This post builds on the conversation begun by Joseph Adelman’s post on early American history blogging the other day, and a panel on the topic at the OIEAHC/SEA conference yesterday. A version of these remarks were delivered at a panel entitled, “Early American Worlds: A State-of-the-Field Conversation” at the 2015 Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting on April 17, 2015 in St. Louis, MO.
For longer than I’ve been alive, our field in a structural sense has been organized through the efforts of the main institutions in the field, i.e., the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and, later, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. From fellowships to seminars to conferences, these institutions gave to the field the significant sense of community it had. And I would argue that the new early American “digital world” is not changing that but expanding upon (or around) it. Social media and blogs are adding an additional layer of social infrastructure within the field itself, creating spaces that foster an even broader and more inclusive sense of community in the field, largely through the ability to include people who for whatever reason don’t have access to or are outside the immediate orbit of those institutions and the field’s traditional channels of community-building.
Using The Junto as an example, I think academic blogging is valuable for three primary reasons: first, it offers bloggers the ability to communicate with others in their field in, effectively, real-time. By extension, it has offered the opportunity, in the case of this blog, to create a largely unprecedented platform from which junior scholars and grad students can speak to their colleagues within the field. Second, it creates a space in which established historians, junior scholars, history professionals, non-higher ed educators, and, even, non-academics can engage with one another. Finally, it aims to create and/or further important conversations within the field, and, in a sense, it democratizes those conversations because, on the blog, individuals can participate in those conversations on (relatively) equal standing.
In terms of social media, the coverage of the recent MHS conference on the American Revolution via Twitter and blogs is an excellent example of how social media opens the field (and the conversations it creates and fosters) to those previously excluded by circumstance. Over 1800 tweets were made with the conference’s hashtag in less than three days, providing a way for people not there to participate in the conversations and also providing a public record of that important conference. Combined with conference recaps on blogs like this one, these platforms have effectively changed the previously ephemeral nature of conference presentations (and, hence, conferences themselves).
Finally, podcasting deserves a mention. For those who don’t know, we produce a semi-monthly podcast called The JuntoCast. Each month we choose a topic in early American history and then engage in an hour-long informal roundtable discussion about it. One of our goals is to expose our non-academic listeners to the work being done by academic historians. From our feedback we know that episodes have been assigned to undergrads and that secondary social studies and APUSH teachers are using them in their flipped classrooms and for their own professional development, which helps them feel part of the field. Podcasting, I believe, is a sorely underestimated and underutilized medium by academic historians, especially at a time when the field continues to worry about its shrinking relevance in higher education and contemporary society and its inability to engage the public with the scholarship the field produces.
The two main themes running through this piece are about fostering conversation within the field and engagement with those beyond the field. These tools are restructuring the ways in which we engage with one another as historians. The field produces scholarship in the form of monographs and articles but it also produces conversations via these other mediums and as they increasingly intersect (as they did with the MHS conference), it will be that much more important to be aware of the latter as the former. The moment of critical mass will come when more historians than not are participating in those conversations and those who aren’t recognize the necessity of participating to stay current on the conversations developing within the field. And the blogosphere, social media, and podcasting are providing the infrastructure that allows that to happen and allows more people than ever before—both academics and those in the other groups I mentioned—to participate in and feel that they are genuinely part of the field of early American history. And that gives us a real opportunity to expand and re-shape this early American digital “world” into a more inclusive and cohesive early American digital “community.”