MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, August 27, 2016

August 27-28, 2016: Historical Writers of America Conference Recap



[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series has focused on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to this special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Last weekend I had the chance to present on “Building a Public Scholarly Career through Short-Form Online Writing” at the HWA Conference in Colonial Williamsburg. I didn’t get to attend as much of the conference as I would have liked (for a very good reason—touring Jamestown and Williamsburg with the boys!), but I did also get to hear one great session before my own. So here are three takeaways from that session and my own:
1)      Making Connections: The other session I attended was led by Shari Stauch, the creator and CEO of the website Where Writers Win. Shari’s talk focused on strategies for building readership through targeting what she calls industry influencers, and although she was talking specifically to authors of fiction, I found most of her suggestions highly relevant for my own books and public scholarly career. For example, Shari highlighted the role that the presidents of state Library Assocations play in contributing to the programs and activities at public libraries across a state, and thus suggested contacting those officials in order to help set up readings and talks; I’ll definitely be doing so when my next book comes out later this year. An audience member chimed in with a similar idea for state Humanities Councils, which have speaker bureaus that authors can apply to be part of. All ideas that any and all writers should consider as we work to reach audiences and enter conversations.
2)      The Varieties of Online Writing: I structured my talk around three sub-genres of short-form online writing with which I’ve worked in the last few years—personal scholarly blogging (duh), writing for scholarly sites such as We’re History, and writing for more public sites such as Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post. Preparing and giving the talk helped me really think through those different sites and sub-genres in a more analytical way than I previously had, and I was able to identify some interesting distinctions and their effects on my writing as a result. For example, for We’re History contributors are asked to minimize hyperlinks (combined to my heavy reliance on them in posts here), and that leads to a form of writing in which I include more info and contexts in the pieces themselves, rather than linking to such materials as I often do in this space. For another example, for the public sites I’m often asked to write shorter paragraphs than the 250-or-so-word ones in posts here, which leads to writing that hits key points while leaving sub-topics or supporting evidence more implied than explicitly addressed. All aspects of this gig about which I’ll keep thinking, aided by the HWA talk and my conversations with the audience members there.
3)      I Need You: Or, more exactly, your comments! At my talk, one of the audience members asked who comes to the blog, what draws them there, what they find, and the like, and I had to admit that I often am not sure. Blogger’s statistics give me a good sense of how many views I get, where around the world you all come from, and whether you arrive here through searches or other websites. But I’d sure love to hear more about who you are, what you’re looking for and/or finding here, and any thoughts or responses you’d share, whether on particular posts/series or on the blog as a whole. So if you have a chance to share any such thoughts in comments (or, if you prefer, by email), I’d very much appreciate them. Thanks!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Lessons for online, historical, or other forms of writing you’d highlight? Or, one more time, care to say hi in comments?!

Friday, August 26, 2016

August 26, 2016: Virginia Places: Three Lakes



[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Briefly AmericanStudying three childhood favorite spots—mine and now my boys!
1)      Chris Greene Lake Park: Located in Albemarle County, which surrounds my hometown of Charlottesville, Chris Greene was the go-to lake beach of my childhood (I have vivid memories of both the minnows nibbling on my youthful toes and of the taste of the hot dogs at the concession stand). The lake was first developed in the mid-20th century as a potential county reservoir but ended up a site for recreational swimming and boating, fishing, hiking, and more, an interesting reflection of how our public natural spaces evolve and shift in their identities and roles. This AmericanStudier is also very interested in who Chris Greene was, especially given the complexity of public names in Charlottesville and the South, but so far my researches have been stumped—any help would be much appreciated!
2)      Mint Springs Valley Park: A bit deeper into Albemarle County, near the small town of Crozet, is the much more secluded and scenic Mint Springs. This one felt to a young AmericanStudier like a day trip, and my strongest memories are of renting a canoe and exploring the lake that extends well beyond the park’s small beach (although I also remember climbing high up into the playground’s undoubtedly not-to-code metal rocket ship). Per this excellent blog post, the park apparently also features a number of impressive hiking trails, reinforcing (as that blogger also notes) how fully a trip to Mint Springs takes you away from modern life (even in a small town like Crozet). Charlottesville’s not exactly the big city either, of course, but nonetheless the difference between Cville and Mint Springs is striking, reflecting just how quickly and fully much of Virginia shifts back to a rural landscape that hasn’t changed much over the years. I didn’t really appreciate that side of the state while I lived there, but as a resident of the far more congested greater Boston area, I certainly do now.
3)      Sherando Lake Recreation Area: Yet on the spectrum of settled to natural, urban to rural, in Virginia, Mint Springs isn’t all the way toward those latter ends—that designation is reserved for protected areas like Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests. Nestled in those forests, close to the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is my favorite Virginia spot for swimming, Sherando Lake. I’ve taken both my sons and my fiancĂ©e to Sherando in recent years, and each time have felt exactly the same as I did on my childhood visits—in awe of the (it seems to me) untouched and unchanged natural beauty, and of the chance to spend a few hours within such a sacred space.  Shenandoah National Park is full of such spaces, of course, but there’s something extra special about a relatively unknown place like Sherando, and about the chance to find there what John Muir called “the clearest way into the Universe.”
Special conference recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

August 25, 2016: Virginia Places: Fairfax Court House



[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Two other important contexts for a site closely tied to the Civil War’s opening salvos.
While of course the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Charleston’s Fort Sumter, the war’s first land conflict is generally considered to be the June 1, 1861 skirmish between Union scouts and local militiamen known as the Battle of Fairfax Court House. You can’t throw a Virginia peanut anywhere in the state without encountering Civil War history of one type or another, though, and while each such moment was certainly significant to both its individual participants and the war’s evolving trajectory, it can also begin to feel as if each community is competing to make the case for why this particular battle was more meaningful or worth memorializing. (A phenomenon not unique to either Virginia or Civil War history—just ask residents of Lexington and Concord precisely where the Revolutionary War began!) And from a military history standpoint, the second Battle of Fairfax Court House (fought just over two years after the first, on June 27, 1863) was far more significant, as it impacted Confederate troop movements and availability not long before the war’s decisive conflict at Gettysburg.
In any case, Fairfax Court House connects to additional and even more unique and interesting American histories than those Civil War moments. The first Fairfax county courthouse was constructed at a site known as Spring Fields in 1742, and a second, more sizeable structure built 10 years later in the town of Alexandria. These county courthouses featured and reflected a new, interestingly aristocratic and ad hoc form of justice and governance in the colony, as “gentleman justices” (including both George Washington and George Mason) appointed by the Governor met on “court day” not only to decide on criminal and civil cases and punishments, but also to set and levy taxes, authorize new construction and development, and generally run much of the colony’s financial and civic affairs. Elites occupied central roles in the governments of every 18th century colony to be sure, but nonetheless this overt reliance on the wisdom of individual landed gentleman differentiated Virginia from the “town meeting” narrative of New England communal governance. It’s thus perhaps not coincidental that while New England’s Revolutionary activities began with secret societies and nighttime tea parties, Virginia’s began with gentlemen serving the colony in the House of Burgesses and yet openly declaring their commitment to liberty and independence.
The gentleman justices were not the only, nor the most numerous, Virginians present at the courthouse on court day, however. As the opening of that interesting hyperlined article (on Virginia courthouse architecture) notes, court day was a deeply communal and festive occasion, one that brought out a wide cross-section of 18th century Virginia’s population. Yet at the same time, Old Courthouse Road (address of the historic Fairfax County Courthouse site that remains in operation to this day) intersects with Gallows Road, still in use as a state road but of course named for a far different and darker social purpose (or perhaps not, as this Washington Post article argues—but as noted there, a gallows was built in Alexandria in the same year as the courthouse construction there, so the larger point certainly stands). Since at least Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the relationship between Virginia’s elites and its broader population had been a fraught one, and the move toward revolution across the 18th century cannot be separated from that uneasy and evolving dynamic. In both celebratory and darker ways, the history of the Fairfax Court House thus interconnects with that interplay between the colony’s “gentlemen” and its men (and women) more broadly.
Last VA places tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?