Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 3, 2013

Historians and Ethics on the Web

Filed under: Academia,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:56 am
Last week the AHA Today blog hosted a roundtable on Web Ethics to continue an ongoing conversation about civility among historians online. Respondents included:

If you haven’t had a chance to read their thoughts, you should. They provide a nice cross-section of experiences, from those with personal blogs (Fea and Little), to one affiliated with a historians’ association (Alpers), and one with The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s network of blogs (Potter). As far as one can generalize, I agree fully that we need to be clear and careful about how we interact with one another online.

For the most part, the respondents focused their thoughts on blog comments sections. Both Fea and Little, as proprietors of their own web spaces, try to articulate clearly their standards for commenting and police the comments section regularly, to some effect. (The comments sections at Historiann are some of the most active I’ve seen in the history blogosphere, and Fea’s blog, though the comments are often somewhat quiet, has a lively discussion space on Facebook and numerous links on Twitter.) The USIH blog also has an incredibly lively comments section, though it occasionally involves sharp elbows, and Potter has had several famous (infamous?) showdowns in the comments, both in her own blogs (both before and during the Chronicle era) and elsewhere around the web.

What I would add to the conversation is that I try not to think of blogs and social media as new in the sense of uncharted or complicated. Yes, there is a greater possibility of transgressing acceptable norms because commenters can remain anonymous (for more on that, see the comment thread about “jerks in academia” in Historiann’s post on her own blog). Yes, not everyone is comfortable writing for blogs (I don’t discuss my research, for example, a possible topic for a future post), and many are uncomfortable with Twitter—including Historiann herself. There are issues with the online public sphere that don’t exist in print journals or the face-to-face proceedings of conferences and meetings.

But online spaces are public, and treating them that way as participants goes a long way to answering the concerns raised in the roundtable. Participating online can be enormously beneficial to our profession, and is all the more so if more historians join in that conversation. But one should always assume that one is speaking in public, the same way one would be at a conference, in print, or through any other medium of communication. I don’t want to open myself up the critique that I’m being naive, but at the same time, on a certain level online public spaces are no different from any other, and demand the same professional decorum. That won’t stop every troll, to be sure. But as Little notes in her piece, some effort by bloggers and others to police the boundaries of acceptability (much as senior scholars might take aside an overly aggressive or rambunctious grad student at a conference) can do wonders.

Finally, I would second Potter’s suggestion that the AHA can (and perhaps should) play a central role in serving as a clearinghouse for and perhaps a publisher of best practices for web interactions, including guidelines for expectations for professionally oriented blogs, Twitter feeds, comments sections, and so on. I don’t think that AHA should be prescriptive—that would defeat one of the main benefits of online conversations, which is that they can aspire to be, as Alpers puts it, “open, public scholarly space[s].”



  1. New at Publick Occurrences, I add my 2 cents to the discussion on #webethics started @AHAhistorians: #twitterstorians

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — June 3, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  2. This is an excellent contribution to the discussion, Joe–I completely agree with you that in some respects, the issue of civility isn’t really a new one in our profession, and that minding our manners is important in all kinds of professional encounters and conversations, whether online or in person, at a conference, or at a campus coffee shop.

    Why won’t you blog about your research? That’s an interesting question, especially since you appear to blog under your own name (unless “Joseph M. Adelman” is your pseudonym, which it could be, although it would be about the most boring pseudonym ever!)

    Finally, n.b. I am not “uncomfortable” with Twitter. I’m *uninterested* in it–there’s a difference. I already spend far too much time glued to a screen and struggling with Web 2.0 induced ADD–I don’t need additional distraction. But, I completely understand that others (mostly those who don’t maintain their own blogs) find microblogging a great boon to their professional lives and research.

    Comment by Historiann — June 3, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  3. Indeed, my parents could have done a much better job of coming up with a name that could have been a pseudonym! And I certainly sympathize with your sense of Twitter as yet another time-suck (I think I discussed that in my Junto post about Twitter, but if not, I also find it that way sometimes, even as I also find it useful).

    As for the question of blogging about research, the short answer has two parts:

    a) I’ve always written for “institutional” or group blogs, and have always felt (rightly or wrongly) that for me those are good places to discuss broad issues and topics on which I can say something broadly, but not the right venue for discussing my individual work.

    b) To go along with that, I also haven’t felt comfortable sharing unfinished/unpolished research ideas as a graduate student and then untenured (indeed, currently non-tenure track) faculty member. My sense is that the profession as a whole is beginning to shift on that front, and I think if I were starting graduate school now I might feel differently. I am, as the saying goes, evolving on that question, and every so often wonder about whether I should. If I do, though, it will likely be over at my personal site.

    Comment by Joseph M. Adelman — June 3, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  4. Some additional thoughts on our #WebEthics forum from blogger and #twitterstorian @jmadelman that is worth reading.

    Comment by @AHAhistorians — June 3, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  5. I think traditionally the sense has been that people are unwilling to share in-progress research for fear of it being stolen. But I don’t think that is really the case, especially with more junior historians and graduate students. In fact, I think the forum tapped into the two main reasons that many of us aren’t rushing out to blog about our in-progress research. First, readers have a tendency to read and respond to blog posts in general as polished, finished products rather than as the (largely) informal pieces of writing that they are. Also, the level of incivility is no small inhibiting factor. It’s scary enough to put unfinished ideas or arguments out for comment; but it’s far more scary to do so and open yourself up to trolls or even just mean-spirited colleagues at the same time. If we could all agree to read blog posts for what they are and to treat them as such (especially those on in-progress research), imagine how much scholarly discourse could occur and how beneficial it would be to not only graduate students but all academic historians.

    Comment by Michael D. Hattem — June 3, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  6. [...] the conversation some of us have been having this week about ethics for academics using Web 2.0.  Joe Adelman added some thoughts of his own in a blog post at Common-Place, and you don’t have to be a member or log in to read the comments on his post!  In any case, [...]

    Pingback by And speaking of poor judgment on the world wide non peer-reviewed internets. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present — June 3, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

  7. Michael, I think you’re right. Part of it is about being scooped, though for me that worry is assuaged by the knowledge that a blog post is a form of publication (even if unfinished). It still leaves bread crumbs.

    But yes, as much as I’d love feedback, and enjoy what comes from conference presentations, etc., I do worry about what my writing will look like to others and how they’ll respond. There are several examples of people who do it well (although I’m never sure who’s blogging their dissertation/book research versus other research questions). At this point, I’m moving in that direction, and the final hurdle is to figure out how to do it in a way that makes it useful for me and my work.

    Comment by Joseph M. Adelman — June 3, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  8. Over at Common-Place, @jmadelman keeps discussion going on blog ethics…in teeny, tiny font! #usih #twitterstorians

    Comment by @LDBurnett — June 4, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  9. Joseph, this is a great follow-up.

    Because I started out blogging pseudonymously, I developed some rules of the road for myself then, and they have mostly served me well since.

    1) I don’t blog about other people’s conversations / experiences — whether fellow grad students, profs, friends, family, etc. Blogging is an act of making public and visible what otherwise might not be, and my feeling is if other people want to put their own lives/ideas/words online that’s their business, but it’s not my business to blog someone else’s journey through grad school.

    2) I never say anything in a blog post or in comments that I wouldn’t be willing to say word for word, face to face, to whoever I’m talking to (or at).

    Now, #2 is a little problematic for me, because I am an Outspoken Woman, and I don’t have a lot of patience for b.s., hedging, pretense. I am direct and honest and there’s not usually a huge distance between what I’m really thinking and what I’m saying. So my note to self is that I need to be acutely aware of when it’s better to just not say anything. And when I do weigh in, I will be forthright — which can be refreshing or downright annoying, for me just as much as for anybody else.

    Comment by L.D. Burnett — June 4, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  10. […] the conversation some of us have been having this week about ethics for academics using Web 2.0.  Joe Adelman added some thoughts of his own in a blog post at Common-Place, and you don’t have to be a member or log in to read the comments on his post!  In any case, […]

    Pingback by And speaking of poor judgment on the world wide non peer-reviewed internets. . . | Historiann — May 6, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

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