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Blogging Public History: An Interview with Zac Cowsert, Civil War Blogger and Emerging History Professional

by Zac Cowsert, Doctoral Candidate, West Virginia University and Eliza Newland, Collections and Program Manager, Royce B. and Caroline B. Watts Museum on

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I find that many Emerging History Professionals (EHPs) these days have blogs of some sort. They traditionally consist of self-promoting posts with little to no content that really contributes to or engages in a conversation. I had explored many of these blogs before I discovered Civil Discourse, a blog started by two classmates of mine at West Virginia University in 2014. Civil Discourse does so many important things well–it shares the scholarly work of contributors in a way that engages the public. I think that it is a great framework for other EHPs to follow, and I am grateful that my friend and colleague Zac Cowsert agreed to answer a few questions about the blog and its impact on his career.

Eliza Newland: Hi Zac! Tell me about yourself.

Zac Cowsert: Hey Eliza! It’s great to be with you and talk shop. For the record, my name is Zac Cowsert, and I am a third-year doctoral candidate in American history at West Virginia University. I completed my undergraduate degree at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport where I studied history and political science.

Professionally, I’m nurturing a decades-long fascination with the American Civil War. In particular, my research and interests explore the experiences of Native-Americans in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) during the conflict. Yet my academic interests in history have been deeply complemented by my experiences within the field of public history. For five summers, I worked as a seasonal interpreter for the National Park Service on Civil War battlefields in Virginia. Perhaps more than any era in U.S. history, the Civil War inspires great interest among the American public. As both an academic and public historian, I have become interested in the ways in which academic and public interest and involvement with the Civil War are alike and different. These interests—the Civil War era, and academic and public engagement with it—rest at the heart of my blogging project, Civil Discourse.

Eliza: Tell me about Civil Discourse. Why did you get involved? What do you seek to accomplish by blogging?

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Zac Cowsert

Zac: Civil Discourse is a collaborative project that explores the history and legacy of the long Civil War era. We have four full time authors whose goal is to explore the long Civil War era via compelling storytelling and engagement with academic scholarship, all in easy-to-read blog posts of 3,000 words or less. We hope to appeal to a diverse audience, both academics, professional public historians, and lay historians. Undoubtedly, our readers will find familiar topics like Grant, Lincoln, and Gettysburg. Yet we also hope our readers appreciate our explorations of soldiers’ mental trauma, Union foreign policy, the early American penitentiary system, and the media’s portrayal of post-war veterans’ reunions. In short, blending modern scholarship with effective storytelling creates room for the wider distribution of ideas beyond the ivory tower, while simultaneously creating space for public engagement and shared dialogue.

Katie L. Thompson—a dear friend and fellow PhD student here at WVU—and I launched Civil Discourse in January 2014. Katie and I both had experience in historical blogging, and we both deeply enjoyed blogging as an intellectual yet accessible medium. Unfortunately, I think we both at times have found academia to be an insular place—too often scholars talk only to each other, and not to the broader interested public. With a subject like the Civil War especially, there’s plenty of room for scholars to engage with wider audiences, and Civil Discourse serves as our way to speak to everyday Americans interested in history.

Eliza: What were difficulties in starting a blog from scratch? What are some of challenges you face as a blogger?

Zac: Luckily, both Katie and I had some prior blogging experience, so we had some idea of what we were walking into. Still, navigating the more technical aspects of blogging proved a chore initially. For about four months prior to our launch in January, 2014, I worked diligently to develop our website. We had to determine where we would host our site, secure a domain name, design our website, develop a mission statement, recruit authors to join our project, and map out our blogging policies and goals. All of this took time.

Related, I think the biggest challenge facing a blogger is consistency. You need to write often enough for readers to continue to visit your site, and you need to write consistently to build up your audience over time. At Civil Discourse, we’ve tried to publish content weekly, although admittedly as of late we’re probably publishing closer to twice a month. Blogging is a long term commitment. You have to stick with it.

 I’ll also add that our blog has struggled to develop consistent engagement with our visitors. Our site metrics let us know that we have an audience in the thousands, but only the occasional post will generate meaningful discussion or debate. We’re definitely on the hunt to find new ways to get thoughts, opinions, and feedback from our readers.

Eliza: How has the blog grown during your years of involvement?

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Zac: For a blogger, patience is a virtue. The first few months after launch, we were only reaching audiences in the dozens. Over time, the size of our audience has grown tremendously, which I think speaks both the hard work of our authors and their excellent writing. In our first year, Civil Discourse enjoyed roughly 8,000 visitors who generated 15,000 views. This year, we’re on pace for 11,000 visitors generating close to 20,000 views. To be honest, I suspect these numbers may be quaint compared to other, longer-established Civil War blogs, but for us, our audience’s growth has been deeply rewarding.

We’ve added quite a few features to our blog over the past two years as well. You can search our posts for keywords, peruse blog posts in our archive, and you can even spatially examine our posts through Google Maps (my favorite feature by far). We’ve grown our social media presences as well, and you can find us on Facebook, Twitter (@CD_HistoryBlog), and Instagram (civildiscourseblog).

We’ve also successfully hosted several guest authors from both academic and public history backgrounds. These guest authors’ expertise has allowed us to break new ground in areas with which our permanent authors are less familiar. We are always on the lookout for additional contributors.

Eliza: As an emerging history professional, how do you think the Civil Discourse blog has impacted you?

Zac: Blogging offers historians an accessible, unique medium with which to explore history, hone your writing skills, engage with wider audiences, and promote your own work. Perhaps most obviously, blog posts are “bite-sized” pieces of content; on Civil Discourse, our posts never exceed a few thousand words. I have found blogging a great medium through which to tell stories, to take characters and events often consigned to footnotes and place them in the spotlight. Blogging also provides a venue to discuss history’s contemporary relevance, debate historical issues, share research and ideas, and write collaboratively.

Blogging challenges historians to write in an engaging, accessible manner towards broader audiences. Blogging has honed my writing skills, sharpening my ability to craft intriguing “hooks” to pull in readers, my ability to weave together storytelling and argumentation, and my ability to convey dense academic arguments to public audiences. Considering the short format, blogging also pushes historians to write in a concise manner.

For me personally, Civil Discourse has exposed my research and my writing to peers within the academic community. As a line on my CV, it serves as a conduit to discuss my interest in public history and my engagement with the public via a digital outlet (in my opinion, blogging is certainly a component of “digital history”). Blogging has led to speaking engagements, writing opportunities, and has created invaluable connections with other historian-bloggers and “Twitterstorians” out there. It’s been an enriching and rewarding enterprise.

Eliza: Would you encourage other emerging history professionals to write blog posts?

Zac: Absolutely! Outreach and public engagement are issues that seemingly crop up at every historical conference I attend. Blogging can provide historians, museums, state and national parks, historical societies, graduate students, independents scholars, and more a venue to showcase their historical endeavors. You can reach new audiences, reengage with your existing audience, and perhaps learn more about yourself and your interests along the way. Moreover, blogging is an exercise in writing and creativity that can only benefit you as an emerging history professional.

 

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