Mass collaboration and historical synthesis in “The American Yawp”
08 September 2016 – Joseph Locke and Ben Wright
The American Yawp, the profession’s first multi-authored open textbook, contains thirty chapters and almost 300,000 words. It covers everything from indigenous creation stories to Instagram. How, with historical input accelerating and the scope of scholarship expanding, could any individual or small group of historians hope to capture the breadth of American history and to do so as expansively as a textbook demands? They can’t. But with this project, over three hundred historians have tried.
It’s difficult–particularly for academics–to write synthetically. We are trained to nurture complexity and readily sacrifice accessibility to do so. How, then, could we respect the winding paths of the profession’s many sub disciplines while still crafting a coherent narrative?
We believed that a narrative synthesis could emerge from the many innovations of our profession’s various subfields. We found that individual contributions would not only track with the broad range of research being done in American history, but that something unitary could emerge amid the tumult, something coarse yet cohesive–what we called “The American Yawp.”
Over a decade ago, in the pages of the Journal of American History, pioneering digital historian Roy Rosenzweig pondered the democratic triumph of Wikipedia. Rosenzweig encouraged academics to not only improve the site’s quality directly, but also to produce scholarly alternatives of our own. Rosenzweig knew that emerging technologies could liberate knowledge beyond the bounds of our monographs and our conferences, but he also knew that knowledge needed gatekeepers and academics were uniquely positioned to do what wide open platforms such as Wikipedia never could. Hundreds of contributors shared their knowledge for the The American Yawp, and its editorial team wove their contributions together into a cohesive whole. But rather than closing the conversation, or relying upon a handful of reviewers to spot-check content, we opened the project up to review. Inspired by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age, we released a separate platform (using CommentPress) to facilitate paragraph-by-paragraph discussion of our material. Reopening the text to the profession’s font of knowledge has, we hope, begun an endless back and forth between on-the-ground research breakthroughs and synthetic historical writing.
Historians are publishing more than ever before and the field of American history is broader than ever. Journals and specialized historical societies have proliferated. Historians published 10,000 books in 2003 alone. It would take a scholar more than a lifetime to read what the profession produces in a single month. As the field broadens and output grows, subfields narrow and public accessibility declines.
In a profession in which “to complicate” is complimentary and “to simplify” is pejorative, historians are trained to specialize on particular topics. This training exposes us to frequent public criticism for getting lost in minutiae. Every few months brings a new plea to think bigger and broader. Meanwhile, teachers, too, are increasingly encouraged to forego the broad sweep for the deep dive by embracing an “uncoverage” model of teaching. How, then, can scholars expect to command the breadth of knowledge needed to synthesize four-hundred years–or, perhaps, over ten-thousand–into a cohesive narrative?
Mass collaboration can mirror contemporary historiographical debates and track the questions and answers emphasized by our profession. To tell the history of the Civil War, for instance, we could have digested the accumulated knowledge of two writers who have only lightly interacted with parts of its vast historiography. Instead, we turned to those who have devoted their professional careers to teasing out the details. We turned to Angela Esco Elder, who studies Civil War widowhood, and Thomas Balcerski, who studies the political history of the sectional crisis. Ann Tucker offered her knowledge of Confederate nationalism and Andrew Lang shared his exploration of black soldiers in the war. These contributors, and the eight others who worked on the chapter, distilled a world’s worth of knowledge. Each sentence represented the accumulation of knowledge compiled from an entire subfield.
New technologies have liberated the production of scholarship. The Internet has torn down barriers to shared production and professional networking. Historians across the world can share links and communicate–if only 140 characters at a time–without institutions or organizations. A dozen historians can work on a single document in real time. The world of post offices and carbon copies and professional directories has long since given way to Google Docs and Twitter and WordPress. In 2011, American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton urged historians to reject the idea of the solitary scholar. Arguing against Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idealization of “loneliness and freedom” as the hallmarks of academic life, Grafton wrote “that there is much to be gained by recognizing, and promoting, collaboration. . . and, with it, the elements of joy and creative fantasy that can too easily be lost as we go about our traditionally lonely craft.”
Mass multi-authorship is not only a practical way to complete a textbook, it’s a more honest reflection of how our field already works. Whereas a senior scholar might reflect decades of reading and research, mass collaboration, by pooling the collective expertise of our profession, can produce an instantaneous, up-to-date snapshot of the entire field. Even the finest scholar can spend a lifetime in academia and only skim the surface of certain topics. American history is simply too big and too broad for any one individual, or even a small team, to master. Simply put, we need one another.
Digital spaces tantalize public historians with widely accessible platforms unbound by the constraints of physical space, but a world of endless possibility offers new challenges. Curation has always been a central mission of public history, but the liberating promise of unlimited knowledge demands new and creative strategies. To make meaning out of an information glut, historians must therefore rely upon one another to prioritize content. The production of The American Yawp taught us that scholars and historians are eager to volunteer their time and to share their knowledge with public audiences. If controlled crowd-sourcing can build a textbook, creative experiments in project management can certainly be used to shape museum exhibits, historical sites, and other emerging forms of public history. The historical profession has no better tool than the collective expertise of its many members.
And so, as historians struggle to reach public audiences, they need not sacrifice complexity and variety for cohesion and simplicity. The collective energy of our profession is ready to craft synthetic narratives. It only needs historians to harness it.
 Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History 93 (June, 2006): 117-46.
 Robert B. Townsend, “Slight Decline in History Book Publishing, but Still Near Record Highs,” Perspectives on History 43 (December 2005).