I’ve had a blog, in one place or another, since 2002, and thus the distinction between “a blog” and “a blog post” is a hill on which I am willing to die. But before Ben Park approached me to be one of The Junto’s founding members, I hadn’t blogged extensively about history. Five years later, I still want to write about other topics in addition to history, but I firmly believe that my history teaching and history scholarship have benefitted from my membership here. That said, I think my role as a blogger for The Junto has changed since 2012, and will continue to transform in the future. Today, I want to reflect on some of these changes.
First for me must be the subject of teaching. A lot of the posts I wrote here before 2013 related more to teaching generally than they did to teaching early American history. I can attribute that focus to inexperience teaching early American history, inexperience researching early American history, and anxiety about blogging too much, too soon, about a dissertation that was struggling in search of an argument. But I can also examine my attention to teaching, and attribute it to the conviction then and now that half our jobs as historians should take place inside a classroom, or in preparation for classroom work. This conviction hasn’t changed since that point earlier in the decade.
Now that I have a little more experience teaching early American history, my blogging interests on teaching and research have shifted slightly, to discuss the perspective of teaching and researching early American history in England and Wales. I can feel confident writing about Native Americans in the American Revolution, and teaching that subject in Wales, because so much of my first book research draws on archives at the British Library and National Archives. There is a lot of emphasis in the U.K. on teaching from your research—and I haven’t minded explaining to curious parents at Open Days why the line between British and American history gets so fuzzy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British Library’s Haldimand Papers were crucial for my first book (because the British Indian Department papers are folded into the Haldimand papers), and I love that my students can access these same sources without boarding a plane to the U.S.
Thinking about teaching my research to British students has also invited a broader rethinking of my teaching. The British approach to teaching is really different, in several respects, from the teaching I witnessed and facilitated at UT Austin, where I got my PhD. British universities (at least in the history departments where I’ve taught) are largely unwilling to ask students to buy course materials, period. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about finding and using free, online primary sources, and thus a fair bit of time writing about these strategies here at The Junto. This search for free sources means that unless I want to break copyright laws by scanning entire books I already own, I do not regularly teach books in my classes. I’ll assign the article that preceded a book. I will assign a book chapter if it stands on its own, but even at the MA level, I’m not going to assign a book for seminar. What I will do is assign a book’s introduction, and then set an essay that gently pushes students toward reading that book, along with several others—but I’ll only write that sort of essay question if I’ve already ordered the books for the library.
All these considerations mean that if a book is new and I want to know if it’ll be useful for my students, I don’t want to wait the year to several years for reviews of it to appear. Here is another aspect of my Junto membership that I’ve enjoyed immensely: our author Q&As. It’s been gratifying to watch the blog gain enough legitimacy that university presses have gotten on board with what we’re trying to do. I’ve enjoyed watching them participate in March Madness, but mostly I am thankful that they’re willing to send us review copies of their books so that we can write reviews, facilitate guest reviews, host roundtables, and interview authors. Whereas early on, Juntoists would write a lot of the reviews, ourselves, now many of us focus on the interview while working with a guest poster to write the review.
To my mind, an interview should complement a book review, because I see the interview covering aspects of research and writing that a review cannot. I like hearing what the author hoped to accomplish, so that I can keep that in mind as I re-read the book, and so that I have that perspective when I suggest that students read it. I think it’s interesting to see how an author’s sense of her historiographical intervention is in conversation with my assessment of the book’s intervention in extant scholarship. I love the fact that our interviews get an author’s work out there quickly, sometimes more quickly than scholarly journals do it. I also enjoy asking and reading about how an author transformed her book from dissertation to monograph, and about the research that didn’t make it into the final product. These questions offer service to the field by making transparent the processes that early career scholars may wish to replicate, and by offering reassurance about those processes. For grad student posters writing the review, it offers a chance for a free review copy, and an opportunity to write a review before reviewing for a journal.
I hesitated a little before writing this post. It’s one thing for our Juntolord to write a retrospective, but I worried that another post would come across as a little too navel gazey. Ultimately, I was motivated by the fact that lots of institutions and organizations have their own brief histories. The Omohundro Institute has one. The McNeil Center has one. SHEAR has one. The Society of Early Americanists has one. Maybe there’s already a history of blogging I don’t know about. We history bloggers, even if we haven’t institutionalized formally, need to continue asking about our blogs’ individual histories—and recording them—as a way to document this historiographical trend of (mostly) early career scholars contributing to and shaping our field.
Which raises the question of the state of this blog as a blog by and for junior early Americanists. The fact is that several of us are soon to be less junior, or no longer junior at all. Some of us work in countries where there’s no such thing as tenure, so definitions of seniority are harder to pin down. Several of us are adjuncts. Some of us work outside academia. Some of us have been blogging less, and some of us more. I’ve tried to become more committed to getting junior scholars to post here, because blogging here was such a formative experience for me. As we’ve become more senior, aspects of the blog have also grown up. In the last year and a half, we’ve written a constitution (it may need amendments) and created an executive committee. We have processes for responding to blog emails, and vetting guest posts. We’re discussing our methods for improving these processes, and for welcoming new members. I hope you’ll consider joining us in our middle age.
For what it’s worth … boy, does this sound familiar. About the only thing I would add for my experience would be the utter embarrassment of how naive and earnest some of my early posts were.
Rachel, your posts are often my favorites on the Junto, and you’ve highlighted two of the reasons why: your serious engagement with questions of how to teach history, and your preoccupation with exploring and explaining how British academia works and how it differs from American academia. Please keep up the blogging!
Thanks so much, Darcy!