Christian Historians and Social Media: My CFH Remarks on Blogging

Last Friday I was honored to take part in a panel discussion on Christian historians and social media at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. Session organizer Jonathan Den Hartog (University of Northwestern – St. Paul) has already published his opening remarks at Historical Conversations, and my co-panelist John Fea (Messiah C0llege) shared his presentation yesterday at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Paul Putz of Baylor University will post his paper tomorrow, then all of our posts will be recapped next week at Religion in American History.

Unlike Paul and Jonathan, I didn’t write out my comments beforehand, just scrawled a page of notes.

So here I’ll try to capture those somewhat off-the-cuff remarks, and maybe clarify or embellish some of them. I tried to decenter Pietist Schoolman a bit, since it’s already somewhat well-known among CFH types, and started with the other three blogs I’ve kept regularly in recent years — each of which was pitched to a different public.

A Course Blog: Human Rights in International History

ProfHacker logoTaking a cue from the writers of ProfHacker (the teaching/technology blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education), I decided to experiment with a course blog last spring in HIS/POS324G Human Rights in International History.

(I can’t link to it because when I gave them the choice, my students voted to keep it a private blog. We deal with sufficiently controversial issues that it seemed best to keep our conversation confined to our little community, so that students might feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in full candor.)

In part, I went this route simply because I like the look of WordPress sites so much more than that of our learning management system. So with the exception of grading, I moved everything off of Moodle and placed it on a course website. It made the syllabus, assignments, study guide, links, and other resources much more attractive and user-friendly. It also worked well for keeping a calendar of rights-related events in the Twin Cities, a regional hotbed for the field.

The use of this social medium (and my inclusion of RSS feeds from organizations like Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch) also dovetailed with a recurring theme of the course: how human rights advocates have employed media new and old, and the problems inherent in such activism.

But the key element of the experiment was that 20% of students’ grades were determined by their blogging. Students were assigned to groups and then placed in a three-week rotation: in one week, they’d sign up for a turn to write an original blog post (continuing a conversation from the previous class, setting up the next one, responding to a reading, or simply reporting/commenting on a news item related to human rights), then the other two they were responsible for writing at least two comments on other students’ posts. The comments too often came at the very end of the week, which defeated my goal of using the blog to sustain conversation outside of fifty-minute class sessions that inevitably ended just as we were getting somewhere. But they were almost always well-done, maintaining a civil tone and advancing the conversation rather than simply repeating well-worn paths.

And the blog posts themselves proved to be a good challenge for students, since they had to learn the distinctive features of that genre of writing: how to integrate images and media with text; how to use links to provide pathways for readers; how to frame questions to cue interesting comments; and, most importantly, how to write concisely (do as I say, not as I do) and still convey complex ideas. I don’t plan to do away with longer papers in upper-division courses, but I increasingly value having students practice other (often shorter) kinds of writing. Key here was that I provided writing advice (and once in a while stepped in to model types of posts), links to technical support from WordPress, and clear rubrics for evaluating both posts and comments.

A Department Blog: AC 2nd

Since January 2012 I’ve moderated AC 2nd, a blog that features posts by and about the members of the Bethel University history department.

Screenshot of the AC 2nd Blog, 10/8/12

While I’ve been responsible for the lion’s share of faculty-written posts, the most satisfying posts have come from alumni and students:

  • We’ve published seventeen interviews with alumni about their memories of the department and how their studies in history prepared them for careers in everything from law and teaching to marketing and pastoral ministry. (#18, featuring a student life dean in Colorado, should go up next week.)
  • We also have less frequent series of student interviews focused on study abroad, internships, co-curricular activities, and how a minor in history combines with fields as diverse as environmental studies and physics. Most recently, we started a new occasional series of travel writing from students and alumni.
  • Particularly in our capstone senior seminar and select upper-division US and European history courses, we’ve been able to use the blog to spotlight student writing. (This not only gives them a venue for publication, but seems to have had the unintended consequence of boosting student writing — since it turns out that writing for an audience of any size bigger than the professor’s eyes encourages students to take the writing craft more seriously.)

In tandem with a Facebook page and LinkedIn group, the blog has significantly boosted our alumni engagement. (We also share news and announcements, and to a certain extent try to use the blog to suggest resources for lifelong learning.) And it allows us to move some of our communications and marketing in house, making it more nimble and more representative of our departmental culture. (I’m grateful that our actual comm/marketing people have been largely encouraging of this effort, even featuring AC 2nd on our recently-redesigned official website.)

A Research Project Blog: Bethel at War

This summer I collaborated on a research project with my student Fletcher Warren, on the experience of Bethel in the century of warfare from 1914 (the year Bethel moved back to St. Paul, MN to stay) to the present. By next February or March we plan to go live with a more polished digital history project that features interpretive essays, images, documents, a timeline, etc. But for the summer, Fletcher and I decided to write a project blog.

Screenshot of Bethel at WarI wrote about our purposes for that blog here at Pietist Schoolman; two stand out:

  1. To use the commenting functions of the blog (in tandem with social media and a web story from Bethel’s news service) to invite reader questions, anecdotes, and suggestions. (I was particularly tickled to find a comment from the great Christian sociologist David Moberg, who graduated from Bethel Junior College early in the war.)
  2. To engage in what education professor Sherman Dorn calls “preargument scholarship”: “Before we’re ready to present anything like a polished product, Fletcher and I are using this forum to share first impressions of sources, to think aloud about questions as they emerge and develop….”

At least for my part, the blog also provided a kind of accountability: knowing that I wanted to write at least 2-3 posts a week helped encourage me to sustain a regular schedule of research and writing.

A Personal Blog: The Pietist Schoolman

Then there’s this blog, which started in June 2011 as a summer experiment and is still going strong over a thousand posts later. I’ve had several goals for this blog, probably none more important to my professional development than the way that blogging has forced me to work regularly at my writing. It’s also been my attempt to reach a public that goes beyond the academy: family, friends, fellow church members, and complete strangers read this blog.

Unlike John, I didn’t start the blog because I had a book to market. But blogging has no doubt provided a platform — e.g., for our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher ed, for securing a handful of speaking engagements — and fundamentally reshaped my professional image at Bethel and well beyond. (“Oh, you’re the Pietist schoolman,” said the environmental historian who ended up sitting next to me at the CFH banquet last Friday night.)

Two problems that I emphasized at the conference:

1. I write less often than a John Fea, but I write much longer posts than John. On average, probably 1000-1200 words. (This one will end up around 1800, I think.) Granted, that often includes quotations of not insignificant length, but attempting to generate that much original content much five times a week (plus a Saturday links wrap that includes a fair amount of commentary) had me close to burned out this summer — when I scaled back to a thrice-weekly schedule and then started a four-week sabbatical.

2. “Exploring Christianity, history, education, and how they intersect” is broad enough that I regularly veer between audiences in a single week, and I struggle with the problem of striking the right tone. (I do have one technique that tends to serve me well in these struggles…)

There have definitely been distinct seasons in the life of this blog: the first year, I made a more concerted effort to write history for a popular audience. (As I suggested in Q&A last Friday, while I’ll always take an embodied community over an online one, blogging has not only fostered new professional relationships, but perhaps given some of my flesh and blood kith and kin a chance to see a side of me that isn’t always revealed in conversations at family reunions and in the church narthex.) But as I’ve delved more deeply into researching higher education — and as Bethel and other Christian colleges have weathered more and more turbulence — that emphasis has shone through on the blog, with more and more posts tailored to fellow academics.

Here let me just add another comment on tone that didn’t make it into my presentation. Where I struggle most with how to pitch my blogging is when I write in the mode of something like a historically-minded pundit. I don’t often take up politically sensitive topics, but when I do, I fear that I risk falling prey to two impulses. I reflected on the problem earlier this year, in the wake of the World Vision same-sex hiring controversy:

…we have far, far too many self-appointed prophets and apostles in the Christian blogosphere.

Those in the first group may think they’re speaking truth to power; much more likely, they’re just feeding the confirmation bias of the like-minded. Worse, the sheer proliferation of such speech risks silencing actual prophecy….

But just as problematic is the tendency of others to speak as if anointed by Jesus or Paul himself to hold back the tides of heresy. As if absent their (for lack of a better word) apostolic guidance, Christians would find it impossible to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” they’d been taught…

In the end, I couldn’t find the wherewithal to speak as a historian or a pundit, a prophet or an apostle.


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