Category Archives: Uncategorized

Don’t Oversell Twitter

This post will not win me any friends, but it’s, like, just my opinion, man, so don’t sweat it. And rest assured, before you get snarky, I have read about and meditated on the topic.

Being a centrist, politically and professionally, one gets used to being considered either an event-horizon irritant or a reactionary grump. I like innovation, and I also flatter myself that I’m as up-to-date as anyone in the historical profession, but I also have this habit of pushing back against trends that are touted with a bit too much missionary zeal for my taste. Until I’m convinced that a) they are not just fads, and b) they deliver solid results, I tend to adopt a experimental approach to the trend in question.485f3d3d0ce39b7cdb3bfe38740f6c06cc7c94f725d336945d34c832051b98e9

All this being said, there are two trends that I am actually, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, deeply suspicious of: the (growing?) push to have tweeting considered service and scholarship, and the corresponding tendency to devalue the monograph as the gold standard of scholarly achievement. I’ll save the monograph conversation for another day, and focus on Twitter, which I use and semi-enjoy, though it seems designed to encourage short attention spans.

Before getting there, though, let me head off potential criticisms that I haven’t read “Twitter and the Locus of Research” (I have, I just fundamentally disagree with it. Much as I respect Jesse Stommel, I’m with Zachary Lesser on this one). Or that I’m ignoring the destabilizing flattened hierarchies that are essential to Twitter’s performance, and are a likewise essential feature of legitimate scholarship (I’m not; and no, it is one form of legitimate scholarship). Or that I need to read Dorothy Kim’s piece on #medievaltwitter or Maha Bali’s piece “On Twitter as Scholarship” (I have, and I like Kim’s parallels between Twitter and “medieval commentary practice.” But I agree with Elizabeth Eva Leach that “a medieval manuscript is not an iPad”).  Or that I’m ignorant of arguments that “Play is Critical Inquiry.” (I’m not, indeed I value the ludic aspects of scholarly endeavor; I just think play isn’t producing–or, phrased differently, something analogous to last year’s Atlantic article titled “Optimism is the enemy of action”).

IN SHORT, for those of my colleagues who find Twitter revolutionary and professionally significant, more power to you. I disagree with your premises, for the following four major reasons:

FIRST, and to me most important of all, Twitter really sucks as a means of conveying a complex, nuanced argument. And I mean, really sucks. I base this elegantly-phrased observation on the all-too-frequent occasions when I have seen a conversation start on Twitter, only to devolve into a kind of trench warfare defined by sarcasm, snark, and even ad hominems.

These doubts started during the Salaita Affair last year and were heightened with the crusades-prayer-breakfast debacle this February. Having studied the thousands of tweets that the crusades debate engendered, I can assure you of two things: first, most people, including scholars, were using Twitter as a way of verbally bludgeoning their opponents (Facebook wasn’t much better, though at least one could explain oneself better). Second, most people would tweet or retweet a single status or perhaps a link, often containing multiple logical fallacies, to a self-selecting audience that reinforced the original tweeter’s opinion. Seriously, the scholarly algorithmic group I was a part of had very little impact on the debate, if we just go by Twitter. Even if this example represents an aberration reserved for controversial occasions, much of Twitter strikes me as very much a public water-cooler kind of thing–extremely valuable, indeed I would say essential, for my development in many ways, but not a benchmark of scholarly accomplishment. If I was a review committee, I’d be skeptical too if I claimed chatting with my colleagues and friends counted as scholarship or service. Speaking of which…

SECOND, regarding Twitter-use as counting for scholarship and/or service. Setting aside the fact that this discussion is for those folks in tenure-track positions, it seems from what I’ve read that many review committees are only allowed to use physical copies to assess your performance. Now, the answer to that, of course, is that departments are behind the times, and need to change their protocols. But I don’t think the matter has been thought through. Let’s say that a review committee is allowed to consider your Twitter output for service and/or scholarship. Do you really expect people to scroll through 4-5 years’ worth of tweets, separating the “omg-my-dinner-is-awesome” tweets from those that are serious (say, about the dangers of smoking) but not in your contractual areas of expertise, the conversational rejoinders (“that’s awesome! congrats!” to news of a friend’s new book) from tweets that disseminate your or someone else’s new knowledge or contribution to professional issues? Would you think yourself put upon if you were told to prepare this information yourself? After all, your senior colleagues have six other committees they’re sitting on this term.

THIRD, the other thing you’d have to explain is how your analytics show worth-while impact, especially when Twitter kind of does that for you and the math isn’t always encouraging. Twitter defines “Impressions” as  the “number of times users saw the Tweet on Twitter.” While the tweet might contain a link to a column, a blog post, or an article, it doesn’t tell you if people actually read your piece. Twitter defines “engagement” as the “total number of times a user has interacted with a Tweet. This includes all clicks anywhere on the Tweet (including hashtags, links, avatar, username, and Tweet expansion), retweets, replies, follows, and favorites.” The “engagement rate” is the number of impressions divided by the number of engagements.

For folks who are nationally recognized columnists, scholars, or public figures, that rate could be fairly high. For most of us, it’s likely to be pretty low, or influenced by extraneous factors. Over the past week, for example, I tweeted a British Museum link about political cartoons from the Napoleonic Era that was seen 109 times, but engaged with 4 times (none resulted in a click on the link), for an engagement rate of 3.7%. A nostalgia photo of one of my first World War II books (not scholarly engagement, I would argue) received 151 impressions, 6 engagements (5 clicks), and a rate of 4%. My tweet about Wise resigning at the University of Illinois received 274 impressions, 9 engagements (six clicks), and a 3.3% rate. However, my positive tweet about Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner (I’m working on a post about the controversial aspects of the film) received 85,285 impressions simply because Crowe retweeted it. It only received 464 engagement points, though, resulting in a rate of 0.5%. And that tweet was not by any stretch of the imagination scholarly engagement.

Simply put, in this day and age of analytics, there really is no excuse for not engaging with the numbers, and the numbers for Twitter often don’t tell us what we want to hear. At the very least, it should force us to ask about metrics and assessment. How do you determine if a tweet is impactful or not, where is the bright line between significant and insignificant, how do you calculate significance based on aggregate numbers of tweets over time, and so on? You might reply that you can’t/shouldn’t quantify this kind of thing, but unfortunately quantification is the Zeitgeist of our time, and good luck convincing legislators of your point of view.

FOURTH, when I look at the most significant people in my fields, the ones whose teaching and scholarship truly set them apart, I find that they’re often absent from Twitter, or else tend to use it in a limited way. Now, this doesn’t prove anything, but to my mind it is suggestive. Suggestive that direct communication with friends and colleagues, an intense focus on teaching, and reading, researching, and writing long prose will tend to take you further as a professional and in your career than 140 characters at a time.

There is one particular instance where I believe Twitter use is scholarly service, and a very valuable one too. That is when kind colleagues tweet conferences that you cannot attend–Jonathan Hsy’s post about the 2014 Kalamazoo conference is a great analysis of what a powerful and useful tool it can be. As I recently pointed out, however, live tweeting a session is genuine work, and is not always the kind of experience I’m looking for in a given session. And even tweeting conferences has a set of distinct and serious limitations, as Boyda Johnstone eloquently described the previous July.

All the above reasons are why I prefer blogging to tweeting as a means of engagement. You can actually write on complex topics, at greater or lesser length as you choose, combining the best of old-school and cutting-edge methods. The Clerk of Oxford’s May 20 post on blogging resonates with me on many levels for these reasons. My nearly-6000-word piece on the crusades had what little impact it did precisely because it used the space afforded by the blog to dive into the complexities of the topic. But even with the crusades piece, and this I think is very significant, Facebook was a far more powerful distribution tool than Twitter. It was shared about 30 times on Twitter, and over 500 times on Facebook–and this imbalance seems typical of many articles and blog posts. However, Facebook, an ostensibly private forum, seems to not to receive the kind of attention given to Twitter.

Now, all that being said, I do think Twitter is an outstanding tool for communicating news, especially in links that take you to longer pieces. I also believe in Twitter as a great pedagogical tool, one that i will probably try to use this coming term (I went a more GIS route this spring). I agree with Jeffrey J. Cohen’s tweet and the responses that it received that Twitter can help you develop concision of expression. It is also excellent for exchanging short ideas with absent friends and colleagues, and for having great conversations that can be the genesis of new ideas and projects. What this all amounts to, I think, is that Twitter is a great (but not the only) way for keeping current in your field. But keeping current should be expected of a serious professional as a matter of course, and not awarded a gold star as fulfilling a service requirement. Where this leaves the criteria for service and engagement I’m not sure, but until someone convinces me that I’m wrong about the four points above, I’ll keep using Twitter in the limited, “unimaginative” way I do…

Hey, the world would be boring if everyone agreed, right?





Weekly Reading: Historians for Britain, Academic Labor, and Why We’re Addicted to War

There were SO many great articles on my docket this past week, mostly in the “current affairs” box, for which I apologize–my write-up of Kalamazoo is about 2/3rds finished, and should be up tomorrow. Medieval news is on the way.  But here are some top articles worth thinking about:

  • First and foremost, my friend and mentor Greg Daddis’ new article in The National Interest, “America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace.” Greg has been a huge influence on my teaching and approach to history, and I think he knocks it out of the park here, as usual. This is a more subtle malaise than Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and is tied directly to Bacevich’s warnings about the American people’s often unreflective worship of the American military. To my mind, it is also connected to the “revolution in military affairs” advocates, who have created, as Fred Kagan observed in Finding the Target, this interesting situation where we innovate ahistorically, in the shadow of some quasi-abstract projected future conflict, thereby, I think, subtly conditioning leaders, policy-makers, and the American people to expect war on a regular basis. There might be a book here somewhere…
  • An article by Jason Tropy, “No God in the Fight: Why a Christian Army is a Terrible Idea,” tries to dissect the attempt by Matthew Van Dyke to create some kind of “Christian Army” to combat ISIS. I say “tries” because I have read contradictory things about this endeavor, and at the moment have no basis for picking one report over another (I’ll be grateful for any recommendations on this topic). I tend to agree with his admonition, “don’t join any holy wars,” though the tinge of anti-medieval rhetoric is, as is often the case, misguided. But I’ve harped on that often enough…
  • If you’ve read anything about the historical profession in Great Britain recently, you’re probably aware of the “Historians for Britain” movement, and its counterpart “Historians for History.” The blog Historian on the Edge has a long, provocative, link-filled post on the subject titled “Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?).” The author presents an interesting analysis of the situation, along with some questionable prescriptions for the use of history in the political sphere–an insistence on history’s political value lying in “the subversion of all reifications,” which these days is a popular, if misguided, benchmark of scholarly worth. On the other hand, the author’s emphasis on contingency and by implication counter-factuals is spot-on, and mirrors my own beliefs.
  • Continuing the thread of personal beliefs about studying history, one of my favorite lectures is Fredrik Logevall’s address “The Uses of History: American Presidents and the Past,” given in January of this year. He addresses counter-factuals, but also identifies policy-makers’ and historians’ necessarily different approaches to history, and what makes studying history a fulfilling and valuable activity (starting around 13 minutes). In fact, I think I’ll rewatch it now…

  • An interesting article by Caroline Tervo called “In Defense of the South.” Basically, it’s a simple argument that there isn’t a monolithic South. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago in a past relationship, and it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget when you teach the Civil War. A lot of the Southern prejudice against Yankees I think is bunk, but so are the silly prejudices toward the South popular among “Yankees.” Basically, these stereotypes come from a lack of empathy. To understand, you have to actively listen and learn.
  • Speaking of listening, maybe men should pipe down more. A much-commented on article, “Why women talk less,” addresses issues surrounding hearing women’s voices in academia. It’s an interesting read, and I think pretty accurate, though I have mixed feelings about the recent “all-male panels” mockery, which ambivalence I’ll sort out at a later date. At the end of the day, I love this great blog post’s strictures how to treat women [academics], which to my mind is how decent folk should act as a matter of course. But…we know that this often isn’t the case, probably because men are worried about women colleagues being distractingly sexy.
  • Brian Mahoney’s article “Trade defeat is a huge defeat for labor,” discussing how the AFL-CIO mobilized the political muscle to stop the big trade legislation last week. Given the labor issues that have been rocking the academic world, this discussion of labor organizations I found timely. Anyway, I thought it was interesting.
  • Speaking of academia, higher education, and labor, last week there were two good follow-ups to that professors-live-in-fear piece. One is by Koritha Mitchell, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards.” The other is by Noah Berlatsky, “Professors do live in fear–but not of liberal students.”
  • Not exactly a follow up is Hunter Rawlings’ “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.” I do wonder sometimes if there isn’t a contradiction between pushing back against the “commodification” of college and the attacks on tenure but simultaneously treating the situation as a labor issue, since much of the labor force doesn’t have the kind of job security that tenure provides. Unless that’s an incorrect assumption? Someone help me out here.
  • I also see a bit of a contradiction in this short piece by David Schraub, “Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy,” which was widely picked up a couple weeks ago for some reason, and protests on Left and Right over various instances of intellectual censorship and discrimination. The issue is one of precedent and power–who decides what is and isn’t legitimate, and under what circumstances? One side’s illegitimacy is often the other side’s academic freedom violation. On the other hand, there ARE positions that are illegitimate–that the Nazis were misunderstood chaps, for example. So, I think most people, myself included, adopt a very “medieval” position–contradictory, and in search of some guiding principle that won’t lead us astray. Anyway, I’ll keep thinking about this.

Tomorrow I should have my thoughts about Kalamazoo up, so stay tuned.

The Past Week’s Reading, Feb 22

In no particular order, here are some stories and articles that caught my eye this past week.


Robin Fleming on post-Roman Britain, “The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, historian claims.”

Michel Baran, “The Mongol Empire in World History: The State of Research.”


More “crusades controversy” fall out, Ross Douthat, “In Defense of Islam.”

Another, “Obama Crusade remarks spark firestorm of debate.” 

David Perry, “The Jews and the Crusades (New York Times): We are not perfect.”

The much-discussed article by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

A counterpoint to the above, “America’s Most Prominent Muslim Says the Atlantic is Doing PR for ISIS.”

And another counterpoint, “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval.”


Instability in the Iraqi government. “Sunnis may exit Iraq parliament after sheik’s slaying.”

French ultra-nationalist party gaining ground, “The National Front’s Post-Charlie Hebdo Moment.”

Veterans and civilians, Matt Richtel, “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service.”

Long article on General Khalifa Haftar, “Liyba’s New Strongman. The Unravelling.”

Paul Staniland, “Every Insurgency is Different.”


Minsk 2 and its problems, “The woeful strategic and military aftermath of the Minsk 2 agreement between Ukraine and Russia.”


Joel Achenbach, “Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

The Crusades: A Few Addendums

Don’t worry folks, this will be much shorter.

A. Some feedback I’ve seen on the article.

  • The “Inquisition.” I left it in caps because that’s what everyone was doing, but I definitely should have put it in quotes! Someone will have to write a column about the fact and fiction there, but hopefully not me…
  • I read a comment somewhere that said the President’s remarks shouldn’t even be a part of this debate. Not sure I agree with that, but it’s a point of view.
  • The article did seem to come off a bit more “military history” than I’d intended, but I’m OK with that.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of belief and lived experience, and how and why people resort to violence (“war” especially). And what they hope to accomplish through violence. So I’m always asking what shaped people’s responses to war. And regarding the crusades, I agree with Kurt Villads Jensen’s article in Al-Masaq (2003), “Peregrinatio sive expeditio: Why the First Crusade was not a Pilgrimage.” So, I’m bound to bring a political/military perspective to bear, I suppose, in addition to a cultural one.
  • The Eastern Churches. I had meant to make that clearer, that Urban II was in contact with churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, but couldn’t find my notes on the most recent research. But that was another factor in 1095.
  • The concept of “ownership” of the Holy Land. This is a full topic in and of itself, but I think the manner in which the French, Normans, and eventually the Germans asserted a proprietary interest in the Holy Land didn’t make much sense to anyone but themselves. It nonplussed the Byzantines, to be sure, who had a much longer and immediate interest in the Levant. This deserves a closer analysis.
  • Albigensian Crusade. Someone said I’d forgotten them. Nope, they’re there, for a sentence. But very important for what some other folks have mentioned, that…
  • Not all crusades were defensive. Absolutely: I was focusing on the First Crusade in particular because that is where the argument usually concentrates. The Wendish Crusade of 1147, on the Germanic-Slavic frontier, was hardly “defensive,” and was fought in the same manner as in the previous 200 years. Which was with, to us, shocking brutality (my students were a bit shocked when we discussed this yesterday).
  • Regarding “staggering brutality,” David Perry and I had some good, collegial exchanges yesterday, and we both agree that we’re not that far apart, in the end. Leif Petersen, author of Siege warfare and military organization in the successor states (400-800 AD) also had some interesting examples about atrocities in pre-crusades warfare, worth following up. My perspective has been shaped by a couple decades of studying warfare in general, and some years researching the Wehrmacht and the Shoah. To be honest, I think most people don’t grasp how violent medieval and early modern society was in general, and the reaction I get when I manage to convey that to my students often is a kind of shock–and this from the video game generation, no less (I’m not knocking video games per se, I love playing them myself…when I have the time).

B. Some articles that I’ve read since Monday. Kate’s and Andrew’s articles I recommend:

Leila K. Norako, “On Obama’s Crusades ‘Controversy'” , and Andrew Holt, “Crusades were a reaction to Islamic militarism” (see also his website).  Also the exchange between Andrew and David on David’s blog, here.

Other articles that crossed my path:

Jay Michaelson, “The Crusades Were Great, Actually!”

Max Fisher, “Let’s be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it’s okay to hate Muslims.”

Murtaza Hussain, “Obama’s Christian Right Critics Agree with Islamic State.”

Virginia Postrel, “Why the Crusades Still Matter.”

Mark Bauerlein, “Un-Presidential Remarks.”

C. I’m still building resource pages for medieval history on this site (as you can tell from some of the still-empty pages), but I there are a couple things I would recommend.

Sites (not always up-to-date, but still useful): Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and The ORB (On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies).

Also, there is an excellent new collection of documents (unfortunately an expensive one) from the University of Pennsylvania, Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291.

Finally, I would recommend getting a hold of anything that Norman Housley , University of Leicester, has written on the subject. He’s a very understated, even underestimated, presence in crusades studies, but when I want some perspective on crusades and religious warfare in general, I often find myself going back to his publications for a calm, multifaceted, incisive, thought-provoking analysis (this is honestly my opinion). His books include Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land, Crusading in the Fifteenth Century: Message and Impact, Crusading and the Ottoman Threat 1453-1505, The Later Crusades 1274-1580: from Lyons to Alcazar, Contesting the Crusades (a study of how historians have written about the Crusades), Documents on the Later Crusades 1274-1580, and Religious Warfare in Europe 1400-1536 (which is fairly dense, but the only book that really explains how “crusade” morphs into “religious warfare” in the late medieval/early modern era). And a collected series of essays in Crusading and Warfare in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Military news of interest, week ending October 17, 2014

Some of the top stories that caught my eye this week which you might have missed (outside of the military operations against Ebola, which you probably didn’t miss):

From Forbes, “Five Reasons America’s Army Wont’ Be Ready for the Next War,”

From The New York Times, this has been the biggest story this week: “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons.”

And a pingback on that story from Mother Jones, “No, There’s Still No Evidence There Was an Active WMD Program in Iraq.

On Business Insider: “America’s Elite Soldiers May Be Burning Out On The War On Terror.”

From Foreign Policy, “The Varnish of Vietnam,” which has links to the growing public debate over the commemoration (if that’s the right word) of the Vietnam War.

And last, but certainly not least, from Small Wars Journal, “Consequences be Damned: Solving 20th Century Problems with 19th Century Disregard,” by my friend and colleague David Musick.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50+ Years Later

October 16 was the fifty-second anniversary of the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come to a nuclear war. While I’m not sure that “celebrate” is the right word for the occasion, here are some links to more information on the topic.

A very detailed timeline of the crisis can be found at

The George Washington University’s The National Security Archive is really the starting place for personal or classroom study. Its online collection “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: the 40th Anniversary” has a great collection of materials.

The audio clip of Curtis Lemay telling Kennedy that he’s “in a pretty bad fix,” memorable to those who’ve seen the film Thirteen Days, can be located most precisely at the Miller Center’s online archive.

The big, interactive web project of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” also includes a nifty app for iPad (I haven’t tried this yet).

Among the most interesting pieces I’ve read is a story from last year in The Atlantic that draws on Sheldon M. Stern’s recent book The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, which approaches the topic in a layered, textual, memory-studies way (as a medievalist, I appreciate these things…).  I think this is really a must-read piece, if you want to get a sense of some of the most recent trends in the scholarship are heading. The core reality of the situation, that the missiles really represented little by way of a strategic imbalance and that Khrushchev saw them as a response the U.S. stationing missiles in Turkey, seems to be well established by Stern, who was the first person to extensively study the Ex-Comm tapes, the conversations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. And the reality was that the removal of the missiles from Cuba was really a swap, the U.S. removing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey some months later. Kind of puts a different spin on things. Schwarz’s analysis, in The Atlantic, of the consequences of the Kennedy administration’s actions in terms of strategy and foreign policy, are substantial fare.

There was one comment after the article, however, which made me look up a few things. The commenter was claiming that it was actually the Eisenhower administration which deployed the Jupiter missiles to Turkey, and therefore that blaming Kennedy for creating his own mess is unfair. Without having read all the voluminous studies of the issue, this is true. The Jupiter missile was pushed by the Eisenhower administration, and negotiations for deployment overseas began in 1958.  The agreement with Turkey was concluded in October 1959, more than a year before Kennedy took office, although it was 1962 before the missiles were actually operational. So the idea for deployment originated with the Eisenhower administration, and I suppose just naturally carried over into the Kennedy administration. So, why not just can the idea, especially since the system was cumbersome and obsolete anyway? The answer would seem to be in Turkey’s role in the Cold War, which made the Turkish government very unenthusiastic about any action that suggested that they were less than a full member of NATO.

It’s always more complicated.