On the essay by Earl Hess in Civil War History

Matt Gallman's picture


In the September 2019 issue, Civil War History published an essay by Earl Hess called “The Internet and Civil War Studies.” Thanks to historians on social media, I knew to be outraged by the essay a full week before I was able to read it. (And thanks to email, I was able to read a copy scanned by a colleague with whom I have collaborated.) In any case, folks on Twitter were mad at Hess, and soon became mad at CWH, and at each other. It was not a proud moment for social media, but it did demonstrate how quickly things spread on Twitter. For every historian who commented on Twitter I probably received one email from another historian who was aware of the kerfuffle and wanted no part of it.


Earl Hess is a superb scholar, an indefatigable researcher, and just amazingly productive. This interesting essay demonstrates those research skills while also showing some limitations that perhaps deserved prepublication consideration. Hess surveys the relationship between history, historians, and the internet in a detailed study which will be a benchmark for future historians asking the same questions (which is a nice way of saying that it will be outdated soon and in some instances is already curiously behind the times). After some useful preliminaries, Hess looks at six categories of analysis. He considers research in primary sources available on the web; archives and special collections putting their materials on the web; marketing books on the web; collaborations on the web; historians and social media; and, finally, “informational websites.”


Along the way, Hess has assembled a huge amount of valuable information. I particularly like his attention to the role of archivists in this story. He gives considerable attention to my colleague Dr. James Cusick who has done wonderful things at the University of Florida’s Special Collections, including two marvelous web pages full of primary materials. There is lots of valuable evidence here.


But then there are those surveys. In 2014 Hess published a different piece on the state of Civil War studies in CWH, based largely on his 2013 survey of some Civil War historians. I have some background in quantitative methods and at the time I was on the board of CWH. At several meetings I offered to look over this piece, but I was never given that opportunity. I thought the published essay was methodologically pretty bad (for reasons that follow). I did not share those thoughts in print, thinking largely of something about horses and barn doors. It never occurred to me that we would hear from this survey again. Oh well.


Large portions of this essay are built upon that survey Hess ran in 2013 and on a subsequent survey Hess ran with CWH in 2016. The methodological problems are many. Here is a list:

  • The surveys are small (2013 apparently included 33 respondents; 2016 had 95). The essay puts an awful lot of weight on very few voices.
  • There is no indication of how those polled were selected, or how many people declined to participate. (I am pretty sure I received and never responded to the 2013 poll. I do not think the journal invited me to participate in the 2016 version.) Hess quotes a graduate student named Jonathan Jones who responded to the 2016 survey after finding it on Twitter. Does that mean that the respondents to this poll were quite literally self-selecting?  Readers should understand these things.
  • More importantly, there is no indication of the demographic breakdown of respondents. Were they mostly old white men, as Twitter historians seem to suggest? Did it include untenured scholars?  Were women – older and younger – equally represented?  How about people of color”? These critiques should have been anticipated and addressed.
  • Beyond the obvious considerations about generation, gender, race, and so on, there are just questions of the professional life cycle. For instance, Hess asked his respondents about if they used social media to market their books. The question might make perfect sense to Earl Hess, who seems to publish a new book every six months, but shouldn’t the survey results have told us about the behavior of authors who had published a book in the last few years rather than all respondents?
  • In this essay, and much more so in the previous CWH piece, Hess violates all sorts of cardinal rules about describing survey evidence (beyond all the failures in describing survey methods). He writes of the opinions of “a large percentage of Civil War scholars” (211), when he really means “a large percentage of 95 [or was it 33?] respondents several years ago.” Later, he refers to the opinions of “most Civil War historians” harboring “reservations” about social media (227), when he is really referring to “the majority of folks who responded to this survey.” The essay concludes with an observation about “the overwhelming majority of Civil War Historians” (234), when the evidence simply cannot support the assertion.  The simple point is that it is professional malpractice to present a very small “survey” without any explanation of methods or the demographics of respondents, and then describe what they say as “most historians.”  That simply cannot be done.
  • This will sound picky, but throughout the essay Hess presents his evidence to two decimal points. That suggests an impressive level of specificity, but when your survey size is 95 it is pretty silly and not the sort of thing that I would imagine anyone familiar with quantitative methods would do. If your data says 48 out of 95, just round it to 52 percent.

There is more, but that is more than enough. Hess is a superb scholar, but he does not appear to be a quantifier. And perhaps the CWH folks should have been more attentive to this sort of thing. There are dozens of Civil War historians who are comfortable with quantitative analysis who could have reviewed the piece. 


Then there is the matter of how Hess treats social media and blogs. Essentially Hess has assembled six-year-old survey quotations about how folks feel (or, really, felt) about blogs and other such things. Not surprisingly, some of them do not (or did not) like them. This leads to entertaining quotations of unclear value. Are readers of CWH really surprised that Allan Guelzo is no fan of social media (or was not six years ago)?  Although there might be value in speaking critically of blogs and blogging, did CWH really need to run a lengthy, six-year-old, anonymous quotation from somebody who disliked Kevin Levin’s blog (back then)? The entire section feels unnecessary and not very useful. The punchline is that some folks like blogs and social media and others do not, or at least that is how they felt in the recent past. But the methods underlying the surveys allow for no systematic analysis that makes any sense or adds any value to the discussion. It is just hard to imagine why this discussion and these old quotes are in print.


(In putting together this essay I ran a small survey (sample size = 1; response rate 100.00%) of historians who are quoted in this essay. My respondent had no recollection of filling out the survey but said that the quoted passage surely could have been by him/her, although perhaps taken out of context. In any case, Hess had not contacted the respondent about using his/her words and name in this publication. I guess that is technically okay but it seems surprising.)


Finally, we have the social media train wreck on twitter. Kevin Levin, who was on CWH’s editorial board just before the essay appeared in print and felt he deserved some consideration given the content, shared passages from the essay on Twitter before most folks had seen it. Those passages included (old) quotations that critiqued his blog. Folks lined up to attack Earl Hess even before they had read the whole essay. Some cast the conflict in generational terms. Hess is an old guy yelling “get off my lawn” at bloggers. There is probably some empirical truth to that argument, although – like so much on social media – it seems unsupported by empirical data.  [Aside, Brooks Simpson, who has nothing at all to do with this conflict is only two years younger than Hess and a pioneer in blogging.]  Other responses suggested that Hess’s apparent hostility to blogging reflected unsavory tendencies concerning race and gender. It may well be true that historians who are active on social media and on blogs are less white, less male, and less old than other historians. That would not surprise me at all, although I have seen no such data. But the critique seems to require that Hess is aware of these facts, which strikes me as less likely. Has he been reading blogs enough to notice their authors and focus?


Somewhere along the line a member of the CWH board – who apparently had never actually seen a Twitter conversation before – weighed in and tried to defend Hess and the integrity of CWH. (Some folks had suggested that the whole board resign, for instance.) At some point, he made an unfortunate comment about the “tone” of the criticisms, which unleashed new torrents of critique.  He responded that his critics were being “Trumpian,” elegantly giving up the high ground. I have no thoughts to offer about “tone” (because I was not born yesterday), but I will note that one early respondent wrote: “I just googled him. I saw the picture and probably have enough information.” Earl has an impressive beard, which was perhaps the information the poster needed to draw conclusions about him?  It might be reasonable to conclude that that poster was appalling? Certainly the tone was not ideal.


So, in my opinion Hess’s essay included much valuable information, although it made a methodological hash of those surveys. It raises some interesting questions and CWH can reasonably argue that the essay opens a valuable conversation. Other reasonable people might wonder why CWH would ask Earl Hess – a great historian and a very nice fellow but not a guy known for either numbers or a social media presence  – to be the scholar to start this particular conversation with these particular surveys. On the other hand, in my humble opinion nobody should resign because of these transgressions, even if they might rethink them.


Matt Gallman

University of Florida

***Editorial Note. The following was original posted on Twitter by Megan Kate Nelson and we asked her to post her to contribute to the conversation here.***

First, thank you to Matt for starting this conversation on the listserv. I agree with him that there are some interesting and compelling segments in Hess' essay, particularly his discussion of archives and digital reproduction. This is because the survey method is clear in this section, and Hess quotes archivists extensively.

But as Matt also notes, the methods Hess uses in several other portions of the essay are at best questionable and at worst (as Matt says), “professional malpractice.” All of his critiques of the essay sections in which Hess uses 2013 and 2016 surveys are on point, and they track with the issues that historians pointed out on Twitter over the past few days. Therefore, I won’t belabor them here. Suffice it to say, I stand by my initial assessment of this piece that the methodology in major portions is incredibly problematic, and Civil War History should not have published it.

Matt makes a good point that Hess’ discussion of social media to sell books is marred by a lack of attention to “professional life cycle.” In addition to this problem, Hess’ data in this section is almost nonexistent. It does not appear that Hess talked to any UP editors or press directors about this issue. It is hard to understand why not, as many of them - including UNCP’s Mark Simpson-Vos, UGAP’s Lisa Bayer, and WVUP’s Derek Krissoff - are active Twitter users who pay attention to such matters.

In the second part of his piece, Matt turns from his critique of Hess’ assessments of social media to a critique of the social media discussion of Hess: #meta. The takeaway from this part of the piece, however, is unclear.

We all know that things can get heated on Twitter, and often spiral out of control. One of the great (but also cautionary) aspects of social media is how quickly people can respond to one another.

Most academics are not used to this, of course. Our usual methods of knowledge production and discussion - in journals and books, and at conferences - are slooooooow and restrained by panel Q&A formats and the like. This doesn't mean that the Slow Critique method is any less impolite or dismissive than Twitter. It just occurs in different contexts.

Twitter can be vicious, but it can also produce very useful, timely conversations about important subjects - often at the same time.

Unlike in journals and conferences, these discussions are open to all. This is one of Hess’ problems with social media, of course: its democratic nature, he contends, can create chaos that undermines scholarly rigor.

This can happen, for sure. But the vast majority of the time, social media - Twitter, in particular - acts as a generative, productive space for scholarly inquiry and exchange. It provides opportunities for women, scholars of color, contingent faculty, and graduate students to engage in conversation and debate with their colleagues. Hess and those academics whose negative assessments of social media he quoted in his essay would know this if they actually bothered to get on the platforms and really engage with them.

In the end, the publication of Hess’ piece in Civil War History and Twitterstorm it prompted, has started a good conversation about the role that social media can play in responding to - and holding authors and editors responsible for the integrity of - academic work in print.

The editorial note should read: ***Editorial Note. The following was originally posted on Twitter by Megan Kate Nelson and we asked her to post her contribute here.***