History as Usual: Moving Past #SHEAR2020

Down at the bottom of this post I have an idea for a new type of conference that is probably more important than the rest. Here’s a link to that proposal.

When the #SHEAR2020 plenary panelists sat down and fired up Zoom last Friday, they probably assumed that they were about to do history as usual. Instead, they were sitting in the passenger seat riding a paradigm shift none of them could control and probably could not have anticipated. Closing the valve on the firehose of data on social media and reducing the infinite meanings it generates for billions of readers to scholarly understanding is too difficult a task for a blog post like this one. What I would like to do instead is meditate on some of the potential sources of this paradigm shift and what it might mean for the future of scholarship. I’ll lay it out right up front. I don’t think the future is terribly bright for the kind of history #SHEAR2020 wanted to promote. 

History as Usual

In this paragraph, let’s practice history as usual. It’s important to understand what is at stake here, because issues of race, gender, and class roil beneath the surface of this controversy. If you can, please watch the panel before you form an opinion. As historians we are trained to regard the primary evidence, but it is not entirely clear that all of the scholars sharing their thoughts using the #SHEAR2020 hashtag have actually seen the offending session. If you don’t have time to watch the panel, or if you’re not a historian, I want to point you toward a couple of representative responses instead of rehashing the arguments. Prof. Rebecca Goetz’s detailed and interesting thread, here, represents the take closest to my own thinking and training. Prof. John Fea approaches the topic from the other side of the intellectual-political spectrum. While I disagree with some of his stances, Prof. Fea’s blog post on the plenary, which is rollicking the pundits in this very small corner of the historical profession’s social media universe as I write this, is a (mostly*) thoughtful analysis. For me, the bottom line is that a more diverse cast of scholars should have planned this event. The timing of this panel, showcasing this paper, was just astonishingly bad. The prestige of everyone involved took a hit this weekend. Time will only tell how significant the damage will be.

If history is centered on reflection–on taking the time to locate, read, and reflect on the sources in order to shape an argument–Twitter is centered on twitching, on limning our collective impressions and mashing them up into the fabric of reality. Journalists and pundits frequently describe the internet as an “echo chamber,” but the thing about an echo is that the original signal loses strength with each subsequent transmission. Opinion chambers on the internet amplify the signal strength with each subsequent transmission by freighting it with additional meanings. I was irritated by some of Prof. Feller’s arguments. I took notes and shook my head in disagreement. I was obviously not alone. The combined effect of this discomfiture, shared on Twitter and amplified with each subsequent retransmission, transformed Prof. Feller’s talk and subsequent comments from a tone-deaf and overly sympathetic reading of his biographical subject into a vicious display of white supremacy and patriarchy that deeply scarred the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and points to the inequalities which mar the historical profession as a whole. 

I am not here to comment on the validity of Feller’s ideas or the response. Other scholars, eminently more qualified than me, have already done so. Nor am I emotionally qualified to discuss the response. I can only feel Professor Feller’s opinions using the emotional apparatus my background has bestowed upon me. I am white and male, Anglo, predominantly cisgendered, married, and–though I was a chronically-evicted high-school dropout who worked my way through ten years of GED, junior college, and undergraduate studies by washing dishes, building doors, and working at Wal-Mart–reasonably privileged. I strongly disagree with Feller’s ideas and have already left the academic workplace because of the class dynamic that empowers him to speak instead of others, but I did not feel personally attacked by the talk. Why should I? It is primarily through the cruel and overlapping effects of race, gender, and class that people feel threatened. I am here to try and think through what went wrong, and how we might do it better next time.

I may not be equipped by my background to feel threatened by their words, but I can reason my way to hearing the threat in what Feller and his counterparts in the session said. They were hurtful in their tone-deafness and–unfortunately, because I believe they are all good people whose work I deeply respect even in my occasional disagreement–representative in the aggregate of the injuries of race, class, and gender that have shaped higher education into a formidable estate of the American power structure. My own perceived goodness aside, it is easy to see how I can be emblematic of pain and oppression. This means that I must be extremely thoughtful before I speak. I need to do history as usual to avoid hurting people. But if that’s what Feller and the participants thought they were doing, it’s clear (as it has been for a tragically long time) that we need to figure out a new normal together. And if history as usual is no longer possible or acceptable, we need a new model for scholarship entirely.

SHEAR is already on the right track. Responding to critics, President Douglas Egerton writes

Regrettably, the panel was…not diverse in the variety of ways—from gender to race to ethnicity—that SHEAR has come to expect and require in recent years.  Newer generations of scholars have engaged these issues from multiple perspectives, including those of indigenous and enslaved people, and they should have been included in yesterday’s panel. In recent years, SHEAR has fostered this new scholarship—but yesterday’s audience would not have been able to see that.  We should also have included early career scholars, or scholars from two-year institutions or in public history. Our own website includes a statement on diversity and panel submissions, and we failed in not living up to our own standards. 

The voice in my head that agrees with the views of these diverse scholars screams out, yes! But would I be so quick to approve if their opinion was that I need to sit down and shut the hell up? This, I know, is what people who look like me in academia–again, even though I am no longer “in” academia–have both literally and figuratively told outsiders for as long as academia has existed. I grant that, and I’ll own it on their behalf. But once we accept the shame of this vile hypocrisy, what next? Can we figure out a way to share ideas with one another across the divides between us?

Code-Switching

To begin answering this question, I think we need to ask another one. How much of myself is wrapped up in my work? Is my worth as a human being tied to my worth as a professional? When I started in graduate school (too many years ago to still be here) I learned through all of the frustrating class injuries that run like a current through the #SHEAR2020 debate that success in academia requires either deep financial resources or absolute dedication. As a former Wal-Mart associate, I did not have the former; so the best I could manage would always be the latter. I would choose enthusiastic, Stakhanovite devotion. This meant that I had to be always “on,” always trying (and often failing) to read and work a step or two ahead of everyone else for as long as I could, and it meant that academia would have to become the lodestar of my identity. Stop me if this sounds familiar. 

I see the burden that friends and former colleagues from our state university carry to make a career. I carried it on my back for only three years, thankfully. An illness in the family made it impossible for me to practice the total discipline and absolute dedication it requires to succeed in higher-ed. Perhaps I didn’t possess the will, but thank goodness I didn’t care for teaching. I am a “scholar” now only to please myself. I pay the bills working in an office. In hindsight, I am exceedingly glad I left the field as a laborer. I am free now to study what I want, live in one place for more than a few years, and still get to travel to archives and conferences if I choose.

There was some kind of conference drama every year I was wrapped in the academic flag. It’s not surprising in a field where students are taught to expect senior scholars to behave like boorish dickheads; where they are taught whom to support to advance their career and whom to shun; taught to Google everybody before they meet them; to rehearse elevator speeches; taught, even, to wear a wedding ring to a job interview–or not, depending on their gender and who’s giving the advice. These tendencies exist in every profession, true, but the necessity of total dedication (or, again, a carefree reserve of generational wealth) means that pursuing membership in the group requires building an entire identity on an unstable and toxic foundation. It’s not a surprise that a group sharing these collective traumas and neuroses regularly erupts into conflict. It would be a surprise instead if a year went by without conference drama.

Unfortunately, “conference drama” may now include a Zoom call on a Friday afternoon in July. Unlike last year’s drama, too, there are no rituals distancing the aggrieved from their feelings. A group of us may have found common cause for complaint at a session tucked in the back corridor of a hotel conference center back in the hoary days of old (2014, say), but we had to retell the story to those who weren’t in the room. Like an echo, some of the sparkle of outrage dulled with each retelling until, finally, nobody cared to hear about it any more. If we wanted to keep the fight going after the conference, we would have to keep the outrage alive while checking out of the hotel, flying home, unpacking, and going back to work. And then what, blog about it? And risk drawing the ire of your committee? Not likely. Now, though, we sit through a session together and share the anger. We can watch recordings if we miss it. There are no rituals to distance us from our feelings, just an amplifier waiting for us to plug in our outrage and strum it for the world to hear.

One of those rituals used to be developing a work identity and a personal identity. When you stepped into a classroom to teach, joined a seminar, gave a conference presentation, went to committee meetings, and so on, you put on your sport jacket and played the professor. Back in your office, down at the conference bar, or on social media, you could just be yourself. This is just human behavior, of course. We all try to separate our work identities from our personal lives. In the treacherous world of academic politics, though–and probably other professions with a high personal cost–it was also a release valve, a way to save face by distancing yourself from conference drama. Now it’s not so easy.

People on Twitter used to pat themselves on the back in a self-deprecating way by saying that they were “very online.” Spending a lot of time in message boards or posting on social media leads to the deployment of a third identity: the networked self. This mode of “deliberative storytelling” depends on affective statements for maximum impact. There may be a lively community of cerebral communicators thriving on Twitter, but its participants don’t trend. Instead, playfully emotive posts gain traction and, like any community, people who wish to participate in the most important conversations taking place on the platform learn to deploy this kind of speech to make their voices heard. Now that so many of us are locked in, working from home in response to the coronavirus, we’re all very online. The lines between the networked self, the professional self, and the “real me,” whatever that might mean when I’m alone on a computer for most of the day, are blurrier than ever before. In the absence of separation rituals, the networked self is the professional self is the family self and so on, and deliberative affective storytelling–performing the self on social media, but mostly Twitter–is the only mode of communication available for more people than ever before. It’s no surprise, then, that outrage over conference drama could be amplified so quickly.

The dissonance originates, in large part, from the vast gulf between the norms regulating the behavior of the “selves” speaking on Zoom–the professional selves acting as though they are at a conference–and the networked “selves” watching and commenting from the other side of the webcam. Conference decorum, itself a terrible artifact of the power dynamics shaping the profession, prohibits people from expressing the pain and powerlessness they feel when their ideas cannot counteract those with which they disagree. This pain is even more acute if they believe the speaker’s ideas are damaging and hateful, as some of the ideas and postures arguably were in the plenary last Friday. Decorum does not prevent the expression of that outrage now, and the response has been swift. 

I should stop here and acknowledge some important points. First, I don’t believe that I just casually discovered code-switching. I understand that there are many millions of people who must switch “selves” seamlessly, all day long, to survive in a society that is hostile to their very existence. Second, I appreciate that social media and other online forms of expression have been a valuable lifeline of support, sanity, livelihood, and self-expression for countless people living in this dangerously hostile society. What I want to suggest is that a fairly small community of people who have never had to share this experience as a community–a community which, until now, has enjoyed the luxury of using expensive rituals (like conferences at hotels with speakers on a dais) to separate its professional selves from the selves its members’ friends and families see–are now, all of a sudden, deprived of that luxury at the same time that many of its most prominent members are encountering social media for the first time and must learn to master it, during a period shaped by multiple global crises, to maintain their livelihoods and prestige. There will be casualties along the way.

The Free as-in-Free-Beer-and-Free-Thought Scholarship Society **  

If the internet is going to be its forum, history cannot continue as usual. The conference model–speakers on a dais, other speakers selected by a committee to respond, followed by questions from the paying participants in the room–is inherently unequal and radically incompatible with the internet. I’d like to propose a different model to share and critique scholarship.

Instead of attempting to replicate the conference setup using a video conference call, let’s never read a paper to one another ever again. Let’s never read our written comments to the author and the audience. Let’s just read papers and write comments during an asynchronous period–one week, maybe a weekend, whatever works–and let the moderator moderate those comments using a set of agreed-upon guidelines.

Let’s embrace democracy further by allowing any member of the organization to submit a paper to a topical cluster, blindly for the reading period, and allow members to vote on the papers they deem the best. At the end of the reading period, the authors of the selected papers could address the questions under their real names, while the authors whose papers were not selected as winners could use the questions they receive to strengthen (or trash) their papers while remaining anonymous. At the end of the process, all of the selected papers from the intellectual clusters could be published as open-access Proceedings with a DOI and everything.

To be truly participatory, scholarly organizations must be free to join; but, to avoid trolls, membership should only be open to professionals and students in the field. I think it would be possible to achieve the membership limitation with two methods of verification: a .edu email address for institutional scholars, and a verification form–like the essay questions on a facebook group–for independent scholars. Eschewing conferences and printed journals would significantly decrease the cost of running a scholarly organization, of course, making “free-to-join” much more sustainable. It is likely that an academic library or open-access scholarship initiative at a university would host the organization, its “conferences,” and the resulting Proceedings on the web. Perhaps there would be a way to pay the organizers and moderators, but even the finest academic journals with handsome printed editions rely on an army of unpaid academic laborers to do editorial work today.  

I’m not convinced that history as usual is irretrievably broken. I’ve shared some of my thoughts on software-mediated thinking elsewhere on this blog, for example, and fear the consequences of abandoning old ways of thinking and working without taking the consequences into consideration. But if we are going to continue living and working online, we need new ways to advance scholarship that allow people to feel safe from harm–even the self-inflicted harm of the boorish and insensitive among us. Recreating a conference panel using video conferencing tools is unfair to the participants, who speak and think at a dangerous remove from their audience; and it is difficult for listeners, who take their anger or boredom or grief to social media, where it is amplified into a #scandal. Why do this to people? We can capture the strengths of the internet instead–its democracy, accessibility, and scalability–and use them to advance scholarship in a way that leaves fewer people out, brings more voices to the table, and maybe, if we’re lucky, re-establishes some of the much-needed balance between the many selves we need to deploy on a daily basis.

* ”Cancel culture” is a crude rhetorical device used to galvanize opinion more than generate thought. It is unfortunate that Prof. Fea uses the term in his post. 

** This is a draft. There are a million variables I won’t think of, a thousand problems with this proposal. I welcome discussion of them all.

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