The Importance of Historiography

Photo Credit: William B. McCullough
Photo Credit: William B. McCullough

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading David McCullough’s 2005 work 1776, and I remarked that I struggled to find my sense of place as I worked through the book. There was not a single map in it, which is puzzling because 1776 is a work of military history. The need for good maps in military history is acute, perhaps even more so than other types of historic scholarship.

I recently completed my reading of 1776, and for the most part I thought it was pretty pedestrian. The book is well-written, and the central argument of the book–that George Washington made many mistakes as a General throughout the 1776 campaign and that his staff deserves more credit for helping to push the Continental Army to victory over the British–was not the argument I was expecting to read before getting into the book, so in that regard, it was a pleasant surprise. However, I struggled to connect with the book and many of its characters, and I rarely found myself asking any questions as I went through. I also noticed that there is no historiography to speak of. McCullough never acknowledges the work of other historians at any point in the book, nor does he engage in any sort of discussion about the varying perspectives historians have held about Washington’s 1776 campaign.

Historiography, for those unfamiliar with the term, essentially means “the history of history.” What have past historians said and written about a given topic? How have historians’ interpretation of a topic changed over time? Where and what are the disagreements between historians, and why are they disagreeing in the first place?

As good history graduate students, we engage in meticulous research, spending hours on end trying to find relevant primary and secondary sources that tie in with our research projects. We then write long papers demonstrating our knowledge of the literature behind our topics, and we face dire consequences if we write term papers/our thesis projects without engaging with the secondary sources. So why doesn’t David McCullough have to engage with the historiography of the particular topics he chooses for his books?

This question is tough to answer, and all I can offer is my opinion. Part of it, I think, is that McCullough is gearing his books towards a general audience, one that does not particularly care about historiography. Many historians have been criticized (and rightly so, oftentimes) for writing boring, monotonous prose that does a better job of confusing and/or putting their audience to sleep than it does giving us a sharper perception of the past. I would surmise that some of these criticisms stem from the fact that historians include historiographical discussions throughout their own narratives, oftentimes in an attempt to show that they understand the development of historical thinking on their particular subject. McCullough has made clear his disdain for writing to an academic audience:

I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop. If I can’t try to make what happened as real and compelling as a made-up what happened, then I don’t want to write it. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, don’t bother me. What pleases me most is when, on the one hand, somebody educated or well-read praises what I’ve written, and then a guy jumps out of a Brink’s truck on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a sunny morning and tells me he loves my books. I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the high priests of academia.

I agree with the general thrust of this argument. I don’t think history should be reserved for those in academia, and I believe that digital technology has the potential to bridge the gap between academic and general audiences. But after reading 1776, I find myself questioning whether or not leaving out the historiographical argument is appropriate, even if the book is written for a general audience.

Historiography is important for all historians–regardless of the audience they are addressing—because it offers a level of transparency that allows others to see where you are getting your information from. McCullough’s scholarship clearly demonstrates a strong grasp of his primary and secondary sources, but the way his notes are organized makes it very tough for anyone else wanting to do research on the same topic to use his work for their own benefit. It seems to me that even if you are writing for a general audience, acknowledging the works of other historians in your field allows for others to better conduct their own historical work.

In his 1935 work Everyman His Own Historian, Carl Becker eloquently summarized the meaning of history, and many of us still appreciate this summary eighty years later. History, according to Becker, is “an unstable pattern of remembered things redesigned and newly colored to suit the convenience of those who make use of it.” (p.253-254) Indeed, history is an act of creation, an ongoing discussion about the past that is contested by different people with a wide range of perspectives. Gone are the days of historians who write sweeping narratives about the past that attempt to act as quasi-scientific, “definitive” voices of a particular topic. No work of history is ever complete or beyond argument, and for that reason, we need historiography to fill in the gaps and help give us a clearer understanding of how a topic has been studied over time. I greatly respect and admire David McCullough as a historian and as a person, but his work is not above criticism. My fellow classmates and I would fail our history courses if we wrote our scholarship the way McCullough does, and I think more attention to historiography would have made 1776 a better read overall, one with a stronger argument that I could trace to past discussions on the 1776 campaign in historical scholarship over time. Even if McCullough didn’t want to engage in this sort of discussion in the body of his text, he could utilize footnotes to address these arguments, something that fellow Revolutionary Era historian Gordon Wood regularly does with great success.

Cheers

By the way, if you want to read a great speech by McCullough on the importance of studying history, look here.

Putting Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropy in Historical Context

On Friday, I learned that Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is leading an initiative called internet.org “with the goal of making internet access available to the next 5 billion people.” Zuckerberg and company argue that internet connectivity is a “huge [barrier] in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” and to an extent, they are correct. As I discussed in my last post, the “Digital Divide” in the United States and other developed countries does not refer to who is connected and who is not. Almost everyone is connected, but the ways in which they use the internet constitute the Digital Divide. In third world countries, we still see the Digital Divide as one between those who are connected and who are not.

Zuckerberg’s initiative looks good on the surface, but it brings up a number of important questions. I began putting some thoughts together on Friday, but then I found an essay by Phil Nichols that brilliantly captures exactly what I wanted to say. Therefore, I will now use Nichols’ piece to help guide my own thoughts on this subject.

When we refer to “connectedness,” we are essentially referring to “literacy.” With the advent of digital technology as an integral part of our lives, “literacy” has taken on a new meaning. In my opinion, being literate is a two step process. The first, of course, is the ability to read and comprehend what you are seeing in a print publication or computer screen. But it seems to me that a second phase has now emerged that requires us to be literate in the ways in which we use print and digital technology to find information that is relevant to our needs. Where do I go to find useful information? Who made my computer? How did they make it, and what do I need to know so that I may be able to improve its usage or fix it if it malfunctions? Being able to read is step one, but knowing your technology and using it as a source of empowerment is a necessary step two. When people refer to “digital literacy,” this is what they are referring to.

But as Nichols’ points out, literacy is connected to power. What appears to be benevolent philanthropy almost always hides what is actually an attempt at social control. “Spreading literacy,” argues Nichols, “is never just about teaching people to read, it is also about imposing specific values about how and what people ought to read. In the this same way, we might question whether Internet.org’s goal of spreading ‘connectedness’ isn’t also tied to a desire for people to ‘connect’ in a specific way.” In other words, Zuckerberg may be sincere in his efforts to spread “connectedness,” but those efforts will undoubtedly be underpinned by a desire to spread the Facebook brand and its associated business interests to a global audience.

When big money and big ideas get thrown around by big philanthropists, big questions need to be asked. Why are you willing to spend your money for this particular cause? How will the money be spent? How much autonomy will the receivers of this money have in determining how this money will be spent? How will the philanthropist benefit from this? Putting Zuckerberg’s philanthropy in historical context may provide us insights into how these questions will be answered in the future, if not at least helping us understand how they’ve been answered before.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated over $40 million to build public libraries in 1,412 communities across the United States, according to Siobhan Stevenson [Stevenson, “The Political Economy of Andrew Carnegie’s Library Philanthropy, with a Reflection on its Relevance to the Philanthropic Work of Bill Gates,” Library and Information History 26 no.4 (December 2010), 237-257]. Stevenson points out that Carnegie attempted to use public libraries and the drive for more “literacy” as a way to promote his own anti-union, capitalist ideology to the laboring classes. At a library dedication in Braddock, Pennsylvania in 1889, Carnegie stated the following:

More knowledge on the part of capital of the good qualities of those that serve it, and some knowledge on the part of the men of economic laws which hold the capitalist in their relentless grasp, would obviate most of the difficulties which arise between those two social forces, which are indispensably necessary to each other…If this library can be instrumental in the slightest degree to spreading knowledge in this department, it will have justified its existence… There is no means so sure for enabling the workman to rise to the foremanship, managership and finally partnership as knowledge of all that has been done and is being done in the world-today in the special department in which he labours…Here in the rooms of this library, there is, or I hope will soon be, the whole world’s experience brought right before you down to recent date. In any question of mechanics or any question of chemistry, any question of furnace practice, you will find the records of the world at your disposal… Men have wasted precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past…obtaining knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are no more practical use than Choctaw.

(That last part is significant because it mirrors the same rhetoric being thrown around today about the impracticality of humanities studies in our economy today.)

Andrew Carnegie advocated for literacy and knowledge consumption through his public library initiative, but he cloaked those positions with his own ideological philosophies that supported his economic interests. The actual success of this initiative is mixed. While many communities today are undoubtedly indebted to Carnegie for the establishment of the first public library in their area, many of Carnegie’s own workers and other laborers around the county at the time were ultimately left out of these libraries. Forced to work upwards of 16 or more hours a day, six days a week (and sometimes seven), these people had no time to educate themselves thanks to the monopolization of their free time with work, even though their tax dollars went to supporting these libraries after Carnegie’s donations ran out.

Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative may help to close the Digital Divide with regards to internet connectivity, but I believe this initiative is also cloaked in a desire to promote Facebook abroad. Questions of how third world users will use the internet once they get it and whether or not they will be able to use it for their own needs and “knowledge consumption” will most likely not be addressed through internet.org. This is not to suggest that these new users are incapable of using the internet to their benefit. Rather, I am suggesting that the key to “connectivity” will require an endless barrage of advertisements and web products from what my friend Homer Smith calls “the Distraction Industry.” Furthermore, internet.org is also working to promote the tech industry as a benevolent machine for promoting peace and progress, as Alexis C. Madrigal points out. Whether or not that is actually true remains to be seen.

Cheers

Promises and Perils of Blogging

As I continue to reflect on the discussions that took place during the Digital Sandbox about student uses of social media, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of positive feedback I’ve received from the Twitterverse and those who attended my panel in person.

For my part of the panel, I chose to focus on blogging as form of sharing humanities scholarship with the broader public. At one point in my life not too long ago I was fairly skeptical of blogs and viewed them as platforms for promoting frivolous top ten lists, gossip, and “scoops” that were generally uninteresting to me. I was never encouraged to utilize blogging (or the internet generally) as a means for learning about history during undergrad. Indeed, I viewed social media and blogging as a place for leisurely fun, not scholarly discussion, and I never thought about using social media and/or blogging as a way to assert ownership in my humanities scholarship and my education.

My views began to change when I started working for the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in 2010. Within the first few days of working there, my friend and fellow ranger Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today told me about a number of notable Civil War blogs that were worth reading, and nothing’s ever been the same since. While I continue to read and rely on print books for a large amount of my scholarly endeavors, I began to find myself at that point making more time to get online to read about the Civil War. I began to spend less time on sites like YouTube and NHL.com and almost completely gave up watching television. Once I started graduate school last year, the impulse to start blogging on my own became more acute, and after eight months I have no intentions of stopping. I have been amazed by the ever-growing network of connections I have developed through blogging in such a short time.

I think that blogging sometimes gets the same sorts of criticisms Wikipedia gets. Wikipedia, we are often told by history teachers, is an unreliable source that cannot be trusted, and it should never show up as a citation on a term paper. Sure, it acts as a great “starting point,” but the crowdsourcing platform that Wikipedia has embraced has led to articles that are sometimes biased, inaccurate, poorly interpreted, or a combination of all three. There is certainly a grain of truth to all of this, and I wouldn’t want my students citing Wikipedia on their assignments either. However, many of those same academics who routinely criticize Wikipedia for its shortcomings have never attempted to edit a Wikipedia page to make it more to their liking, nor have they encouraged their students to use their newly-gained skills to fix mistakes on the site. Likewise, I have seen critics of blogs question the medium as a way of sharing information and “deepening” our understanding of the past and–in the case of Gary Gallagher in a June 2012 editorial in the Civil War Times–criticize history bloggers for making an “unworthy topic appear to be serious.” Yet those same critics often don’t utilize blogging as way to tackle what they consider to be “serious” topics.

So, in sum, I’m a big fan of blogging. However, my experiences at the Digital Sandbox on Thursday, August 15 and the IUPUI Public History Workshop the following day have also reminded me that there are shortcomings to blogging that have yet to be addressed in the academic community.

Dr. Ray Haberski of Marian University and the Society of United States Intellectual History gave the keynote speech for the Digital Sandbox, and his insights into the USIH’s experiences in blogging were fascinating. Originally started as a series of discussion threads on H-Net in 2005, the USIH eventually moved to the blogging format in 2007 and gained rapid popularity in the academic community. A national intellectual society was literally formed through the blog, and the society has been hosting a national conference on intellectual history since 2008. Dr. Haberski even mentioned that comments left on his blog posts helped to better arrange and formulate arguments in his scholarly books.

However, Haberski pointed out to us that blogging doesn’t get one a job in academia, nor does it replace the experience of getting one’s hands dirty with research material at a library or archives. In fact, several of the original founders of the USIH are now out of academia completely. Furthermore, the question of audience must play a role in deciding to blog. Has the USIH had great success because of its expanding popularity amongst those in the general public, or is it because of its popularity with an academic audience? Maybe both? Does blogging encourage dialogue between scholars and the general public, or are old divisions between scholars and the public being perpetuated in an online format? What can scholars do to reach the public? Are there ways to improve scholarly content delivery or the blogging platform in general? I don’t think anyone has an idea right now.

On Friday, many of these same concerns were addressed through a speech given by Dr. Andrew Hurley of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Hurley wrote a very fine book about historic preservation, public history, and civic engagement that I will address in a future post, and his work in St. Louis is remarkable. However, Dr. Hurley came to us with a warning: be careful with digital technology, and keep your audience in mind when creating digital content.

Hurley pointed out that public history has moved beyond text and image websites and into interactive realms that could redefine how we look at the past. He also pointed out that the term “Digital Divide” has changed in meaning over the past twenty years in the United States. In the 1990s, the Digital Divide referred to the haves and have-nots: those who had access to the internet and those who did not. Today, almost everyone has access to the internet, but how they use the internet constitutes the new and critical Digital Divide. Higher income people are more likely to have desktop computers and use the internet for website building, blogging, and the accumulation of “knowledge capital.” Lower income people, however, are more likely to access the internet through mobile phones and use the internet for passive entertainment, games, image sharing, and other related activities. When Hurley’s group attempted to run a blog and Facebook page to promote its restoration efforts in North St. Louis, the sites ultimately failed, with few people in the area commenting on the blog or accessing the internet as a way to promote restoration efforts in St. Louis.

Where do we go from here? Hurley stressed to us the importance of public historians encouraging their audiences to use the internet as a form of “content-based knowledge creation” and critical thinking. I am convinced that this is the next great challenge in closing the “Digital Divide,” but I am lacking answers for how best to approach this problem. It’s an exciting time in the social media/blogging/digital realm of humanities scholarship right now, but I hope that we as a community continue to make time for critical reflection on how to best use digital technology to inspire everyone to not only use the internet as a source of personal empowerment, but to become more empathetic humans in general. That’s the goal of the humanities, right?

Cheers

Putting Yourself Out There: Tips and Tricks

At the Digital Sandbox this past Thursday, I moderated a panel on how students could use social media and blogging to promote their humanities scholarship online. I did a personal experiment with the workshop and went completely paperless, taking all of my notes via live tweeting. The following is a collection of points that were made by panelists and a list of resources I utilized as I put together this panel.

Social Media and Blogging

Besides my own presentation, I was fortunate to have two panelists who contributed much to the panel. Kalani Craig is a recent graduate of Indiana University who specializes in Medieval history and pedagogy and is now teaching at IU. Her website is here. Andrew McGregor is a PhD candidate at Purdue University who specializes in sports history. His website is here.

  • Kalani focused much of her discussion on establishing a social media presence that focuses on promoting clear professional goals. One important prerequisite for establishing this presence is finding where your audience is located. Writing up a nice essay and then posting it to MySpace makes no sense, since it is highly unlikely that any sort of audience will be found there. At this point, Twitter is an ideal space in which to create a social media presence because many students, academics, and professional have embraced it as a platform for sharing information.
  • Kalani equated social media usage to picking out clothes in the morning or finding a group of people to sit with at a table. What “twitter clothes” are you going to wear? Who do you want to sit at your social media table? Twitter is great because scholarly discussions are taking place through the use of hashtags in tweets. When announcements are made in the field of history, they are often tweeted to #twitterstorians, where historians from all over the world go to keep up on the latest happenings and engage in discussion. By using hashtags in tweets, students can share content to a wide audience. Students should also retweet good tweets from other Twitter users.
  • If a student wants to build a network of scholarly connections on Twitter, they should actively look for and follow other people who share scholarly content. Sometimes these people will follow you back. Furthermore, students should use Twitter for (mostly) professional tweets if they seek to connect with others in their field. “Professional tweets” can include links to interesting articles and blog posts, occasional commentary on those links, and tweets that outline your long term professional goals, including upcoming conferences, talks, and events that you want to attend. If most of your tweets are highly personal, the people who sit at your social media table may not include professionals in your field (or anyone at all). That said, occasional light banter between friends and professionals and personal tweets are okay. In fact, tweets of this nature are actually encouraged because they show that you are not a robot. The digital humanities community in particular is a welcoming place in which to work AND play. I (Nick, not Kalani) would recommend that students split their professional and personal tweets around the 70-30 or 80-20 range.
  • Andrew showed us the potential of Academia.edu as a way to promote scholarly work. Many people do Google searches, for example, of fellow professionals they may be meeting for the first time. The Google algorithms machine frequently lists the Academia.edu profiles of its users on the first page of a search. Academia.edu allows for its users to post their scholarly work online and make it downloadable in PDF format. The keynote speaker for the Digital Sandbox–Dr. Ray Haberski–has an academia.edu profile that serves as an excellent model for what this sort of profile can look like.
  • Andrew also pointed out that Facebook can be a means for sharing academic content as well. Many National Park Service sites, historic homes, and museums have Facebook profiles that are used to make announcements, provide information on their sites, and hold discussions about recent and upcoming events. Andrew also talked about a discussion group about sports history called “Sports Studies Reading Team” that frequently holds “book club” type discussions about recent scholarship in sports history. People from all over the world participate in these discussions and share information with each other through this forum. I had never thought of using Facebook this way and think it’s a great idea.
  • I focused on blogging as a way to promote one’s scholarship online and mentioned several reasons for blogging humanities content. One reason that students should consider blogging is that blogging is becoming more common in the classroom. I referenced American University history professor Trevor Owens’ essay on his experiences with his students blogging and mentioned that blogging involves writing for a public audience, which is different than writing an essay that only your teacher will see.
  • While writing my master’s thesis and getting that bound and published next year is my central academic goal at this point, I have had a desire to share my research with the broader public, especially research that will most likely not get into the final published product. Blogging provides me a platform in which to share some of that information and provide insights into how my research is going. In my opinion, blogging allows me to ask open-ended questions and write out some of my ideas about the ways in which I think about history and my thesis topic. In this regard, I believe that blogging has allowed me to advance the writing process of my thesis in an extremely positive manner. I occasionally get comments as well, which is awesome. Readers that want to see what I’ve been blogging in regards to my research can click on the “Grand Army of the Republic” link in the Categories section to the right.
  • I also attempted to complicate or “problematize” blogging. Time was running short, so I didn’t have much time to address this. I did, however, reference a point made by historian Keith Harris, previously of the blog Cosmic America. A few years ago, Keith wrote a post on Grover Cleveland and Confederate Battle Flags that gained a lot of traction. For a while, if a person typed ‘Grover Cleveland’ into Google, Keith’s post would have popped up on the first page. Keith readily admitted, however, that he is no Cleveland scholar, and his knowledge of Cleveland’s life and time as President is limited. However, Google made Keith an “authority” by putting his post on the first page. Is this good? How much “authority” do bloggers wield in humanities scholarship? Ultimately, I think this anecdote reminds us that we need to be careful with online sources when doing research. Furthermore, teachers need to educate their students on how to analyze online sources responsibly.

Recommended Reading

Social Media and Blogging Platforms

Putting Yourself Out There: Student Uses of Social Media and Blogging

The following is the introductory speech I made for a panel I moderated at the Digital Sandbox workshop. The panel’s central aims were to explore the positive benefits of social media and blogging, provide advice for building a network of students, academics, and professionals online, and consider some of the limitations of these communication platforms. With my introduction, I aimed to inject a sense of humor [it was early in the morning!], but I also wanted to seriously consider the challenges faced by humanities majors with regards to the lack of understanding from the general public about the nature of our work. Check out the links to read the sources I used in creating this speech. Tomorrow, I will point out some of the highlights of the panel and provide links to more resources that students can utilize if they are considering the possibility of using social media and blogging platforms to share their work. –NS

Over the past eight years, social media and blogging have become extremely popular forms of communication in American society. Many people today connect with their friends and loved ones through tweets, wall posts, and status updates as often as they send emails, talk on the phone, or engage with someone in person. As of May 2013, Facebook is the number one visited site in the entire world, while Twitter is number ten, and Blogspot–the world’s most popular blogging platform–is number twelve. [Note: this website’s rankings are updated periodically]. Although these communication platforms are undoubtedly popular among people of all ages, they have also sparked a great deal of controversy for the ways they have changed how we process information and interact with each other. One popular image of social media portrays these sites as potentially dangerous places that bring out the worst in their users.

Anthropologist Alexis Madrigal recently argued that for many users of Facebook, a hypnotic “machine zone” mentality takes over. “It’s a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It’s a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens… Maybe you win, maybe you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.” Matt Labash, writing for The Weekly Standard, paints a portrait of Twitter that, as his article subtitle suggests, will lead to “the decline of Western Civilization, 140 characters at a time.” Self-absorbed, attention starved “Twidiots,” according to Labash, are actively destroying written languages all over the world and killing our brains with mindless tweets about coffee, LOLcats, and episodes of Jersey Shore. Finally, academic thinkers like Sir Peter Strothard, former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, have lamented the loss of authority ushered in by the rise of blogging. “Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same,” argues Strothard, and bloggers who share their passion for literature online do so “to the detriment of literature… People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.” It seems that for Strothard, the idea of readers relying on bloggers instead of academics for literary criticisms spells the doom of the entire field.

Meanwhile, the value of humanities studies has been actively questioned since the 2008 recession. Rising tuition costs, crippling student debt, and shaky job prospects have led to fewer students pursuing humanities degrees, and those that graduate have unemployment rates around ten percent, which is almost more than half the unemployment rate for those who graduate with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. Some prominent political and education leaders have spoken out against the liberal arts and humanities. Florida Governor Rick Scott has asked, “is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory recently asserted, “if you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it… I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Here in Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder has conceded that “it is time we all accept the fact that a traditional four-year liberal arts education is a poor investment for America’s middle class… [it] is now a luxury that few can afford.”

Social Media certainly has its dangers, ranging from overuse and addiction, to breaches of privacy, to bad cases of TMI. A recent survey also found that 8% of individuals aged 16-24 had lost a job opportunity due to their social media usage. But it seems as if the time is ripe to begin considering the possibility of using social media and blogging to promote humanities scholarship. Indeed, much of the criticism against humanities programs stems from the misunderstandings of non-humanities majors who are not aware of the work being done in the field. Diana Sorensen, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard, has stated that the time has come for those in the humanities to show “what it is our work does so they don’t think we’re just living up in the clouds all the time.” How might humanities students use online communication platforms to promote their work to the broader public? What are the possible career benefits of having a digital presence? Can a tweet, status update, or blog post help graduate students land a job once school is done? [Note: Probably not]. This panel aims to educate students of all types on the wide range of digital tools, blogging websites, and media platforms students can use to advance their academic interests.

Digital Sandbox, Continued

Life is nonstop right now. Thanks to the Digital Sandbox, there is hardly any space for breathing, much less blogging at this point in time. Even “thesising” has come to a temporary stop. I am moderating AND giving a presentation on a panel about student uses of social media in addition to giving another presentation on mind mapping later in the afternoon. Furthermore, I’ve been overseeing and editing the digital sandbox blog, which has several fine posts from various talented scholars at IUPUI.

This morning I posted a blog post on open access and the history profession from Dr. Jason Kelly, who was my professor for Digital History at IUPUI this past Spring. His classes constantly challenged me, and there’s no doubt his influence is evident in my writing, especially a recent instance in which I attempted to write about open access (see here and here). As I was preparing to post Dr. Kelly’s essay to the blog, I tried to write a cogent introduction and summary of the essay. This is what I wrote:

In this essay, Dr. Jason M. Kelly analyzes the American Historical Association’s recent statement on embargoing completed history PhD dissertations and provides an in-depth summary of the history of the open access movement. Dr. Kelly–an Associate Professor of British History at IUPUI as well as Director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute–challenges us to consider the ways in which digital technology offers the potential to establish new, open methods for creating scholarship, methods that hold the potential to “transform our profession.” While this essay focuses on open access within the history profession, it is an issue that all disciplines will have to address in the future. To read more about open access, see “Reinventing the Academic Journal: The ‘Digital Turn’, Open Access, & Peer Review,” another piece written by Dr. Kelly in collaboration with Dr. Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire.

I think the essay is excellent, and I highly recommend that readers check it out. You can read it here.

Once the workshop is completed, I will have more time to post all of my presentation resources/talking points to the blog.

Until Next Time…

Dear Historians, We Need Maps

Photo Credit: Emerson Kent (http://www.emersonkent.com/images/map_american_revolution.jpg)
Photo Credit: Emerson Kent (http://www.emersonkent.com/images/map_american_revolution.jpg)

I am currently reading David McCullough’s 2005 publication 1776 in preparation for a class I’ll be taking during the fall semester (which starts on the 19th of this month, during summer, ironically enough). MCullough is one of the most popular historians in America thanks to his lucid, engaging narratives that have captured the imaginations of people who want to learn more about the past. Indeed, in an age in which bookstores large and small are closing their doors and stories continue to come out about no one reading books anymore, McCullough’s books continue to fill the bookshelves and sell well. For example, McCullough’s 2001 publication John Adams has sold more than one million copies since its release (much to the dismay of some academic historians who are jealous of a non-academic’s popularity).

1776 is no exception. I went into this book assuming it would mostly focus on the exploits of George Washington, but I have been pleasantly surprised by McCullough’s ability to weave the perspectives of King George III, the English Parliament, and Loyalists in America into the narrative, complicating the notion that George III was a complete fool or that every colonist supported the Patriot cause at outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Furthermore, McCullough’s central argument is that Washignton’s subordinates are actually the ones who deserve more credit for their efforts during the Revolutionary War, including Generals Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and Charles Lee, among others. As Tony Horowitz explained in a review of the book, “Washington didn’t have a clue about strategy or tactics, and had to be rescued from his reckless plans by subordinates. McCullough bluntly terms him ‘indecisive and inept’ as a battle commander, but praises his perseverance and clear eyed recognition of his own and his army’s faults. Washington also showed a talent for night actions (often in retreat) and a capacity to learn from his mistakes.”

Although there is much to praise about 1776, there is one serious problem with this book, and it’s a problem that has plagued other books about military history.

There are no maps!

Yes, there are three maps in the picture gallery between pages 116-117, but they are awkwardly placed, they date back to 1776, and they don’t really explain anything about Washington’s movements or any of the battles that took place in 1775-1776. When McCullough describes a troop movement or battle, we are forced to rely solely on textual narrative to help describe how these events played out, and I have found myself frustrated by my inability to follow these movements without the help of a map. Consider this brief narrative from pages 133-134. It is the summer of 1776 and Washington’s men are in New York City, waiting for the British to come from Canada to engage in battle:

Washington shifted his headquarters to City Hall. [Henry] Knox and his wife moved into No. 1 Broadway, while Martha Washington remained at the Mortier house beyond the city… That same night [June 28] Washington learned for the first time that the British had sailed from Halifax bound for New York on June 9, General [William] Howe having departed somewhat earlier on the frigate Greyhound. The information came by express rider from the captain of an American schooner that had been captured by the Greyhound off Cape Ann, then retaken by an armed American sloop. The next morning, Saturday, June 29, officers with telescopes on the roof Washington’s headquarters and other vantage points in the city and on Long Island, saw signals flying from the hills of Staten Island. The first of the British Fleet had appeared.

There are several questions that immediately popped up as I read this:

  • Where is City Hall, and what would Washington’s officers have seen of the Atlantic Ocean from the roof of this building? Is it close to the ocean or far away?
  • Where is No. 1 Broadway?
  • Where is the Mortier House, and what does the term “beyond the city” mean? 20 miles? 10 miles? 200 feet?
  • Where is Staten Island in relation to City Hall?
  • I know that Halifax is in Canada, but I don’t know where it is in relation to New York City off the top of my head. Since I’m not from this area, I’m having a hard time imagining where everything is in my head. How did the British navigate this voyage from one place to the other?
  • Relating to the first question, what could the officers see with these telescopes? Without knowing where City Hall is located, we are left to use our imaginations.

It is clear to me that no matter how good a textual narrative may be, it can be woefully incomplete if you don’t employ other methods of knowledge dissemination to help advance that narrative.

Ideally, I’d like to have maps within the print book that can help me follow the textual narrative and place events into their proper context. Thankfully, however, a decent alternative exists in Geographic Information Systems, commonly referred to as GIS. First created in the 1950s, the internet has allowed for GIS programs to be used by anyone who wants to use computer technology to map out statistical data and cartographic information. In fact, you can go to ESRI’s website and download ArcGIS Explorer for free right now. Google Earth is also a great alternative (So is GeoServer). I’m still learning about GIS, mapping, and what is now being referred to as the “spatial humanities,” but I am quite excited by the possibilities this technology presents.  For instance, GIS allows for readers to not only read about Washington’s occupation of New York City in 1776, but to also visualize what they would have experienced (I would love to see what this would look like). The ability to layer maps on top of each other also allows us the chance to visualize changes in New York City’s landscape over time so that we can compare what the city looked like in 1776 to what it looks like today. While none of the software programs I linked to existed in 2005, it is my hope that historians (especially military historians) will be cognizant of their readers’ needs and work to incorporate more spatial data into their scholarship in the future.

Cheers

Digital Archives, Dark Histories, and Persuasive Video Games

Things have been pretty chaotic between my new job, planning for the Digital Sandbox, and making revisions to my thesis. I am also organizing some thoughts for a future post on the American Historical Association’s recent statement on embargoing doctoral dissertations for up to six years. In the meantime, here are some interesting articles I’ve come across lately.

Digital Archives

  • The National Endowment for the Humanities paid a $250,000+ grant to the University of Virginia library in 2010 to digitize a collection of news clips from WSLS-TV in Roanoke, Virginia. These clips have recently gone live and span twenty years worth of news (1951-1971). Apparently they are the only records from a TV station in the area that still exist today, and I have no doubt that these will be utilized by historians and other interested parties who want to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Era and/or Virginia history.
  • Northeastern University has created a digital archive for the Boston Marathon bombings. This archive includes photos, oral histories, and an archived cache of tweets and Facebook status updates, demonstrating the fact that social media usage today is tomorrow’s documentary record for historians. The website runs on an Omeka platform and is a bit clunky at this point. I’d recommend that readers start by viewing the collections page, which has various records broken up into easily understandable categories. I was particularly moved by a story from Sydney Corcoran, an 18 year old whose mother lost both of her legs in the bombings.

Dark Histories

  • My friend Bob Pollock at Yesterday… and Today has an essay from Joan Stack, Curator of Art Collections at the Missouri State Historical Society in Columbia. She recently went with her family to see “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” in Branson, Missouri. She concluded that the show did a lot of “whitewashing” of history, avoiding tough subjects like slavery and American Indian displacement while presenting a narrative of reconciliation that portrays (white) United States and Confederate soldiers as brothers who were all “patriotic and noble.” The essay brought back memories of my own trips to Branson as a child, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Nevertheless, I was struck by Stack’s comment about the show being “interesting because it makes a sanitized, symbolic Civil War the focus of an exhibition about white Americans understanding of themselves.”
  • Giovanni Palatucci has been lauded in history as the “Italian Schindler” who saved the lives of 5,000 Jews from a Nazi death camp in Italy called Risiera di San Sabba. Well, it turns out that this story may be complete bunk, and the police officer may have actually done the opposite and ruthlessly enforced Benito Mussolini’s fascist policies. A fascinating and ongoing story that I will try to follow as new developments take place.
  • A state-run reform school in Florida was closed two years ago. Now Governor Rick Scott has called for archaeologists, anthropologists, and other researchers to exhume 90 unmarked graves of boys who died at the school throughout its 100 year history. Perhaps Governor Scott–who just a few months ago asked “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”–now sees the importance of having anthropologists around.

Persuasive Video Games

I’ve been mulling over this talk given by University of Georgia professor Ian Bogost on video games as tools for increasing awareness in society about pressing political and social issues:

How might historians utilize video games to increase awareness about the importance of history? Some games like Assassin’s Creed III have utilized elements of history in their games, but I think it’s a field that has room for growth. Learning can be both entertaining and serious at the same time.

Last Day at the Indiana State House

Last Day at the Indiana State HouseThis past Friday, August 2, was the last day for my internship at the Indiana State House. It has been a wonderful experience, one that continually reaffirmed my desire to make a living out of teaching people about the past. Everyone at the Capitol Tour Office does a wonderful job and it was a pleasure meeting and working with many of the state’s leaders, including various state legislators and their legislative assistants, members of the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, and Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence. I consider working for the Capitol Tour Office an awesome responsibility, one that requires a great deal of work in studying the history of Indiana and how their state government functions today. Having almost no knowledge of Indiana history or state government in general before moving to Indianapolis, I tried my best to study and understand these topics to the best of my abilities. Hopefully my knowledge and passion for the job came through on the tours I gave over the past year. Here are a few thoughts about my experience:

The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I view State House tours as tools for civic engagement: To be sure, tours of the State House should inspire a a degree of pride in Indiana as a state, and rightly so. The Capitol building is a beautiful structure and many caring people have served the state over its 125 year history. Yet I always tried to challenge my audiences to think critically about what happens with state government and how the actions of our elected leaders affect everyone in the state. Students from Northwest Indiana (Lake and Porter counties, for example) live so close to Chicago that they sometimes forget that their state capitol is in Indianapolis, not Chicago, while students in Southern Indiana live so close to Kentucky (“Kentuckiana”) that they too forget that they are residents of Indiana at times. This, combined with the fact that most of us naturally gravitate towards political news in Washington D.C. rather than our local State Capitols, brought home the importance of educating people about state government. It’s nice to talk about Indiana Limestone and the original chandelier in the Supreme Court, but it’s equally important to point out the webcams in the House, Senate, and Supreme Court and encourage people to watch a session online sometime. It’s important to bring home the fact that it’s our duty as citizens to be informed of what our elected leaders are doing, and if they’re doing a bad job, we should be empowered to vote in someone else who might be able do a better job. If an adult who has lived in Indiana all their life now watches local news with a more critical eye, I’ve done my job. If an 18 year old went back home and registered to vote, that’s a victory. If a 4th grader takes an interest in history and government after their visit to the State House, their education has been greatly advanced.

4th Graders are fun!: Prior to working for the State House, I always felt a bit of uneasiness when working with elementary aged students. I must say, however, that working with thousands of 4th graders over the past year (this is the year when students learn about Indiana history) has totally changed that. 4th graders students are still kids, but around this time they really start thinking about the world around them, and in most instances they were more willing than high school-aged students to engage a discussion with me during my tours. I learned as much from them as they did from me. A great benefit of this internship is that I now have practical experience working with students of all ages and I feel like I can develop education programs for museums, libraries, etc. for all k-12 grades.

My research project was largely successful: Another part of my internship required me to engage in a research project entitled “History’s Mysteries at the State House.” On days that we weren’t particularly busy I went to the Indiana State Archives and Indiana State Library to analyze primary source documents and glean new insights into the history of the building. For example, tour guides had been telling audiences for the past few years that the marble flooring throughout the building came from Vermont and Tennessee. I went through six volumes of the Board of State House Commissioners records that were written throughout the building’s construction from 1878-1888 and discovered that while the black and red marble flooring did in fact come from Vermont, the white marble actually came from Italy! Unfortunately, there are many instances at tour sites around the country in which one tour guide says something about their site (“I remember reading about this somewhere!”) and suddenly it spreads like a bad virus as everyone else starts repeating it on their own tours. I’d like to think that my research and findings were able to reinforce to the rest of the tour guides the importance of checking reliable primary sources before saying things on tours. I also tried to show my fellow tour guides how to conduct their own research, so hopefully they will be empowered to do their own research when new questions pop up about the building. At this point, my research has not been published online, but the Capitol Tour Office recently received a grant from Indiana Humanities to begin building a “virtual tour” of the State House that will be facilitated by the intern replacing me. When that tour goes live, it will hopefully include a lot of my research and findings.

…And so a new chapter in my professional career begins. On Tuesday, August 6, I will be starting a nine month appointment with the National Council on Public History. This internship will be more behind the scenes than my appointment with the State House, but I wanted to have a different position for my second year in the IUPUI public history program, so this works out perfectly. It will also be really exciting to help organize and travel to NCPH’s annual conference next year, which just so happens to be in Monterey, California. 🙂

Until next time…