Origins and Purpose of The Junto: Roundtable Remarks from USIH2016

[This past week I had the privilege of participating on a panel about academic blogging at the United States Intellectual History conference. It was a fabulous conversation, and a phenomenal conference overall. A few people asked for me to post my remarks, which I thought was appropriate given it was about blogging. So here are my introductory comments about the origins and purpose of The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. I fear this might be whetting your whistle, however, since the real great ideas came from the other panelists as well as during the engaging Q&A period. Perhaps at some point I’ll post further reflections.]

I originally conceived of The Junto because studying early American history at the University of Cambridge could be quite lonely at times. I had wonderful advisers, and a large American history graduate cohort, but there were only a few students writing dissertations on American topics prior to the Civil War. The nearest hub for early American discussion was at Oxford, but they were three hours away and wore the wrong shade of blue.

This issue became even more pronounced while I was in Boston on a fellowship, where I was wowed by the camaraderie amongst junior scholars. Frequent colloquiums, lectures, brownbags, workshops and book groups made it possible to feel like you were really part of a broader community. I was participating in a weekly seminar at the New-York Historical Society where we held vibrant conversations on crucial historical and historiographical topics. It reaffirmed to me how important dialogue was to our scholarly world. The juxtaposition to what I was experiencing across the ocean could not have been more stark. I felt I had to find a way to transfer this communal experience back to Cambridge. Drawing on my experience with Juvenile Instructor, another successful blog on academic topics, I envisioned a new group blog on early American history. I therefore approached about a dozen acquaintances, several of whom were in the NYHS seminar, and The Junto was born.

When recruiting original contributors, I felt it important to set a tone from the very beginning. If you look at the academic blogosphere, including those on this very panel, there is a wide spectrum of expectations. On the one end, and the USIH blog is a good example, you have polished essays that contribute not only original but substantive content, and the only thing that separates them from published articles are time and space. Their posts are typically deep in content and long on length. Further, with a small number of writers who post nearly every week, you are able to get an overall arc and long-form analysis. It is difficult to rival the quality of the USIH blog. On the other end of the spectrum (not of quality, but of approach), often exemplified by personal blogs or websites with few and sometimes infrequent posts, content is often more brief, reactionary, and excerpted. Think of a scrapbook. John Fea’s blog is perhaps the best example of this approach. Both of these ends of the spectrum serve important, if different, purposes.

I wanted The Junto to be something in the middle. While using a conversational tone, our blog aims to be more of an engaging dialogue rather than merely a smart monologue. If USIH is a quality conference paper, we try to be a provocative roundtable. Prepared and measured, yes, but often with a goal of sparking interaction, rather than giving conclusive findings. We try to publicize the dialogic nature of scholarly development, revealing how academic work is best cultivated in a community rather than alone.

But more than just a means to creating scholarship, our blog is devoted to the community in its own right. One of my mentors, Richard Bushman, has emphasized the attention we should give to making scholarship an act of friendship. We do this both through participation as well as tone. We’ve invited scores of guest posts and round tables, and our comment threads often work as a venue for networking. Though we haven’t done this much in the past, the few times we have organized meet-ups at conferences have been profoundly successful. (We will likely do more of that in the future.) While the geographic spaces for early American scholarship have previously revolved around institutions like he McNeil Center and Omohundro Institute, blogs can serve as a supplemental form of academic hubs.

And then there’s our very discourse. We have long maintained what I call a playfully irreverent tone, as seen in our humorous footnotes and infrequent memes. One of our most popular features is our March Madness tournament which we hold every year, where readers vote on their favorite book and articles. (We typically get several thousand participants.) It’s both playful in seeing people get excited for their choices, but in the end provides a large database of resources for people years later. (On a typical week we may see dozens of visitors reading posts from these tournaments that are more than a year old.)

I could say more about what we aim to do. Hopefully we have time to discuss pedagogy, which I believe is a critical part of our platform. I also hope we have a chance to discuss the pitfalls of the Junto and other blogs when it comes to replicating the lack of diversity in our broader academy. But for now, I’ll leave my opening comments here.

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