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The Plight Of Web 2.0 In History: Blogging, Podcasting, And Digital Historians

July 1, 2008

Sometime back, Kevin Levin, at his Civil War Memory weblog, asked a rhetorical question: Should Civil War Historians Blog? He was directing the question to academic historians in particular. I issued a challenge in the comments that academics in every history specialty should trade out the Civil War descriptor in Kevin’s question for their own field. Of course I think the answer should be yes.

I engaged Kevin’s post because I support his online work, but I wonder if his question isn’t already passe? In the language of Gen Y, it seems to me that “This is so two years ago.”

The retort from academics to the passe issue will be grounded in practicality: No, it’s still relevant because tenure committees show no sign of counting weblog work. I have no empirical evidence to support or deny that response, but let’s take it as true.

Does that mean that weblog work is consigned to the backburner until the academy catches up with web 2.0 projects? Perhaps. But isn’t the academy already catching up? I mean, George Mason is now offering a tenure-track digital history position. Of course this comes from a history department and an institution that have been on the vanguard of digitization, having create 14 years ago the Center for History and New Media. But archives across the nation have been struggling over that same period to meet demands for digitized material. That branch of historical work understands the democratization of access that has occurred due to internet developments.

How long will it take for other history departments around the nation to recognize digital history? Will it result in the hiring of more digital historians? Or will that kind of recognition be counter-productive in that a department’s non-digital historians will continue to the neglect that “specialty” (like they have other important specialties—i.e. women’s history, ethnic history, African-American history) because it’s not their focus? Then again, if a department has a public history program, perhaps having a digital historian is necessary?

Until digital history establishes itself—both broadly and perhaps as a necessary specialty—it seems that podcasts, for instance, will remain consigned to the world of amateurs. I say this because the only podcasts I’ve heard from academic or professional historians deal either with digital history issues or interviews regarding an historian’s new book. When it comes to real historical topics (i.e. the history of Rome), non-professionals still dominate the podcast world. Again, until tenure committees recognize the production work needed to create podcasts, weblogs, etc., that labor won’t count either.

Perhaps promoting the position of digital historian is a necessary step for getting the academy to recognize the value of web 2.0 endeavors for history? Will it be the case that, until every deparment has a digital historian, that weblogs and podcasting will be the profession’s unwanted children? – TL

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  1. Most academic history departments have not yet reconciled themselves to recognizing public history beyond as a degree field for graduate students. It is oddly situated as a field that is not a field. It will be interesting to see if digital history gets more traction. Digital and public history overlap a great deal but each must be understood on its own terms. Both offer exciting opportunities for historians to collaborate with their students as in the sciences. Still, we have to hope, I suppose, that the past and current debates about public history and the current fascination with all things digital will provide greater recognition to both.


  2. The “academe” has tried to hold its death grip on certain forms of knowledge and of course on authority. And blogs and other digital domains, separated from the rigid controls of the “peer review” system, from PhD granting committees, from tenure committees, and from thesis binding requirements provoke an absolute fear of both anarchy and, I suspect, possible irrelevance. After all, if knowledge is widely available the value of the university system drops.

    So I don't think it is a matter of “catching up,” I think it is a matter of armed resistance.

    But as I watched this past weekend as a few hundred people from a conference I was nowhere near hit my blog posts about “Toolbelt Theory,” and I realized how many more were reading that than would actually read the typical journal article, I thought again that the academe will eventually be dragged – kicking and screaming no doubt – into the future.


  3. Well, my first attempt disappeared! So I'll make it quick. I agree that the prejudice against blogging and online exhibit-making is an extension of the prejudice against “public history.”

    Tenure committees will start to open up to this stuff slowly. But they'll never going to move off the need for traditional “research”: articles and a book. Web work will become, and is becoming, part of a wider mix of “academic engagement.”

    I think the big change will come as history as a genre becomes more commercialized (e.g. John Adams on HBO). As TV and the Web start to merge there will likely be a lot of production/research/writer jobs created. If we train history majors to do this jobs, they'll thank us instead of cursing us for giving them an unmarketable major.


  4. Toby,

    I'm sorry about the blogger glitch. I've had that happen so often that I now compose long comments in a Word document before transferring them to blogger.

    As a man now geographically closer to television and movie production than me, I'll take your word for it on that emerging market for historically-trained thinkers. I do hope you're right.

    I wouldn't want traditional means to tenure (i.e. books and articles) to be devalued. They are very important, and I don't think, for that matter, that tenure committees value the hard work that goes into article production. Several in-the-know faculty types have told me that it is in some ways harder to get peer-reviewed articles published than books. But I'll still be glad if web work is better valued on the “engagement”/public history side of things.

    – TL


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