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    Part 7. Collaborative Writing: Yours, Mine, and Ours

    Networked computers create more opportunities for historians to engage in collaborative work, and this section offers perspectives on such opportunities from different points in the writing process. First, in “The Accountability Partnership: Writing and Surviving in the Digital Age,” coauthors Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Sarah Manekin share their story of online support for dissertation writing, along with broader reflections on what writing guides do not tell us. Next, Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett write about their past experiences, future predictions, and friendly disagreements regarding history blogs, in “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy.”

    The Accountability Partnership: Writing and Surviving in the Digital Age

    In 2007, we were struggling to write the dissertations that stood between us and our PhDs in history. Studying different centuries and working in distant cities, we were both frustrated with our lack of writing progress and desperate to find strategies that could help. So we decided to experiment with an accountability partnership. For the next two years, we sent each other daily e-mails that contained our goals for the day, a tentative schedule for how we would achieve those goals, and the occasional rambling reflection on the particular analytical question that had us in knots. Over the course of that two-year period, we kept each other on task, modeled for each other perseverance and life balance, and inspired each other to continue forward on the long marathon that constitutes completing a dissertation.

    Now that our dissertations have been securely filed and our careers have moved ahead, we can reflect on our partnership, what it meant, and why it worked. What have we concluded? Our accountability partnership is worth analyzing and sharing as a writing strategy of the digital age. In this essay, we present that strategy and offer some reflections on how it advances the possibilities for collaboration in writing history.

    We place our self-designed, daily, online accountability partnership at the center of our analysis here, but rather than simply presenting what we did and why it helped, we examine the wider literature of “writing guides,” to enable a richer discussion of the strategies that can be deployed to facilitate success. In general, we found that this literature is perfectly maddening and largely banal and incomplete—and mostly dead right. As much as is written on the topic, we found the advice largely insufficient to address the experiences of novice writers in the digital age. Moreover, in our writing strategy, we discovered a rich possibility for shared enterprise, an experience too often assumed to be absent from the pursuit of historical scholarship.

    For as long as young scholars have labored over dissertations and first books, they have wrestled with identifying a research question, finding sources, organizing their ideas, and explaining those ideas in smooth, elegant prose. These intellectual and organizational practices form the core of our craft and are commonly accepted as the sources of our struggles. Historians and scholars across the ages have developed a wide range of strategies to move forward with their work. As the essays in this collection reveal, however, the digital age has changed how we research and what we find; it has changed how we access sources and compile bibliographies, and it has changed how we compose our ideas. This volume makes a strong case for the necessity of rethinking some of the intellectual and organizational challenges of our craft and presents strategies for navigating them.

    For us, it was the emotional and psychological challenges of dissertation writing that proved most vexing, and it is difficult to know the extent to which the digital age has altered those challenges.[1] Young scholars such as ourselves are increasingly “digital natives” and, therefore, cannot really compare our experience to anything else.[2] Yet almost every one of us—digital native or neophyte—has experienced those moments when the demons of self-doubt arise and the prospect of sitting down to write feels increasingly unfathomable; we have also experienced the utter isolation and anxiety such emotions evoke. So the question animating our essay resonates with those posed in most essays presented in this volume. As we seek to understand how the digital age has changed the process of writing history, our experience with the accountability partnership leads us to ask how we can best harness technology to address the overwhelming feelings of isolation and anxiety often attendant to the task of writing and to question the assumption that historical writing and research is an inherently solitary process.

    We developed our accountability partnership based on our innate sense of why we were struggling and what we thought could help. Unbeknownst to us, a wide range of support mechanisms—packaged in forms ranging from self-help books to coaching sessions to boot camps—already existed to support the dissertators who valiantly resist joining the nearly one-quarter to one-third of humanities and social science students in the United States who fail to complete their doctoral degrees.[3] Apparently, we learned as we explored this literature, legions of ABD (All but Dissertation) candidates out there were just like us: they too felt the gravity of the “rules changing” in the transition from diligent students in coursework to young scholars expected to generate original research.[4] Others also felt stymied by the solitude of the dissertation endeavor and by the total freedom to do nothing (or at least to “procrastinate productively,” undertaking discrete tasks that bestow the down-pat sense of accomplishment that working on a major piece of writing fails to provide). This curious little niche of America’s twelve-billion-dollar self-help industry, which characterizes “the internal world” of most dissertators as filled with “self-doubt, anxiety, fear, procrastination, perfectionism, and other unwanted experiences,” affirmed that our sense of guilt about spending any time away from our dissertations or even away from worrying about our dissertations was hardly unique.[5]

    Geared to assist any and all dissertators in surviving thesis writing, these wide-ranging supports vary in their emphases. Some coaches and scholars highlight problems of efficiency and execution, while others focus on emotional and psychological obstacles. But all offer similar strategies for achieving success. Ritualized practice is one mainstay of the literature. Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day underscores the daily, consistent effort necessary to churn out what Anne Lamott has famously called “a shitty first draft.”[6] Dissertation boot camps multiplying on august campuses such as the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University are primarily mechanisms for making students “show up” to write every day, intellectually and physically.[7] All guides emphasize setting goals that are smaller and more attainable than the elusive and daunting “finish the dissertation.” Texts that privilege the emotional and psychological dimensions of novice writers’ experience counsel abandoning “negative thoughts” and “self-flagellation” in order to “enjoy the journey” and the inherent “pleasures” of dissertation writing.[8] Completing a successful dissertation, the argument goes, is predicated on practicing “self-care” and “nurture” (e.g., exercise, leisure, and proper eating) in order to escape the “quagmire of self-doubt” that plagues so many graduate students.

    So, did our accountability partnership reinvent the wheel? Some might say yes: the literature clearly suggests that almost everyone in our situation feels as we did and that many of the very strategies we “invented” had already been mapped out for and marketed to the dissertation-writing crowd. In the main, the books offered sound, if highly commonsensical, advice; and in general terms, our partnership followed those broad contours. But the personal online partnership we cultivated offered crucial elements that books and boot camps lacked.

    First of all, the literature feels incomplete and unsatisfying, due to what scholars of American self-help traditions have identified as a hallmark of the genre: they oversimplify complex problems and offer reductive solutions.[9] Titles such as Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day employ facile quantification; the author herself admits that she does not actually know anyone who has completed a dissertation by writing so little and that the title simply evokes the daily commitment necessary to the task (and was certain to “get the reader’s attention”).[10] Similarly, “surefire” tips and universal solutions fill the dissertation advice literature and diminish its power. Peg Boyle Single’s Demystifying Dissertation Writing is billed as a “streamlined process from choice of topic to final text” and boasts a glossy image of a lightbulb turning into a laptop morphing into a book, suggesting that a finished project is the inevitable outcome of following her steps to success.[11] While the steps are many, vary depending on scholar and topic, and require consistent commitment, following such a regimen is portrayed as a surefire way to achieve results. Boot camps, one of the newest arrivals on the scene, suggest that laziness is all that stands in the way of a completed dissertation. They invoke a drill sergeant’s approach, promising to turn “slackers into scholars.”[12] As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out in her critique of the “bright-siding” of American culture, the ever-growing “business of motivation,” which imparts its advice with annoying sunniness, naively presupposes that dutiful work unconditionally leads to success.[13]

    Second, the literature all but overlooked much of what made our partnership uniquely successful: our online relationship. This is in part due to the rapid pace of innovation in our digital age. Bolker’s 1998 volume contains an appendix titled “How the Computer Revolution Affects You and Your Dissertation” and almost quaintly enumerates the “disadvantages of the computer,” seriously contemplating the possibility that a dissertator might write her manuscript in longhand.[14] Authors writing more recently point out the benefits and pitfalls of a computer for organization and procrastination, respectively: the ability to file and reference notes and drafts is unparalleled, although so are the possibilities for spending hours in the universe of online media, music, and messaging. Single’s book comes closest to the type of strategy we devised, as she briefly mentions that the “real-time” experience of trading instant messages with a writing partner improves accountability. But as a group, none of these writing guides consider that a one-on-one online relationship could be crucial to motivating a struggling dissertator to sit down each day to write and, ultimately, to complete a dissertation.[15]

    Finally, we cannot help but think that the literature suffers from the fundamental disconnect common to all forms of advice: it is often easier said than done. Before we met, we knew what we had to do to complete our dissertations. (We knew we should work consistently and tackle small chunks, for example.) But there is a difference between “knowing you should floss every day and actually doing it,” as one of our friends likes to say. We each needed another person engaged in a parallel endeavor—with an understanding of the particularities of writing a dissertation in history and with a comparable sensibility about life and work—in order to get mutually inspired to do the proverbial flossing. We were able to motivate each other in a way that was genuine, personal, and sufficiently rigorous to hold each of us accountable.

    At its core, our partnership was effective, firstly, because we turned out to be excellent virtual partners in a field not commonly considered collaborative. A dissertation in history is unique from many other disciplines: it is not merely a write-up of research findings; instead, it is a single-author-generated book-length exposition of a narrow topic, requiring primary and secondary evidence, close analysis, and narrative skill. For these reasons, history dissertators can expect to spend three to five years researching and writing in great solitude. Moreover, as history departments today are characterized by increasing specialization as well as shrinking graduate programs, there seem to be fewer people around who share one’s specific intellectual interests, increasing the sense of isolation. For these reasons, our largely online relationship was especially beneficial. We were friendly but not really friends; we knew each other from conferences and worked in the same field, but we attended different graduate schools, lived in different cities, and studied different time periods. This distance gave us necessary space: we did not compete for advisor attention or internal departmental kudos, nor did we try to “scoop” each other with archival finds or analytical insights. Still, we found in each other an interlocutor whose work was more intellectually related to our own than that of anyone on our home campuses. We understood each other’s process and project in a way we would not if one of us were writing on medieval illuminated manuscripts and the other were composing an ethnography about contemporary inner-city youth. These affinities made the “virtual office” we shared a particularly necessary haven, especially as we wrote far from our home campuses, a common circumstance for young scholars.

    We were also good partners because we shared a commitment to academic professionalism yet were willing to look beyond academia for models that would enable us to meet our scholarly goals. The very title we gave to our relationship, “accountability partners,” reeks of a corporate model that is anathema to many academics. Evoking measurable outcomes, deadlines, and time clocks, the idea of accountability runs counter to the freedom and limitless inquiry that many academics consider essential to the life of the mind. Even Natalia’s mother, a comparative literature professor, dismissed our plan as needlessly binding us to a structure that would limit our creativity. Yet we saw scholarly utility in the corporate world’s use of deadlines and schedules and borrowed those strategies in the service of our academic goals.

    Our willingness to seek out other models also led us in a different, albeit similarly “unscholarly” path: a concern for wellness. We recognized in each other a desire to live healthy, balanced lives, with time for exercise, community service, good food, and good friends. Although these features may seem more conducive to graduate life than the aspects we borrowed from corporate culture, too many academics jettison them too often in the rush to read more books, write more pages, and drink more coffee. We found in each other someone who validated our desire to live a life that was attentive to wellness, which enabled us to recognize and validate that value in ourselves.

    A second core reason why our partnership worked is that we devised a support structure that made sense to us and that served what we perceived to be our needs. We created a sense of accountability through regular, online interactions that structured our day and fueled the setting of manageable goals. We began each day with a morning e-mail “sign-in.” As both of us worked mostly from home, the sign-in became our way of creating a structured work environment. Whether at 7:00 a.m. (Natalia) or the “more reasonable” 9:00 a.m. (Sarah), we announced to each other the moment our workday officially began, and we set forward a series of intentions about what we hoped to accomplish that day. Just as signing in to start the day was important, signing off brought necessary closure. It enabled us to say, “I did all I could do today and now it’s time to stop.” Sometimes we would send each other long e-mails celebrating what we learned that day. At other times, we would share our frustrations with what we had not accomplished and would write at length about what we needed to do the next day to remedy the situation. Usually, we dashed off a quick “I’m done for the day.” We found that regardless of how we signed off, the value was in doing it. Part of our goal of feeling less overwhelmed required that we learn how to walk away from the work, even when the work was unfinished. We knew it would be there the next day, and we knew that our accountability partner would be there too.

    While signing in and out was important to our overall sense of accountability and structure, the act of e-mailing a daily schedule enabled us to break down our large writing goals into more manageable parts. The morning sign-in e-mail quickly evolved into a space for creating and sharing a daily schedule. Sometimes the schedule would be as loose:

    • Morning: Work on ch. 4
    • Lunch
    • Afternoon: Work on ch. 4

    Sometimes the schedules were far more detailed:

    • 8–8:30: Reply to e-mail
    • 8:30–9:30: Review/edit stuff from yesterday
    • 9:30–11:30: Draft new prose for ch. 3 middle
    • 11:30–12:00: Walk to library and pick up books
    • 12:00–1:00: Lunch
    • 1:30–3:30: Draft new prose for ch. 3 middle
    • 3:30–5:30: Read books from library/take notes on connections
    • 5:30–6:00: E-mail

    In either case, the task of creating a schedule required us to think through the most important work that we needed to accomplish and what period of time we wanted to devote to it.

    The daily schedule also became a vehicle for goal setting or, more appropriately, goal managing. The practice of breaking down the big goal (finishing) or even a smaller goal (finishing a specific chapter) was a necessary act of realism and sanity. Over time, we began to schedule things like “Read these two new books and figure out how to incorporate them into my analysis” or “Write three paragraphs that can bridge this section to that section.” This shift in precision and clarity in our goal setting allowed us to feel more in control of our progress. In Bird by Bird, Lamott reveals that she keeps an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk as a reminder to herself to keep her writing ambitions limited. “All I have to do,” she explains, “is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”[16] So much of what makes writing a dissertation or book manuscript difficult is the sense that it needs to be finished—yesterday. Lamott reminds us that no one sits down and writes a book in one fell swoop; it takes daily efforts to compile one-inch chunks of prose. Sharing our small goals with a partner forced us to articulate that one-inch frame on a daily basis. Moreover, by stating those goals to each other, we knew there was another person aware of our intention. There was no punishment or disciplining for failing to meet the goal—and often goals were not met, as new ideas generated unforeseen writing and as new reading generated a hunt for unforeseen sources. Still, by stating our small goals in the morning, we gave ourselves enough focus to begin the work.

    Central to that focus was the act of writing the e-mail. Unlike phone conversations that can spin off topic or personal to-do lists that can be jotted down and easily tossed, e-mailing your partner a schedule requires typing. Thus it necessarily invites revision, reflection, and the type of intentionality that is essential for effective thinking. E-mailing each other our plan for the day required us to think about what we needed to accomplish and gave us space to write, revise, and rework a plan until we felt comfortable with it.

    At the time we launched our partnership, e-mail and digital communication in general had become so widespread that it already inspired criticism as “supplanting human connection” and fostering a modern-day anomie, as Sherry Turkle would observe.[17] Interestingly, however, the peculiar circumstance of writing a history dissertation—near solitude being normative—actually meant that our e-mail correspondence forged a powerful interpersonal connection, rather than weakly mimicking one. Turkle’s often-cited assumption that our increasing tendency to e-mail and text rather than speak in person or by phone “dials down human contact” did not apply to a situation in which little or no human contact, digital or otherwise, is considered the norm.[18]

    As important as forging a personal connection, the act of e-mailing our goals also freed us from guilt about engaging in life pursuits beyond the dissertation. Writing out our daily schedule allowed us to carve out discrete periods not only to exercise, eat, and e-mail but also to nurture a pregnancy, engineer a major move, create a private tutoring business, complete a fitness certification, see friends, and date. The transparency of our daily e-mails showed that neither of us was the “only one” who had other commitments and interests beyond our dissertations. By alleviating the guilt that so many graduate students feel about existing as anything other than a dissertator, we engaged more passionately and productively in all aspects of our lives, including as scholars. Alison Miller describes how her “sense of entitlement to . . . experience pleasure quickly dwindled as the demands of academic life mounted” during graduate school.[19] For us, the accountability partnership disrupted that disempowering cycle, enabling us to undertake our dissertations—and the rest of our lives—with greater pleasure than if we had ventured out alone.

    Our experience suggests that the virtual component is essential to a writing partnership in the digital age. For one thing, the online relationship does not involve a physical meeting time or place or even the need to be on the same schedules. We could—and did—sign in or out at wildly different times, and our work patterns never interfered with each other. This created necessary boundaries between our workdays; we were not affected by each other’s doctor’s appointments or trips to the gym. We were also protected from interferences like phone calls. One can (theoretically) work for hours without checking e-mail; so while the other person is “virtually there,” they do not interfere in the actual writing process. In other words, the online aspect of our partnership enabled us to be the solitary, independent scholars we are while, at the same time, offering us virtual and ever-present support and accountability.

    Writing a dissertation is hard, and while the general advice literature is largely right, it is woefully incomplete, missing the unprecedented context of the digital age and the singularity of individual intellectual and emotional situations. No existing text acknowledges the burst of motivation that comes from sharing a breakthrough with someone who understands your work, the sense of duty created by knowing someone is waiting for you to check in every morning and to check out every evening, or how much more rewarding the process of writing a dissertation can be when this partner is a respected colleague and, eventually, friend. The digital age provides necessary help for young scholars wrestling with the challenges of writing a history dissertation. We have found this help not in the form of fancy new software but in a relatively old technology that can be altered by the intentionality of how we are using it. E-mail has been around for decades and has certainly been eclipsed by other forms of social media in terms of hipness and hotness. However, as a direct, personal tool of virtual communication and writing support, traditional e-mail is still without peer. It enables daily communication that is flexible, personal, immediate, and noninvasive, and it requires a deliberate act of writing that spurs thinking and enables revision. Perhaps most important, e-mail enables intellectual colleagues of similar goals and temperaments to work together across vast distances, reducing the isolation of academic writing while fostering a rich, supportive collaboration.

    We are aware that the strategy we present here risks its own kind of reductive, banal generalization or that some might write it off as a unique result of a unique friendship. But we hope to suggest the value and opportunity in creating a virtual writing partnership that suits the needs of the participants themselves. For us, that meant a daily online partnership; others might prefer to work with a small group or to establish weekly, rather than daily, check-ins. There is a wide array of options. The main point, as we see it, is that technology can and should be used to facilitate the writing process in ways that are necessary and important. We hope that essays such as this one will spur conversations among graduate students and their advisors about successful writing strategies and will challenge the assumption that producing a dissertation in history need be a solitary process. Academia’s anxiety about talking about individual writing processes can and should be tackled, as a means to bring about greater intellectual freedom, discovery, and, ultimately, success.


    1. Others address these questions, often building on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), based largely on research conducted before the digital age. See, for example, Barry Wellman et al., “Does the Internet Increase, Decrease, or Supplement Social Capital?” American Behavioral Scientist 45, no. 3 (2001): 436–55; Homero Gil de Zuniga, “The Mediating Path to a Stronger Citizenship: Online and Offline Networks, Weak Ties, and Civic Engagement,” Communication Research, 38, no. 3 (2011): 397–421; Keith Hampton et al., Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans’ Social Networks (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2009), http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18--Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx.return to text

    2. Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon 9, no. 5 (2001): 1–6.return to text

    3. Peg Boyle Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text (New York: Stylus, 2009), 10.return to text

    4. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 2.return to text

    5. Alison B. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All! How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move On with Your Life (New York: American Psychological Association, 2008), 19, 74.return to text

    6. Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (New York: Henry Holt, 1998); Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), 22.return to text

    7. See more about dissertation boot camps at http://www.gsc.upenn.edu/navdiss/bootcamp.php (Graduate Student Center, University of Pennsylvania) and http://www.princeton.edu/writing/university/bootcamps/dissertation (Princeton Writing Program, Princeton University).return to text

    8. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation, 20.return to text

    9. Stephen Starker, Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2002).return to text

    10. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation, xvi. Other examples include such best sellers as Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen, 1997), and Wendy Stehling Drumm’s Thin Thighs in 30 Days (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).return to text

    11. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 20.return to text

    12. “Dissertation Boot Camp,” Graduate Student Center, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.gsc.upenn.edu/navdiss/bootcamp.php.return to text

    13. Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (New York: Henry Holt, 2009).return to text

    14. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation, 155.return to text

    15. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 152.return to text

    16. Lamott, Bird by Bird, 17–18.return to text

    17. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), passim.return to text

    18. Turkle, Alone Together, 15.return to text

    19. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation, 157.return to text

    Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy

    The late twentieth century saw a staggering growth of media that permitted people to express themselves without going through traditional gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, or record labels. Whether as part of the rise of zines and the alternative press in the 1960s or the development of websites, blogs, and wikis in the 1990s, new technologies and new formats have opened the media up to voices that have often been less formal or polished than the classic published author of yore.[1] These innovations promised greater speed and openness. Computer programmer Ward Cunningham chose the word wiki, meaning “fast” in Hawaiian slang, to refer to a site that any number of users can quickly edit without going through the technical process of writing code.[2] Japanese teenagers founded a new literary genre in the cell-phone novel, serialized as discrete bits in the form of text messages—no editors wanted or needed.[3]

    Such developments have whizzed by many scholars, especially historians. Being concerned with the past and prone to reflect on the tempo of time itself, we have rarely been known to do things quickly. Our dissertations take years to write and sometimes longer to revise and publish. A scholar sending off an essay to an academic journal can expect to wait four months to a year for feedback. Historians thus have reason to be both wary and curious about the prospect of using technology to do what we do differently and, one hopes, faster than in the past.

    One of the central insights of media studies, though, is that a medium is not the same as a particular technology. We may call your iPhone a “phone,” but when it makes a call, it uses something more similar to radio than the Bell technology that still drove the pulse-dial telephones of the 1970s.[4] 30 Rock and Hill Street Blues are still “television” whether we watch them on a broadcast network, cable, or an online video site. The genres and tropes and the commercial considerations and labor relations that shape most TV programs remain sufficiently similar for us to situate the medium of television in a number of technically different platforms. In the same way, the fact that we may now encounter many scholarly journals in the form of individual articles, downloaded as PDFs and read onscreen on whatever device we favor, does not necessarily make the content of them different from the print versions. Academic journals and presses can easily transport the conventions of reviewing, editing, and publishing to the online world, and many already have.[5]

    Such models, however, occupy a different route to the reader from writing that is generated online in the informal mode of blogs, wikis, and Twitter. What are the differences between this sort of writing and traditional scholarly practice? What are the benefits and the drawbacks, and can this kind of writing actually be scholarship? The authors of this essay are historians who have experimented with various online formats over the past ten years, most especially blogging, and this essay reflects on these questions by situating the academic blogger in this wider context of informal writing.

    The Cultural Form(s) of Online Publishing

    The web is ever changing, of course; attempts to sum it up date quickly. If we write at length now about Web 2.0, interactivity, and crowdsourcing, we risk looking foolish if this essay is still online in ten years but Facebook and Twitter have evaporated. There are nonetheless things that can be said about what makes writing for the web distinctive.[6] The medium does exercise pressure: the size of screens and attention spans of readers dictate brevity (or are thought to), and technical issues such as browser capability are an unwelcome consideration. On the positive side, the hyperlink offers the online reader instant passage to citations, and for the creative writer, hypertext allows for wry allusions and the deliberate double-edging of basic statements (for example, silently linking a mention of a police agency to a report on deaths in their custody).

    Another characteristic shared by all online material is that it exists in a limbo of semipermanence. On the one hand, websites disappear as their host changes Internet access or host institution or as redesign evolves old content out. Few links from ten years ago remain valid now, even if the content is still online.[7] On the other hand, that which is assumed to be transient may not be: deletion at the source may not keep an ill-considered screed from Google’s cache, and the Internet Archive’s mission to preserve the disappearing web also contains the implication of preserving such mistakes forever. The Internet Archive’s web spiders are far from instantaneous, however, and even its funding is not secure, so one cannot rely on it for permanence.[8] Nothing is safely online for the long term, but not much is certainly lost either: the Internet is an awkward halfway house for an academic culture raised on citability.

    On the other hand, for many online writers, permanence is not the point. Generating text online has become a means of social interaction. This can be as true in an academic context as in any other: since the earliest days of the Internet, scholars have embraced its potential for the rapid sharing of unpublished material, feedback, and thoughts, whether via e-mail lists, Usenet, and bulletin boards or, now, Facebook or professional equivalents, such as Academia.edu.[9] These resources not only speed up interchange within the scholarly process; they can also operate as support for an institution’s lone specialist in a field who needs to check ideas with a colleague, for example, or for someone in need of perspective on an institutional teaching or management practice.

    In these particular lights, blogging, a deliberately personal use of web space, looms large. A blog is not, however, simply a personal website. What makes a blog a blog is its newspaper or diary-like rhythm of discrete, chronological posts; the variable length of posts; and, above all, the relative lack of formal filters or selection processes. The format presumes, displays, and favors immediacy and freshness of output, so that such processes would inhibit it. When Blogger set out to popularize its concept in 1999, the company described its service as “push-button publishing,” and its competitor LiveJournal promised a “simple-to-use (but extremely powerful and customizable) personal publishing (‘blogging’) tool” in 2004.[10] Blogs offered a means for posting and updating one’s thoughts without needing to know how to design a website by writing HTML code. Before blog became a common term, companies like DiaryLand framed their services in a language of personal, unedited writing.[11] This informality and lack of editorial supervision is key to the enterprise. Wikipedia, after all, was preceded by Nupedia, an attempt at building an online encyclopedia with credentialed authors and a formal process of review; it generated nowhere near the output of Wikipedia, which introduced the little-known format of the wiki to the broader public and spawned countless imitators.[12] Some of its successors were more open than others—the Mason Historiographiki, for instance, only includes input from approved contributors—but each embraced the basic principles of rapid editing and multiple authorship that defines a wiki.[13]

    This informality can be an advantage. Academic publishers may bring traditions of peer review online or may pioneer new patterns of open review and public commentary, yet we should not shy away from presenting our ideas and research in less-regulated forums like wikis and blogs, which are defined partly by their lack of filters. Indeed, historians have recently taken an interest in blogs, which can accommodate both collaboration and individual authorship. The Edge of the American West is a notable example in which scholars such as Eric Rauchway and Kathy Olmstead post about academia, politics, and pop culture, along with, as they put it, “yiddishkeit, WASPhood, the 1980s, Canadiana and, most of all, the Muppets.”[14] The tone is loose but intellectual, bringing a perspective informed by history and theory to current events. Other blogs pursue a similar course but specialize in intellectual or legal history, with a committed readership among scholars who work in these fields.[15] (As a friend who writes for such a blog admitted, though, it threatens to be a “career-killing timesuck.”)

    Readers, Wanted and Unwanted

    A blog is a pointless exercise without an audience (as one could achieve the same results with a word processor), but readers are easy neither to attract nor to restrict. To attract them, it is obviously desirable to raise one’s site in the rankings of search engines, but the fact that “search engine optimization” is something of a dark art, made so by the understandable reluctance of companies such as Google to expose their heuristics, is amply testified to by the numerous offers of such knowledge arriving in most blogs’ spam traps. In fact, many of the more legitimate tactics, such as providing keywords in the unseen parts of a website’s code that offer indexing terms for search engines, are denied to users of sites managed by large blog providers, as those users are able to edit only the content of their sites, not such meta-information. It seems that there are no quick, honest secrets to such success. The content that the writer provides is the active ingredient, therefore; it gives the search engines (if one grants them access) something to use to present the blog to inquirers, though what is presented may also be very different from what those parties were actually seeking.[16] Even when they have found what they sought, moreover, it is worth considering who the audience may be.

    For those not engaged in scholarship but interested in the author’s material, a blog may be an intercession with the academy for those who cannot participate themselves. This can be used by writers as advertising for the academic endeavor as a whole or the field of history large or small or as a chance to correct misapprehensions, but it also requires a reciprocal attempt to engage at an accessible level (keeping terms of art and assumptions of knowledge down), as well as generosity and tolerance in responding to comments.[17] In more social terms, this audience also allows us to demonstrate that (some) academics are approachable and useful human beings, and it can provide the writer with a much-needed sense of wider relevance.

    Unless a historical blog is fairly simplistic, its persistent readers will likely be found more among those who are familiar with academic writing. For the nonexpert members of this sector, the historical blogger can help decode the field, cherry-picking interesting work from a jungle of things of which nonhistorians cannot always get hold. Here, blogs can help keep an interested audience informed where history would otherwise lose them because of the commitments required by dedicated study and reading. Such writing also helps circumvent economic exclusion, not just of those not enrolled in a course of study, but also of those without subscription access to print or electronic resources.[18]

    A historical blogger is unlikely to avoid discovery by one’s academic peers for long, especially if that blogger has used personal names that can be found in web searches. Sometimes one’s peers will comment, often friendlily, but one cannot assume an absence of readership from an absence of comments; they may still be aware. This kind of readership can be the most useful and may be the desired one, but it can also be the most dangerous. The dangers are partly in the medium and the expectations thereof and partly in the reaction of the academy to nontraditional publication. Is a colleague (or worse, a potential colleague) wasting time by blogging, or are they doing something valuable? Opinions vary.[19] Some may judge that no matter how carefully written and sourced, blogging is never more than opinion or, at best, a kind of journalism, rather than a proper academic endeavor. We discuss this further shortly, but one does not to have to agree with the argument to see how it might be constructed.

    A classic and controversial statement of this point of view was provided in 2005 in a pseudonymous article entitled “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, “Ivan Tribble,” recorded with scorn the damage that various applicants for a post in Tribble’s institution had done to their applications by mentioning their blogs, which exposed them in various ways as unsuitable in the eyes of the selection committee.[20] It must be recognized that there will continue to be readers like Tribble and his colleagues. Blogging favors an informal approach to writing, because dense writing deters an audience and is hard to produce often enough to keep a blog fresh. An informal approach can obviously become excessive, taking such forms as character assassination or professional gossip (there has been plenty of this), any of which may obviously offend or misrepresent peers.[21] Such offense may, in turn, force retractions, meaning the undoing of work and adding to the transience of the blog. Worse, it may prompt professional complaints or even legal action. These are heavy consequences for killing some time online.[22]

    Blogging as Scholarship?

    Are those who view blogging as nonscholarly (at best) or unscholarly (at worst) correct? Does such writing have any tangible, professional value?[23] We may, after all, be more prone to sloppy writing or easy generalizations when writing online, knowing that an editor is not going to come along and demand a footnote to support the assertion, for example, that NBC’s sitcom Community is “well-loved but still-struggling.” (Is there evidence that it is well loved? Is it really struggling?) More substantively, no one prevented one of the authors of this essay from stating in a blog post that Arab Americans occupy “an indeterminate place in the US spectrum of race,” whereas extensive evidence and reference to an established body of literature would be required to support that assertion if it were published in a journal article.[24]

    This is probably the most commonly cited critique of blogging as a scholarly enterprise: it escapes traditional peer review. Self-publication enables blogs’ great virtues of speed and freshness but adds problems of credibility. While experiments are being conducted to incorporate peer review and editorial oversight to blog contents, as well as to use blogs to crowdsource peer review of off-blog publications, such efforts threaten to undermine the medium’s most salient qualities—speed and currency—and to turn it into the equivalent of an online academic journal, a medium that, as we have suggested, is not substantively different from a regular academic journal except by its apparatus of consumption.[25]

    To continue to insist on blogging and online writing in general as academic work thus requires a much more radical shift of position. The recent volume Hacking the Academy includes one or two statements of such a case. David Parry, especially, urges his readers,

    Given the cost of producing knowledge and the fact that academic journals or academic presses could only afford to produce so many pages with each journal, peers are established to vet, and signal that a particular piece is credible and more worthy than the others. This is the filter-then-publish model. But the net actually works in reverse—publish-then-filter—involving a wider range of people in the discursive production. Why do academics argue for small panel anonymous peer review? One thing we know is diversity of perspective enriches discourse.

    We have to give up being authorities, controlling our discourse, seeing ourselves as experts who possess bodies of knowledge over which we have mastery. Instead we have to start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and [sic] ongoing process of knowledge formation. What if we thought of academics as curators, people who keep things up to date, clean, host, point, and aggregate knowledge rather than just those who are responsible for producing new knowledge.[26]

    This approach sounds energizing, but it profoundly changes the work of the academic. The onus has shifted here almost all the way from “publish” to “filter,” and it is not at all clear where formal publishing fits in this model. The role of the professional scholar becomes one of a fisherman, running their trained mental nets through a sea of otherwise undifferentiable output, from both within and beyond the academy. It may be no bad thing to open the gates of the ivory tower to external ideas (though the business models on which many blame the current crisis of the university have certainly lain that way), but this passive role as pundit or critic resembles our current idea of research little and may make new work much harder to produce amid such an undifferentiated flow of high-speed output.

    There are many functions to peer review, and some of them are insidious.[27] One, however, remains a simple provision of credibility, establishing a chain of trust that very digital concerns like encryption continue to require: academic work is taken seriously because others have decided it is worth taking seriously, and they have been allowed to decide that because others, in turn, have done the same for them, and so on. Without this chain of responsibility, the worth of our output is not vouched for, and this process is not yet possible for blogging in isolation.[28]

    The two authors of this essay differ in our views of what the preceding concerns mean for blogging in scholarship. For Jarrett, blogging will only serve as a means of generating scholarship when peer review ceases to validate scholarship. For him, blogging may contain scholarship and may be about scholarship, but so long as the academy persists in its current practice, blogging will not be where scholarship is done. For Cummings, however, this informal zone of writing, sharing, and discussion can complement, rather than supplant, the main streams of scholarly discourse and publication. He suggests a more expansive definition of scholarship that retains peer review as its core but also encompasses other modes of engaging a wider public in historical work, not unlike the challenge that public historians have presented to the academy in recent years. The defining difference between publications such as this one and a blog remains the issue of filtering and editing, the search for a virtual imprimatur of trustworthiness and credibility, but we differ over whether this difference is remaining solid in the new era or becoming fluid. While this guarantees that one of us will indeed look foolish in ten years for guessing wrong, our amiable irreconcilability on this score makes it all the more compelling that we both see benefits to academics in blogging, and it is with these benefits that we bring this essay to a close.

    Blogging and the Writing of History

    Blogs are a quintessential feature of the so-called social media of the twenty-first century. As such, they facilitate interaction among “friends,” “followers,” and the fellow travelers recommended in a site’s blogroll— a list of related or like-minded blogs. These are networks of sociability that do more than mutually increase page rankings in web searches. Blogging also offers the other, more social benefits previously described. Graduation from a PhD program leaves a scholar without an advisor or fellow students to read his or her work. A blog can serve a purpose similar to a writing group, as it pressures one to write regularly, meet deadlines, and expose a work in progress to the eyes of others. Faculty can turn to each other for feedback, of course, where suitable expertise exists nearby, but colleagues are often too overburdened with classes, committees, and family to provide regular input, and after earning doctoral degrees, many scholars find themselves in a series of transient positions, such as postdoctoral and visiting positions, with little opportunity to join a discursive community with peers.

    Media such as wikis, blogs, and Twitter have the potential to generate such communities where they are otherwise not available. These are the audiences that the academic blogger is, to our mind, best advised to seek; it turns out that peers and, indeed, friends can be found simply by writing interesting things on the Internet. A well-maintained blog has the potential to provide a crowd for crowdsourcing, a forum for validation or advice, and a kind of collegiality that is no less real for being expressed in type. In this respect, the so-called blogosphere can be seen as a set of continual, overlapping conferences or symposia in an unusually large and friendly institution.[29] Quite apart from the publicity value of having one’s name easily associable with well-written and immediately available scholarly-looking content, these are good reasons to blog. While the microblogging service Twitter radically limits the length of posts to 140 characters, effectively barring any long or laborious academic prose, it has been embraced by a growing number of scholars as a means to share ideas, advice, papers, and conference announcements and to highlight useful resources, such as websites and archives.[30]

    This kind of informality can be seen as a feature, not a bug. The same quality of blogging that problematizes its acceptance as traditional scholarship, its lack of filters, is the source of its vitality. The blog offers an opportunity to engage with and write about one’s area of study in a far less constrained way than, say, a postdoctoral application or a journal submission. Having a less formal outlet for writing serves as a reminder that one’s knowledge and creativity are not pressed only into the service of professional goals and a quest for approval.

    The benefits of this flexibility cycle back into one’s professional writing, through a kind of intellectual cross-pollination. To keep an active blog requires writing often, and this is good practice. Writing for nonacademics can also be fruitful. The variety in audience is good for the prose and good for clarity, and it may be good for employment elsewhere, if the impact of third-stream agendas acquires more force. Ultimately, blogging involves some people writing and others commenting. Writing is central to the practice, but it encourages writing on different topics and in different ways.

    As professionals, we may be evaluated largely on peer-reviewed, published writing, but much of what we do as scholars falls in between the formal and informal, the textual and the oral. Writing on a blog might not rise to the standard of a university press or scholarly journal, but neither does a lecture. Rarely will what we write to say in a classroom be subject to the same degree of scrutiny as what we write in a monograph, but that fact does not diminish the value or creativity of the texts we create in the process of teaching.[31] Digital publishing offers an opportunity to recognize the multifaceted nature of our work as historians, which is not limited to the printed page.

    Indeed, digital publishing helps us recognize that writing and print are not one and the same. Back in the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously predicted a future “global village” where visual and aural media would eclipse the importance of print, yet the written word has more than held its own in the years since.[32] In the age of Harry Potter and blogs, people write all the time.[33] They compose text messages and e-mails; they write newsletters for church and work and post comments in endless “flame wars” on YouTube videos and news articles.[34] Blogs, wikis, and Twitter are part of this general flurry of written activity. This material may not contribute to tenure and promotion; it may reveal one’s work in a less polished or persuasive form than an article or book. However, as an outlet for expression that is freer and faster than traditional publishing, it can offer real benefits to the process of writing, and it provides an arena for collaboration and discussion that can serve the same varied purposes as a graduate school cohort, a writing group, or the process of peer review. It also reaches a public for whom our work is otherwise mediated solely by journalists, allowing us to demonstrate the writing of history as a worthwhile, entertaining, and important thing to do with an intellectual life. These are not small gains. Long ago, Truman Capote slammed Jack Kerouac’s work by saying it “isn’t writing, it’s only typing.”[35] When it comes to an important journal submission, online or off, we would be well advised to strive for Capote’s standards. But the rest of the time, we should feel free to type.


    1. Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997); John McMillian, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Amy Spencer, DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture (London: Marion Boyars, 2008); eHow, “How to Become a Published Author,” http://www.ehow.com/how_2057347_become-published-author.html.return to text

    2. Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It (San Francisco: No Starch, 2008), 41–42.return to text

    3. Dana Goodyear, “I Heart Novels,” New Yorker, 22 December 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/22/081222fa_fact_goodyear.return to text

    4. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 182.return to text

    5. Raymond Williams offered a pioneering analysis of a medium as a “cultural form” in his 1974 text Television: Technology and Cultural Form; Roger Silverstone provides an updated perspective in his preface to the 2003 Routledge Classics edition of Williams’s book (vi–xii).return to text

    6. See Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. To their list of types of historical websites could be added social networking sites, such as Academia.edu, or project outreach sites, such as that for the Chester Amphitheatre Environs Research Project, carried out by the University of Chester (http://www.univchester-parkdig.blogspot.com/), or Digging to Understand the Past, sponsored by the Norton Community Archaeology Group (http://nortoncommarch.wordpress.com/). On the agendas behind this last category, see Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone, and Matthew D. Cochran, “Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present,” in Historical Archaeology, ed. Martin Hall and Stephen W. Silliman (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 92–100.return to text

    7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Medieval Latin and the Internet, Twelve Years On,” A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, May 15, 2009, http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/medieval-latin-and-the-internet-twelve-years-on/.return to text

    8. Internet Archive, “Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.archive.org/about/faqs.php#31.return to text

    9. Compare the following observation by Lisa Gitelman in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 22: “Beyond CERN, the broader physics community made early use of the World Wide Web. For instance, the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) soon offered Web-based access to ‘pre-prints’—articles that are on their way through the peer-review process, but that haven’t appeared in print or electronically yet with the final imprimatur of a refereed journal. The new accessibility of preprints made them not more authoritative but certainly more integral in the work of physicists. The practice of doing physics (like doing classics, as it happens) changed in keeping with the accessibility and abundance of what had before been inscriptions that circulated slowly and in narrow contexts.”return to text

    10. Blogger, http://www.blogger.com/about; LiveJournal, http://www.livejournal.com.return to text

    11. Danah Boyd, “A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium,” Reconstruction 6, no. 4 (2006), http://reconstruction.eserver.org/064/boyd.shtml; DiaryLand, http://members.diaryland.com/edit/welcome.phtml.return to text

    12. “Nupedia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nupedia.return to text

    13. Stacy Schiff, “Know It All,” New Yorker, 31 July 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact; Mason Historiographiki, George Mason University, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/schrag/wiki/index.php.return to text

    14. “About the Edge of the American West,” The Edge of the American West, http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/about/.return to text

    15. U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Society for U.S. Intellectual History, http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/; Mary L. Dudziak et al., Legal History Blog, http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/.return to text

    16. For Jonathan Jarrett, pride of place will always be reserved for the searcher for “historic annal sex” in October 2008 who found his blog’s archive for March 2007 and there presumably learned a new word meaning a chronicle with year-by-year records.return to text

    17. Vellum, “The Language That Locks Others Out,” Vaulting and Vellum, 15 August 2009, http://vaultingvellum.blogspot.com/2009/08/language-that-locks-others-out.html.return to text

    18. We do not imply or endorse by this the breaching of copyrights, which, in any case, hardly requires blogs.return to text

    19. See A. G. Rud, “Ivan Tribble Unmasked!,” Moo2, October 10, 2005, http://moodeuce.blogspot.com/2005/10/ivan-tribble-unmasked.html.return to text

    20. Ivan Tribble, “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 8, 2005, http://chronicle.com/article/Bloggers-Need-Not-Apply/45022/.return to text

    21. For examples, see Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, The Broad-Gauge Gossip, http://historianbroadgauge.blogspot.com/; C. Vann Winchell, Nothing Recedes Like Success, http://www.historygossip.blogspot.com/. However, both those sites have been quiet since early 2010.return to text

    22. Such episodes do happen but are inevitably difficult to document, because they tend to result in the removal of materials from the web. At the time of this writing, however, we can point to one example in which the tracks of repercussions are still visible: Edgy Historian, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?” Historian on the Edge, 15 July 2011, http://600transformer.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-do-we-need-barbarians.html; a further case, Damn Good Technician, “Interruption in Service,” Damn Good Technician, 10 May 2009, http://damngoodtechnician.blogspot.com/2009/05/interruption-in-service.html, was removed from the web while copyediting of this volume was ongoing. return to text

    23. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Blogging the Middle Ages,” in Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media, ed. Brantley L. Bryant (New York City: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 38.return to text

    24. Alex Sayf Cummings, “Arab American Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again,” Tropics of Meta, 26 July 2011, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/american-arab-kitsch-from-ahab-to-abed-and-back-again/.return to text

    25. The archaeology blog Then Dig intended to classify some of its posts as peer reviewed, according to a standard explained on its page in 2011 (“About This Site,” Then Dig, http://arf.berkeley.edu/then-dig/about-this-site/), but it had not done so as of its last post in October 2012, whereafter the blog disappeared in a redesign of its parent site. The journal postmedieval crowdsourced its review for one issue in 2011 via a blog at http://postmedievalcrowdreview.wordpress.com/.return to text

    26. David Parry, “Burn the Boats/Books,” in Hacking the Academy: The Edited Volume, ed. Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), http://www.digitalculture.org/hacking-the-academy/. See also Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal,” in the same volume.return to text

    27. Dan Cohen, Stephen Ramsay, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Open Access and Scholarly Values: A Conversation,” in Cohen and Scheinfeldt, Hacking the Academy.return to text

    28. Something could also be said about blogging anonymously, but space precludes its discussion here; we assume that it is unlikely that scholars would wish to pursue academic work anonymously. On such issues, see Magistra, “Pseudonymity and Its Discontents,” Magistra et Mater, 14 May 2010, http://magistraetmater.blog.co.uk/2010/05/14/pseudonymity-and-its-discontents-8591664/.return to text

    29. For example, see Jonathan Jarrett, “‘Social Networking Gets Medieval,’ Does It? A Historian’s Take on Some Recent Research on Computing in the Humanities,” A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, 5 June 2008, http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/social-networking-gets-medieval-does-it-a-historians-take-on-some-recent-research-on-computing-in-the-humanities/. That post has led to a conference session and an article hopefully forthcoming.return to text

    30. See the discussion, relevant to all fields of history, at Michelle Ziegler, “Medieval Tweeting,” Heavenfield, 11 December 2011, http://hefenfelth.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/medieval-tweeting/.return to text

    31. See the preface to Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology, ed. Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), xvi.return to text

    32. Ivan Kalmar, “The Future of ‘Tribal Man’ in the Electronic Age,” in Marshall McLuhan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, ed. Gary Genosko (New York: Routledge, 2005), 227.return to text

    33. Shayna Garlick, “Harry Potter and the Magic of Reading,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 May 2007, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0502/p13s01-legn.html.return to text

    34. Alex J. Packer, How Rude! The Teenagers’ Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out (Minneapolis: Free Spirit, 1997), 387–88.return to text

    35. Robert Emmet Long, Truman Capote, Enfant Terrible (New York: Continuum, 2008), 82.return to text

    Conclusions: What We Learned from Writing History in the Digital Age

    What have we learned from creating this collective work of scholarship on the web? To what extent are new technologies transforming the work of historians and the ways in which we interpret the past and communicate our ideas with others? Does the so-called digital turn mark anything truly different about the trajectory of historical writing? What lessons have we learned about open peer review and open-access publishing? In this conclusion, we reflect on both the essays in this volume and our experiences in publishing them, to address these and other questions that arose during the yearlong process of developing the concept, modifying the existing technology, and cultivating a community of writers and readers who made it all happen. Since an essential step was to make the “invisible” work of writing and reviewing more public, the book’s coeditors (Jack and Kristen) invited two of the most thoughtfully engaged participants in the fall 2011 open peer review (Charlotte and Timothy) to collaborate in authoring these reflections.[1] Here, by responding to these key questions, we share what we have learned from Writing History in the Digital Age.

    Has Digital Technology Transformed Historical Writing, and If So, How?

    Much of this volume emphasizes change. Two decades of the web have expanded the range of creators of historical works, the types of products generated, and the processes of distribution and evaluation, all of which stand out because they diverge from established practices in our profession. Yet we were surprised to discover the degree of continuity in the content of historical writing. The best of digitally inspired scholarship integrates technology into the art of composing works that feature what many consider the finest qualities in our field: a compelling narrative that unravels the past, supported by insightful argument and persuasive evidence.

    Several contributors to this volume vividly describe how digital tools enabled them to uncover richer interpretations of source materials than they otherwise would have discovered. Ansley Erickson explains how a simple relational database not only managed her archival notes but allowed her to rethink how she categorized knowledge during her writing process. Stephen Robertson recounts how digitally mapping everyday life in Harlem pinpointed areas of racial conflict and negotiation that had previously gone unnoticed. Robert Wolff explores how the collectively authored Wikipedia platform permits us to peel back the layers of “popular memory” and “professional history” behind each entry, revealing more about contested meanings of the past than do traditional forms of scholarship. Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin describe how they learned to combine primary documents and interpretation on the web to create richer scholarship and expand the scope of women’s history. Even Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens, whose essay pointedly calls for historians to write with greater methodological transparency about our use of data, favor “de-emphasizing narrative,” though they do not abandon it. Today’s digital media revolution reminds us, argues Stefan Tanaka, that our present-day conceptions of historical writing did not arise until the late eighteenth century, when people began chronicling the past in a linear structure. Taken together, these digitally inspired essays embrace historians’ long-standing commitment to narrative, argument, and evidence.

    But several contributors also wrestle with changes brought on by the “democratization of history” on the web and our current version of the question, who creates the past?[2] In 1931, Carl Becker, president of the American Historical Association, declared “everyman his own historian,” and eight decades later, every woman, man, and child (with Internet access) can view source materials and publish their own interpretations, thereby engaging in work that had previously had been the domain of professional historians.[3] Despite her own misgivings about the web-driven black Confederate myth, Leslie Madsen-Brooks argues that crowdsourcing creates key opportunities for historians to engage with a public that clearly cares about the meaning of the past, and Amanda Sikarskie also emphasizes the role of “citizen scholars” in the “co-creation of content rather than consumption of content.” Similarly, essays from history educators Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer and also Adrea Lawrence demonstrate how technology can deepen critical thinking and writing about the past in their classrooms. Their perspective is shared by Oscar Rosales Castañeda, who, with other student-activists, digitized civil rights source materials and engaged in the very public act of interpreting their significance on the web.

    Yet “the Internet is not an inherently even playing field; to digitize is not to democratize,” as Shawn Graham, Guy Massie, and Nadine Feuerherm remind us. Martha Saxton describes how her class collided with today’s digital embodiment of Becker’s “everyman”—Wikipedia and its “neutral point of view” policy—as their efforts to integrate perspectives from women’s history were occasionally moved elsewhere or erased. Furthermore, in Graham’s innovative “Wikiblitz” classroom activity, he reports “push back from an unexpected quarter” of his first-year seminar—declared history majors—who “already had quite clear ideas about authority, authorship, and intellectual property, ideas that fit in quite well with established ways of writing history.” Technology did not create these debates over who “owns” the past, but it does make it harder for professional historians to ignore them.

    Another theme across the essays demarcates the lines of debate regarding the products of digital history, particularly how we recognize arguments within these newer types of historical writing. Amanda Seligman illustrates how she teaches her students to identify arguments embedded within “factual” encyclopedia entries, both print and online. John Theibault contends that data visualizations “necessarily have a rhetorical dimension” and that historians must “align the rhetoric” to better communicate their interpretation of maps and charts to the viewer. By contrast, Sherman Dorn’s survey of the field challenges the profession to use “the best of digital history work to redraw the discipline’s boundaries,” by breaking away from long-form argument in journal articles and books as the defining standard of historical scholarship. Together, these essays show how seriously historians debate the role of argument, even when we disagree over how much we should value it.

    A fourth set of essays speak directly to the process of creating, sharing, and assessing historical writing in the digital age, with collaboration as a recurring theme. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Sarah Manekin narrate their personal accountability partnership within a broader analysis of dissertation advice guides and self-help literature. Similarly, the research and design team behind Pox and the City richly describe their collective thinking on writing the history of medicine as a computer game, particularly on issues of historical content, player characters, and third-person perspective. As readers, we benefit when authors’ thoughtful disagreements emerge more clearly through collaborative writing: together, Jonathan Jarrett and Alex Cummings attempt to predict the future of blogging in historical writing, but one contends that “blogging will only serve as a means of generating scholarship when peer review ceases to validate” it, while the other anticipates that “this informal zone of writing, sharing, and discussion can complement, rather than supplant, the main streams of scholarly discourse and publication.” Nevertheless, both agree that the Internet is interrupting the traditional academic practice of “filter-then-publish,” thereby raising the potential for the practice of “publish-then-filter,” as we also discussed in our introduction.

    Writing about history in our digital age has its share of internal debates, much like the broader field of the digital humanities.[4] But Kathleen Fitzpatrick persuades us that the most challenging barriers to the transformation of scholarly communication are not technological but, instead, “social, intellectual, and institutional.”[5] The academy has been ambivalent about the Internet, observes Dan Cohen, and “this resistance has less to do with the tools of the web and more to do with the web’s culture,” specifically its degree of openness that makes many scholars suspicious.[6] By nature, historians are a skeptical breed. Yet by pulling the curtain aside and making the process of writing, reviewing, and publishing history more visible, we hope that this volume of essays—and the debates expressed within it—will help make the case that the digital age offers a valuable opportunity for the profession to reexamine our established practices and realign them with our scholarly values. The extent to which this reexamination puts us on virgin soil as a profession is another matter, as Timothy Burke explains next.

    Is the “Digital Turn” Truly New? (by Timothy Burke)

    Some of the contributors to Writing History in the Digital Age surrender, to varying degrees, to the temptation to characterize the digitization of historical inquiry as a novel insurgency against a recumbent scholarly establishment. Many contributors emphasize the capacity of digital media to create novel forms of dialogic interaction between publics and scholars, to reroute the circulation of historical expertise, and to erode some of the privileged authority that the scholarly guild confers on itself. But many of these concerns are not new or entirely novel to digital media or information technology. I suggest, instead, that digitization offers a powerful new means to a long-articulated end and an investigative tool for the continued study of the wider circulations of historical representation.

    By way of illustration, let me mention three specifically relevant bodies of scholarly writing that deserve to be in richer dialogue with advocacy for new modes of digital practice. The first is a well-established and wide-ranging body of work by historians, archaeologists, curators, archivists, and educators specifically concerned with controversies and practical problems in memorialization, museum design, and public history. Long-running discussions of public struggles such as those around the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian[7] or the problems intrinsic to “living history” and reenactment practices, for example, dovetail beautifully into the concerns of the contributors to Writing History in the Digital Age.

    A second scholarly literature to consider in relation to advocacy of digital practice stands at the intersection between history and anthropology and is most visibly manifest in a series of international meetings and discussions in the late 1970s and 1980s between social historians and cultural anthropologists. The key takeaway in this older moment of historiographical ferment for “history in a digital age” is that it catalyzed, for many historians, a desire to make the relationship between historical sources and scholarly knowledge vastly more porous and unsettled. This turn went beyond conventional “history from below” to much more destabilizing projects. The first of these involved a dramatic expansion of what counted as valid historical evidence, often in pointed rebuke of existing scholarship. Raphael Samuel’s polemical attack on his British colleagues for refusing to take on popular culture and textual ephemera as source material is an example, as is Luise White’s appraisal of rumor and gossip as evidence for writing the history of colonial Africa.[8] The second move was the incorporation of testimony and other forms of evidence or bricolage within scholarly work in a manner designed to create epistemological parity between sources and scholars, as in Shula Marks’s Not Either an Experimental Doll or Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms.[9]

    Finally, a third literature, which grew out of this dialogue between history and anthropology, raised still more comprehensive questions about the relationship between scholarly historians and historically engaged publics and, in so doing, reimagined the historical guild as a mere subset of a much bigger “production of history.” In works like Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, David William Cohen’s The Combing of History, or Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, academic history is resituated as a limited, if valued, enterprise, one part of a vaster terrain comprised of public memory, lived experience of individuals and communities, amateur and specialist work outside of the academic world, diverse cultural imaginations and performances of the past, and much else.[10] Trouillot, Cohen, and others did not call on historians to master or incorporate this wider domain, nor did they ask historians to submit to it. They did, however, imagine that there might be far more generative or creative ways for scholarly historians to collaborate or converse with wider publics and circumstances. This last literature in particular very directly leads into the aspiration of some contributors to this volume that “history in the digital age” will underscore the limitations of scholarly practices and will permit radically new forms of relationship between academic historians and various sites of historical knowledge and production outside of the academy.

    How Did You Encourage Public Discussion on a Book in Progress?

    At present, the dominant work culture for historians is to produce single-author scholarship, often in isolation from others, and typically not revealed until final publication. We intentionally drew on web technology to interrupt this norm, by crafting a digital platform to make the stages of idea formation and peer review more public for our scholarly work. We proposed that constructing an edited volume of essays on the open web would make our writing more meaningful to others, more responsive to online commentary, and, as a whole, more intellectually coherent.

    As we launched the site in spring 2011, our greatest fear was organizing a forum where no one showed up. So the coeditors timed our key events to coincide with the U.S. academic calendar, by holding our discussion of essay ideas immediately before the summer break and conducting our open peer review during the middle of the fall semester. Our low-budget communications strategy relied on varied forms of communication to reach different types of audiences. We sent over 100 personalized e-mail invitations to prospective contributors whom we already knew or identified to be working in the field of digital history. We connected with others through digital announcements (such as the H-Net networks) and blogs (such as a ProfHacker guest essay). We presented the work in progress at digital humanities gatherings, such as THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Prime 2011 and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) 2011. But the most important lesson we learned was the power of a critical mass of contributors with their own social media connections. When we tweeted or blogged about new essay ideas on our edited volume, this information cascaded as several authors and commenters recirculated it on their Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress accounts. A typical solo-authored monograph would not have generated the same response.

    With each phase of the project, we expanded the website for Writing History in the Digital Age to guide visitors into lively channels of discussion and also to document the evolution of our writing. During the initial “call for ideas” phase in May–June 2011, we invited readers to generate and respond to potential themes for the volume, and 73 participants posted 261 comments, which collectively generated over 60 paragraph-length topics. By late August 2011, we received 28 fully drafted essays from individual authors and coauthors, which we converted into WordPress posts. We then instructed our contributors on how to enhance them with digital media and web links. When combined with our introductory essay, the fall 2011 volume totaled over 120,000 words, far above the 90,000 permitted in our advance book contract with the University of Michigan Press. We publicly announced the open peer review, which ran from October through November 2011 and drew 71 participants who wrote 942 comments, the majority of them on substantive issues. The coeditors met in December 2011 to select 20 out of 28 essays (about 70 percent) to be revised and resubmitted to the press as the full manuscript. Newer versions of essays were posted online in spring 2012, with links to prior drafts and copyediting for the print version to be submitted.

    The coeditors’ editorial and intellectual property policy deliberately required essay contributors and commenters to use their full names and agree to our Creative Commons licensing. The combined objectives were to reward quality ideas by attribution, circulate them freely and widely, and maintain civil discourse online. Although we initially “primed the pump” to guarantee some comments at the spring 2011 launch, the flow ran nearly continuously during the fall of 2011, with minimal guidance from us.

    Unlike a print-only text, our web-book format allows editors to track some general characteristics of the audience, how they arrived at the site, and which portions of the text generated the greatest interest. Based on anonymous Google Analytics data, over 8,500 unique visitors came to Writing History in the Digital Age during its developmental period from May 2011 through mid-January 2012. The number continues to rise as of this writing. Most of these web visits were brief. Only 1,000 unique visitors spent at least five minutes viewing our site, and of those, only 122 spent more than one hour on the site, which is comparable to the total number of individuals who have posted comments during all stages of the web-book. Put into perspective, our user statistics are relatively small when compared to digital history websites, but they are larger than we anticipated for a volume of academic essays that have not yet been officially “published.”

    To what extent does this readership represent “the public” at large? We suspect that most readers who spent significant time on our 120,000-word site were other academics, but we can only infer this indirectly. The most popular sources of web traffic for engaged readers (who spent at least five minutes on the site) were direct links, most likely from an e-mailed announcement (32 percent), search engine keywords (28 percent), Twitter links (8 percent), and H-Net announcements (4 percent), followed by a range of institutional and individual blogs on history, writing, and digital publishing (totaling 24 percent). Some blog-driven web traffic came from sources familiar to us, while there were other sources we did not expect, such as two U.S. Civil War public history blogs that pointed directly to an essay of particular interest to their readers. Our English-language site engaged readers from the Western Hemisphere: most came from North America (72 percent), Western Europe (12 percent), and Northern Europe (7 percent), the home bases of the coeditors and most contributors. But we were pleasantly surprised to read that a Spanish historian translated several paragraphs from the introduction to share on a blog, as permitted under our Creative Commons license.[11]

    What Types of Comments Were Posted, and by Whom, during the Open Review?

    Readers of the volume had almost as much to say as the authors who wrote it. Taken together, the 942 open-review comments yielded 83,510 words of text (the equivalent of 148 single-spaced pages), or about three-fourths of the 120,000 words in the fall 2011 essays combined. Tracing the source of these comments reveals that the open-review process did not rely solely on the four expert reviewers designated by the University of Michigan Press. Of the 71 individuals who posted open-review comments, the majority were general readers (43 percent) and other contributors to the volume (41 percent), followed by the appointed reviewers (14 percent) and the book’s coeditors (2 percent). We identified 10 individuals who posted 20 or more comments each: 6 were authors, 2 were expert reviewers, and 2 were general readers (including one who posted 244 comments, one-quarter of the grand total). One of the expert reviewers also required students in his graduate class on digital humanities to post a comment on the site, which boosted input from general readers. The median essay generated 31 comments, though the range varied widely from a low of 6 to a high of 66. When authors responded to their readers’ comments, as they did in 23 out of 28 essays, it tended to generate more feedback from others. The CommentPress plug-in on our WordPress site gave readers the option of posting their remarks at three different levels of the text: general comments on the book (5 percent of the total), comments on a whole essay page (17 percent), and paragraph-level comments (78 percent). At least five essays contained paragraphs that generated eight to nine comments, signaling specific passages of the text that sparked vibrant discussion. The site allowed readers to browse comments along the margin of each essay or to view all comments by the individuals who wrote them (see fig. 10).[12]

    Fig. 10. Screenshot of text and commentary from the fall 2011 web-book version of Writing History in the Digital Age
    Fig. 10. Screenshot of text and commentary from the fall 2011 web-book version of Writing History in the Digital Age

    What did these comments look like? When sorting all open-review comments by category, we found that 79 percent were substantive remarks on essays, in contrast to copyediting suggestions or brief acknowledgments to thank others for their feedback. Among the substantive comments, many were constructive or reflective, several probed more deeply with insightful questions, and a few were very critical or downright defensive. A typical constructive exchange between authors and readers focused on certain portions of the writing that should be further developed. For example, in response to Adrea Lawrence’s essay “Learning How to Write Traditional and Digital History,” Cheryl Greenberg posted this comment on paragraph 19:

    Here is an example of what I’d like to hear more about. The questions about interpretation, the impact of Wikipedia-like sources for historical narrative and analysis, are central issues to historians hoping to engage more productively with digital and on-line materials. I’d like to hear the students’—and your—reflections on what they concluded after this Wikipedia experience.

    Two weeks later, Adrea Lawrence replied,

    Enthusiastic ambivalence is how I would characterize my students’ attitude about Wikipedia as a viable and reliable source. All of my students commented on how much they appreciated the transparency of the editing and feedback process on Wikipedia. Two of them, in fact, deliberately made their digital histories commentable in the hope that other scholars would read their work and offer feedback. This type of transparency made other students uncomfortable in spite of their regard for Wikipedia editors’ transparency. Too, students felt that it was difficult to identify and write for a particular audience on Wikipedia and in their digital history projects. What does a “general audience” look like, and what do they already know? This seemed to be one of the biggest initial issues for students, but it was one that they were able to work through after they began writing on Wikipedia and receiving feedback from other editors.

    The next day, Cheryl Greenberg replied by affirming what she found interesting in the author’s response and encouraging her to incorporate these insights into a revised version of the article.[13]

    Other substantive exchanges occurred when readers disagreed about the significance of an author’s main point or underlying assumptions. In response to the fall 2011 version of John Theibault’s essay “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” commenters expressed a range of opinions. One contributor, Amanda Seligman, began by stating, “This article is at its strongest—and invaluable—in its discussion of mapping.” But another contributor, Fred Gibbs, disagreed.

    Actually, I would say the opposite. Historians are probably as [if not more] comfortable with maps than other complex (and especially multivariate) visualization. It’s the scatter plots and tree diagrams and representations of that nature that can be downright frightening to those who aren’t familiar with them.

    A third point of view came from Kathryn Tomasek.

    Quite a dense essay. I’ve clearly been reading too many student papers because I kept looking for a thesis, as some of my comments show. I do see the thread of argument: historians have supplemented their work with illustrations; digital visualizations are different, both from illustrations and from the displays of data of the cliometricians. As a reader, I need some help, though.[14]

    Even some copyediting comments provoked strong differences of opinion. In Amanda Sikarskie’s essay “Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-creation of Knowledge,” reader Jeremy McGinniss suggested two wording corrections to paragraph 12, which prompted Jonathan Jarrett to reply, “I don’t agree with either of those corrections! . . . I submit that the sentence is correct as it stands.”[15] We also found that some commenters (including one of the coeditors) struggled with writing feedback that was critical in content yet civil in tone. This problem is not specific to scholarly discourse on the web, as a review of heated exchanges in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of leading historical journals in past decades will attest. But our collective sense of “Internet etiquette” is still evolving and will continue to do so with the transparency of open peer review, where all can learn from reading the substantive commenting styles of others.

    What motivated these commenters to voluntarily contribute their time and energy to the volume? Some may have wished to share a personal experience or a scholarly insight or to start up a connection to the field of digital history. Others may have sought public recognition for generating thoughtful feedback, as our policy that comments must be accompanied by full name encouraged. Some authors may have acted in self-interest, on the grounds that constructively raising the quality of the whole volume could also boost the status of their individual essays. Regardless of their particular motivation, all commenters engaged in historical writing as a collaborative creative process, rather than an isolated one. Yet this online sense of community did not appear instantaneously. During the two-month period, some readers gradually shifted from distant observers to highly engaged contributors. Charlotte Rochez recounts next how the process transformed her into one of the most prolific commenters on the volume, submitting over 11,000 words in feedback (or the equivalent of two entire essays).

    How Did Open Review Transform Some Readers into Commenters? (by Charlotte Rochez)

    When I first learned of Writing History in the Digital Age, I explored the website and read a few of the early articles; I recognized it as an exciting endeavor, and it sparked my thoughts, as well as a blog post, regarding how modern technology influenced my own writing processes. In summer 2011, a call was opened for article submission, and I suggested a paper focusing on the Internet and oral history. However, while grappling with the finishing touches, I realized that I did not wish to post it online in this way; I questioned possibilities of plagiarism and the notion of making criticism public and was uncertain about the use of digital, online citations. Moreover, I wondered whether, in the event that a piece was not accepted for final publication in this volume, it would be eligible for publication elsewhere, having already been posted online for public review. Through reading and reviewing the essays, I learned that this reluctance and wariness toward online publishing is shared by many students and by some more-experienced academics too.

    Engagement in the open-review process helped me to address some of these concerns and altered my attitudes toward public online review. At first, I had preferred to make coded notes in a private Word document, but about halfway through the book, I felt inclined to post online. My misgivings were alleviated when authors responded positively to my comments, entering into a dialogue where further ideas, information, and links were shared. As I read Robert Wolff’s claim that Wikipedia offered an opportunity “to peer behind the curtain and, if interested, take a place at the controls,” it resonated with my experience in the open-review process, which presented me an unusual prospect as a student, something of a public apprenticeship in reviewing and editing.[16]

    Through this apprenticeship, I advanced my understanding of how the processes of academic writing, editing, and publishing could better draw on conversation, community, and collaboration. The commenting during the open review served as a platform for public academic conversation, demonstrating how dialogic, discursive aspects of history could be electronically written in the digital age. In this way, the volume blurred the boundaries between a conference and a book. This increased the authors’ ability to access and engage with some of the wider dialogues following from or contextualizing their initial essays and offered them the chance to incorporate aspects from these dialogues into their work before the more official publication. In this sense, the volume’s open-review process showed how the digital age may foster a trend away from competition and toward collaboration in book publishing. Despite this, certain aspects of the volume’s wider publication process suggested that we have yet to fully explore the collaborative potentials afforded by the web; for example, at least initially, few contributors took advantage of the coauthoring opportunities presented by the online volume. Perhaps this indicates that we are still coming to recognize and take practical advantage of such new opportunities and to explore their potential intellectual and professional benefits and risks.[17]

    Did the Benefits of Publishing on the Web, with Open Peer Review, Outweigh Its Risks?

    Without a doubt, publishing a book in its developmental stages on the web and opening it up to public criticism places its contributors in a precarious position. Some commenters on the volume wisely raised concerns about its potential downsides. Might unfiltered comments on an Internet forum, where poorly chosen words have consequences beyond their intended meaning, risk public humiliation for authors? Conversely, would an open-review process on the web—with full names of evaluators disclosed—pressure evaluators to be too nice, therefore discouraging opportunities for truly candid criticism?[18] As exemplified by the reflections of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Rowe on their experience with Shakespeare Quarterly, even some advocates of open peer review have questioned whether the process inhibits untenured scholars from publicly critiquing ideas advanced by senior names in the field.[19]

    Indeed, no review process is perfect, but we agree with the need for alternatives to the traditional blind system of peer review.[20] One problem is that in the age of Google, peer review has effectively reverted from double- to single-blind, because today’s reviewers can usually decipher the author’s identity, if desired, by searching online conference programs and departmental web pages. But the larger problem is that traditional peer review is invisible labor with very few institutional rewards. Because one’s name does not appear on traditionally reviewed material, there is no public recognition for the quality of the work done. By contrast, our open-review experiment means that readers can identify the source of every comment, whether constructive or not. With this, we seek to create richer incentives for developmental editing, a commodity highly prized among authors (particularly in the time-starved academic economy), because it requires others to attend to one’s writing with careful reading and thoughtful feedback. Historians and other humanists crave this type of feedback because so much of our scholarly value is based on our ability to clearly express our ideas in writing. Some historians contend that book and journal editors still play this role, but others argue that drastic changes in the academic publishing industry have sharply curtailed it.[21]

    As Timothy has suggested elsewhere, if we lack sufficient cash to pay for developmental editing, we should consider an alternate form of currency widely recognized in the scholarly world: our reputation capital.[22] In our name-disclosed peer review, the value of our reputations rises or falls based on readers’ and authors’ perceptions of the quality of our feedback. Did the commenter make a fair-minded criticism of an essay, pose a deep question that calls attention to an unstated assumption, suggest an alternate way to frame the argument, recommend an overlooked source, or push aside the fluff? Instead of masking commenters’ identities, open peer review flips the traditional model by creating a powerful incentive for scholars to invest time and energy in evaluating other people’s writing, as the comments themselves become part of the scholarship.

    Given the experimental nature of open peer review, the coeditors of this collaboration installed reasonable safeguards to protect our scholarly values of civil discourse and intellectual criticism. Our policy on editorial and intellectual property granted contributors the right to remove their essay from discussion at any point in the process (none did so) and clarified our right as coeditors to remove inappropriate language from the comments (which was neither requested nor necessary for this volume). Comments appeared as they were posted on our site, filtered only by our spam guard, with an occasional reminder to individuals to use their full name, as well as some typographical corrections by request from a writer or with a writer’s permission. As coeditors, our most serious intervention was to redirect one heated exchange to the appropriate section of the volume and to invite a contributor to elaborate on the substance (rather than the style) of a specific comment. Our invitations to revise and resubmit essays were posted as public comments, but we informed authors by private e-mail when we decided not to advance an essay to the final manuscript.

    We also made sure that the expert reviewers could freely speak their minds. Prior to the open-review period, we nominated 10 expert reviewers to the University of Michigan Press, which selected 4 of them and offered each its standard compensation of $200. Each expert received instructions that explained the mechanics of open peer review and its objective of encouraging all readers to participate in the evaluation process. But the letter also gave them the option, if desired, to send additional comments in a confidential e-mail directly to the editor in chief at the press, who would share them with the coeditors as anonymous comments. (To our knowledge, none of the expert reviewers chose this option.) Furthermore, when launching the open peer review, we intentionally did not announce the names of the expert reviewers, and none overtly revealed his or her identity during the two-month process, though one did at the end. In practice, this meant that most authors could not easily distinguish between comments from “official” reviewers and comments from general readers. After the review period, we informally polled several essay contributors about the process. Some correctly guessed the experts’ identities based on their background, tone, or quantity of comments. Some correctly guessed only one or two and mistakenly assumed that other active commenters were the designated experts. Some reportedly neither attempted to guess nor cared who was who. While we have no definitive way of knowing if we succeeded, we strove for a meritocratic review process where the quality of the comment drove the status of the commenter, not vice versa.

    Without a doubt, publishing this volume in stages on the public web enriched its intellectual coherence and scope beyond what the same set of authors would have produced using traditional practices. During the initial phase, when prospective contributors posted and discussed over 60 essay topics, the online forum led many to clarify, refocus, or abandon their ideas as better ones emerged. Moreover, the open peer review of full drafts demonstrated how crowdsourcing can improve our writing, as general readers and other authors posted valuable comments that never would have arisen if we had relied solely on traditional blind review with appointed experts. In their revised essays, several authors credited insights from noncommissioned commenters who they had never met in person.

    Whereas a traditional press would rely primarily on comments written by its appointed experts to evaluate this volume, the “wisdom of the crowd” played an equal—or greater—role in shaping our thinking as coeditors. Several comments persuaded us that a particular paragraph or entire essay deserved more (or less) merit than we originally believed. Furthermore, general readers’ comments demonstrated the degree of engagement with the writing by our intended audience, at least more clearly than any other means currently available to us. Yet, although we tracked the numbers and types of comments posted on each essay, our editorial decisions were not driven by popularity contests or computerized algorithms. Instead, our judgment was more traditional. We evaluated essays on how insightfully they responded to the guiding questions of our volume and on the extent to which authors demonstrated capability and willingness to incorporate rich ideas from the online developmental editing stage into their final revisions. Interestingly, some essays with relatively high numbers of comments were not invited to advance to the final round, while one essay with the lowest number was selected. Furthermore, some contributors anecdotally reported feeling more motivated to share their best work because their writing—at the stages of both preliminary idea and full draft—was publicly visible to all. We fully understand that this experimental format may not fit everyone and that individual perceptions of the process are linked to publication outcomes. But when framing it as an alternative to scholarship as usual, we agree with the assessment of contributor Shawn Graham: “The risk is worth the reward: . . . digital history takes place in a community, and this open peer review process represents a way of writing & crafting history in one step.”[23]

    What Is Next for Scholarly Publishing?

    The Internet has changed the relationship between writers and readers, presses and libraries. With the click of a few buttons, scholars are sharing our writing online and commenting substantively on the words of others, which calls into question what we mean by the terms publishing and peer review. In response, all of the parties in academic book publishing need to rethink our relationships and financial arrangements with one another.

    • Authors: We urge historians and other humanists to write more collaborative works or at least to coordinate individual works on related topics, treating writing similar to our customary task of creating coherent conference panels where contributors engage with one another. Furthermore, authors in the digital age should take on a larger role in preparing and formatting our writing for the web, as we required contributors to do for the online version of this volume. Both steps not only will reduce costs and speed up time to publication but will also serve our broader interest of creating more intellectually coherent works with richer communities of readers.
    • Readers and reviewers: Peer review will always be the defining stage in the scholarly communication process. As illustrated by this volume, we recommend open-review processes that solicit feedback from designated experts and general readers on the public web, to raise the visibility of our highly valued labor of developmental editing and to fully credit it in stages of the work in progress. This pooling together of established experts and rising newcomers, insiders and outsiders to the field, both legitimizes and strengthens our scholarly work.
    • Publishers and publishing services: Academic book authors still require publishing services, but perhaps not as we have traditionally organized them. We have three primary needs: digital platforms to host and archive our writing, copyediting and technical assistance to meet production standards, and, most important, an impartial arbitrator of the open-review process to communicate with an editorial board on whether a work deserves its institutional stamp of approval. All three could be provided by a conventional publisher, a scholarly society, or an academic library that is funded to offer publishing services, as demonstrated by the University of Michigan. Whether or not these services can be financially sustainable under an open-access publishing model remains to be seen, and we will continue to closely watch other experiments.
    • Libraries and repositories: If historians and scholars in other disciplines commit to open-access publishing in alignment with our scholarly values, the accumulated cost savings from library purchasing budgets potentially could be shifted to support their expanded role in publishing services. To be clear, this shift would not be instantaneous, and higher labor costs may still outweigh the projected budget savings. But a genuine cost-benefit analysis also needs to include the fiscal consequences of the status quo, where scholars are producing knowledge that fewer institutions can afford to provide to its intended audiences.

    Writing History in the Digital Age has aspired to be a different type of book in at least three ways: it is born digital, open peer reviewed, and distributed by an open-access publisher. We believe that this model has enabled us to produce a more intellectually coherent and well-crafted volume than would have been possible with traditional means. Whether we have presented a thoughtful set of essays on how technology has transformed historical writing is to be decided by the readers. If this experiment has succeeded, we give credit to the community of contributors and commenters who decided against simply doing scholarship as usual. Given the growing fiscal crisis in academic publishing, we need more experiments to better understand which models might work, which ones will fail, and why. Accepting the status quo is not a fiscally sustainable option. If we truly believe in creating knowledge to be shared and engaged by others, it is our responsibility to realign our publishing practices to be more consistent with our scholarly values.


    1. Granting the honor of writing the “last words” this way, rather than automatically turning to “famous names” in the field, stems from a suggestion by open-review advocates Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Rowe in “Keywords for Open Peer Review,” Logos: The Journal of the World Book Community 21, nos. 3–4 (2010): 133–41, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/brill/logo/2010/00000021/F0020003/art00015.return to text

    2. Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” 1999, http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html.return to text

    3. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian” (annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, Minneapolis, December 29, 1931), http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_history/clbecker.htm; Roy Rosenzweig, “Afterthoughts: Everyone a Historian,” web supplement to the book The Presence of the Past, 1998, http://chnm.gmu.edu/survey/.return to text

    4. Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), http://dhdebates.org.return to text

    5. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 18.return to text

    6. Dan Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books (Draft),” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, July 26, 2011, http://www.dancohen.org/2011/07/26/the-ivory-tower-and-the-open-web-introduction-burritos-browsers-and-books-draft/.return to text

    7. David Thelen, “History After the Enola Gay Controversy: An Introduction,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995): 1029–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2945110.return to text

    8. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1994); Luise White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).return to text

    9. Lily Patience Moya, Sibusisiwe Makhanya, Shula Marks, and Mabel Palmer, Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).return to text

    10. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995); David William Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1993).return to text

    11. Anaclet Pons, “La Escritura Histórica Digital: Teoría y Práctica,” Clionauta: Blog De Historia, December 19, 2011, http://clionauta.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/la-escritura-historica-digital-teoria-y-practica/.return to text

    12. Read more about prior open-review experiments and about CommentPress, a WordPress plug-in originally developed by Eddie Tejeda and the Institute for the Future of the Book (http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/), in Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, 116–27.return to text

    13. Cheryl Greenberg, comment on Adrea Lawrence, “Learning How to Write Traditional and Digital History,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text

    14. Amanda Seligman, Fred Gibbs, and Kathryn Tomasek, comments on John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text

    15. Jeremy McGinniss and Jonathan Jarrett, comments on Amanda Sikarskie, “Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-creation of Knowledge,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text

    16. Robert Wolff, “Beyond the Historical Profession,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text

    17. Charlotte Rochez, “Online Conference: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age,” Researching the Histories of Home Education and Learning at Home, April 2011, http://historyofhomebasededucation.blogspot.com/2011/04/online-conference-how-historians.html; Charlotte Rochez, “Writing History in the Digital Age,” Researching the Histories of Home Education and Learning at Home, November 2011, http://historyofhomebasededucation.blogspot.com/2011/11/writing-history-in-digital-age.html.return to text

    18. Cheryl Greenberg, comment on “Introduction,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text

    19. Fitzpatrick and Rowe, “Keywords for Open Peer Review.”return to text

    20. Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, chap. 1.return to text

    21. See online debate about the publishing industry and developmental editing between Zachary Schrag (“Guest Post: More Babies in That Bathwater,” The Aporetic, October 31, 2011, http://theaporetic.com/?p=2776) and Dan Cohen (“What Will Happen to Developmental Editing?,” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, November 17, 2011, http://www.dancohen.org/2011/11/17/what-will-happen-to-developmental-editing/).return to text

    22. Tim Burke, commentator at the 2012 symposium of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, “Collaborations through Open-Access Scholarly Publications on WordPress,” Arlington, VA, April 2012. See also Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, 40.return to text

    23. Shawn Graham, comment on “Introduction,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.return to text