Blogging in American Studies

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

I was going to create a list on H-AMSTDY of blogs in the field of American Studies. I know (and quite enjoy) Ben Railton’s AmericanStudies  and I recently found An American Studies by two high school teachers. And that’s about it. Oh, there many things called “blogs” run by American Studies departments that are little more than bulletin boards for upcoming events like this one and this one and this one. And some journals have established blogs; I suspect as publishers they are largely interested in figuring out a way to keep up with digital publishing without losing money and are trying to do a better job at it than the music industry has done. (Though I’d be interested to know for certain if those blogs an editorial choice or a business move.)

I’m surprised at how limited the American Studies blogosphere is, while other fields are quite rich. When I say rich, I mean rich in instances where a single person feels compelled to keep up a sustained discussion on a personal blog about our field; one person developing a singular voice in the field. This is not to say blogs that are compilations by groups can’t be equally fascinating. I put together a list of bloggers in Material Culture Studies it’s pretty large and mostly individuals. Coupled with the activity on Twitter using #materialculture it strikes me that the internet is alive and crackling with Material Culture Studies discussion, connection, and insight. By comparison, American Studies online seems…quieter. I’m wondering why.

I could be missing blogs. It could be that “American Studies” is simply way to broad and perhaps there are many blogs on more specific subjects that aren’t directly identified as “American Studies.” It could be that there’s actually more excitement and freshness in Material Culture Studies and in communicating online while American Studies has gotten kind of rigid and does things in only very tried and true ways, or that American Studies-ist are simply old fogies who don’t know how to use the internet (I’m just spit-balling here). 

I’m still game to compile a list so let me know what blogs I’m missing and if I should maybe define “blogs” a little more broadly. There is a difference between an individual’s blog and an institution’s blog, but maybe I need to get over it. But while you’re at it, let me know why you think American Studies lacks individual bloggers, or if I’m way off base. And finally, why aren’t you blogging?

Patrick,

There is a great blog run by Sarah Wilson, a PhD candidate in our program at Penn State Harrisburg. It is: http://theamericanistdiversion.com. Hope this helps! It would be nice to have a list of Americanist blogs.

Thanks for doing this Patrick!

My co-editor Ryan Reft and I have been running the site Tropics of Meta since early 2010. It has since featured the work of dozens of graduate students, faculty, artists and other writers across the world, covering topics such as urbanism and media studies, gender and sexuality, military history, sports, and American foreign policy. Tropics has been highlighted on Wordpress's Freshly Pressed several times, and our pieces have been republished by the likes of KCET and n+1.

The site can be found at www.tropicsofmeta.com. I'd also strongly recommended nursingclio.org.

Best wishes,

Alex Sayf Cummings
Assistant Professor of History
Georgia State University

Patrick,
We have just recently started a blog called http://foodfatnessfitness.com/ that is by definition interdisciplinary and international but focuses a lot on America.
Thanks, and I am curious to explore the blogs,
Nina

Thanks from me, too, Patrick!
I'm glad to be reminded about Ben Railton's blog and about the other projects mentioned in this discussion.
I have started my own blog (www.frankusbeck.net) about a year ago to document my research on American soldier blogs (milblogs) and related fields, such as PTSD, war narratives, and military history, but also Native American history and culture, and German-American relations and historical encounters.

Best,
Frank Usbeck
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
TU Dresden, Germany

Yes, thanks for raising this.

In the UK, the Americas Collections at the British Library run this blog http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/americas/index.html, which has recent contributions from Prof. Sarah Churchwell (on Gatsby), as well as regular notes by curators, which cover a range of topics as well as current events. But I'm not sure we can argue we have a sustained voice, just notes from trying to keep our heads above water!

US Studies Online, which is written by graduate students and early career scholars is also excellent http://usstudiesonline.com/

Hi Patrick,

I'd like to suggest a blog by my colleague at Penn State Harrisburg, Megan McGee Yinger: The Lady Americanist http://sites.psu.edu/megmcgeeamst/

Thank you for putting together a list!
Becky

Thanks to those who have posted their blogs and found me elsewhere to share your blogs. I'll get a list together.

In the meantime...I grow more intrigued by this blogging thing. I can't help but notice two blogs have been posted that are written by grad students in the same department. It gets me wondering...anyone know of any departments or at least faculty out there who actively encourage grad students to blog? I think many grad students begin blogging with an eye toward getting one's name/work out there in advance of the eventual job hunt. (I've read that advice online so it must be true!) Any faculty encourage it? It seems like doing so would lend some credibility to the blog as a worthwhile form of writing in academia, but I suspect many faculty or more intent on their students publishing in peer-reviewed places. 

Or is the academic blog already passé, at least for grad students? Perhaps blogging once gave applicants the needed edge (we all know name-recognition counts) but perhaps in the current job market it's all for naught. Anyone from a hiring committee care to chime in?

Hi there -

Yes! As you see, there are several of us on this thread who have a home at Penn State Harrisburg. PSU has the resources to host student blogs and one element of a first-year graduate experience is to become familiar with the world of blogging. Dr. Simon Bronner requires the student to establish their own in his Theory and Method course and many of us continue or expand upon the sites throughout our graduate years. As an authority on digital culture, Dr. Anthony Buccitelli also encourages this type of writing.

I think it comes down to this: a writer has to write. Yes, we pursue peer-reviewed publishing, but at the same time, it is important to regularly put ideas on paper (or, the blog site in this case), it helps develop a different style of writing, and it certainly puts our names "out there."

I think this is an important topic, Patrick. Thanks for starting the discussion!

I don't understand why anyone should object to blogs, or see them purely as a stepping-stone towards career advancement. Given the generally shocking state of academic writing these days - one only has to be a referee or an editor of a journal to understand this - a blog might offer an opportunity for anyone to try communicating their ideas in coherent form.

Matthew Pratt Guterl is an historian of race and nation in the Americas and deeply invested in public humanities. Matt has a great mind, a compassionate heart, and beautifully accessible prose. He is shamefully prolific. His blog can be found at http://matthewprattguterl.com/. It is a must read.

I started a blog over a year ago and I have some content on it, but not enough to list it here. I bookmarked many of the blogs that are listed in the posts on this site. They are impressive. Moving forward, I ideally would like to have more access to the research sources that I was using when I started blogging. I also need to improve the graphic content and technical features. I do think that blogs are beneficial for the work we do in American studies, so I want to return to this practice. I currently only have access to a desk at the local library and I have been working on a research project, so most of my reference materials have been in the service of completing a manuscript. I look forward to the blog list you are trying to develop.

Thanks Patrick for getting this started, and good to see all this activity. I started a blog, The Public Classroom, which grows from a basic AmStudies impulse: bridging the world of scholarship and the public.
PubClassroom.com currently has an opening statement, http://pubclassroom.com/about/, and three sections; on political campaigns, on a sampling of popular culture (Halloween), and on big Values Questions. I welcome comments, and contributions, for this new venture in digital outreach.
Paul

Thanks Paul, and thanks all. I will be putting the list together and adding it to the H-AMSTDY resources by the end of June (so very soon). It will be an editable and evolving collection so additions can be made.

I'm in agreement with Paul on the importance of bridging scholarship and the broader public. Blogs and other types of web activity seem like one viable way (not the only way) for academics to get their knowledge outside of the little academic circle. As university funding gets cut and public sentiment seems only interested in universities as credentialing machines for STEM careers, I would think more academics would be interested in getting their work out there beyond unread peer-review journals in order to convince our funders that the research we do and the knowledge we produce matters. That's why I continue to be surprised at how little effort academics make in this direction, and how few blogs there are written by academics. We can all point to a few and point to the rising numbers of academic blogging as an exciting new thing, but really in the broad scheme there are very academics who do it. As a simple sample, we've got a nice list of ten or so here, but there are over 6400 subscribers to H-AMSTDY.

Clare Spark's post points to radio as another format academics might use to get their work and utility recognized beyond academic walls. Has anyone ever listened to Wisconsin Public Radio's University of the Air? Wonderful. (Let's just hope the University of Wisconsin survives Gov. Walker and can keep putting professors on the air.) Or Backstory with the American History Guys? But Clare also brings up the question of audience and makes the point that going out to the public via radio, blog, podcast, takes a different kind of writing and speaking. Lengthy historiographies and theorizations, for starters, can bore a lot of people to tears. So how to get all our erudite thoughts across without having to "dumb it down" is still a pretty big problem for academics. And can academics, after years of training and promotion-driven publication writing, write in more accessible ways? Must doing so feel like dumbing down?

On top of all this I'd ask if anyone thinks there might also be a stigmatism to all of this. Are there any academics in blogging or podcast or other communication realms who have found that their efforts are far from lauded by their academic peers for extending all of our work beyond our walls? Do any of you bump up against notions that you're selling out, wasting time, or possibly even diminishing academia by making it accessible? Do any of the 6000+ non-blogging academics out there feel this way about those who do blog?

 

I did not want to join the discussion, but I somewhat feel compelled to after Patrick's injunction and call to action !
I was an early fan of academic blogging but practice changed my mind. First and foremost blogging is a highly time-consuming activity and academic time is becoming scarcer, and the ROI is far from obvious.
I believe there are basically three kinds of blogs :
- the most common one : the blog no one reads (hey, time is rare for readers too. I myself hardly ever read blogs anymore, at least not as much as I used to). Those blogs are merely "mirrors" (or self-sounding boards) to the writer where he can test his sentences / ideas . . . with himself (the "publishing" aspect, however, plays as a sort of stimulant).
- the second type is the "fan-club" / "cult" blog, written by a "figure" (often a junior academic who tries to make it by playing guru, but not always). The readers / responders are always the same: they form the "cult" I was referring to. It's reading for confirmation.
- the third type is extremely rare in academia, but very common in the press. It's most often run by an academic-playing-columnist and is connected with a newspaper. It functions less as a way of "mediating academic research" as a way of building up one's reputation in the general public.
As to any possible negative effect on one's image in the profession, I don't believe it has any, as nobody (in power) really cares.
Then again, I might be wrong!
Jean Kempf
Professor of American Studies
University of Lyon, France

Professor Jean, like Patrick Cox before him, raised questions about blogging, a few of which interest me very much.

I have been blogging for six years now, successfully in terms of developing a following in different countries, and have some recommendations for would-be bloggers, though I don't know how anyone but independent scholars would find the time and energy to blog to a non-academic audience.

It helps traffic on my blog if I stay relevant and on top of the controversy of the day or week. Second, keep in mind that our society is intensely polarized, so if you take sides (as opposed to clarifying conflicts), you will be preaching to those who think exactly as you were trained.

Jean is correct about competing with journalists and the media. So I keep the blogs shorter than I did when I started out.

As for dumbing down, we are obliged to raise the level of discourse, but not by talking down or showing off, but by writing clearly and defining our terms. It was easier on the radio, because I had a curious, open-minded listenership of activists and students. But that was in the 70s-90s, when listeners were involved in social movements.

Today, we have a preoccupation with Washington politics, which is an opportunity to clarify the origins of contested social policies.

Clare Spark, Ph.D.
www.clarespark.com

The blog I started two years ago falls under Jean's definition of "the blog no one reads." And I intentionally developed my blog as "the blog no one reads." It is first and foremost a blog to help develop my thoughts on various interrelated subjects in my field. It may help others with their own line of thinking about these subjects, and, if it does, then that's great. I do think, as Patrick pointed out, that a blog with lengthy historiographies can be boring. My blog currently has a sub-section that has become a lengthy historiography appearing on one page. It would have been better to break it up into more manageable texts. That may be the first thing I do when I return to it. I don't envision my blog becoming a site for reaching the public. Instead, I see it as a source that may help develop ideas that I have stored in Zotero.

I think Patrick also discussed other media such as podcasts and radio. Podcasts may help communicate scholarly ideas to a wide audience, but I will most likely leave that to other academics. Another possibility for podcast use may be to enhance course goals and developing discussions. The podcasts may also be placed on a blog site that students can access. Do blogs contain podcasts? I'm assuming they do.

I would add at least one blogging category, and one that academics seem to do particularly well: the group blog. Good examples here include:

NursingClio (Women, Gender, and Medicine)
Notches (History of Sexuality)
U.S. Intellectual History Blog

And of course there are many others. But I can say that group blogs on the whole strike a good balance between not "dumbing down" and having respectable public outreach. For example, I am a contributor to Notches, and posts from the site have also run in the Huffington Post (example from my own work). Having a slate of contributors also ensures a steady flow of content, and to that end, many of these accept guest posts and outside submissions (provided, of course, that they fall within the blogs theme). Hence, they can be a good way to raise your profile and have some short work read by a reasonably wide audience—including other scholars.

-Dan Royles

danroyles.com

I have opted out of blogging ( I do have a website, www.lilianbarger.com) because I think that in order to get an audience you do have to address issues of the moment and for me as a historian that requires more time than the 24 hours news cycle. The public wants answers, not just analysis. I also want to write in a different mode that requires more space, time and reflection, i.e. books. I have no interest in putting my fleeting feelings and opinions out there. As someone mentioned above, nobody cares. So, instead I am currently doing podcasting interviewing others on New Books in American Studies and New Books in Gender. I love it. It serves my purpose in many different ways. It allows me to network, research and spread knowledge outside the academy to a wide audience all in one venue. I understanding the blogging or the podcast choice is a personality driven one and one's goals.

If you blog, contributing to a group blog is definitely the way to go. You gain synergy, which is very important on the web.

I'd like to second the point about group blogs. I think anyone contemplating the issue has to begin with a sober awareness that blogging is simply not going to contribute to your assessment for tenure and promotion -- at least not at most institutions I know of. You can write a post that is read by tens of thousands of people around the globe, reaching a vastly greater audience than a monograph or an article in a top journal, but it probably won't amount to a hill of beans as far as your department or college is concerned. We have tried at my institution to make it so that these non-traditional types of work will "count" for something but I think people are (understandably) still not quite sure how to evaluate it.

So what's the point?

I think there are several good reasons to blog. A blog does not have to be simply a "mirror," a lonely little outpost on the Internet where a scholar basically talks to him or herself. It also does not have to be strictly a vehicle for self-promotion -- a blog could be a stepping stone to greater notoriety as a public intellectual, but in a vast and noisy Internet most probably don't.

The reason why we started Tropics of Meta in 2010 was that several of our editors had just gotten out of grad school and felt adrift. We missed the intellectual community that interacting with peers, professors, and advisers provided, and we wanted a space where we could bounce ideas off each other, test out new material, and write with the kind of freedom you have when you're not facing peer review. These are really valuable benefits of blogging.

We certainly were not thinking in terms of professional advancement per se, at least at first. Now it's certainly good to know what kind of audience we're reaching and which pieces seem to resonate more than others, but it's still a labor of love.

(One last thought: some of our writers have been able to use their contributions to Tropics of Meta as leverage for getting other paid writing gigs, or they've had their work republished in much bigger venues, so there is at least the possibility of a blog spinning off other opportunities. But it does take a lot of work for a reward that's far from assured.)

Alex Sayf Cummings
Assistant Professor of History
Georgia State University

We don't blog about American Studies but we do blog as American Studies-scholars (mostly) at Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. That is to say, we are historically grounded, inter- and multi-disciplinary, and polyglot in a good way. Or at least we try to be.

Points is an academic group blog, and was founded with the explicit goal of getting well-researched, critical, academic-y work out to a broader public.  We've done a good job and have a fair number of contributors and commentators from outside the academy.  The reception to Points has been very good and our audience is respectable in size and breadth. While evidence is anecdotal, my sense is that publishing with Points looks good on a CV.  People are seen as eager to get out of their disciplinary silos, interested in reaching an audience beyond the ivory tower, and capable of writing in a public voice.  Chairs and deans seem to like this. I can't say it's true that "nobody cares."  

The problem is that they don't care ENOUGH to count writing for a blog towards tenure and promotion-- just as they don't count the commitment it takes to edit a public, interdisciplinary, modern online publication ENOUGH to count THAT for tenure and promotion.  Writing and editing a scholarly blog is still seen as a nice hobby, one that complements but in no way should take the place of the churning out of peer-reviewed articles and monographs for university presses.  Work on a blog brings intangible rewards like visibility, good networks, intellectual community, a "cutting-edge" persona, etc. and those have value.  But there are no boxes to check for them on your annual report, and that means that "in the final analysis" that is t&p, they count for almost nothing relative to knowledge production in traditional forms.  This seriously disincentivizes blogging.

I think by this point most academic administrators know that the scholarly knowledge production environment--the political economy of academic publishing as well as its forms--has changed irrevocably.  They certainly exhort us to participate in it lest we confirm our own irrelevance in the eyes of the taxpayers.  But the reward metrics and structures of the university have not changed apace. "Academic 2.o" activities like blogging, tweeting, podcasting, maintaining a multi-mode website, etc., are all to be added on to the existing work of traditional research (and, of course, teaching). The result is an unforgiving "double day" that is not really sustainable for the average person with a body, a family, and/or a life outside of their research interests.

I'm not sure how to solve this problem, and wonder if others have insights into it. I'd be particularly interested in hearing from H-Amsters who have moved into administrative positions about how (or whether) they are pressing their institutions to think proactively on this front.

Trysh Travis
University of Florida

 

This isn't so much a blog as a e-magazine, but http://werehistory.org/ (We're History) is short scholar-written articles on American History. FYI, I've contributed so I'm not impartial! Also on Twitter for those of you who Tweet at @WereHistory.

- Mimi Cowan
PhD Candidate, History
Boston College

A quick note regarding Claire Spark's questions about bloggers. I would agree with a qualification. The blogs I read seem just fine. However, it seems like blogging in general has caused a bit of a relaxing to some of the formal expectations of research. I've noticed several recent Ameicanist authors seem less interested in providing textual support to their observations. More books have no or limited end-notes, many have no pagination for quotations, and a few are more intent on giving observations about culture rather than deeply reasoned analysis about ideas. Is it just me or have bloggers made it easier not to engage in vigorous research for some publishers?

I agree with Louis Caton that bloggers should, at least in their own minds, write nothing to a lay audience that can't be justified with thorough scholarly apparatus. Sadly, most blogging is performed by ideologues with unscholarly motives, including venting, revenge, or pushing a particular ideological line.

If Caton is suggesting that we include footnotes in our blogs, remember my warning about keeping blogs short and relevant (which is hard, given the paucity of primary sources in many cases).. Only the most devoted readers will read longer blogs with footnotes. The competition on social media is hot and heavy.

A quick clarification regarding my post. Ms. Spark wondered if I was suggesting that bloggers get more intense and begin using footnotes. No, I'm not in favor of that. My post meant to ask if the relaxed nature of bloggers (which I think is fine) has influenced scholarship in general. Has blogging caused us to expect less in the way of academic publications? I'm not sure about that question. My guess is that it has. But, in any case, I endorse the casual quality of blogs. They're important.

Pages