Apparently H-Net might be going out of business. For most normal people who have not been initiated into this academic inner sanctum, suffice it to say that you have not been missing much. H-Net is a collection of mailing lists moderated by tenured professors that share these features in common:
1. All messages must be approved by the moderator before they appear on the list. This creates a sluggish environment, no matter the intention of the list owner.
2. The non-academic is made to feel like an outsider. Many of the lists actually require you to fill out a form before you are allowed to become a subscriber. They ask you which university you attend or teach at, what your research interests are, etc. It is a little bit like applying for a job.
3. The lists tend to be focused on academic business, such as job openings, journal announcements, etc. And when they do address the research agenda of the list, they often tend to be scholastic inquiries rather than attempts to engage other academics in a debate over ideas. The simple truth is that many of the tenured professors who even deign to subscribe to H-Net lists prefer a one-way conversation in print journals rather than the rough-and-tumble world of the Internet.
On H-Net’s home page, they describe themselves this way:
Subscriptions are screened by the list’s editors to promote a diverse readership dedicated to friendly, productive, scholarly communications. Each list publishes between 15 and 60 messages a week. Subscription applications are solicited from scholars, teachers, professors, researchers, graduate students, journalists, librarians and archivists.
In other words, if you don’t fall into one of the categories listed above, you’d better mind your p’s and q’s. Nine years ago I became a subscriber to H-Amindian (American Indian History and Culture) at a time when I was writing a series of articles about Marxism and the American Indian. After somebody posted a query about Cherokee’s owning slaves, I replied with a brief excerpt from George Lipsitz’s “Rainbow at Midnight” that called attention to how “some Native Americans held black slaves (in part to prove to whites that they could adopt civilized European American ways), and some of the first chartered African American units in the U.S. army went to war against Comanches in Texas or served as security forces for wagon trains of white settlers on the trails to California.”
Apparently, this didn’t sit well with one of the real subscribers who resented hearing what an outsider like Lipsitz had to say about their “research area,” as well as me for having the temerity to post it. Melissa Meyers, a history professor from UCLA, sniffed and harrumphed, “Scholars, even those as esteemed as George Lipsitz, should refrain from facile explanations of native behavior until they have done adequate homework in the field.” Well, I never…
I unsubbed about a month later.
My next encounter with an H-Net mailing list was with something called H-Radhist (History, Theory, Politics from a Radical Perspective) that was moderated by a character named Van Gosse who has functioned on the steering committee of UFPJ, a perfect place for him. The list is pretty much defunct as would be indicated by the most recent messages:
H-Net Job Guide – September 1, 2007 to September 8, 2007 (fwd) “Jobguide” <email@example.com>
H-Net academic announcements posted to the web 2007-09-03 – 2007-09-04 (fwd) H-Net Announcements <firstname.lastname@example.org>
H-Net Job Guide – August 25, 2007 to September 1, 2007 (fwd) “Jobguide” <email@example.com>
Now you have to ask yourself how something as lively as radical history can become so stultifyingly boring. That was Van Gosse’s talent, I suppose. When I was subbed to H-Radhist, I made the mistake of posting articles from Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran’s “American Socialist” that I had been scanning. Gosse told me that the list was for “discussion”, not such material. I was so struck by his obtuseness that I unsubbed immediately.
That was the last mailing list I actually subscribed to. Nowadays, I check the archives of something called H-HOAC (H-Net Network on American communism and anticommunism). A more proper name for it would be H-HUAC since the main focus is on amateur sleuthing about who was a commie traitor. There are endless discussions about Alger Hiss, for example, but very few about the real legacy of the CPUSA in the mass movement. For this type of discussion to take place, there would have to be input from scholars like Mark Naison. I imagine that they steer clear of the list because they might have perceived it correctly as a toxic dump.
Since H-Net has been such a major player in the academic cyberworld, there has been some discussion about its collapse from the professor bloggers. T. Mills Kelly, a historian at George Mason University, kicked off the discussion with a post to his Edwired blog titled “The End of H-Net“. He discovered something that I noticed years ago:
In the past several years, however, the various lists I’ve been a member of have become quieter and quieter–and one, H-MMedia, died a quiet death on January 12, 2005. Not only has the volume of email I’ve been receiving gone down, but the quality of the material in those messages has declined to the point where I almost never request a posting from the H-Net servers any more (I have all my lists set to “digest” so that I only get a summary of the list’s traffic each week). The vast majority of the postings seem to be conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists. Definitely not the cutting edge of scholarship these lists used to offer.
In a follow-up, Mills drew a contrast between academic blogs like his own and the stuffed-shirt atmosphere of H-Net:
[B]loggers can post what they want when they want without the intermediary of an editor, they often stand accused of being somehow “unacademic” in tone or content. H-Net defenders, by contrast, point out that because H-Net lists are edited and moderated, they maintain that higher tone and quality control that we in the academy insist upon. Why we insist on speaking to one another in more rarefied tones and why we fear letting the hoi palloi is, I think, a topic for an entirely different discussion.
(I don’t think that Kelly has to worry too much about appearing overly refined since he does not even know how to spell hoi polloi.)
Progressive Historians, a group blog, chimed in by enumerating 6 ways in which academic blogs are superior to listservs:
1. They’re more aesthetically pleasing. Let’s face it, after all these years, e-mail is still ugly. Listservs tend to be even worse.
2. Posting doesn’t have to go through the bottleneck of moderation.
3. Browsing at your own pace. The main problem with listservs, as Edwired notes, is that they generate masses of e-mail that are fired at you with no warning and when you’re least likely to want to read them.
4. Thematically-organized content. Blogs that use tags (we’re not one of them) make it possible for a poster to read posts on a single subject without having to sign up for a separate e-mail list.
5. Relative anonymity. It sounds strange that a blog could be more anonymous than an e-mail list, but think about this: if you post something to a listserv, you know that all your colleagues are going to read it.
6. Blogging just sounds cooler. What would you rather put on your CV, “Moderator, H-Ideas e-mail list” or “Contributing Editor, History News Network?” And seriously, who wants to tell people they’ve just written a book review for a listserv? Blogs are much more conducive to scholarly or semi-scholarly work than are listservs.
While the Progressive Historian blogger would see himself or herself as a champion of democracy and equality second to none, there is something that he and the Margaret Dumonts at H-Net have in common. They both see themselves as separate and distinct from the hoi palloi [sic] that T. Mills Kelly refers to, especially the last point. Frankly, the question of what I would put on my CV never popped into my head. This sort of thing smacks of the kind of Norman Podhoretz “Making It” syndrome that convinced me to bust out of academia in the first place.
My own experience is that academic blogs are susceptible to the same kind of in-group authoritarianism as H-Net. I have had two experiences that convinced me that they perpetuate all the rigid hierarchies that you find in the academic world. One is Crooked Timber, a group blog with “progressive” pretensions. Politically, it occupies a space roughly equivalent to Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party and the British Labour Party prior to Tony Blair. It has been a critic of the war in Iraq, but finds all sorts of reasons to defend NATO’s war in the Balkans. About a year or two ago, I posted an item about Srebrenica that ran counter to the ideological agenda of one of the blog owners and found it unceremoniously deleted with a warning that I should not “troll” on Crooked Timber any more. I stopped posting comments at that point.
I had an even more alienating experience on Cliopatria, a group blog for historians, when I found myself baited continuously by the founder Ralph Luker, a minor academic figure with the personality of a toy Doberman pinscher. Luker’s mistake was to label me as a “troll” on Cliopatria after I had the gumption to defend Ward Churchill on Crooked Timber. Like Beetlejuice, I have a knack for showing up at places where my name is mentioned. After I began to post on Cliopatria, Luker did everything he could to be unpleasant to me, making all sorts of ignorant jibes about commies, etc. Since I have a hide thicker than a rhinoceros, this had no effect on me. I don’t get ulcers; I give them. I finally stopped posting on Cliopatria for the same reason as Crooked Timber. One of the blog owners deleted a post that he considered to be uncivil. Considering the spittle I had to wipe off my face from Luker on a regular basis, I considered this the height of hypocrisy and blew it off.
Notwithstanding the sterility of H-Net and the badmouthing of listservs by both Edwired and Professional Historians, I do believe that they can be extremely useful. Unlike blogs, the playing field is level–as long as they are not the premoderated variety on display at H-Net. There is no substitute for the give-and-take between professional scholars and the hoi polloi like me. One of the best examples is PEN-L, a mailing list for leftwing economists that has been operating since the early 1990s. It is moderated by my friend Michael Perelman, a professor at U. Cal Chico. Perelman, who takes his socialist ideas seriously, has never made me feel like an outsider. I have posted on PEN-L since the early 1990s and have learned an enormous amount from the professionals who post there. I have also felt that I have made a real contribution to PEN-L myself. It is this kind of give and take that should pervade every forum on the Internet, whether it is an academic blog or a listserv.
Like Gutenberg’s printing press, the Internet is a medium that has the potential for cutting edge social change. Just as the printing press gave the plebeians of the 16th century the power to distribute “dangerous” ideas, so does the Internet have that capability today. Understandably, some figures of authority have become nervous about that. They feel challenged by wikis and resent the ability of bloggers to create an alternative source of news and analysis to the mainstream media. It should be the responsibility of progressive academics to encourage this development and not stifle it. In this light, I for one would not mourn the demise of H-Net.