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Clio and me have been getting along pretty well lately, but you wouldn’t know it from this neglected blog. Much of my silence has had to do with the nature of my editing job. I edit a lot of interesting work that teaches me new things and occasionally leads me to related ideas of my own, but I’m not usually free to talk about those things. Either the material is not in print yet, or I’d betray the trust of authors with whom I have spoken in confidence about work in progress. Describing the things I’m learning about this side of academia and publishing would also make interesting blogging, but writing about them would mean injuring both confidentiality and collegiality, no matter how good a face I put on any given story. So I’m generally quiet here, unless I can comment on how the history I’m learning might be relevant in work outside the institute.

On the other hand, the small graduate course I taught this summer, War and Society in Modern Europe, gave me a chance to think more about my earlier research and how I might do something with it in the future. I’m planning to take the spring 2012 semester off from part-time teaching, so that I can do a little writing. It’s time to start thinking about the Groener project again. In particular, I want to move past the inevitably narrower set of specialized questions that have framed it to consider in what ways some of it might be relevant to a broader academic audience.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering if I should do some of that thinking on this blog. I began this blog after I had already completed my dissertation, and I have never much used it as a research blog. I’m wondering what the advantages and disadvantages of such might be. I am concerned mainly with thought, research, and communication; however, I don’t have to worry about a non-existent tenure-track position. The main advantage, it seems to me, is that it would afford a chance to discuss ideas in their nascency that I otherwise have little opportunity to talk about, unless I am teaching a related graduate course, which has only happened once so far. Sure, I work at a historical institute, but my (interesting) job there is to work with others on their ideas.

I’m thinking about this in the context of other changing habits. I have also been neglecting my other blog, Language for You, and there’s that whole twitter thing. Perhaps it’s time to conceptualize a single blog that would work for my current portfolio of jobs and projects?

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, The Myth of Black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.

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A question about names: I refer to other historians by their last name in formal academic prose. In blogging, on the other hand, I generally refer to fellow bloggers by their first name. This post has left me unsure of how to handle this issue. Since it’s about blogging, I have decided to go with the first name. If I had been engaging historiographical arguments, I think I would have used the last name instead. What do you other blogging historians do?

Update (1/11/2010): Civil War Memory has moved to http://cwmemory.com/.

I’ve started an experimental commonplace book, that is, I’m collecting quotes I like and sometimes commenting on them. Instead of the traditional notebook, however, I’ve got a tumblelog on Tumblr, an incredibly user-friendly platform. I’ve also chosen a template that forces me to keep the quotes and commentary short. I call this new site Commonplacing, and I mention it here because history keeps popping up in my choice of quotes.

Here’s one favorite from near the end of Brian Friel’s Translations:

. . . It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.

Today bloggers around the world are writing about human rights in an action called Bloggers Unite, which is organized by BlogCatalog and joined by Amnesty International. The following post is part of that effort, but it also relates to a central concern of Clio and Me, teaching history.

I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”

If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century.

I took my cue from a nice little collection of primary sources that Lynn Hunt edited and translated: The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). Of course, people did not use the term “human rights” in the eighteenth century, but they did reimagine and rework the relationship between the individual and the state in a fundamental way. The rights that eighteenth-century thinkers and politicians posited and then fought for formed the basis of what we now consider fundamental human rights: freedom of religion and expression, the protection of one’s property, and the right to pursue an occupation and earn rewards according to one’s talents, not birth. Government existed to protect these and other rights, not according to the whims of a monarch above the law.

The English gained such rights based on the accumulation of precedents over time. Milestones included the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Rights grew more expansive, but they adhered to Englishmen as Englishmen. Enlightenment thought, on the other hand, was characterized by its universality. Men had rights by virtue of their common humanity. Thomas Jefferson reflected both traditions in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which enumerated English offenses against the colonists’ rights, on one hand, but contained language whose bold universality conveyed a message far beyond its original purpose:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

As we know from American history, this famous declaration left many questions unanswered and long went unrealized in society. Who was to be included in this equality? At first it was only all free men. Black slaves were property. There was also the question of property qualifications for voting rights. Could the poor and uneducated be trusted to make the right decisions in a democracy? And what about women? Much of American history can be told as the history of making Jefferson’s words become a reality.

These questions also held great urgency during the French Revolution, which offers unparalleled opportunities for students to read about, reflect on, and discuss the major issues thrown up by the advent of citizenship and individual rights. For instead of struggling with the major issues over a period of some two centuries, the revolutionaries in France tried to do it all in a period of only five years, from the onset of the Revolution in 1789 to the end of the Terror in 1794.

The most enduring document from that time was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), but students can also consider Olympes de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791). Besides these and some other famous documents, Hunt’s book contains a host of compelling material otherwise unavailable in English. The main point of the exercise is to help students think about where our notions of such rights come from and to understand better their contingent and contested nature in the past.

Discussing Hunt’s book covered one seventy-five minute unit. Two more units entailed a lecture that walked students through these issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along the way exploring the issues of nationalism, feminism, socialism, and totalitarianism. I am still not satisfied with the result, but the topic of human rights lent Europe’s confusing political history more narrative coherence than I had been able to muster in the past. It also permitted me to push the issue into the second half of the twentieth century and include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), decolonization, the Helsinki Accords (1975), the collapse of Europe’s communist regimes, and the human rights abuses that followed Yugoslavia’s breakup.

My mind was dizzy after such a trip, especially since I use slides but no prepared text. I’m sure some students had trouble with the shifting geography and rapidly advancing timeline. Nonetheless, they were able to follow one theme over the course of two hundred years and see how it touches on nearly every major aspect of history in this time. How many other topics link politics, the economy, gender, race, religion, ideology, party politics, war, and international relations in such clearly important ways? In future I will surely make changes in how I cover the topic, but I will continue to give it an important place in my survey courses.

Clio and Me used to live on Blogger, but I have moved it here so that I can take advantage of WordPress’s tagging features, tabs for extra pages, spam filtering, and easier commenting system. I was happy enough on Blogger, but I think this will suit my purposes better.

If you subscribed to this blog in its old location, you should not need to change anything, since I am making the necessary adjustments to the feed on Feedburner directly.

RSS Update: Even though the RSS feed link stays the same, I found I had to delete the link from my feed reader and then subscribe again from this page. That helped Feedburner start delivering the new blog feed to me.

Producing Knowledge

Mills Kelly of Edwired responds to the notion that the historical profession is about writing and therefore about publishing in traditional academic print media:

It seems to me that the essence of scholarship is the circulation of knowledge and the discussion of that knowledge among both peers and other interested parties. How is knowledge circulated? Print, the Internet, a museum exhibit, film, radio, are all methods for circulating knowledge and all of them require some sort of writing–even if that writing doesn’t result in yet another monograph or journal article. Just as one example–this blog had more than 75,000 unique visitors in 2007. If I’m lucky, my book will sell 1,000 copies. So how is more knowledge circulated?

Teaching Survey Courses

In The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media, John McClymer makes an interesting point about one major difficulty of teaching introductory history classes:

I routinely begin our explorations of topics by asking students to come up with questions. There are several reasons. The most important is that it legitimates confusion. All learning begins in puzzlement, but teachers and students routinely connive in the illusion that students understand the causes of the French Revolution and any number of equally complex developments. The first and second year students in my “Modern Europe and U.S.,1815 to the Present” do not. This is not a failure on their part or mine. A good undergraduate math student can learn to integrate equations in a Calculus I course. An equally good history student cannot master the causes of the French Revolution in an introductory history course.

My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea.

The first two hits on Google led to web sites that seek to appear legitimate, but which are in fact sites that deny the Holocaust and consider the Nuremberg Trial a travesty of justice. How did Google mess this up? Have some Nazi would-be academics learned search engine optimization (SEO)? Or was this blind luck? I’m not sure how Google’s search engine works, but the results here certainly point to the limitations of algorithms that rely on the syntactic relevance of a site. Also, while no one is linking to the articles about the Hossbach Protocol directly, there are many links to the main sites on which the articles appear. (You can determine who is linking to a site by typing link:www.name-of-site.com into the Google search box, unless the site is using the nofollow attribute in its links.) In other words, the sites appear to be popular and therefore relevant in Google’s eyes. In fact, Google has blessed both sites with respectable, if not overwhelming page ranks (PR). The first one Historical Revisionism, comes in at a PR 4, and the second one, Institute for Historical Review, at PR 5 on a scale of 0 to 10.

Now I could stop with this warning about the limitations of Google search results, but perhaps there is more to be learned here. Perhaps I should also issue a plea to historians to both learn SEO and write for general audiences on the web. Like it or not, Google is the first place many people turn for answers, and anyone seeking one on the Hossbach Protocol can be easily led astray. Actually, historians might not even need to learn SEO. Wikipedia already has a high page rank and its pages turn up regularly at or near the top of Google search results. Perhaps all that is needed is more and better Wikipedia articles. The Hossbach Protocol doesn’t show up in Wikipedia. If it had, the search results would have been different.

Wikipedia brings up another twist. Typically, when one uses one term in Wikipedia that is more commonly known by another, Wikipedia will at least offer alternative results. (It’s better than Google that way. Google can only offer spelling alternatives.) In this case, though, the more typical American name for this document did not show up in the search results. Only after I typed Hossbach Memorandum did I find what I was looking for. I then typed this term into Google and came up with much more satisfactory results. Only one of the right-wing links came up on the first page, and this time near the bottom.

This final result brings me back to Wikipedia and SEO. We need to enter all possible variations of terms in Wikipedia articles so that they show up in search results. (Sure, I should have entered “Hossbach Memorandum” right from the start, but I translated directly and that was that. As the first set of search results shows, others have done so too.) We also need to do the same thing with web articles and blog posts. It won’t do to leave the field open to the bad guys, simply because the world of SEO isn’t part of our training and does not make or break historical careers. I don’t know if Deborah Lipstadt does any SEO, but her three-year-old blog combats holocaust denial and has a PR 6. More established historians need to follow her example in their respective fields.

Recently I started reading Mills Kelly’s Edwired, and I have added it to my blogroll. According to its author’s description, it “is a blog that considers the intersection of digital technologies and history.” For example, it has initiated a widely publicized debate about the current state of H-Net and its changing place in the academy.

As a teaching historian, Mills also publishes interesting posts about the curriculum for undergraduate history majors in the United States, as well as the role of technology and resources such as Wikipedia in their studies.

Another blog I’ve been reading lately is at Historia i Media. Unfortunately, I do not read Polish, so I am restricted to their English page. Since June this page has grown to seven posts about history for public consumption, including memorials, a movie, a blog, Wikipedia, and a bicycle ride.

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