Last week-end, 300 historians gathered at the gorgeous Malibu campus of Pepperdine University for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. Although there was a great diversity of panels, the conference theme–which was addressed in a number of venues–focused on “Christian Historians and Their Publics.” The meeting helpfully asked about the many constituencies historians address: not only students and fellow academics, but also the broader public, addressed in a variety of ways. Inspired by that theme, I convened an outstanding panel on “Christian Historians and Social Media.” On the panel were three great exemplars of using social media for historical purposes: John Fea of Messiah College, Chris Gehrz of Bethel University, and Paul Putz of Baylor University. They offered some great thoughts about both the practice and purposes of using social media for historical purposes.
To demonstrate the value of social media, we thought we would practice what we preached, and share our thoughts on our blogs, thereby bringing in a much larger audience than the group which assembled in the Smothers Theater last Friday. Over the next week, we will be sharing all of our ideas in our separate venues.
Below, I offer the introduction to the panel. I was aiming to raise questions and frame the discussion, then step back to get some great feed-back from the panelists.
Tomorrow (Wednesday), John Fea will post at his Way of Improvement blog.
Thursday, we’ll hear from Chris Gehrz at his Pietist Schoolman blog.
Friday, Paul Putz will post his thoughts to his personal blog.
Then, next Monday, I’ll recap these ideas and work in a few more links for my post at the Religion in American History blog.
I invite readers to follow the whole conversation and to contribute to the comments sections of any of the blogs.
Pepperdine University, September 26, 2014
Roundtable: Christian Historians and Social Media
Hello. My name is Jonathan Den Hartog. I’m a professor of American History at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN (formerly Northwestern College). It’s my great pleasure to chair this session today.
As the CFH is meeting here at Pepperdine, we are considering the conference theme of “Christian Historians and Their Publics.” In thinking about this topic, it seemed to me that a topic on “Christian Historians and Social Media” would be especially useful. The presence of social media (blogs, facebook, twitter, instagram, and others) has exploded in the past decade. This growing phenomenon is a reality not only for us, but for our students in the classroom, our families, and the people we see weekly in our congregations. How ought we to approach this space of cultural activity?
Further, this development of history and social media is reshaping academic practice and perception. There is a growing conversation about what to do with social media in the academic historical realm. Our conversation today is thus part of a larger conversation going on in other venues. For example…
*Last September (a full year ago–practically ancient history!), Heather Cox Richardson appeared on the blog of the (now-suspended) Historical Society to ask, “Should Historians Use Twitter?” and argued in the affirmative.
*At the Organization of American Historians’ meeting last April, a panel considered, “Is Blogging Scholarship?”
*Similarly, at the American Historical Association this coming January, a panel will consider “Blogging and the Future of Scholarship.”
*But, if you miss that one, you can attend on the same week-end two panels sponsored by the American Society of Church History, with one entitled, “The Digital Humanities and the Study of Christianity in Late Antiquity: Reflections on a Disciplinary Intersection” and another entitled, “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History.”
Clearly, there is a conversation going on, that I believe we can add to.
To address these topics at the CFH, I thought it best to gather together some very smart guys who know a lot about social media, pose a few interesting questions, and then step out of the way.
So, how should we understand “Christian Historians and Social Media”? Today, as a panel, I hope we together can consider each part of our title–How and why to use social media? How to engage with historical topics with social media? And, what difference a Christian perspective and Christian faith might make for such usage? Do these, and should these terms fit together? Our discussion thus can be both descriptive (demonstrating how the tools have been used) and prescriptive (asking how the tools ought to be used).
Taking these general topics into consideration I think then raises a number of further questions.
First, they raise questions about the content of social media. What historical material gets presented and discussed? Does the medium (to channel Marshall McLuhan) shape the message?
Second, I wonder if there might be some virtues (of the Alasdair MacIntyre variety ) that would be appropriate for Christian historians using social media. What are the more excellent ways to exist on-line? In an interesting article, the philosopher Raymond VanArragon suggests the importance of two: prudence and openness. Prudence helps to know when and how to engage in important discussions–and often the anonymity of the internet is not that place. Openness, though, allows for a willingness to, at appropriate times and places, engage with and learn from those who are different. To my mind, VanArragon’s “openness” sounds a great deal like hospitality, which scholars even on this panel have connected to historical practice. Are there other virtues to nurture, especially for those creating content to go live to the internet?
On a third, related note, are there or should there be positive practices that can be used to express those virtues? As James K.A. Smith has pointed out, we are shaped by our cultural practices. Can our beliefs still be embodied in practices on an internet that by its nature seeks to disembody us?
Fourth, how do we understand our publics? Circling back to the conference topic, who is the public “out there.” How do we relate to it with social media, and how does social media give us unique opportunities for connecting beyond our normal spheres?
Finally, I hope we can do a little reflection on the question of where we go from here? What’s next? What might the future hold? And in what directions should we faithfully push it?
To address these questions, I wanted to bring together people who are in the middle of working with social media. Of course, we need to acknowledge that there are a number of other Christian Historians who are blogging who we weren’t able to squeeze onto this panel–in many cases because they were already on other panels at this conference.
[JDH Note: I could multiply examples, but immediately coming to mind includes all of the bloggers on the “Anxious Bench” at Patheos, “To Breathe Your Free Air,” “The Circuit Reader,” “Faith and History,” “Moral Minority,” and Warren Throckmorton.]
That said, I’ll make some introductions and then get out of the way for what I hope will be ultimately a great conversation as we get feed-back from the entire audience.
First, we have John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, as well as the chair of his department. He is the author of 3 books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment (2008), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (2011), and Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (2013). He is also the co-editor with Eric Miller and Jay Green of Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (2010). He is currently working on a history of the American Bible Society (whose progress you can follow on John’s blog). For our purposes, we can be grateful for all that John posts at his “Way of Improvement” blog, even if it carries the extended address of philipvickersfithian.com.
Next, we will hear from Chris Gehrz, professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is also the department chair. In addition to other articles, Chris has co-edited The Pietist Impulse in Chrsitianity (2011) and is editing Whole and Holy Persons: A Pietist Approach to Christian Higher Education with InterVarsity Press. Chris blogs at “The Pietist Schoolman,” (pietistschoolman.com) and I can say I appreciate the deep thoughtfulness of his posts.
Finally, we will hear from Paul Putz. Paul is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He has published articles in Nebraska History and Chronicles of Oklahoma. He also writes for the Religion in American History blog and the American Society of Church History blog. His current research is primarily focused on urban Protestant reform movements in the Midwest during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. But, to my mind, Paul is the guy who tweets about history during the day and the NBA at night.
Without further ado, then, I will yield the podium to our speakers.