Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Reflections on the Octo

· June 10th, 2015 · 3 Comments

The Octo is now about six months old, which makes the timing right for some reflection on just what the project now looks like and what I’ve learned about the early American blogosphere. It began with a simple goal: create a space where the Institute can bring together some of the best online work discussing early American history and culture, including commentary on research, teaching, the relevance of the past to the present, and whatever else happened to be new and insightful.

At that mission, the Octo seems like a success. Since early December, we’ve highlighted work on about twenty blogs on a wide range of work about early America, defined broadly as per the Institute’s mission. In fact, we now have an Octo Archive, where we will keep a running list of all the blogs to which we’ve linked. However, two somewhat odd issues have arisen as I’ve worked to survey the landscape and keep an eye out for work that we might want to feature at the Octo.

First, it seems like the early American blogosphere suffers from East Coast bias. Now, it’s possible that the problem lies partly in the editor (I will admit that I’ve never lived further west than Baltimore, and currently live outside Boston), but I think it’s actually a more significant issue than that. There are a number of personal and individual blogs out there, but only one—Ann Little’s Historiann—is based geographically west of the Mississippi, and most hug the East Coast. Even group blogs like the Junto, of which I am a member, are predominantly staffed with historians who live in, hail from, or trained at schools on the East Coast of the United States.

In part, that reflects the field. The major graduate programs in early American studies are clustered in the Eastern time zone, as are many of the major archives, libraries, and affiliate organizations. But it surely doesn’t represent the totality of work being done out there, from the prominent institutions like the Newberry or the Huntington, to universities such as Stanford and USC (with its Early Modern Studies Institute), and beyond.

The second oddity about the field is that there is very little blogging about Native American history. I’ve actually had conversations with several scholars who work in Native American studies and they’ve agreed, but it’s a major omission for us as scholars of early America that there isn’t more work focusing on that issue. (Grad students: if you’re looking for a niche, there’s one for you!) That’s not to say there’s nothing, of course, and there are occasional posts on the various group and institutional blogs out there. But it’s a major area of early American studies, and it seems to lack a corresponding online presence.

As with most online products, the Octo is a work in progress, and we look forward to hearing any suggestions or comments you may have, either here, by email, or in person. If you’re interested in the early American blogosphere and would like to discuss these issues and more, please be sure to come to our workshop at the Institute-SEA conference in Chicago on Day 1 (Thursday, June 18) at 3:30pm. More info is available in a post I wrote at the Junto, and there are still spots available!

3 Responses

  1. Historiann says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Joseph. As you might imagine, I completely agree with your analysis (and dismay) about the eastern orientation of the field of early American studies generally, and of its blogosphere as well. I also think your point about the absence of Native American blogging is well taken.

    I will share one aspect of my experience as a blogger here on this last point, which is that whenever I write about African American or Native American historical subjects, I get very little response & few comments. My posts on white American or European women’s & gender history, even very remote histories, garner a lot more reaction and give-and-take. I think this may reflect the whiteness of my readership, and of the scholarly profession more generally, but I don’t know what to do about it except to continue blogging about African American and Native American history.

    I can do this because my blog is commercial-free and I don’t make money on clicks–but I can imagine that bloggers who want or need to make money on their blogs will tailor their content so that it draws more reaction and attention.

    Here’s where recognizing (in Ned Blackhawk’s terms) an “early American West” would be not just intellectually honest but also serve our goal of blogging all of early American history and its peoples. Guess who comprised the early American West before 1848, friends? Think about it. It might just rock your world, and if you live and teach west of the Mississippi, what are you waiting for?

    • Thanks for the comment, Ann. I must admit I had a secret hope that someone would disabuse me of the notion that there actually were these lacunae, so it’s only a small comfort to have them confirmed.

      At a meeting at the Institute earlier this spring, I argued that one of the major issues with treating the blogosphere systematically is that it is still too organic and decentralized. The Junto, for instance, started as 2-3 groups of friends coming together (a few in the same grad program, several in the same cohort of McNeil fellows). The web address is earlyamericanists.com, but clearly we don’t represent all early Americanists. That can lead to some problems and some questions that I’m not sure how to solve or answer just yet.

      I did hear a rumor that there may be a group Native American history blog afoot, which I hope turns out to be true. In the meantime, we can only keep plugging away from where we are (and the Sorting Hat put me in eastern Massachusetts, so I can only do so much!).

  2. […] have been busy. At Uncommon Sense, our colleague Joe Adelman looks back at the first six months of running the Octo for the Omohundro Institute. On Christian Century, our colleague Jessica Parr discussed the modern […]

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