Blogs. The very word causes a remarkable range of emotions from historians. Some are excited about the possibilities online outlets provide for them and their scholarship. Some furrow their brows at what must surely be a trend that will go the way of VHS and Pong. Others shiver in Luddite horror at the prospect of the internet causing yet another intrusion into their archival time. And, perhaps, there are still those who would simply ask, what is a blog again?
As one who sees promise in the world of academic blogs (and other digital platforms as well), I want to explain what it is that attracts me to the world of academic blogging and, in turn, invite the members of the American Society of Church History to engage the society’s long-neglected blog. While I have no illusions that a portion of the society will never actually make use of or reference the blog, I think that the entire society would reap the benefits that come from a lively digital conversation. So, I argue here that blogs have the potential to broaden the society’s conversation, disseminate its scholarship, generate fruitful connections among its members, and provide a creative outlet for historians to engage the public.
Perhaps the most powerful and potentially productive effect of blogging is its ability to replicate one of the most vital aspects of the academy, the ongoing conversations between colleagues. Conferences are the lifeblood of history as a discipline and the relationships forged and furthered in them produce valuable insights that shape the field—but these events are short and infrequent. By providing a venue for peer-to-peer conversation that is always available, blogs act as a constant conference, allowing the conversation to continue year-round (albeit at a far slower pace). Ideas are put forward, critiqued or commended, then amended, qualified, or rejected based on comments. Furthermore, the breadth of exposure achieved through publication in a blog enables significantly more cross-pollination between sub-disciplines and even has the potential to add to the rolls of the society itself. More voices and more perspectives can only enrich the discipline.
On that note, a blog encourages interpersonal connections between scholars not possible via conferences alone. People from any part of the world, from any niche of the discipline, and from any level of the academic hierarchy can access and engage its ongoing conversation. Established scholars can engage with younger scholars whom they may not have the time or availability to engage at a conference. Africanists can interact with Americanists, intellectual historical theologians can engage those who study art, medievalists can benefit from the insights of modernists, etc. Plus, in an era of budget-cutting and STEM fever, scholars who are at schools which provide limited support to attend conferences can maintain their relationship with the society and its community of scholars in a much more vibrant way despite not being able to attend the conference every year. This is especially important in light of the spread of high-quality faculty members far from the orbit of traditional research-oriented institutions, a development highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Better College, Better Scholars, Right? Not So Much.”
The ongoing conversation of a blog, preserved as a public record, helps to educate the public. Blogs not only display the outcomes of the historian’s craft, but also the process by which those outcomes are reached. Students and outsiders can observe the back and forth involved in coming to historical conclusions and, potentially, be exposed to insider conversations about historiography that currently reside only in specialized tomes, light-years away from the bestseller lists. Moreover, an academic blog can act as an avenue for the society’s members to apply their research to historical issues that arise in the public discourse.
Without the same level of editorial review as a journal, blogs provide a unique, low-stakes venue for historical thinking. Ideas ordinarily presented only to a scant few colleagues can get better exposure and collaboration than they would at a conference, at an exponentially faster pace available to journal articles. Blogs fit in-between evanescent conference presentations and the formal, heavily-refereed journal articles. The tone of writing in a blog also helps to remind us to translate our sometimes jargon-laden discourse into the vernacular, a skill that can enhance our performance in classrooms and lecture halls.
Of course, these claims all sound great, but we are intellectuals. What evidence is there that any of the glowing things I say about blogs are actually true? Well, I am glad you asked. Dr. Elesha Coffman, an ASCH board member and a professor at Baylor University (where I attend), just posted about her own experience with the Religion in American History blog. Her post (which you should read in full—“RiAH at 10: We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges!”) describes how the blog allowed her the opportunity to continue conference-level conversations year-round, which was especially important for her in her first job where collegial conversations were extremely limited. For her, the blog even enriched her experiences at conferences. She writes, “‘People I’ve ‘met’ through [the Religion in American History blog] I subsequently met, and often presented alongside, at real-life conferences, where our interactions were enriched by the sustained conversation made possible at this blog. In New York, or Chicago, or wherever, instead of, ‘Hello, what is it you work on?’ while we squint at each other’s nametag, it’s, ‘So good to see you, I loved that book review you posted, you’re taller than I expected, and how is that new class going?’” Who can honestly say that Dr. Coffman’s experience isn’t something many long for?
It is valuable to point out, as well, the connection between blogs and social media. I have seen valuable conversations on Facebook (and, sometimes, Twitter) about posts on various historians’ blogs. Social media (especially Facebook) acts as a second venue for context on the same material, breathing new life into the same material by creating another discussion. This magnifies a post’s exposure and further widens the discussion centering around it. I have found following blogs on Facebook is a great way to allow a service I already use to aggregate the blogs I follow and to monitor the ensuing discussion.
There are many other reasons for why academics should take blogs as a serious and fruitful avenue for their efforts, but it should be said, blogs must be placed in the context of the academy as it exists. Unfortunately for those who embrace blogging, many of the scholars who make hiring and tenure decisions still act as if we were still living in the age where computers filled rooms instead of pockets. Those for whom the internet is still a foreign land often dismiss blogs as quaint toys for young people, not valid avenues for academic output. Now, I fully believe that notion will retire with those who hold to it, but younger scholars need to be wise to respect the power structures that exist despite the ways in which those structures will inevitably change. (I say this without any disrespect for those who are dismissive of blogs. Blogs are not for everybody and, if studying history has taught me anything it’s that I shouldn’t expect those from differing contexts to come to the same conclusions.) Nevertheless, with the ever-increasing emphasis of online publication and the continued digitization of the academy as a whole, online venues for scholarly dialogue are only going to grow in their import. I hope that we historians of the American Society of Church History can embrace this development and help the society find its own digital voice.
Joshua Caleb Smith is a PhD student in religious history at Baylor University. His research lies primarily in early modern European Christianity but he also has significant interests in American religious history.