Blogging and the (Non-) Democratization of American Religious History

Paul Harvey

At the 2010 American Historical Association, my co-editor Randall Stephens organized a session "American Religious Historians Online," featuring presentations by the likes of Randall himself, Kathryn Lofton (Yale), Gary Laderman (Emory, and editor of Religion Dispatches), Rebecca Goetz (who started blogging at Historianess back in the Stone Ages), and myself. I was not present at the session itself, but Randall read my presentation for me. I'm going to post it here for anyone interested, and will put Randall's up as well soon, and perhaps one or two others. The session was put into the dreaded AHA "death zone" of early Sunday morning, just as everyone is leaving, so attendance was about on par with one of my classes right before spring break, but we have the blog to broadcast parts of the session for those unfortunate enough to miss it. My contribution reflects on the origins and impact (or lack thereof) of this blog, and on broader themes of the relationship between self-selected and regulated scholarly communities and the unregulated blogging community. Your responses are welcome! Not you, though, evil spammers; your responses will be deleted as usual.


Blogging and the Democratization (or not) of American Religious History

Is there a there there for bloggers in academic fields? And who are we supposed to be talking to, anyway? Is this like some kind of online version of a graduate seminar, a la Immanent Frame? Is this an online journal in which the tools of academic thought are applied to contemporary issues and controversies, a la Religion Dispatches? Is this a place where very particular historical issues get argued about and resolved to the satisfaction of the fifteen people who actually care about the topic? Is this a place for a mixture of academic and personal ventilation, a la Religion in American History (sometimes)? Is this a place to promote your favorite books/articles/moves, a la lots of blogs? What’s the point? Is there one? And if a blog goes out of existence and no one notices, did it really exist in the first place? (My therapist told me to talk about my fears, so there you go).

Since beginning Religion in American History, mostly on a whim in June 2007, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think through such questions, and more, but I’ve not yet come to any answers in particular. Or perhaps the answer is whatever works for today. If I’ve got a book I want to say something about, there the blog is. If my co-editor Randall Stephens has a personal you-tube style interview with a top scholar, there the blog is. If I’m feeling depressed and lonely and want to write about some significant and emotionally moving event (often a musical concert of some sort) in my past mostly to make myself feel better, or if Ed Blum wants to write about the religious significance of Death Cab for Cutie, there the blog is. If I read something that leaves me simultaneously amused and pissed off, such as all the publicity about David Barton and Peter Marshall’s undue influence on the Texas state history standards last year, there the blog is. If I’ve written something for a conference and figure other people might be interested in reading it, there the blog is. If I just re-read an old review of mine and think it’s actually pretty decent and want to share it with others, there the blog is. If I want to share a review/takedown of which I'm proud, there the blog is -- and there the blog is to let the author blast right back at me (or, more happily, reviews of books and author interviews of works that I loved but also wanted to engage critically).

The list could go on. What I was hoping for in this session was some more collective thought on the relationship between our field and the public. I’ve been trying to sort through how much a blog like Religion in American History is a professional venue, kind of a fancy listserv oriented towards specialists; and how much RiAH is a public forum, more generally open for anyone to read and follow, and perhaps even “friend” on our facebook page. I had started it as a professional blog modeled after Mary Dudziak’s Legal History Blog -- a compendium of links, resources, citations, book reviews, conference and professional announcements, and the like, with not much in the way of personally reflective content such as would be found on other blogs. I was thinking of it as an experimental professional service, especially for graduate students and younger scholars in the field. But then I immediately violated that rule by posting more personally reflective stuff early on, and then all manner of things began finding their way onto the blog. So then I thought, this could be a blog that performs a professional service but finds a wider public, and educates them a bit on some higher-level thinking about religion in American history. After all, my stats and google analytics show that people visit the blog from all manner of locations, and from all manner of google referrals. I didn’t think that figures such as Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin would be big attractions to come to my blog, but actually they are -- in fact, Palin more than Jackson. And once there, maybe they’ll read about some other stuff as well.

But then I faced an immediate limitation. I’m not really running much of a public blog in the manner of Religion Dispatches or Killing the Buddha or other online journals. I don’t have the time, the funding, or the resources to do any such thing. Instead, I’m just another one of millions of plain ol’ blogs running off free programs and servers; since I use blogspot (which is the only one I had ever heard of when I started this), I am but a servant to Master Google.

Thus, periodically people contact me with lots of great ideas about turning the blog into a serious online journal, more like Salon than blogspot, with more professionally prepared longer substantive entries. All well and good, I think, but the thing is, I have a job. And I’m late on a book, wait, make that late on two books. And I’m teaching a new class on a subject of which I’m almost entirely ignorant. And on and on. So if it doesn’t fit into the 30 minute time slot for the day that I have for blogging, then it’s not going to happen.

Then there’s the conflicted question of talking to scholars versus talking to the public. This is a basic dilemma of blogging that relates to a conflict I’ve felt elsewhere and have never really resolved in my mind. To what degree should scholars speak to “the public.” On the one hand, of course we should, and the fact that we don’t do so very well as historians is partly why people are so ignorant of history, and why our discussions of current issues are so historically impoverished. Beyond that, I teach at a public university, where standards for admissions are not exactly shockingly stringent, so I’m talking to the public everyday whether I like it or not. And as a public university professor I get asked to talk to the public all the time anyway. So what’s the difference between talking to the Rotary Club and posting something on my blog. No difference at all when I post my talk to the Rotary Club ON the blog.

On the other hand, my professional commitment is to advance the field of American religious history, and that involves doing a lot of stuff which interests “the public” not at all. And why should it? Other fields have legions of folks who do specialized work, and then a few who translate the cutting edge of that work into something comprehensible for the rest of us. So if I want to know about something in physics, I’ll read something by Stephen Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, or Steven Pinker in psychology, or Peter Brown in the history of Late Antiquity. I expect them to take esoteric findings and communicate them to me in a way I can understand. And why should historians not operate along those lines. I doubt very many people in the public will read Michael O’Brien’s two volume over one-thousand page study of intellectuals in the Old South, or last year’s Bancroft-prize winning book from Yale on the Comanche Empire. But I expect these cutting-edge findings eventually will find their way into works that will be disseminated more to a public, and I see no reason why we should place some expectation that scholarly books must always necessarily find a huge public and express disappointment when they don’t. I doubt very many people in "the public" ever read Perry Miller's New England Mind, all glorious 2 volumes of it, but so what? Fields advance when esoteric discussions occur between specialists who really have devoted years of research to a subject, and can establish a paradigm that can then get translated into a work meant more for a general public. History is a big tent; there is plenty of room for the esoteric works, and the people who tell us what all those esoteric works actually mean once all their findings have been digested.

The blog is where these two scholarly/public lives of ours intersect, for in the interests of communicating about and possibly advancing a “field,” we also naturally intersect with an almost randomly selected public who stumble on us by googling queries such as “was paul Harvey a Christian,” or just googling “Paul Harvey” and voila! finding me. And then they find the comments section of the blog and leave commentary ranging from the highly insightful to the mundane to the harassing stalker notes. But mostly we don’t have a lot of comments as compared to other blogs, and that tends to make me think that on the whole this remains something primarily of interest to students/scholars in the fields with a few others hanging about possibly. And so after a few years I think the blog usually fulfills its initial very modest purpose, and that other blogs and online journals will reach audiences and do things that Religion in American History is not meant to do very well. So in answer to my question posed in the title: do blogs democratize American religious history? My answer would be that perhaps some will do that, but mine won’t, and I’m ok with that. Let the church roll on.


Christopher said…
Haha, who would've actually thought the first comment would indeed be spam?

I like what you've presented here, Paul, and have always enjoyed the eclectic approach of RiAH. The combination of professional announcements, personal reflections, and cultural commentary make for a useful model, I think.

It has been a god-send for graduate students like myself trying to navigate the field. One (perhaps unconsidered) effect the blog has had is to make the several scholars who blog here more accessible. I've not only been introduced to scholarship via the blog, but the scholars who produce it. In that sense, then, RiAH has indeed democratized American religious history. Keep up the good work, and thanks for allowing me to tag along.
Christopher said…
Also, speaking of the other Paul Harvey, when this headline popped up on my homepage the other day, I was for a moment afraid you'd turned FBI informant.
Randall said…
Paul, thanks for posting this. I like the modest proposal at the end. And, as you say, a lot of this depends on time available. There are limits.
Ha! As if we Killing the Buddha editors had "the time, the funding, or the resources" to do what we do! That would be great...
SGA said…
As a long-time lurker, I have to agree with the first commenter, who said that this blog makes scholars and scholarship that I might not ordinarily run across more accessible. I am a graduate student in religious studies, but I don't focus primarily on US history. I do, however, visit this blog daily as I find your posts to be accessible to a non-historian. It is also a must-read for me as it is useful in both suggesting useful readings and giving a very informed discussion of the varied issues your blog addresses. I am sorry that there are not more blogs doing similar, reliable, interesting work in related aspects of religion.