The end of an era on H-Diplo: Prof. Kaiser signs off

I am sorry to see that Prof. Kaiser is no longer going to post to H-Diplo again. I am heartened to know he continues to publis on his blog. As a participant during that magical period on H-diplo (http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/), I can vouch for what Prof. Kaiser says about its evolution.  I am not, nor ever pretended to be, a diplomatic historian.  Therefore, I am unable to coment on the specific points made in regard to the academic developments in diplomatic history.

A couple of points need to be considered. First, I think that the list was so active between 1996-2001 (my most active years on it) was because the writers took it seriously and put forward their best arguments. I think that this was an amazing fertile period within the list.  I benefitted hugely from the chance to test my thinking and writing against some excellent senior scholars. I think that as a graduate student, I could not have had better teachers than my fellow participants on that list. However, its success was also a precursor to its demise.  What do I mean?

In many ways, h-diplo filled the void between writing articles, or writing letters to the editor of a journal, and the emerging world of blogs.  For the first time, it offered scholars a chance to share their scholarship, argue, exchange knowledge, and opinions, in a virtual setting. Instead of having to go to a conference and hope to get a 5 minute exchange on a subtle point of scholarship, the graduate or senior scholar could put forward an idea and test it against others within the field. Some of my hardest work, as a graduate student, went into finding articles, arguments, and archives to make counter arguments against Moise, Logevall, and Kaiser.  I tried my best to bring the best of my scholarship to these exchanges because I respected their scholarship and wanted to return value for the time they were providing in responding to me.  I really doubt that such a fertile intellectual arena is going to develop anytime soon.  Why?

Blogs are just monologues and rarely involve more than a dialogue between the poster and the author. Moreover, without an independent moderator, to referee the discussion, it soon either ends in a strange slanging match or it just stops.  Looking at blogs, I rarely see sustained arguments at the highest level of scholarship.  Usually, it descends into a farce of ingnorant rants between two people who literally have no clue as to what htey are talking about.

H-diplo has changed in large part for three reasons.  First, social media meant that blogs and other areas of information exchange, as well as the huge rise of internet resources, meant that one could find out more information on the web without having to discuss or share to get it.  Prof. Kaiser has a blog . http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/  At the same time, people could post and discuss without having to go to the list or prepare an intellectually rigorous post to meet the moderator’s approval.  However, the moderator’s role is the second reason it changed.

I think that the moderators changed in their approach because of the views of HNet and HDiplo editorial board decisions.****[Insert, by that I mean the focus was on a stricter approach to the editorial guidelines within the list.  This does not mean the board sought to discourage anyone or any view point]   I do not mean that they censored anyone (although there were arguments about that and some authors did take this to the top) rather the editorial board made an editorial decision to move the list in a different direction, the one it is today, because of what the posts contained. [Insert, by that I mean the list re-emphasised its editorial approach and that by its nature would return it back from where it was shifted. Again, this is not to say there was a concious decision to exclude any views only that there was a stronger emphasis on the editorial policy]   In many ways, my type of posts, focused on political philosophy and strategy were not what the list needed or wanted. I brought a strong political theological element to my work (and still do) which created a huge tension for the moderators.  (I was not alone on this issue and I only refer to myself because I know my situation best.)  The wish to have active discussions meant that active topics had to be tolerated. Yet, the topics and arguments that brought the most heat were ones that had a strong moral or political philosophical streak.  Instead of looking at scholarship or sources, these posts were asking why this was right, was this right, who benefitted from the issue.  Some of the hottest debates were on the Vietnam War leading into or as a proxy for the arguments around Kosovo, Afghanistan, and then Iraq.  The moderators were excellent in their roles. They did a great job and their work is the unknown success of this list because they did enough to keep it going without letting it be overwhelmed to the point where it descended into a slanging match.  What I appreciated is that they always insisted on the scholarship or the link to the literature, which made me work all that harder to bring my best to the post.  Moreover, my posts were greatly improved by the editorial skill of the moderators. Yet, their work did inhibit and change the list. Overtime, following that editorial decision, the desire or effort to contribute quickly ended for me.  More in part because I was working away from sources and moving into a different phase in my career, but also from a consistent refusal by the moderators to tolerate the type of posts I would submit. [insert, by that I mean if the post was focused away from the historical scholarship of a point, then it would have to be revised. Again, this was the editorial discretion and one that I respsected]  However, the moderator’s role and the proxy issue lead us to the third issue. ***** [For anyone reading this post, the section above is based upon my personal experience and does not reflect the official h-diplo line . Nor should it be read to suggest that H-diplo or H-net were in any way attempting to lmit the free expression of academic opinion.  On the contrary, they made an effort to make sure that a variety of opinions and voices were heard. In this they upheld the finest ideals of academia.]

The list changed because of September 11, 2001. The effect was not immediate and it was not simply H-diplo reacting, but rather the scholarship around H-diplo began to change.  The context for arguments was changing because students were not living in the shadow of the global cold war or Vietnam, it largest manifestation for Americans, but instead the shadow of global terrorism through the prism of the middle east.  Moreover, the changed economic climate mean that students were moving away from these fields into ones that would draw them closer to the financial realm.  I was fascinated to read that the last parts of the Pentagon Papers were declassified but I did not see that through H-diplo but rather by a post from Steven Aftergood ( a regular on Hdiplo for a time) on his blog about secrecy.  What was interesting as well, is that fewer and fewer graduate students were getting involved in the list and participating in it. I do not know why that was, but it always puzzled me.  Perhaps, they left just as the other media emerged and the editorial decision emerged.

When one considers these elements together, it is not surprising that H-diplo has changed. I am sad to see Prof. Kaiser leave, but I am not surprised in the end. I am pleased to have taken part in an amazingly fecund intellectual project that was H-diplo. I learned a tremendous amount and I found my work on it to be one of the highest points in my graduate experience. The list brough out my best and I was fortunate to learn from some of the best diplomatic historians in America and the world.  From a scholar’s perspective, there is no higher honour I can give than to say: they were my teachers.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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