In early March of this year, the AHA’s Sadie Bergen reached out to members of the S-USIH blog community for help understanding the history of history blogs. Bergen was working on an article for Perspectives. The original prompt focused on the work that goes into producing a collaborative blog, contributions from graduate students and early career historians, and “how blog writing fits into the work of being a historian today.” I don’t know how many of us replied to Bergen’s inquiry, but I did. In retrospect, my answers only helped with part of the prompt—which probably explains why only a brief quote from me made it into Bergen’s final piece (do read it!). That said, and to be fair with myself, Bergen’s more specific follow-up questions caused me to think more about the history of this blog and S-USIH generally. With Bergen’s permission, I’ve reproduced those questions and my answers below. Caveat: These are my answers alone. Other long-time S-USIH members will most certainly provide other perspectives. – TL
Bergen: What led you to start the USIH blog? What was the experience like getting it off the ground? For instance, how did you recruit contributors? [Also,] where were you in your career when you began the blog and how did you fit your work for it into your other professional responsibilities?
After I finished my PhD in May 2006 (specialties: post-Civil War U.S., cultural/intellectual history, history of education), I had begun work as a student advisor with Loyola University Chicago. I had conducted an unsuccessful search for full-time, tenure-track position, but had hedged my professional bets by working as a graduate assistant in administration while at Loyola. While advising I began experimenting, on the side, with blogging as a way to hone my writing and stay on top of professional issues. I started a blog called History and Education: Past and Present (which is now called Thinking Through History). There I began writing regularly in the fall of 2006. At the time I was also a follower of around ten H-Net Listservs, and had also served a two-year stint as a part-time assistant editor at History News Network (HNN). Through those activities I had developed a sense of the power and pitfalls of electronic communications and communities.
One of the Listservs that I appreciated and followed, but that had also frustrated me intensely, was H-Ideas. Costica Bradatan was the listserv’s dedicated editor. He is a humanities professor at Texas Tech University. Costica regularly posted about international events, conferences, and books related to the history of ideas and intellectual history. After years of following that listserv and his posts, I submitted a plea, complaint, and call to action about the lack of activity both in, and about, the history of thought in the United States. You can see that call at this link (January 17, 2007).
At the time I felt, and expressed in rather colorful language, that the field of U.S. intellectual history was floundering and at an all-time low—perhaps in its death throes. After acknowledging the existence of the Modern Intellectual History conference and noteworthy senior scholars, I called for regular conference in the U.S., and perhaps a new journal. I also wanted some new forum for enthusiasts to meet.
In retrospect, my call to action was not based on full information, and thus wasn’t entirely correct or accurate. My view had itself been skewed, in part, by the nature of H-Ideas itself. I wasn’t seeing some of the activity related to U.S. intellectual history because it wasn’t being posted to H-Ideas. For instance, the International Society for Intellectual History had been in existence for over ten years, since around 1994. But even if I had known about it, it’s seeming indifference to, or agnosticism about, the state of U.S. intellectual history would’ve fueled my complaints, given that ISIH meets irregularly in the United States. I was also unaware that the senior scholars I mentioned in my call, and others (e.g. Dorothy Ross, Charles Capper, Robert Westbrook, etc.) were still producing students who were finding jobs.
Despite some problems with my call, I received a number of enthusiastic replies, some at the H-Ideas listserv and several others on the side, directly to me. It was clear I had touched some kind of nerve. Even if my Call to Action wasn’t entirely accurate or reflective of the state of things, it seemed apparent to me that further action was needed. I decided that the next logical step was to start a blog. It would be a means to harness enthusiasm and build community.
Some of the first respondents were Andrew Hartman, Joe Petrulionis, Mike O’Connor, and Paul Murphy. And those are the names, in addition to mine, that appear the most in the first six months on the blog. We also had many vigorous email conversations on the side about what to do next: start a conference, start a society, affiliate with an existing, society, etc. Joe Petrulionis headed up our book reviewing efforts. David Sehat joined our efforts later that year, and then Sylwester Ratowt and Ben Alpers in 2008. Lauren Anderson came on board in February 2009. You can see the first posts for the original crew here and here.
Bergen: How has the blog changed since 2007? What role do you see it serving within the discipline?
TL: We have rotated members, adding new ones when other moved on to new or more pressing activities. We have used the blog and conversations among its writers to test new ideas and push boundaries. The writing team helped start a conference. Our first meeting was help in Grand Rapids in the fall of 2008–coordinate with the Great Lakes History Conference. Paul Murphy was instrumental in that effort, though I helped him plan the conference. The next year we met in New York City at the Graduate Center, courtesy of conversations with Martin Burke and Matthew Cotter. The conference remained there for three years, until 2012 (though the 2012 meeting had to be cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy.
Enthusiasm for the conference helped catalyze conversations about creating a society. As of January 2008, I was opposed to that, and expressed my reluctance in an article published (then) by the AHA’s Perspectives on History.
I wanted an affiliation or a subgroup within the OAH or AHA. But both societies only allowed affiliations with existing societies. That pushed me and others, over the course of 2010, toward the formation of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH). The Society was officially created by June 2011 (more on that here).
Bergen: How do you think about the work you produce for USIH as part of your scholarship? Where does it fit?
TL: The blog serves many professional functions, both for me and, as I observe, for my fellow writers there. Many times what I write for the S-USIH blog serves as pre-scholarship—as writing that can and may develop into an article, conference paper, or book. But I am willing to be playful there, and to allow the blog to be an end unto itself. I am more wiling to write about professional issues there. The blog also sees its highest levels of activity from commenters when the history issue in question has some direct relationship to present social, cultural, or political events. The blog hosts many kinds of writing: book reviews (still!), round tables on books, themes writing months (e.g. we do one annually on film), reflections on the job market, reflections on the writing experience, highly personal reflections (rare, but present), commentary on current events, etc. I once wrote a piece on the Penn State coaching abuse scandal that received a fair amount of attention. The blog catalyzes commentary on Twitter and in our Society’s Facebook group. We also pass along, at the blog, calls for papers, notices, and matters of interest related to other historical societies.
Bergen: Do you include writing and editing on your CV? If so, in what part? What has your experience been like talking about blogging in professional contexts?
Bergen: What do you think it says about the current state of the discipline that junior scholars are putting time and energy into publishing short-form scholarship online, for free?
TL: There many reasons why young scholars should blog. First of all, writing begets writing. Writing for a blog keeps one practiced in expression. Second, writing is thinking. Writing regularly sharpens not only one’s technical writing skills, but also one’s rationality and narrative construction. As scholars, we are what we write. Third, comments at the blog challenge one’s thinking. The sharper the comment the better. I say that even though I tend to be as polite and civil as possible in the public sphere. I do that to keep the conversation going, even while I try to touch on the weak spots in thinking or narrative in others pieces. Fourth, our blog has become a destination for some readers, to writing there is a form of publicity. It sort of keeps your name in the news, if you will. Fifth, you never know when a piece for our blog will catalyze you to write a peer-reviewed article, or maybe even help you start a book project.
Bergen: What is the relationship between the blog and the society? Have they always been connected? Several other people I’ve spoken to who write for other blogs mentioned that they have considered affiliations with societies, so I’m wondering what the benefits of that have been for the blog and if there are any drawbacks!
TL: As noted above, the blog helped start the society. Our virtual gathering space transformed into the desire for personal connection and interaction, hence the formation of the Society. The Society and blog are intimately connected and now mutually reinforcing. Activity at the blog helps keep ideas and conversation churning for our annual conferences. If the blog ceased to exist, our Society would continue, but the latter would be hobbled. Every professional historical society needs a regular publishing outlet—a magazine, newsletter, or blog. Those fora help keep the blood flowing in a society’s body. The circulation of ideas is key to any profession, and societies and their publications keep the history profession alive and lively.