Between the Personal and the Professional

As a public historian and young adult, there is no question of whether or not I will cultivate an online presence.  Recently, however, I have been seriously grappling with the implications of separating or integrating my personal and professional online personas.

In my first months as a graduate student I launched a personal blog to polemicize on past and present culture.  My goal was twofold: to critically engage with the culture I consume and to get into the habit of writing.  Soon my blog became a steam valve for me to articulate my frustrations and revelations when my academic training informed my evaluation of popular culture and vice versa.  With elation I realized that I could perform analysis as colorfully as I desired.  I cursed freely, exhibited anger, expressed pleasure—all of the things that academics aren’t supposed to do.  I utilized sarcasm, humor, and reflexivity at will while freely incorporating images, animated .gifs, and videos.  My blog quickly evolved into a carefully constructed yet authentic representation of my subject position at the intersection of the past and present, the personal and political, the intellectual and the plebeian.

With Past Present and related projects produced for a Public History and New Media course, I found myself creating a whitewashed copy of my online persona.  I opened a new, profanity-free Twitter account.  In this blog, I mask my subjectivity and code my thoughts with multisyllabic vocabulary.  I can analyze gender but won’t rage against the patriarchy. I purposefully silence my personal experience and potentially caustic opinions in order to portray myself as a serious and responsible scholar.

Of course, the need for distance between the personal and the professional is a reality in nearly every occupation.  But humanities scholars are in the business of addressing culture that has been historically undervalued by nature of its class, gender, and racial signifiers.  In addition, public historians need to seriously engage with all facets of public life in order to bridge the gap between academia and the public and achieve authenticity in the Trouillotian sense.  The academic rigor of the historical profession should not be held captive by aristocratic pretentiousness and semiotic priggishness.

A recent attempt to balance the academic with the popular,Public History Ryan Gosling, combines public history theory with the viral “Hey Girl” meme (see: Feminist Ryan Gosling, F*ck Yeah! Ryan Gosling).  By engaging with seemingly base components of popular culture like celebrity culture and visual pleasure, the project has reached well over 40,000 people [now over 55,000].  Public History Ryan Gosling has been picked up by prominent public history and popular culture websites, stimulated meaningful online conversation on ethical issues in oral history, and been informally displayed at several history museums.  Although short term and far from transgressive, this project nevertheless illustrates the incredible potential for accessibility and dialogue when academics integrate themselves into popular culture.

By Rachel Boyle

Originally posted at Past Present.

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