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!
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).
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 here, here, 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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
I’ve got a lot of ideas running in my head that I want to share, but I’m in the process of creating an annotated bibliography for my thesis and putting together a brief presentation for the Gettysburg conference, which is happening later this week. I’ve seen other bloggers adopt the “News and Notes” format to hit upon things that are worth sharing but not necessarily worthy of a fully thought-out post, at least for the time being. So I’m stealing it for my own selfish benefit.
– There were more than 2,000 kids at the Indiana State House today for an education rally in support of vouchers and charter schools in Indiana. Trying to give tours to a few hundred of these youngsters was tiring. Jalen Rose, a former basketball player for the Indiana Pacers and current analyst for ESPN was in attendance and made a speech, which was sort of neat, although it was probably done to get the 2,000 kids excited about being at the State House rather than making any revelatory points about education reform. Regardless, it is always good to see athletes trying get involved in their communities, even if they sometimes make questionably funny decisions. By the way, Indiana has the largest voucher program in the United States.
– The Bureau of Manufactured History, the creation of two bloggers looking to uncover “the unconscious content of the city,” is now in Indianapolis for the next month and a half to explore our content here. Click on the link for some neat vignettes and pictures about life in the self-proclaimed “Crossroads of America.” I’ll admit that the longer I live here, the more I desire to learn about and appreciate the quirky history of this strange, yet strikingly comfortable area of the country.
– An introduction to some really good math-rock: The Bulletproof Tiger: Wanna Kiss About It?