Keith Harris: Can Social Media Bridge the Gulf Between Academic Historians and the Public?

tags: social media, Keith Harris, Cosmic America, Twitter, blogging, popular history



Keith Harris blogs at Cosmic America and holds a PhD in history from the University of Virginia.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Of course, I believe that the answer is yes. This summer, I will take part in a panel at the Civil War Institute’s annual conference at Gettysburg College with fellow Civil War bloggers Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, and Mark Grimsley. The so-called “gulf” is one of the principal issues that I will be addressing.

Years ago, before the Internet opened the doors for real-time access to just about anyone anywhere in the world, the television historical documentary probably stood alone as the medium most likely to serve as the middle ground on which academic historians and an informed public might relate.

In 1996, historian Gary Gallagher, writing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, noted reactions among academics, who protested the absence of issues falling outside the field of military history (such as the home front, religion, or gender themes) and the public, who focused on the military and picked nits over missing campaigns and the prominence of the eastern theater of war. The two groups could not see eye-to-eye.

But Gallagher really went after academics. They, he argued, were “content to speak to one another in a language that [excluded] anyone outside the university community…a sense of “we know best” [permeated] much of their commentary about Burns.” In short, scholars were put off by the public’s fondness for battles, generals, and narrative integrity. They wanted “real history” as defined by scholars. One might assume then, that these scholars returned to their studies and continued to ignore the public. Perhaps they proceeded with their dense works laden with esoteric language that no one ever read. Who knows?

Has anything changed? Yes indeed. The advent of blogging and micro-blogging (i.e. Twitter) has extended the reach of those academics who are both ready to accept the literate public into their super-special club, and willing to embrace the tools that make it possible.

The limits of blogging are defined only by the limits of the blogger. Not all blogs are created equal. Academics who blog, and there are a number of first-rate bloggers, are successful precisely because of their openness, their consistency, their engagement with the commenting public (regardless of the comment) and of course, their historical content – often defined not by scholars…but by the public scholars seek to reach. Student-run blogs are also worthy of mention. 901 Stories from Gettysburg, for example, brings the voices of the battlefield to the public – all courtesy of the research of Gettysburg college students. The blog has its shortcomings (there is currently no forum open for discourse), but as it develops it is sure to become a wonderful platform for academics, students, and the public to exchange ideas.

Twitter is perhaps the most powerful, but alas, most misunderstood and misused tool. Many historians, historical institutions, and lay people alike miss opportunities to create and maintain informed conversations on historical matters (in 140 characters or less – believe me…it’s possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse. Granted, Twitter can be a number of things – a platform for self-indulgent narcissists with too much time on their hands, or, it can be a media dumping ground – harnessed by would-be marketers for free advertising. Both fail miserably to reach anyone. But with patience and attentiveness, Twitter can (and does) facilitate discourse between academic and academic, academic and the public, and the public with everyone.

In 2012, the University still is what it is (snicker). For now, exclusivity reigns triumphant, and many (but most certainly not all) of its scholars look condescendingly at a public who just doesn’t know any better…all the while creating more of the same. But as things change – and they always do – some academics are extending their reach beyond the hallowed halls of academia, breaking traditions, coloring outside the lines, and (if you can believe it) functioning in the real world.

Which means the way we teach and learn history is changing too. Maybe it’s time to add my Twitter handle and blog address to my vita. You know…I am not kidding about this.

Peace,

Keith



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