Thursday, October 2, 2014

Historians and Social Media: A Grad Student's Perspective

Last weekend I traveled to sunny Malibu for the 2014 Conference on Faith and History. As you can see from the image on the left, the conference theme was centered around the notion of the historian's "public." As a graduate student, my perspective on who my public is and how I want to reach them is necessarily different from established historians. Thanks to my participation in a roundtable focusing on "Christian Historians and Social Media," I was able to discuss some of those differences.

The mastermind behind the roundtable, Jonathan Den Hartog, orchestrated a plan to have each of the participants post his comments from our roundtable online this week. You can read Den Hartog's introductory remarks at his blog, John Fea's comments at his blog, and Chris Gehrz's reflections at (yes) his blog. Or one of his four blogs, I should say.

To round out our series of posts, here are my comments. They have not been edited for clarity or length. You get 'em in all their original muddled glory.

Four years ago, I was a high school teacher in Omaha Nebraska. I was also a graduate student -- two nights I week I drove over to the state university for a three-hour history class. My master’s program was geared towards high school teachers like me: along with our day jobs, my classmates and I shared a love of history and a love of the salary increase we received for every class we completed. But during my time in the program I inadvertently stumbled into something more. It started with a class on the Progressive Era. I decided to write a paper on Walter Rauschenbusch, and during the research phase I came across the Religion in American History blog. I don’t know if my heart was strangely warmed, but my mind was certainly intrigued by the questions being asked, the books being discussed, and the topics being explored. This was a brief glimpse of a scholarly community in action, and I was hooked. By the time I finished up my MA program I knew that if I could get adequate funding, I wanted to pursue a PhD in history.

A cynical person may read my conversion narrative as tragic: a perfectly content high school teacher turned into a future contingent laborer in the realm of higher education. That may indeed be the case. However, there are few people in the world who will ever get the privilege of devoting five years to the life of the mind, to reading and writing about a subject they love. I have that privilege for the moment, and it occurred, in part at least, because a group of historians took to the internet, and because I was part of their public.

Three years after I first stumbled onto the Religion in American History blog, I became a contributor myself. Along with blogging there, I write for the American Society of Church History’s blog, and I am also active in the #twitterstorian community (I use this term to describe historians who identify themselves online as such and who often interact with fellow historians on twitter). This online world is relatively new, only emerging in the past decade: my graduate adviser did not have the option to get involved in social media. He did not have to think through the pros and cons of contributing to academic group blogs, of running a personal blog, or of tweeting. Because of its newness, there is nothing resembling an established authority on how graduate students should (or even if they should) participate in this world. In light of that fact, all that I can do here is offer a description of my experience thus far, of the pros and cons as I have experienced them, and a few brief thoughts on how one’s Christian faith might inform and shape participation online.

I’ll begin with a potential drawback to online engagement: the issue of time management. Blogging and tweeting does not a historian make. I cannot put on my CV, “Had link to a blog post retweeted by Paul Harvey.” As a graduate student, I need to be learning how to understand and engage with the scholarship of historians who have come before me. I need to be digging into archives, writing and reading as much as possible, and learning how to effectively teach undergraduates. There is no doubt that blogging, tweeting, and facebooking can take up time that should be going towards developing the skills needed to be a historian.

With that said, thinking of online activity as merely superfluous to the serious work of the graduate student misses its potential to help one develop the skills needed to be a historian. After all, I do have the option to choose what I blog about. Most of my blog posts are either condensed versions of research I have done for a paper or for a class, or they are reviews of books that I would likely read even if I wasn't going to blog about them. The blogging, then, becomes a public expression and extension of the activities that I am already doing (or should be doing) as a graduate student. With book reviews in particular, it forces me to carefully read and assess a book and think about how it fits in with relevant historiography. Since my words will be public for all to see, and since the author himself or herself might read my review, there is an added pressure for me to fairly describe the shape and argument of the book.

Of course, this awareness that anyone – and particularly, that established historians – could read what I write leads to another potential problem: the desire for affirmation. As a graduate student, I should be developing my own voice and beginning the process of stepping out with confidence in my own assessments. The unseen pressure of an imagined audience of historians waiting to pick apart a misstated phrase can hinder that process. This problem is not unique to online writing, however. Graduate students experience the same anxiety, perhaps on a smaller scale, when writing papers for their professors. Online writing, then, can become another arena in which to fight a tendency already present in the offline classroom. As for other measures of affirmation that are unique to the online experience – page views, favorites, likes, and retweets – I will have more to say later in this paper.

Of course, there are other potential practical drawbacks to online engagement. With so many highly qualified candidates pursuing jobs in the academy, an errant tweet seen by the wrong person can provide just enough of a reason for a potential employer to choose someone else. A graduate student should probably just assume that all potential employers are reading every single tweet and every single blog post and taking notes.

But along with dangers, online engagement also provides unique opportunities. Most importantly, in my view, it opens up new chances to make connections with fellow grad students and with established historians. While historians who have published a book or two and who have a stable job can feasibly think of themselves as engaging with a public “lay” audience, and while some particularly gifted graduate students (one who comes to mind is/was Yoni Applebaum) might be able to legitimately claim to have an interested online public, grad students like myself should view our public as primarily made up of others within our field. With this view in mind, I generally try to focus my online writing on topics that would be useful to others in the profession. Reviews of new books are one way to do this; my posts in which I simply collect and list the forthcoming books in American religious history are another. That’s not to say that one must set aside all notions of engaging a public nonspecialist audience until after one’s dissertation: there are occasionally opportunities to do this, and I have taken advantage of a couple. However, for most grad students (including me) those efforts should take a back seat to viewing online engagement as an opportunity to learn. In other words, it’s most beneficial NOT to think of myself as a historian who descends from on high to reach out to an online public eager to lap up my wisdom. Rather, I view myself primarily as a member of “the public." My participation in the online network of historians is an opportunity to learn and grow from those who have gone before me and from those who are on the path alongside me.

Left unsaid thus far is the notion of how Christian faith influences my online engagement. To be quite frank, my desire to participate online was not self-consciously a decision made because of my Christian convictions. But whatever my motives for getting involved online – from developing my writing ability, to enhancing potential career opportunities, to the thrill of interacting with historians who I admire – I do believe that there are ways in which one’s Christian faith should influence how one participates online.

The first and most important way that Christian faith should inform engagement online, I believe, is based on Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice: weep with those who weep.” True to form as a graduate student, I’m pilfering this idea from someone smarter and wise than me: Ed Blum, who mentioned it recently in an email exchange.

I think Paul’s admonition is especially applicable for graduate students and recent graduates who are going through the stresses brought about by the “impostor syndrome,” by the terrible job market, and other sources of anxiety. By interacting with others online – expressing encouragement for a well-written blog post, the publication of a new article, or acceptance into a conference, or expressing sympathy for a stubborn dissertation chapter, or a looming deadline – scholars can share in the joys and pains of their fellow scholars. This helps to foster the sense that academics do not merely have publics, but are part of a public themselves. If most graduate students are anything like me, they are already all too aware of their position as the “public” to which the established historians speak. This makes it all the more powerful when established historians express encouragement or give a nod of approval to younger scholars. A positive word via twitter from established scholars – and I can say that the other three members of this panel have modeled this well – can be a great source of encouragement.

Of course, expressing empathy need not be confined only to the online community of scholars. It can and should reach to the rest of one’s online public – that is, one’s twitter followers, facebook friends, and blog readers. For most graduate students, this online public will be made up mostly of friends, family, and fellow scholars. But for established historians, the online public might be much larger, and it seems to me that Christian historians should look for small ways to switch roles, to become part of their online audience’s “public.” Perhaps this could happen by commenting on a facebook post that is not related to a new book, or replying to a tweet that it not merely praise for one’s latest blog post. Christian historians should reject the tendency to see their public in merely utilitarian terms, as nothing more than twitter handles meant to be used for the ends of promoting one’s work.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter has words of wisdom related to this idea. In the book, Hunter articulates his vision for a model of Christian social engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” For Hunter, faithful presence is “a theology of commitment and promise…a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is all oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us.”

The online world might not be the place that Hunter envisions “faithful presence” being enacted. For Hunter, faithful presence requires one’s engagement in a particular place. It is a corrective to the ephemeral connections, dislocation, and fragmentation that comes along with our digitized age. Yet, I think Hunter is off the mark a bit in suggesting or implying that there is an incompatibility between the online world and offline world. While Christian historians should very much be committed to participating with others in their neighborhoods, local churches, and communities, the world online also offers ways for historians to carry out Hunter’s suggestions to “use the space they live in for the flourishing of others.” For example, Christian historians might find ways to link their online and offline worlds, using their time and services online for the benefit of their offline community. Scholars might take up digital history projects meant to protect and preserve the history of local organizations. Or, since historians will undoubtedly have members of their local community among their online followers, they might use their platform to promote local history-related events. If one’s neighbors, fellow churchgoers, and fellow city-dwellers participate online, then Christians scholars should view the internet as another way to share in the lives of those with whom they already share a particular place.

The offline and online need not always be linked. Christian historians might use their influence online to promote the study of history to followers they will never meet. They might take part in the online networks created by and for historians: the informal #twitterstorian network, for example, or group blogs like Religion in American History and Sport in American History. For graduate students like me who attend Christian schools, online networks are an especially important place where one can participate in a more diverse community that extends beyond the confines of individuals who are professed Christians.  As Hunter writes, “Christians share a world with others…and they must contribute to its overall flourishing.” Since Christian scholars are part of an increasingly online, increasingly digital world, in my view Christian scholars should find ways to constructively take part.

This participation need not require Christians to uncritically embrace everything that the cultures created online offer. One of the most damaging tendencies that comes with online engagement, and one that I confess I too often embrace, is to think of my presence online primarily in terms of what benefits it provides me: to my ego, to my CV, to the reward center in my brain that research tells me lights up with every facebook “like.” It is impossible to separate those benefits completely from one’s motivation to participate online. But our participation should not end at those benefits. One way for Christians to counter the tendency towards self-promotion is to think of one’s online presence as a way to serve others: that is, to find ways to promote others' work, to empathize, and to foster connections between one’s online world and offline community. Indeed, although our conference theme is “Christian Historians and Their Publics” I believe that as Christian historians engage with the online world they should not only consider how to disseminate information to an online public or how to correct obvious historical falsehoods, but also how to think of themselves as part of an online public. As those who speak to an audience and as those who are spoken to, in all things we should attempt as much as possible to participate in the online world for the good of others.

As for those historians at the Religion in American History blog who four years ago unknowingly inspired me to take on the study of American religious history: the jury is still out on whether or not they acted for my good.


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