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From Personal to Professional: Collaborative History Blogs Go Mainstream

Sadie Bergen, April 2017

Historians have been blogging for years, but collaborative blogs have ushered in a new wave of professionalism among academic bloggers. Flickr/Micke Licht In 2012, when Jacqueline Antonovich, then a first-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, founded the blog Nursing Clio, maintaining it was as simple as “throwing stuff up online.” Five years later, Antonovich is finishing up her dissertation and overseeing an editorial team of seven as Nursing Clio’s executive editor. As she puts it, the blog, which connects historical scholarship on gender and medicine to current events, has become a “fine-tuned machine.”

This process of professionalization—the shift from blogging as a hobby to a line on your CV—is not unique to Nursing Clio. Over the past several years, collaboratively produced history blogs have blossomed into popular venues that give current historical scholarship an accessible public face. They have grown rapidly, formalized their editorial procedures into those of small publications, and recruited new historians to join their ranks of writers and editors.

Written and edited almost entirely by graduate students and early career historians without tenure-track positions, collaborative blogs have emerged as platforms to share and engage with scholarship in a discipline with high bars for professional advancement. No longer mostly within the realm of the personal, blogging now provides valuable writing and editing opportunities that enable early career historians to cultivate a wide range of skills, promote their work, and make valuable connections, all on the front lines of an emerging form of public history writing.

One prominent collaboratively produced history blog is NOTCHES—(re)marks on the history of sexuality, which was founded in 2014 by early career scholars Justin Bengry (Goldsmiths, Univ. of London), Amy Tooth Murphy (Univ. of Roehampton), and Julia Laite (Birkbeck, Univ. of London). Bengry says that they created NOTCHES to fill a missing gap in the media landscape for the history of sexuality. After some time spent "scrambling for content," as Gill Frank, visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion and NOTCHES managing editor put it, the small editorial team made a concerted effort to expand the blog's scope chronologically and geographically. Frank devised an assistant editor program for graduate students that would bring in a diversity of expertise and better distribute the blog’s workload. This editorial model is not unique to NOTCHES; Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), also has a team of graduate and under­graduate student editorial assistants.

Assistant editors for NOTCHES now do a great deal of the invisible labor associated with online publication: proofreading, formatting, and posting to social media. Over time, they have opportunities to actively shape the direction of the blog, first by identifying books that might be contenders for author interviews and eventually editing their own themed series. The process allows assistant editors to learn important editorial and management skills applicable to a range of potential career paths.

As editing and managing blogs have become more professional enterprises, so has writing for them. Submitting work to an edited blog gives graduate students the experience of having their work edited and working with a scholar in their field (who isn’t their adviser) to develop and fine-tune their ideas. As Tim Lacy, founder of the blog of the Society for US Intellectual History, wrote in an e-mail: “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.” Antonovich points out that writing for blogs is an “easy, accessible way” for graduate students to test out the process of having their work edited before submitting to a journal.

Editing and writing also offer opportunities for those early in their careers to expand their professional networks and become part of a community within their field. As a graduate student, Benjamin Park (Sam Houston State Univ.), founded The Junto: A Blog for Early American History to foster community while feeling isolated studying early American history in the United Kingdom. Keisha Blain (Univ. of Pittsburgh), the senior editor of Black Perspectives, explained in an e-mail that the blog and the society were founded because black intellectual history was “being sidelined in conversations about US intellectual history.” Black Perspectives is a platform that provides its scholars with “a strong network of support and mentoring,” wrote Blain.

Blogging also offers scholars an additional platform to share their research, with a wider audience than a journal article or an academic monograph. Black Perspectives, for example, averages 10,000 visitors per day. In April 2016, The Junto hit one million page views. Public and academic scholarship, as Antonovich says, are increasingly intertwined. “Scholars can and should, if they feel that push, be engaging in all types of history geared to all types of audiences,” she says. Dismissing the notion that blogging distracts from other forms of writing, Blain wrote, “At AAIHS, we have provided a good model for how one can actively write blogs while publishing books and articles too.” The scholars who write for Black Perspectives “vehemently reject false dichotomies that suggest that one can either write blogs and op-eds or journal articles and books,” she wrote.

Despite rapid professionalization, none of the blogs pay writers or editors. “No one has figured out a way to ethically monetize blog writing,” Antonovich says, as a paywall would “not be accessible to the public” and most of these blogs do not receive external funding. Nursing Clio has considered online fund­raising through a “Kickstarter or donation drive,” but hasn’t gone through with the idea. Yet blogging can pay off in other ways. Frank credits NOTCHES with giving him an “unparalleled opportunity” to shape the field of the history of sexuality as an early career scholar. And in some cases, the benefits can be even more tangible. Blain noted, “Many of the writers on the blog have made contacts with acquisitions editors after writing a piece—and in some cases, this has resulted in advance book contracts. Others have been invited to give talks on campuses and have even been invited to interview for jobs as a result of writing for us.”

Yet the question of how to attach value to the labor that goes into editing and writing for collaborative blogs is not at all settled. Most of the historians interviewed for this article are either doctoral candidates, on the job market, or in temporary postdoctoral appointments. In other words, as Bengry put it, they are “among the precariat of academia.” While some list their work on blogs on their CVs and in letters seeking academic jobs, others are hesitant. Antonovich says that when she first started Nursing Clio, she “self-consciously hid it because it was a risky endeavor” for a nontenured historian wanting to be taken seriously.

But, she says, “the culture of academic history is changing.” Her department has been “nothing but supportive,” and her advisers have encouraged her to expand the section about Nursing Clio in her cover letters for academic jobs. Blain includes a line with her title and lists public writings, including blog posts, on her CV. Junto contributing editor Michael D. Hattem frames his blog work as public engagement and digital history in his academic job letters, and says that although he has never brought it up in a job interview, he’s received questions about it. “We have to agitate for more structured evaluation of nontraditional writing for academic evaluation,” Bengry says, because “the research and intellectual work behind it is just as rigorous and engaged as what goes into writing a monograph.”

Success and increased professionalization, however, have also dampened some of what made blogging fun. When creating NOTCHES, its founders envisioned it as a space for publishing “playful, iconoclastic pieces.” But, as Bengry notes, emerging scholars and graduate students might not be comfortable “presenting themselves in that light.” Instead, they tend toward “a certain kind of academic self-presentation in writing that is sometimes more distant.” In fact, Frank explains that they’ve “done a lot of work” to change the meaning of “blogging” to something that “requires rigor.” Similarly, the popularity of The Junto has meant that when the editors approach untenured faculty or graduate students to write a post, “they know that their writing will be read by established faculty,” says Hattem. This changes the approach authors take toward writing their posts.

As they negotiate the tensions between professionalization and the informal, conversational style that rightly separates blog content from that of an academic journal, collaborative history blogs are carving out a new genre of publicly engaged academic scholarship. And as they become successful, the writing and editing of these early career historians has become, as Antonovich says, “the face of academia right now.”

Sadie Bergen is assistant editor at the AHA. She tweets @sadiebergen.


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