Writing: “An Assertion of Self”

Each week for my research writing seminar, I complete a short exercise of some kind. The assignments are short, articulating the questions we seek to engage and place them in the contexts of sources and historiography.  It’s throwing me off; I want to explore all of the ideas that I see connections with, and make reference to all of the books that I have checked out of the library (but haven’t opened). That is the point, though: I don’t really know what questions I can answer, let alone which ones I want to answer.

An illustration from Rodwell, G. F.: “South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe” (1877), image in the public domain, accessed and shared via WikiMedia Commons.

So I am finding it tough going. To try to grease the gears a bit, I’m trying to write down lots of things: what I feel about sources, how I’m framing my work against existing scholarship, etc. I am going to try to do this; it’s been mostly theoretical up to this point.

And I’m going to do some of it –maybe most of it– publicly. Here. See, for instance my previous “Research Notes” post. I wrote those few paragraphs because I think Chamounix is a fascinating place and I want to tell everyone about it. But as I think about putting more of my formative research questions out on display, I am influenced by a few key ideas.

For one, I came across Dr. Timothy Burke’s decade-old post “Not a Sandbox” recently.1 The first couple paragraphs concern the “scandal” of Amanda Marcotte’s firebrand stewardship of the John Edwards presidential campaign’s blogging operation, something of which I was totally oblivious in 2007, but Burke uses the topic to explore a more fundamental question about blogging. He writes:

But the one thing I didn’t like from some of Marcotte’s defenders was the proposition that somehow what we have written in the past in our blogs is trivial, or disposable, that our freedom as writers requires that blogging be understood as Not Ready For Prime Time[…]

In a way, that’s true. I misspell things in my entries here. There’s often grammatical errors. I write hastily, sometimes poorly. I write off-the-cuff. Also, I certainly do not write about some of the things that I might wish to talk about in the context of academic life. I can’t use the blog for some kinds of cathartic release. These are all reasons that I would hope any reader following the trail of digital breadcrumbs into my online archives would do so in a tolerant spirit. Sure, there’s stuff that makes me look kind of dumb. I’ve changed my mind from time to time.

And then, after an apt exploration of the similarities of mid-oughts blogging to political repartee of the 18th and 19th centuries, Burke gets to the root of the matter:

Blogs are not greasy kid’s stuff. They’re informal, they’re spontaneous, they’re freer in some ways than the mainstream media, not just because of the genre’s evolving expectations but because of their technological and economic character. But they matter, and they should. We can’t suddenly ask that they be dismissed as mere prologue to whatever else we want to do with our voices, our thought, our politics, when the day before we were trying to do something that mattered.

This is not just about blogging: it’s about history. The more you write, the more your writing is both burden and expectation, a second self whose permission is required before you do something new–or whose betrayal is necessary should you wish to be free of your shadow. I get the vague whiff from some of Marcotte’s most ardent defenders that they want to have it all. I’m free to say what I like, and if I say it at a cocktail party or talking with a friend, I would have every right to say, “Hey, come on, that was not for publication”. When I write it–even in a blog–it has, and ought to have, some greater weight. If that weight becomes like Marley’s chains, forged in life, it’s up to me to do the hard and complicated work of unlocking, not to complain that what I wrote was read.

Writing something for broad consumption is –as Dr. Joshua Piker, editor of The William and Mary Quarterly, told Temple students this week– “an assertion of self.”2 Piker was speaking in reference to the journal submission process, in which historians submit their work for other experts to dissect and critique, but I think that it is true of all writing, even –perhaps especially– on a blog with readership in the single digits. It takes practice to regularly assert oneself when impostor syndrome lurks around every corner. Declaring (or simply recognizing) that the things I write to “matter,” as Burke argued, requires assertiveness.

There is another compelling reason for me to use this space not as a sandbox but as a kind of archive of my process. Scott Magelssen contends, in Living History Museums, that part of what is disingenuous about living history sites and history work in general, is that the process gets discarded in favor of the product that comes after.3 Academic history does this better, in some ways, providing windows into the process via discussion of methodology and through footnotes, but there is rarely evidence of the roads not taken.

Dylan Thomas’ Writing Shed, Laugharne, photo by user DeFacto [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In the long run, I hope to be involved in the kinds of public history that are unabashed about the process, that put their sources and their intellectual leaps and their rabbit trails in the shop window. For the time being, I plan on writing up short sketches as I go and putting them here. Some of them will be responses to prompts from class. Some will simply be me trying to wrap my head around a certain source or idea or way to organize my argument.

I hope my assertion of self will be a useful exercise for myself if nothing else. I welcome response in the comments: what am I missing? what am I getting wrong?

And I solemnly swear to follow Burke’s example and not complain that what I wrote was read.


1. Timothy Burke, “Not a Sandbox,” Easily Distracted, http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2007/02/20/not-a-sandbox/Emphases are mine.
2. Joshua Piker, brown bag lunch for Temple University History Department graduate students.
3. Scott Magelssen, Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2007) 1, 45.

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