Saturday, March 31, 2012

Notes on this Blog – The Manifesto

What a ride.

It’s been over three years since this blog began so I decided to pause the history stuff for just one post and talk about my experience. I started the blog because I wanted to create an ancient history resource that was academically sound but also approachable for non-academics. Pure academic work is way too specialized to hold most people’s interest.

We all know that history is poorly taught in schools – names and dates rather than people and their interactions. What good is a survey course if it’s so boring no one is able to maintain their interest? I guess it fills in some bureaucrat’s check box that students are getting the history exposure they need. Ha!

People interested in antiquity need places to go that stimulate and inform – without being too boring or detailed.

Here’s an example of wrong emphasis. I was talking to someone the other day about the 2012 election and they commented how the south is Republican, and that it turned away from the Democrats when they decided to embrace civil rights in the sixties. I pointed out how race was controversial issue at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The delegates from the north sought to have slavery abolished in the new republic, while the delegates from the south flatly stated that they would not join the union if that happened. In the end a compromise was struck to allow slavery to continue but end the import of slaves after 1808. The delegates knew they were kicking the can down the road and that slavery could eventually damage the country.

After listening to my comment, the other person remarked, “Why didn’t I learn that in school?” I’m sure she learned some things -- just not the right things. To me, one of the key lessons of the Constitutional process was the effort it took to complete the document, and the fact that the framers knew it would have to be modified. Those facts are much more important than, for example, how many people signed it. This is the inform value of history.

With regard to stimulating the reader, let me create an analogy using disaster movies. What I mean is that most disaster movies before Titanic were awful. The reason they were awful is the script and the action were focused on the disaster as the center of the story rather than people. What Titanic did differently was make the relationship between two people the focus and put them in the context of a disaster. It wasn’t the ship that caused the movie to do so well at the box office.

History is the same. It’s about people trying to survive in a turbulent world – their interactions with each other within the context of their culture and political system. The most interesting stories are the ones that include details about people’s lives. Sometimes that detail is missing and we have to guess why they behaved as they did, but it’s still interesting to try and figure out what happened.

What study antiquity? Knowledge is a cumulative process that grows over time based on what came before. When Einstein unveiled his theory of relativity, he was the only one that understood it. Later, when I was an undergraduate student, I took relativity as a basic physics course.

The thing about the ancients is that they created the foundation of what we have today without having a foundation themselves. Why in 9000 B.C, for example, did someone decide to make a pottery wheel? I get that they wanted to transport liquids and had no practical container, but they still had to do the engineering.

So we have this gap between survey courses that lack content and academic work that is too detailed for the average reader applied to the underappreciated period of antiquity. That’s the gap I’m trying to cover. I think of myself as an evangelist for the ancient world – a secular missionary trying to unlock the subject for others to enjoy.

Who are my readers? Primarily students and those with an affinity for the subject matter, as far as I can tell. I can identify the students because they read the posts that one would consult for an essay or paper. My most widely read article is The Distribution of Wealth, Ancient Times and Now -- post number 15 out of 259 from early 2009. It has been read over 7000 times. My early posts were short, maybe half a page, and were focused on presenting a bit of history. But they got longer out of necessity because most interesting topics have to be presented AND analyzed.

I appreciate the loyalty of my readers. We have “the gang of 75” followers out front but also many others who check in frequently. There are about 450 people who have been to the site at least 10 times this year – more than 75 have visited at least one hundred times. That’s loyalty! Folks from one hundred and nineteen countries have visited.

What about my research? How does that work? I use a combination of books and journal articles as the basis for my posts. One always has to start with primary sources and work outward. I use an invisible college approach – something that was developed  in my Ph.D. thesis. The best way to learn a subject is to link authors. Start with the most respected author on a topic and see who he/she cites. Read those authors and see who they cite. A respected author will cite people he/she respects which is a validation of that author’s work. We call this an invisible college because the authors are not linked through some former institution like a college, but are instead linked to each other by subject matter and references. This “college” is invisible until it is uncovered.

Putting posts together is a journey – almost a random walk. Each topic leads me to another based on what it uncovers. I wish I had more input from my readers about what they would like to see presented because that would push me in new directions. A couple of years ago I added a box at the bottom of each post that says “want more of this topic?”. No one has ever answered that call, so I’m left with the statistics on number of times each post is read as my only system for measuring reader interest. Sometimes I write about a subject that is very interesting to me and no one reads it – sometimes people gravitate to an article and I’m surprised. So much for predicting human behavior.

So where do we go from here? More of the same and better, I hope. I’m having too much fun to slow this down.


David Alastair Hayden said...

Just wanted to chime in and say that I've read every post over the last 9-12 months. Don't remember exactly when I started. I also read a few older ones on that first visit. I get the posts in my RSS feed, so they probably don't show up in your visitation stats. There may be more readers than you think!

I've always loved history, especially ancient. Plus I write fantasy novels set in ancient to Dark Age cultures, so I always have a keen interest and your posts are very informative.

Something you may not know that probably won't surprise you. A lot of writers consult children's books for historical research as a starting point. Well, these days there's Wikipedia, of course. Because when you go to research a historical era, you run into academic books that are way too specific about narrow aspects. It can be frustrating to just get the information you need in those sweet spots between encylcopedia entries and how pottery was used by the Mayans, for instance..

Anyway, I enjoy reading the posts.

Charles Marchand said...

Thank you for the posts. I check in regularly. Your writing is clear and the quotes have sent me back to Gibbon. The maps are especially appreciated.

Anibal Invictus said...

Mike. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge and to congratulate ofr the very didactic approach to history. I can suscribe 100% every word of your manifesto. I'm an economist by profession and a frustrated historian (now just an aficionado to history) who enjoy learning about the past. My 16 year old daughter is exasperated about the way the teach history at school and usually she asks me to help her in preparing the subject "because I make it really fun and enjoyable". The secret is just to enjoy what you teach

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