Monday, May 12, 2014

Blog CLXIV (164): History in Congress

A few days ago the National Coalition for History, which is a lobbyist organization in Washington, D.C. funded by a number of scholarly organizations, announced that its efforts to create a Congressional History Caucus had finally resulted in the creation of that organization. Two Republicans and two Democrats in the House of Representatives agreed to serve as the leadership of this organization. The purpose of the new caucus is to celebrate the past of the United States and use historical knowledge to make better legislation. The four congressmen state that a passion for history should cross partisan and ideological divides.

Sounds really good, right.?

Yes, of course, it does, but I am not sure it really matters.

A caucus is a group of members in the United States Congress that share common interests of one sort or another. Sometimes they are divided along partisan lines, sometimes they are bipartisan. Some are limited to members of only one branch of the Congress, some include members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Congressional History Caucus is currently limited to members of the House of Representatives. There is talk of creating another one in the Senate.

I do not have a problem with this new caucus. I am just not sure it will matter. There are currently 312 caucuses that members of the House can join. Some of them are serious and powerful. For examples, see the Congressional Black Caucus or the Republican Study Committee. Others make you wonder. These are the likes of Congressional Friends of Scotland Caucus or the Congressional Cut Flower Caucus. Some seem like social organizations. The Congressional Baseball Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus come immediately to mind. Oddball organizations are not particularly new. In 1949 House Republicans formed the Chowder and Marching Society, which was part political and part social. The two most famous members were Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. Here is the current list of caucuses in the House.

Now historians have their own caucus. Do not be surprised if it has little direct or indirect impact on your career.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Blog CLXIII (163): Is Blogging Scholarship?

Is blogging scholarship? That was the topic of a session at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The session had a number of historians that have gotten involved in blogging activities and who have-and this point is important-established traditional records of scholarship to their name.

My response to this question: Are you serious? No! Not in anyway.

The session was impressive. The chair of the session was Jeffrey Pasley of the University of Missouri who contributed to the team blog The Common Place.  The participants run some of the more important blogs out there like Ann Little of Colorado State and the blog Historiann, John Fea of Messiah College and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Mike O'Malley of George Mason University who has a blog called The Aporetic, Ben Alpers of the University of Oklahoma who is part of the team that writes for the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, and Kenneth Owen of the University of Illinois at Springfield and writes for The Junto blog. These blogs have large audience-on blog terms-and each is very different from the other.

Little said "no." Her reason: "Blogging is not scholarship because at least in the case of single-authored blogs, it is not peer reviewed." All the others said some version of "yes." They were wrong.

Every point Little made has merit. She noted that a newly-minted Ph.D. needs to worry about getting published in traditional venues and that blogging takes time away from that effort. She is right. Blogging is not peer-reviewed and does not count for tenure or promotion. She is right. Blogging can "advance and promote" scholarship, but it is not scholarship in and of itself. She is right. John Fea admitted that everything she said was correct: "This is the way things are."

I would have made other points. Very few historians blog and there is a reason for that. We have many outlets for getting our views out there: books, journals, anthologies, classrooms, conferences, and journalism as either a source or a guest contributor. There is not a lot of value added in this medium. Blogging is a mighty perishable medium. Traditional research and publications endure for decades. For some fields of scholarship that move slowly-like history-that is an important consideration. (Some historiographies move rapidly others see one major work every two or three decades). Will the article published in a journal be available in a library in 25 years when some grad students who is 5-years old at the moment wants to read and then cite the work. Will that be the case with a blog? No idea, but my guess is not. I want endurance, which is why I try to avoid citing websites. They change often quite frequently and I want people to look at my source material as well as my findings.

Nor are there any quality filters. Peer-review is a gate keeping mechanism to ensure quality. There are other mechanisms in place in different mediums to ensure quality. The professional reputation of journalists, editors, and literary agents keeps them from pushing forward bad ideas. With any blog, anyone with an internet connected can post anything no matter how dubious.

Media formats have changed fairly quickly over the past three or four decades. There is nothing to say that will not happen again in the next decade or two. In fact, the electronic communication media seems to be moving away from blogging. Just type "Is Blogging Dead" into Google and see the results.

The other participants said, there was value in blogging. I would not dispute that, nor did Little. Fea said many colleges are taking a broader view of scholarship, using the ideas of scholarship that Ernest Boyer advocated. I doubt that. More importantly, his position did not rebut Little's argument. O'Malley said scholarly communication is constrained to a few mediums and there are other ways to do this and the blog is one way. Maybe, but only maybe. Alpers and Owen were more enthusiastic, but not convincing. Owen noted he is trying to use his blogging for tenure purposes and that his university is using the Boyer model.

Like Little, I have invested a good deal of time and energy into blogging. I have done so with a realistic understanding of its limits. Some people believe it helps authors connect with other writers and with their audiences. Maybe, but I think that is more the exception rather than the rule. If blogging really works well, it can help build a reputation just like an article in The New Republic, but an article in The Atlantic or The Huffington Post or an op-ed is not scholarship. Bolstering your reputation is never a bad thing.

To see the entire session, go to Youtube. The question and answer session is quite interesting.

You can also read the contributions of each participant: