How do you conceive of your use of twitter in relation to your professional work as a historian? Can twitter be a way of doing public history?
Most obviously, Twitter serves as a way to promote and publicize professional work. I use it selfishly, of course, to send out notices about new books, articles, op-eds, reviews and interviews, but I also use it to promote the work of other scholars, especially younger ones who might not have as high a profile as they deserve.
And yes, Twitter can be a way of doing public history, though in a quick and crude form. It lends itself to the same type of public engagement that we do through op-eds and articles in general interest publications to provide important context and background to current events, but with an immediacy that puts those forms to shame.
You attracted some attention last October for a twitter essay responding to a tweet by National Review writer Kevin Williamson about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. What did you take away from that?
That was just a series of tweets I dashed off during halftime of an NFL game, so the reaction certainly caught me by surprise. What I was responding to was something I’d seen many times before and something I regarded, frankly, as a distortion of the historical record. Now, the historical context I provided was certainly not groundbreaking within the profession—any decent historian of the civil rights movement or modern politics could’ve done the same.
But the reception it received showed me that often the things we take for granted as common knowledge simply aren’t. I think that, just as we have a duty to provide clarity for our own students about the past and the context for their present, we have the same duty to the general public. And if professional historians don’t take a role in shaping the public’s knowledge of our history, others will fill that vacuum.
What other memorable conversations and exchanges have you had?
I don’t think they’d qualify as conversations, in that they never received a response, but I’ve had a couple other “tweet storms” in response to some claims by cable news pundits about history that just seemed wrong-headed.
Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, for instance, asserted that “Obama had assured his place as the most partisan president in history,” which just struck me as completely wrong, so I responded to that. I never got a direct response from him on that, but as the piece made the rounds he seemed to change his stance a little. I suppose that counts as an exchange.
In general, though, the conversations I have take place on smaller scales and with less at stake. So, sticking with the right for the moment, I’ve had great exchanges with former Republican strategists and operatives that has helped me better understand the issues at stake in the GOP primary, if only by understanding how such participants themselves understand those issues. Empathy is an essential duty for historians, and I think those conversations helped me immensely.
Do your conversations on social media feed into your scholarship or professional life in any way?
Yes, I’d say it’s broadened my horizons in a lot of ways. I’m in communication with a number of historians I already knew, but on Twitter we’re able to be in much more frequent and informal contact. Scholars I’d previously interact with every few years are now like colleagues down the (virtual) hall, and that’s terrific. I can bounce ideas off them, search for leads in the literature and archives, and get help on a number of fronts. But I’ve also gotten to know a number of younger professors, grad students and independent historians who work outside of academia, and learned a great deal from them and their work.
But Twitter also helped me move outside my discipline more, as I’ve made new close contacts with scholars working in religion, law, sociology, political science, etc. And at the same time, it’s let me get to know journalists and columnists whose work I’ve long respected, to interact with them online and often to serve as a source for their own work.
What advice do you have for other historians who are interested in twitter as a tool for public engagement?
I’d urge them to remember Twitter works best as a conversation. All too often, I’ve seen senior scholars who use it solely to dash off links to the latest media appearance or review they’ve received. To be sure, I do that too, but that can’t be all you do with it. Your tweets shouldn’t just be press releases. You really need to engage with others, to listen more than you speak. You need address the new questions posed to you (directly or indirectly) more than simply repeating your old answers, and ultimately to respond to the interests of others more than you promote your own. Think of them as your global office hours: keep the door open and your mind too.