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.



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.


New Resources Page at Exploring the Past

One of the downsides of tweeting and blogging is the speed by which new information enters into your personal information feed. Nowadays there are so many new articles, blog posts, and online discussions created on a daily basis that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of knowledge and information. I admit that I sometimes read articles and blog posts, share them with others, and forget about them afterwords. It’s hard to keep up with everything, but it’s also sometimes hard to remember what you learned in the past.

I’ve been blogging for almost two years now and have been very pleased with the connections I’ve made and the fruitful discussions I’ve had here at Exploring the Past. I don’t want some of those older posts and conversations to be forgotten about and sent to blogging heaven, so I’ve decided to create a “Resources” page where I can house some of my better essays in one central location for readers to access at their convenience. Simply click on the “Resources” tab above to access the page and read away.

There will be many new posts in the future whenever I have the time to write. As always, thank you for your readership.


Social Networking and Talking Past One Another

Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond
Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond

I’ve been blogging for two months now and have been quite surprised by how much I’m enjoying it. Blogging can certainly be a time-consuming endeavor, but one’s priorities change over time. I find myself keeping the television off about 99% of the day now. I also used to be a pretty passionate gamer, especially when I had roommates who helped fuel that passion during my undergraduate days. One roommate in particular, a very good friend of mine, had an Xbox with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a Nintendo Entertainment System with Dr. Mario, and a Super Nintendo with NBA Jam. Good Lord. All of these activities are fun, but I definitely take them in small dosages nowadays.

The WordPress statistics are telling me that in these short two months I’ve had almost 1,000 views from people in more than 15 countries. I’m skeptical as to whether or not these numbers are accurate one way or the other, but I’m pleased with these modest accomplishments. With the way history is treated (or ignored) in the United States by many, many people, I view my little site as providing 1,000 opportunities to perhaps start a conversation or at least plant some ideas into one’s mind about the state of history today and ways we can understand and improve it looking forward.

One of the challenges I have come across since starting my own blog is making time to read other blogs. I have been reading history blogs for almost three years now, and I got into a routine of reading my favorites on a daily basis. When I was a teaching assistant last year I frequently read other sites during my down time to learn more about 19th Century history from some of the top historians in the business. It would be safe to say that I have probably learned just as much about all facets of history from blogs as I have from books.

Now that I am embarking on my own project, finding the time to read blogs for fun is getting tougher. At the same time, since joining Twitter I have had the chance to learn about and share articles with others that I find interesting, but I find myself sometimes glancing over these articles rather than reading them all the way through.

In the rush of trying to share articles with my cohorts and write content for Exploring the Past, I feel that my reading has gone down quite a bit, and I can’t help but wonder if others have had the same experience. My fear is that the digital age has led to many of us talking past each other rather than talking to each other. We are sharing information without reading it, communicating about it, or fully understanding it. Furthermore, there is now so much information to digest that many of us end up taking little bites of various articles that could be really helpful rather than eating the whole entree. Does that sort of reading really help us grow stronger mentally, or could it make us stupider, as Nicholas Carr has suggested? A sizable group of people are now “following” my blog (which I greatly appreciate), but I wonder how many did so because they actually liked my content, and how many did so without reading, just to get my attention and get me to read their blogs.

To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. People blog and use social networking sites for many, many individual reasons, and I have no room to judge the intentions of others. Some work very hard to build up a following, some do it purely for their own personal gratification. To each their own. For me, I view the use of social networking sites (including blogs) as a way to quite literally create a web of meanings that help to at least partially define one’s personal identity, digitally and in real life. For me, I intend Exploring the Past and my other social networking endeavors to represent a part of who I am as a person, but I also hope to use it to meet other people whose perspectives are worth hearing. The digital landscape has given us unprecedented amounts of information and opportunities for connecting with others, but it challenges us to modify our reading habits to process as much information as possible. In modifying my reading habits, I hope that I am still able to read content in a way that allows me to understand it to the best of my mental capabilities and puts me in contact with others who want to engage in a reciprocal relationship of information sharing.