of late. I am not the only one discussing this topic. Emotions have been heated on all sides of the discussion, and I have attempted to look at issues of history and memory that this iconography sparks from the perspective of an educator and historian. I publicly supported the taking down of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds back in June but have made no other declarations one way or the other regarding any other Confederate iconography. I have instead opted to talk about why these symbols are so charged, why they are now coming down even though this debate reaches back at least a hundred years in some cases, and what we can do to educate people about Civil War history moving forward. I have enjoyed conversing with readers here and elsewhere about these topics.

Mr. George Purvis, however, has made it his intention to comment on almost every Civil War-related essay I’ve penned over the past few months with false claims about Civil War history that have nothing to do with the discussions I’m trying to have and personal insults towards myself and others. See herehere, here, here, and here for examples. This behavior towards Civil War bloggers has happened elsewhere too. I have tried to be as respectful as possible towards Mr. Purvis and engage in discussion with him by providing links to reputable resources and by providing my understanding of history to the best of my ability using primary and secondary source documents. However, there have been a number of recent comments of his that I’ve opted to delete because it’s become apparent that it’s pointless to continue a prolonged debate with someone who will mischaracterize arguments, never listen to what you have to say with an honest ear, and will never be satisfied with what you have to say unless you adopt their position 100%.

Mr. Purvis, as is his right, has now opted to write about me on his blog. Back in October he maintained that I held “bigoted and biased views” because I demanded that he provide credible documentation proving the existence of tens of thousands of blacks who fought for the Confederacy. I’m still waiting for that proof. Now he is claiming that I am “protecting” other Civil War bloggers because I have deleted insulting comments of his that he attempted to direct towards them in the comments section of this blog. “I had some respect for Sacco as a decent fellow, I guess I judged him to [sic] quick,” he says.

He wouldn’t know, of course, that I’ve also deleted out of line comments directed towards him, but I suppose it’s easy to be portrayed as a singular victim of my political correctness or whatever.

He claims that he has consistently offered comments in a “factual civil manner, no insults” on this website and says that he will copy his comments towards me on his own website. Very well. But Mr. Purvis has not copied all of his comments in a faithful manner, and he has conveniently left out a number of disparaging comments, including this one directed towards friend and fellow blogger Al Mackey in response to the New Orleans City Council electing to take down four Confederate monuments within the city limits:

George Purvis Idiocy

Ah, yes. The NOLA Confederate Monuments are coming down thanks to “Black Supremacist [sic].”

Mr. Purvis and others are free to write whatever they want about me on their personal blogs and moderate their comment section as they deem fit. That is their right. While I think it’s unfortunate that lies and false claims about me are spread on the internet and now searchable on Google, there’s not much I can do about it. It’s a small price to pay for expressing my views publicly. But the same standards apply to my website, and I will not allow inappropriate comments to go through or waste time debating every ridiculous claim that gets thrown my way. It’s not avoiding debate so much as valuing my time and focusing on things I think are important and worth discussing. Mr. Purvis and anyone else is welcome to continue commenting in the future, but it’s worth repeating that commenting at Exploring the Past comes with boundaries that I set at my discretion.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, including Mr. Purvis.

Cheers

Addendum, 12/25/15: The day after this post went live, Mr. Purvis left a comment suggesting that it was none of my business to have an opinion about Confederate iconography/Civil War history and accused me of being an “agitator” full of “racism, bigotry and hate and ignorance.” (I believe he’s accusing me of demonstrating these behaviors towards white people or white Southerners, but his incoherence is hard to understand sometimes. Given that I live in a state with some Southern leanings and have numerous friends and family in the South, the charges are patently absurd). This comment is the tipping point for me, and he is now banned from commenting any further on this website. It’s unfortunate that I have to take this measure, but I feel I have no other options at this point lest I subject myself to more abuse. In trying to argue his point of view here and elsewhere, Mr. Purvis has consistently been his own worst enemy.

Exploring the Past Turns Two!

Photo Credit: Baha'i Blog: http://bahaiblog.net/site/
Photo Credit: Baha’i Blog: http://bahaiblog.net/site/

Today marks two years of blogging at Exploring the Past. I’ve long been interested in blogs and toyed with the idea of blogging about history for at least a couple years before starting in 2013. A requirement to start blogging for a digital history graduate class, however, ultimately pushed me to establish my own website. A desire to publicly share my thoughts on the historian’s craft, my interest in nineteenth-century history, and bits of my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic also influenced my decision to start blogging. I didn’t know at that time if I would maintain a long-term commitment to public writing or if anyone would take much interest in what I had to say.

Two years later, things have gone better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve written about 250 posts in that time, ranging from short anecdotes to 1,500-word essays. I’ve had nearly 40,000 visitors to the site, many of which have left kind, generous comments of support and thoughts that have challenged my thinking. Equally important, blogging has exposed me to a network of scholars, allies, and friends within the historical enterprise that have helped enable my growth as a professional historian. Given the speed and simplicity of digital communication with colleagues around the world today, it’s hard to imagine a time when members of professional organizations like the American Historical Association and the National Council on Public History only communicated through letters, occasional telephone calls, and annual conferences. It’s great having social media tools like Twitter and WordPress today to help facilitate dialogue about historical content and methods with others online, and I happily embrace the opportunity to contribute my part to those conversations.

From time to time I get questions about how and why I blog as much as I do. My response is that writing has become an important part of my life over the past two years, something I’ve dedicated more and more time to for various reasons. The enjoyment I receive from the experience is sublime, and the challenge of becoming a graceful, competent, and persuasive writer is one I can only accomplish through the sometimes arduous process of sitting in a chair and typing away at the computer. There’s no shortcut or magic pill to becoming a better writer; you must simply write. Doing so for a public audience (as opposed to writing for a teacher or keeping a diary) improves my craft because it puts my work under public scrutiny and challenges me to write with clarity and precision. At the end of the day, blogging makes me a better writer and thinker.

2014 was a good year for me personally and professionally. I graduated from IUPUI with a master’s degree in history and found full-time employment with the National Park Service. I made trips to both sides of the country, including one to Monterey, California, for the 2014 NCPH conference and one to Pennsylvania/Maryland/Virginia for the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College’s summer conference. I moved back to my native St. Louis in June and have been able to spend a lot of time with friends and family in the area since then. In addition to blogging at Exploring the Past, my publications in 2014 included my first journal article, my first magazine article, three professional book reviews, and several online essays for History@Work and Sport in American History, among other websites.

All that said, there was also terrible personal loss and sorrow that overshadowed these accomplishments, so I am ready to move on to 2015.

It’s been hard for me to define concrete goals for 2015. Obviously I want to keep growing as a person and a professional, but the path towards growth remains a bit of a mystery to me at this point. Writing will continue to be an integral part of my life, but from there, who knows? Hopefully readers will stick around to see what happens next. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for their readership, comments, and support, which all mean so much to me.

Cheers

Ideas for Keeping the Tent Big

A brief addendum to my post yesterday on crowdsourcing and DHThis:

  • Ernesto Priego of City University London left a thoughtful comment on this blog that provoked new questions about DHThis and the nature of inclusiveness in dh. He correctly clarified that the “yes/no” binary that I described is actually an “up/down” vote and that the content of an essay, article, video, etc. is not submitted to DHThis. Rather, it is the link to that content that is submitted by users. He also suggested that this formula complicates the voting system because “it’s not only the content being judged, but the participation via submission.” What motivates these people to submit links for voting to the site? Is it to endorse that content, or is like a Retweet on Twitter that doesn’t necessarily function as an endorsement? What if someone votes down a fellow colleague’s work?
  • Ernesto also pointed out that I had made no mention of DHNow, another website that functions as a repository for showcasing notable work in the dh community. I was vaguely aware of DHNow’s existence prior to writing my post, and I knew little about the site. Furthermore, much of the discussion I had observed on Twitter and blogs had revolved around concerns brought up by the Journal of Digital Humanities, so it never occurred to me that making no mention of the site or its similarities to DHThis was a mistake on my part.
  • Jesse Stommel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I exchanged a few tweets about ideas for DHThis to consider for their voting system. We agreed that the yes/no/up/down voting system put less emphasis on discussion of content. Jesse suggested that a system for tagging similar posts be implemented, to which I responded that such a system could open the possibility for a “similar” or “recommended” reading section to be added under each post on the site. If a popular post is featured on the front page, clicking on it would lead to similar content that has less votes, but may be worthy of reading. Such a system wouldn’t completely remove the “popularity contest” aspect, but I think it would allow for less popular scholarship to be considered for featured status on the site. Adeline Koh of Stockton College (and one of the creators of DHThis) agreed that such a system may enhance the “discoverability” of content on the site.
  • Jesse and I agreed that keeping the yes/up vote option and removing the no/down vote option should be considered by the organizers of DHThis.

I enjoyed the exchanges that took place yesterday and I thank Ernesto, Jesse, and Adeline for engaging in discussion with me when they really didn’t have to. I hope that readers didn’t perceive my last post as full of negativity. It is an exciting time to be involved with the Digital Humanities, as many traditional notions for creating, reviewing, and disseminating humanities scholarship are being challenged by the promises and perils of digital technology. The fact that three remarkably talented scholars and a Hoosier graduate student spread over two continents can exchange so many questions and arguments in a day’s time reinforces the sheer astonishment I have about the changing nature of communication in the digital age. Such an exchange would have never happened five or ten years ago, and I think that’s a cause for celebration, even if many of us still have a limited understanding as to what the “digital humanities” we so frequently talk about actually is.

Cheers

Promises and Perils of Blogging

As I continue to reflect on the discussions that took place during the Digital Sandbox about student uses of social media, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of positive feedback I’ve received from the Twitterverse and those who attended my panel in person.

For my part of the panel, I chose to focus on blogging as form of sharing humanities scholarship with the broader public. At one point in my life not too long ago I was fairly skeptical of blogs and viewed them as platforms for promoting frivolous top ten lists, gossip, and “scoops” that were generally uninteresting to me. I was never encouraged to utilize blogging (or the internet generally) as a means for learning about history during undergrad. Indeed, I viewed social media and blogging as a place for leisurely fun, not scholarly discussion, and I never thought about using social media and/or blogging as a way to assert ownership in my humanities scholarship and my education.

My views began to change when I started working for the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in 2010. Within the first few days of working there, my friend and fellow ranger Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today told me about a number of notable Civil War blogs that were worth reading, and nothing’s ever been the same since. While I continue to read and rely on print books for a large amount of my scholarly endeavors, I began to find myself at that point making more time to get online to read about the Civil War. I began to spend less time on sites like YouTube and NHL.com and almost completely gave up watching television. Once I started graduate school last year, the impulse to start blogging on my own became more acute, and after eight months I have no intentions of stopping. I have been amazed by the ever-growing network of connections I have developed through blogging in such a short time.

I think that blogging sometimes gets the same sorts of criticisms Wikipedia gets. Wikipedia, we are often told by history teachers, is an unreliable source that cannot be trusted, and it should never show up as a citation on a term paper. Sure, it acts as a great “starting point,” but the crowdsourcing platform that Wikipedia has embraced has led to articles that are sometimes biased, inaccurate, poorly interpreted, or a combination of all three. There is certainly a grain of truth to all of this, and I wouldn’t want my students citing Wikipedia on their assignments either. However, many of those same academics who routinely criticize Wikipedia for its shortcomings have never attempted to edit a Wikipedia page to make it more to their liking, nor have they encouraged their students to use their newly-gained skills to fix mistakes on the site. Likewise, I have seen critics of blogs question the medium as a way of sharing information and “deepening” our understanding of the past and–in the case of Gary Gallagher in a June 2012 editorial in the Civil War Times–criticize history bloggers for making an “unworthy topic appear to be serious.” Yet those same critics often don’t utilize blogging as way to tackle what they consider to be “serious” topics.

So, in sum, I’m a big fan of blogging. However, my experiences at the Digital Sandbox on Thursday, August 15 and the IUPUI Public History Workshop the following day have also reminded me that there are shortcomings to blogging that have yet to be addressed in the academic community.

Dr. Ray Haberski of Marian University and the Society of United States Intellectual History gave the keynote speech for the Digital Sandbox, and his insights into the USIH’s experiences in blogging were fascinating. Originally started as a series of discussion threads on H-Net in 2005, the USIH eventually moved to the blogging format in 2007 and gained rapid popularity in the academic community. A national intellectual society was literally formed through the blog, and the society has been hosting a national conference on intellectual history since 2008. Dr. Haberski even mentioned that comments left on his blog posts helped to better arrange and formulate arguments in his scholarly books.

However, Haberski pointed out to us that blogging doesn’t get one a job in academia, nor does it replace the experience of getting one’s hands dirty with research material at a library or archives. In fact, several of the original founders of the USIH are now out of academia completely. Furthermore, the question of audience must play a role in deciding to blog. Has the USIH had great success because of its expanding popularity amongst those in the general public, or is it because of its popularity with an academic audience? Maybe both? Does blogging encourage dialogue between scholars and the general public, or are old divisions between scholars and the public being perpetuated in an online format? What can scholars do to reach the public? Are there ways to improve scholarly content delivery or the blogging platform in general? I don’t think anyone has an idea right now.

On Friday, many of these same concerns were addressed through a speech given by Dr. Andrew Hurley of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Hurley wrote a very fine book about historic preservation, public history, and civic engagement that I will address in a future post, and his work in St. Louis is remarkable. However, Dr. Hurley came to us with a warning: be careful with digital technology, and keep your audience in mind when creating digital content.

Hurley pointed out that public history has moved beyond text and image websites and into interactive realms that could redefine how we look at the past. He also pointed out that the term “Digital Divide” has changed in meaning over the past twenty years in the United States. In the 1990s, the Digital Divide referred to the haves and have-nots: those who had access to the internet and those who did not. Today, almost everyone has access to the internet, but how they use the internet constitutes the new and critical Digital Divide. Higher income people are more likely to have desktop computers and use the internet for website building, blogging, and the accumulation of “knowledge capital.” Lower income people, however, are more likely to access the internet through mobile phones and use the internet for passive entertainment, games, image sharing, and other related activities. When Hurley’s group attempted to run a blog and Facebook page to promote its restoration efforts in North St. Louis, the sites ultimately failed, with few people in the area commenting on the blog or accessing the internet as a way to promote restoration efforts in St. Louis.

Where do we go from here? Hurley stressed to us the importance of public historians encouraging their audiences to use the internet as a form of “content-based knowledge creation” and critical thinking. I am convinced that this is the next great challenge in closing the “Digital Divide,” but I am lacking answers for how best to approach this problem. It’s an exciting time in the social media/blogging/digital realm of humanities scholarship right now, but I hope that we as a community continue to make time for critical reflection on how to best use digital technology to inspire everyone to not only use the internet as a source of personal empowerment, but to become more empathetic humans in general. That’s the goal of the humanities, right?

Cheers