Reflections on Clio's Current

It has been almost three months since we launched Clio's Current.  We are about to introduce a four-part series where we explain our idea of history and its practice in the 21st century.  Before we do that, it is worthwhile to take a day and reflect on our time as authors of this blog.  We will examine our goals, the challenges and failures we've faced, and discuss our experience of blogging history.

Each time you write something and you send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.

These are the words of Hannah Arendt in her remarks to the American Society of Christian Ethics in 1973.  We begin with them because they speak to us as authors of Clio's Current and to one of our primary goals: interacting with our readers about history.  We do not necessarily want to convince them that our arguments are correct or all encompassing, but rather to learn from their comments and questions. It is important to remember that the artist (or writer in this case) is a creator of ideas, not an arbitrator.  As Arendt notes, it is better to learn from your audience's reaction be it negative or positive rather than try to control it.  A bit more recently, filmmaker Joss Whedon echoed Arendt's message when he wrote, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn't your pet -- it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” As we begin this reflection it's worth stressing how much we value the “talking back.”  The comments and emails we have received to date, whether it is here on the blog, on Facebook, on Reddit, or through email, have all been informative and engaging.  To our most vocal readers: Thank you!  We authors are looking forward to this blog continuing to “grow up” as we develop, learn from our experiences, and further engage with the broader public.

We started this blog with two other goals in mind.  One, we wanted to connect history to contemporary events. History, as we will explore in the next two weeks, is incredibly relevant for anyone trying to understand what is happening in our world today.  We believe that one facet of its utility, for historians and non-historians alike, are the lessons and insight it provides. The past, as L.P. Hartley wrote, may be a foreign country where they do things differently, but we can trace the route from here to there.  In our writing, we modestly offer some road maps for that journey.

Our second goal was to learn how to communicate history to both a general and academic audience. Academic writing is absolutely necessary for the life and health of our profession, but we felt that it excludes many people. Its audience is other academics and far too often it becomes a self-serving enterprise.  Meanwhile, most people are exposed to an uncritical history of past events through journalists or popular histories – a chronological listing of things or a shallow imbuing of meaning.  We think that critical history, namely the ideas, research methods and concepts about how to understand the past, is far more worthwhile but much more difficult to communicate.  By connecting the past to contemporary events and using a critical historical perspective, we are trying to communicate critical history in a useful and engaging way.

To that end, each post is an exercise in achieving those two objectives. We have discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that this is no easy task.  Sometimes our posts have integrated history and contemporary seamlessly, other times we have missed the mark entirely. Our post on religious freedom, for example, took an extremely complex topic that we had difficulty communicating in a simple way.  We have might have bitten off more than we could chew or failed to simplify the complex ideas we discussed. Sometimes our exercise fails.  Some of our blog posts are not as clear, or useful, or eloquent as others, and we consider these valuable learning experiences.

It's important to remember while writing any blog that not every post will be your best work.  Keeping to a schedule (we post every Monday and Thursday) commits you to producing content, but the amount of writing inevitably means you will have posts you are proud to publish, and those you reluctantly publish since your deadline has arrived. This is especially true as our site is neither a source of income nor something to which we can devote innumerable hours. What we keep telling ourselves is that every exercise in writing improves our skill.  Like all things, good writing is a matter of practise, not epiphanies or inspirational flashes in the dark.  So this blog also serves as a way to improve ourselves as writers and historians.

Clio's Current is also a form of freedom.  Both of us are in PhD programs and fully engaged in academic writing for our dissertations or other publications.  Here we have the liberty to explore ideas that we do not have the time for or the knowledge to assess in the comprehensive way demanded by academia. Many of our posts are “think pieces” where we play with concepts and connections.  Sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we discover and other times they fall flat, but that is the nature of experimentation.  Both of us had felt restrained by the limitations of the academic world.  In part, this blog is about having fun with history. Well, what passes for fun for two historians.

We try not to concern ourselves with our readership stats. We have had some posts reach hundreds of readers while others barely break the double digits.  We have made some efforts to expose our writing to a broad audience, though keeping in mind that it is the exercise of writing which is most valuable to us, we don't let “marketing” overwhelm us.

Still, it's worthwhile to offer some comments on it since we are trying to communicate history to the public, not just our friends and colleagues.  We have discovered that the only way to ensure that your blog reaches any large audience is to link actively on other sites.  We predominantly use Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.  Facebook is mostly people we know.  It is nice to know they're reading our work, but it does not seem like a likely way to expand our audience.  Twitter has the capacity to reach many people, but requires a commitment to posting and following others.  Our twitter followers slowly continue to grow but its reach remains less calculable.  Reddit has been our most successful avenue of attracting readers, but it is one which must be carefully managed.  You have to post to the subreddit that is appropriate for your content.  You also have to be careful not to over-saturate any subreddit with your own content and always contribute back to Reddit in the form of comments or links to other sites.  Contributing to the Reddit community is an important part of how Reddit works, it should not become a place to “spam” your links. So it too requires work to maintain. 

In that light, our biggest “problem” with the blog so far is that if we don't actively post to these other sites, our readership plummets. This is not entirely unexpected. People don't think every day, “let's go read a history blog,” or, “let's go surf the web and find some interesting academic reading material.”  It is difficult to convince readers to return to the site, and frankly we are at a loss as to how to create a userbase out of nothing.  This may mean that online users today do not go directly to sites, but rather rely on a variety of aggregate sites, such as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, and others.  We are still trying to understand how to react best to this online behaviour, though presumably consistent posting to these sites is key if we want to continue to expose our work to a larger readership.

In light of these goals and these challenges, next week we are launching a four part series examining history in the 21st century.  Each post will answer a specific question:  What is history? What is historiography? What is the utility of history? And, finally, what is the future of history? We underline that these are exercises in organizing our thoughts, not definitive answers—as we often do, we raise more questions than we have answers.  As always, feedback is encouraged and welcomed.