Historical Profession

Professional Website, v. 4.0

Professional Website, v. 4.0

A tour of the fourth iteration of my professional website.

Welcome to my new website! 

A website represents your home on the web. It’s where people come to learn more information about you and where you have the opportunity to convey the image and message you want to the world.

I really loved my old website, but I needed a change. It felt dated (it was three and half years old) and as the third iteration of my original website, it no longer conveyed the image and message I want to convey to the world.

New Job, New Opportunities at the Omohundro Institute

I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined the staff at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture as its new Digital Projects Editor. This is a really exciting opportunity because it means long-term support for Ben Franklin’s World and the Doing History series and a chance to continue working and collaborating with the OI’s great staff of talented historians and professionals.

Over the last two years, the team at the Omohundro Institute has helped develop Ben Franklin’s World into a serious and professional media outlet for scholarly history. Their knowledge has played a major role in growing Ben Franklin’s World into a podcast that receives over 160,000 downloads per month and has garnered more than 2 million downloads in less than 3 years. Plus, the Doing History series has evolved into a dynamic series that not only shows the world how historians work and why our work matters, but encourages us to experiment with adapting our traditional modes of historical interpretation and communication to new media. (Thus far these experiments have proven successful as episodes in the Doing History: To the Revolution! series are the most downloaded episodes in the entire BFWorld catalog.)

It’s also an exciting opportunity because the Omohundro Institute is the preeminent organization in the world for early American historical scholarship. They do so much to support the work that we historians do through their fellowship and publication programs, conferences, and digital history initiatives and by challenging themselves and others to produce the best scholarship in the field. And now, Ben Franklin’s World and I get to be a BIGGER part of that work.

Going forward, listeners can still expect great interviews with scholars who work on different aspects of early American History. Episodes will continue to post on Tuesdays, just as they have been for over two and a half years, and listeners can also expect more multi-part series with narrative-style episodes.

For nearly 75 years, the Omohundro Institute has been committed to producing the best scholarship in early American history and I’m really looking forward to meeting the challenge of producing episodes that meet their high standards as well as the high standards the Ben Franklin’s World and Doing History audiences have come to expect. I’m excited to contribute to the Omohundro Institute’s long tradition of excellence.

 

How Do You Write a Book with 3 Hours Per Week?

Last week I had the opportunity to spend some time at the Omohundro Institute. In between planning sessions for the new "Doing History: To the Revolution!" series, I caught up with friends and colleagues, some of whom asked me whether I had any time to pursue original research and whether I was still working towards a book. I responded that "yes, I'm still working toward a book." Actually, I'm working toward two books. It seems the Articles of Confederation is a great topic to think through the same themes of identity, nation building, and conflict resolution that I worked on in my dissertation. My dissertation may, in fact, become a book after all.

As I spoke with my colleagues about my projects and excitedly told them about my plans one stopped me and asked: "how do you plan to write a book with only 3 hours a week to work on it?"

The question is a good one and one I'm pondering. How do I plan to finish a book and write a second one when the only time I can set aside consistently to work on them is 3-4 hours on Sunday mornings?

In graduate school, I asked my professors about how they write and about their workflows; communications and optimized workflows are topics that interest me. All of them said they find 1-4 hours each day to write. I still ask these questions of colleagues and the most prolific of them give the same answer.

I don't have 1-4 hours each day to devote to my written scholarship. Most days I find it difficult to set aside the hour I need to practice yoga or run--activities I find necessary for stress relief and mental health. Plus, the fact that I write about history in three different mediums is problematic. Each medium has it's own voice and ends. When I'm writing in audio my brain works differently. It's hard to think about writing and editing long form text when I'm actively engaged in audio work. Plus the voice I use in my audio work is not the same voice I would use in long form text.

I may not have 1-4 hours per day, but I do have Sunday mornings. Most Sundays I can work for at least 3 hours before my family gets up and moving for the day and before I have to turn to the work that exceeds the bounds of a sane work week. I also have occasional snippets of time on non-audio days where I can draft short blog posts like this one.

Can I write a book by writing it as a series of blog posts?

Some fiction authors do this, they write their books in the form of serialized blog posts. You see this most commonly on the social networking site wattpad. But would this serialized-blog-post model work for a history book?

Blog posts and history books have different voices. Blog posts tend to have an informal tone that makes use of contractions, casual word choice, and the first person. I've yet to read a scholarly history book with the tone and voice of blog writing.

Blog posts are also public. Publishers want authors to reserve their best content for their books so they can give readers a great reason to purchase them. If I write my books adopting a blog workflow, I won’t be able to publish everything I write on my blog.

Blog posts and history books also serve different functions. Blog posts tend to be short, one-offs where writers present and work through an idea. History books usually present multiple, complex ideas by working through long, detailed stories and examples. The intellectual production that goes into a book is much different from the intellectual production that goes into a blog post.

To get back to my colleague's question, I don't know how I plan to write a book, or two books, with 3 hours per week to work on them. I don't know how to turn short-form thinking into long-form thinking just yet. Still, it seems like I will need to adopt and adapt the blog-post method of book writing to my practice of history if I intend to write books. And as much as I love new media, I love the old. I want to write books about the BIG histories I think about and I want to contribute to the historiography in a meaningful way. I also know that I have what it takes to be a good "book historian" and I want to prove it.

Some day I will finish my books and they will be the books I want to write and they will be books that contribute. I just have to figure out how to get them done. I will solve this problem. In the meantime, with the exception of feeling like I should have written a book by now, I have no regrets about taking the career path less traveled. I have the privilege of increasing awareness about history and the work historians do by connecting historians to a public who is both interested in and thirsty for their work. Every day I get to help demonstrate why history matters and showcase the value of historians' work to society. And I get to do it all by writing history in and for new media.

The Power of History & Historians

My study of history has become meta. In an effort to manage my research project on the Articles of Confederation, I committed to thinking and writing about one piece of the historical puzzle I'd like to solve: How did the Articles of Confederation become the United States' forgotten constitution?

My strategy for answering this first question involves investigating the history of the early histories of the American Revolution and early United States. At the moment, it's a two-part investigation:

Part one: See whether the early histories mention the Articles of Confederation and if so, what they have to say about it.

Part two: Attempt to better understand why the historians who authored these early histories wrote them the way they did. How did their methodology help determine the inclusion, exclusion, and interpretations of the Articles?

This second part has led my study of history to become meta.

History as Identity

I'm fascinated by American identity. Americans don't have just one identity, they have many. At one level they are American: members and citizens of the United States. At another level Americans are regional. Americans aren't just Americans, they're New Englanders, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Californians, Texans, Southerners, Midwesterners, etc. And you can further subdivide these regional identities into smaller cultural groups.

My scholarship is driven by a desire to figure out how Americans can be at once the same and yet so very different. How do Americans navigate and negotiate their identities as members of local cultural groups and regional communities--identities that often stand at odds with each other across cultural and regional lines-- to also include a national, American identity that unifies them?

History stands as a BIG part of the answer to that question. History builds and sustains nations and people. It's an important part of the glue that holds people and culture together. Along with other humanistic fields such as language and literature, history helps disparate people build and sustain a national identity. History is so important to national identity that the European Union is funding the work of historians to create a national, European history.[1]

In the United States, we've had a nationalistic history from the start and it developed for three reasons:

1. In the 18th-century, Americans and Europeans viewed history as practical. History served as a tool that demonstrated how philosophical teachings worked on the ground, in real life.

2. Early Americans turned to history to explain the American Revolution and War for Independence. How did thirteen colonies rise up and improbably defeat Great Britain? Americans who lived through the events had a hard time understanding the answer to this question so they turned to history to work out and explain what had happened.

3. Early historians used history to affect their agenda: Encourage the next generation to take a stand a build a nation.

 

The Power of History & Historians

Early historians of the United States used the past to shape the future. They shaped the future of their nation by depicting Americans' stand against Great Britain as a united one and by stressing the need for Americans to unite and remain united as they built their new nation. The historians' projected a clear message: Victory in the War for Independence demonstrated that when Americans stand united they can achieve great feats and accomplish the improbable, like defeating the greatest imperial army and navy in the world.

Early historians achieved their message by glossing over and omitting the thousands of Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain and the thousands more who tried to maintain a neutral position during the Revolution. They also largely passed over the infighting and squabbling that took place within Congress and among the different states, which one can clearly see if they explore the history of the Articles of Confederation.

The selective history of these early historians has had great staying power. The idea that Americans stand united more often than they stand divided is a myth. But it's a powerful myth that helped explain the Revolution and heal the nation after its violent and divisive war.

I have a lot more work on early American histories and historians to do. But my first foray into this small study makes a convincing case that history and historians are powerful. The historians who wrote the first histories of the American Revolution and United States recognized that a people without a common past cannot be a people with a common present.[2] So they took it upon themselves to give their fellow Americans a common history, a history that would propel them forward to build a new nation and hopefully a better future.

 

Notes

[1] Historians Alix Green (University of Central Lancashire), Markus Putsch (European Parliament), Betty Koed (U.S. Senate Historical Office), Louis Kyriakoudes (Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU), and Paul Pittman (U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian) discussed the need for and the efforts of the European Union to develop a national history to keep the union from collapsing at the 2016 National Council on Public History annual meeting in Baltimore, MD. The title of the panel: "Europe at the Crossroads? Navigating History and Memory at the Sharp Edge of Policymaking"

[2] Milton Klein, "Clio Ascendant: The Writing of American History in the Eighteenth Century," New York History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (January, 1987), pgs 4-26, pg 17.

With Digital Content Creation, the Tortoise Will Win the Race

I don't get SnapChat. Why would you spend time creating content that people can only access for a limited period of time? I shared this musing on Twitter and enjoyed exchanges that culminated in the fact that I'm old.

I may be a first-year millennial (I did in fact graduate high school in the year 2000), but I'm a member of the "Oregon Trail" part of the generation. The part that embraces new technology and still appreciates what came before it. I'm also a member of a profession that still lauds the book as the ultimate form of scholarly production. Books vary in quality, but they all take time to produce.

In the world I grew up in and the world I work in, it takes time and energy to produce content and preserve memories. These ideas and experiences shape the way I think about digital content and how it should be produced. They also make me a tortoise living and running in a hare's world.

 

The "Hare Approach" to Content Creation

In comparison, "real" millennials and "post-millennials" have grown up using smartphones, tablets, apps, and hardware, like Snap's Spectacles, to easily create digital content. As a childhood friend pointed out, "now, basic content creation is nearly effortless." You can create content and preserve a memory in seconds.

We live in a world full of digital content, but most of it's created quickly and it's not very good: bad blog posts, blurry photos, mundane status updates, and shaky videos. This mediocre content clogs the internet and means something only to those who created it and to those who understand the context of its creation.

Thinking about SnapChat within the context that content creation should be easy and effortless is when SnapChat started to make sense to me: The social app caters to people who want to create fast, effortless content. And thinking about SnapChat in this light has allowed me to appreciate how Snap may be doing our digital world a great service by making low-quality, hastily created content available only for a short period of time. Less clutter means more space for the great stuff to shine.

But what does the idea of creating fast, easy content on-the-go mean for the future of content creation? Has my belief that historians and other digital content producers should expend effort to produce high-quality, well thought out content become outmoded?

Should I morph into a hare?

I don't think so, at least not yet.

The "Tortoise Approach" To Content Creation

If my ideas about content creation were outmoded then Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and now Apple wouldn't be investing HUGE sums of money in the production and curation of high-quality, niche programs like Game of Thrones.

All of these companies are producing high-quality shows unlike anything you can see on a traditional network to draw people to their subscription-based, digital content libraries. And if you're like me, you enjoy programs like Game of Thrones more than the programs on network television because of their production value. They involve many characters, have huge story arcs, and contain great special effects (hello, real-looking dragons & dire wolves). These high-quality shows also aren't beholden to the traditional time clock of network television-- episodes don't have to adhere to 30- and 60-minute time slots.

And premium digital networks aren't the only ones investing time and money into highly-produced content. Masterpiece Theater produces shows of similar quality for PBS. Think Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Poldark. They have less special effects than a show like Game of Thrones, but they all have high-quality production.

It's also interesting to compare the types of content networks are producing. HBO produces content like Game of Thrones and TrueBlood to appeal to fantasy lovers. People accustomed to good stories and who have a track record of paying for merchandise, books, games, and content. Masterpiece Theater's main goal is to drive people to support public broadcasting. They mainly produce mysteries and history-inspired programs. People who like history tend to enjoy culture, are civic-minded, and they have a track record of donating money to support the work of organizations like PBS and NPR.

Video-based content companies and companies that service digital video apps aren't the only companies investing in high-quality, digital content. So are traditional news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR.

The New York Times and The Washington Post have publicly declared that they are redoubling their efforts to produce well-researched, long-form articles to differentiate themselves from other news outlets. They're banking on the fact that high-quality content will drive ad sales and subscriptions. They've also started audio divisions to lead people to their print content and to advertise their areas of expertise-- The Washington Post specializes in political podcasts; The New York Times produces podcasts about culture and they just released The Daily, a podcast that focuses on a big news story and leads you to its printed or digital newspaper.

NPR is also investing money in high-quality podcasts. The powerhouse networks that feed a lot of content to the national NPR network-- WBUR (Boston), WNYC (New York City), and WBEZ (Chicago)-- all have podcast and mobile divisions to produce apps like NPR One and great shows like Modern Love, Death, Sex, & Money, and Serial. Further, NPR-trained talent has started a whole host of new venture-funded podcast companies like Gimlet and Pineapple Street Media.

These new digital audio companies were founded to produce high-quality, on-demand audio content. Their funding models are based on three ideas:

1. High-quality, intellectually-driven content attracts listeners that advertisers will pay a premium to get access to because host-read podcast ads aren't yet regulated by the FCC, which means ads don't have to sound like ads, and the listeners the intellectually-driven content attracts tend to have disposable incomes.

2. If you have enough high-quality content, listeners will pay to access a back catalog like a subscription network. (These paid-subscription models are just starting to appear and will become more visible as these networks add to their content catalogs.)

3. Big companies recognize the value of high-quality content and are willing to pay networks to create custom content for them--like Open for Business by eBay, produced by Gimlet, and GE's podcast The Message, produced by Panoply.

 

Why the Tortoise Will Win in History Content Production

Tortoises like me live in a hare's world. We look slow and outmoded in the way we produce digital content. But our goals are different from those of the hare.

In my case, I want to create content that resonates with people, that creates wide awareness about history, and that cultivates a sentiment within society that history and the work historians do is worth supporting. I'm, in fact, running a tortoise's race. So my ideas aren't outmoded, they're timely and they make sense.

I believe there is a place for the hare's content. Photos and images created quickly with smartphones are fun to produce and share. However, the hare's content won't build a lasting audience. Within the last decade we've seen Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram content producers who quickly built massive audiences only to watch those audiences dwindle and leave as new apps and social networks came out and interests changed. The quick and easy content they produced entertained only for a limited time.

History has staying power. People will always be interested in history because it helps us grapple with the big, existential questions of who we are and how we came to be who we are. This is why historians have always invested time and energy into producing content that lasts: books, articles, museum exhibits. And this tried-and-true method of investing time and effort in the content we produce should also be our approach in the digital world.

We should embrace the hare, borrow everything from its technological toolbox that will help us communicate history, and then adapt these tools to amplify our work. Because just like in the analog world that came before the digital world, quality work will rise to the top, be consumed by more people over time, and will last-- just like tortoises, which live an average of 200 years versus hares, which live an average of 5.5 years.