News and Notes: March 31, 2014

Post-NCPH 2014 Blog Posts

  • Angela Sirna raises questions about failed public history projects and asks if a failed project can be translated onto a resume or CV.
  • Matthew Barlow also shares his reflections on failed public history projects and community-based work. Failure Bingo ™ looks like fun.
  • Erica Fagen discusses the writing of women’s history (or lack thereof) on the internet. (See also here and here for related discussions).
  • Graduate students from Loyola Chicago’s public history program have a host of fine blog posts that were written during and after the conference.

In the Classroom

  • A recent study shows that taking notes by hand is more beneficial than typing on a computer when it comes to recall and retention of information.
  • Public schools outperform private and charter schools, but the public perceives the opposite.
  • How to write strong, concise paragraphs in research texts.
  • Keep your writing short.
  • Should you get your Ph.D.? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately and don’t have a clear answer at present.
  • The Fulbright Scholarship Program is facing deep cuts and possible extinction. ‘Murica.
  • Nein (aka Eric Jarosinski) is one of my favorite Twitter users. He was recently interviewed while visiting Germany, and I enjoyed what he had to say about teaching, especially the fact that the real goal of good teaching involves teaching a process of critical thinking, not just content.

Weird History

  • New research suggests that the Black Death of 1348 was not a bubonic plaque spread by rats but a pneumonic plague spread by airborne viruses instead.
  • National Geographic will be airing a new show that features “historians” digging up war graves from World War II in Eastern Europe. The cast includes Craig Gottlieb, an appraiser who was sometimes featured in History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”


Sharing Authority is More Difficult Than You Think

Michael Frisch’s advocacy of oral history as a tool for breaking down institutional barriers in history represented an important paradigm shift within the fields of public history and museum studies in the 1990s. Twenty years later, the concept of “shared authority” is now regularly taught in public history programs around the world and embraced by many cultural institutions seeking to highlight multiple historical perspectives. Rather than solely relying on the expertise of trained professionals to interpret and represent all voices of the past in public spaces, cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, community centers, and libraries now actively seek the input of local community members in a shared endeavor towards interpreting the past. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello goes farther by tying shared authority in museums to promoting social justice causes and stronger communities in the present.

This need to share cultural authority is particularly acute in the United States, where public funding for cultural institutions is rapidly drying up. According to Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, editors of Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, “the country’s growing ethnic diversity and its economic crises have pushed museum leaders to recognize that the field’s traditional business models need to be revamped. Instead of taking public support for granted, museums are desperate to prove their worth to outside partners, voices, and interpretations” (11). Indeed, if cultural institutions are receiving public funding for their endeavors, shouldn’t the stories they tell reflect the communities of the people who contribute their tax dollars to these institutions?

I am an advocate for sharing authority and believe that history is best viewed through multiple perspectives. Recent examples of sharing historical authority are abound. City Lore’s City of Memory allows residents of New York City to contribute their own stories and memories onto a community map. From 2006-2009, the Minnesota Historical Society hosted an annual “Greatest Generation” festival that included an annual film competition; this competition included the opportunity for community members to create ten-minute films about friends and loved ones they knew who witnessed and participated in World War II. Even places like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum have embraced sharing authority. “The Power of Children” exhibit at the Children’s Museum encourages students to learn about the stories of extraordinary children in history and then write comments sharing their own views on racism, intolerance, sexism, and social equality. These comments are then posted on a wall for others to see in the museum.

Sharing authority is an important step forward for public historians and their work with public audiences. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take a couple steps back and proceed with caution before jumping onto the “shared authority” bandwagon without considering the ramifications of what exactly it means to be “sharing authority.” The term, in my opinion, has become so dominant in scholarly discourse as to become a buzzword in the same way that words like “curation,” “preservation,” and “digital humanities” are sometimes bandied about without unpacking the actual meanings we attempt to convey when we use these words.

What factors should we consider when we talk about sharing authority? I propose the following considerations:

Collecting Stories: This factor is probably the most obvious when considering the term “shared authority.” “Collecting stories” can include oral histories, the creation of spaces within cultural institutions for people to write comments, comment boxes on cultural institution websites and blogs, or asking indigenous people and other groups to collaborate with a museum in creating historical exhibits.

Gathering Funds: As public funds for cultural institutions dwindle, institutional leaderships increasingly rely on private corporations and individuals to help subsidize the cost of creating exhibits, websites, public programs, and conducting oral histories. Robert Post’s fine book Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History points out that corporate donors to the Smithsonian over the past fifteen years have sometimes tied their funding for exhibits to demands that their company be interpreted in a positive light. Post points out, for example, that Trans World Airlines (TWA)–in one final push to stay afloat financially before later declaring bankruptcy a third and final time–donated funds to finance the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary celebration exhibit in Washington, D.C. TWA donated its funds to the Smithsonian’s “Corporate Partners Program,” and, according to Post, the final exhibit included an “adventuresome infomercial” promoting a positive interpretation of TWA’s history (x).

In this instance TWA expected the Smithsonian to “share authority” in interpreting their own history. This tenuous relationship raises serious questions about the practice of giving positive interpretations to the highest bidder. It also demands that we consider the interests of those donating funds to cultural institutions. How might donors ask for cultural authority in interpreting their own vision of the past, and what stories are they looking to promote? We should always consider the potential tension between sharing authority with underrepresented/impoverished groups and asking for funds from private donors who may have their own conception of interpretive history. Look no further than Kenneth E. Behring for an example of a philanthropist with his own goals of historical accuracy. Behring donated money to the Smithsonian in the early 2000s while also demanding that multicultural history be removed from the National Museum of American History in favor of a “real” American History that promoted American democracy and a narrative of “progress.”

Providing Access: Once the stories are collected, how do public historians go about sharing and providing access to these stories? Simply putting stories online does not mean that everyone will have access to those stories. Jean-Pierre Morin of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reminded us at the NCPH 2014 Annual Meeting that many indigenous tribes in Canada do not have ready access to the internet. When internet is available, it’s usually at the speed of a dial-up connection. (I also agree with Jennifer Guiliano, who argues that public history and digital history are not interchangeable terms). We should always consider how to best provide access to the stories we tell. I personally am a huge fan of the Philadelphia Public History Truck, which travels to communities around the city and offers residents the chance to share their own historical artifacts and stories at the truck.

Do Public Historians have the authority to share the stories of disaffected cultural groups? As Teresa Bergman points out, sharing historical authority has its limits. How do we maintain a sense of historical professionalism and a dedication to accurate history while promoting inclusiveness? Who gets to make the final decision in what gets included in the final draft of an exhibit, project, program, or website? Are museums, historical societies, and libraries truly for everyone, or should certain perspectives (such as the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War) fade over time and get left behind? Who owns history, and who gets to speak on behalf of the past?

“Sharing authority” means doing more than collecting stories and exposing historical silences. It also means working with donors who may have their own interpretive agendas, providing access to the stuff of history both on and offline, and working to ensure that the public stories being told are truly reflective of the communities that are doing the storytelling.


Pictures from Monterey, California

I returned to Indianapolis just a few hours ago after seven glorious days in Monterey, California, for the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting. I think the conference was a big success and a lot of fun. As most readers already know, I have the great fortune of being NCPH’s Graduate Intern/Program Assistant for the 2013-2014 academic year, so the success of the conference was particularly gratifying on a personal level.

I have a lot of thoughts on my mind about what was discussed at the conference and where the field of public history goes from here. These thoughts will be addressed in future posts, but for now I’d like to share some pictures I took while in Monterey.

National History Day: Who Participates, Who Doesn’t?

I spent yesterday morning volunteering some of my time as a judge at the National History Day competition, Central Indiana District. This is the second time I’ve volunteered to judge for National History Day and I very much enjoy the experience. Last year I judged high school-aged exhibit projects; this year I judged websites created by middle school students. With both years I saw some projects that were clearly last-minute concoctions that relied too much on questionable sources such as the History Channel’s website or interviews with family members. One student even commented in an interview with me that they felt they didn’t need to read any books about their subject because there were a couple websites that provided enough information. YIKES! Nevertheless, these submissions are often the exception to the rule. Most projects are excellent and reflect months of hard work and research. It is a pleasure to help all of these students on their learning journeys.

It’s safe to say there are plenty of young students who take a keen interest in history from a young age. Tens of thousands of American students participate in National History Day annually; in Indiana there were 4,600 students who participated this year, including roughly 500 from the Central Indiana Region.

While I am pleased to see these high numbers, it is striking to analyze who is participating in National History Day and who is not. With regards to Central Indiana I find it significant that the vast majority of participants are coming from mostly white middle class public and private schools in a suburban setting. Students in the Indianapolis Public School District–the ones who live closest to the IUPUI campus in downtown Indianapolis where the competition is held–are noticeably absent from the competition. The participants of National History Day in Central Indiana don’t reflect the actual community of students within the region, and I find that regrettable.

Having spoken to several organizers of National History Day within the state I know they are concerned about the lack of participants from impoverished and under-served areas. I am not sure of the extent of their efforts in promoting National History Day in these regions, but I wonder how we as a community can encourage all students to participate in the event. Are these discrepancies reflective of a lack of awareness, a lack of interest, a lack of accessibility, or a combination of all three? I don’t have any answers, but I would like to know about efforts in others parts of the United States towards making National History Day a more inclusive event.

What do you think?


A Moment of Gratitude for Academics

This past week has been an absolute blur. I gave a paper at a conference on Saturday the 8th, I’m working on creating a visitor studies evaluation for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and my work with the National Council on Public History is hectic as we plan for our 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, which starts on Wednesday, March 19. My formal thesis defense smashed itself on top of these other tasks, taking place this past Tuesday, March 11.

The defense went amazing. It lasted about an hour and a half and it was really more of a conversation than an interrogation. We ended up spending some time towards the end discussing post-graduation life and ways to get parts of my thesis turned into journal articles (more on that in the future). I also got a really good question about how I would interpret the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana in a public history setting, to which I responded with something along the lines of what I discussed in this post about the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and the collective memories of Indianapolis.

I got home from school pretty late that night, around 11PM. Once I got back I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I shed a few tears. It wasn’t a huge blowout sort of cry; just a light moment that acted as a cleanup for my heart in the same way that a person gets an oil change for their car. It felt good. I wasn’t crying because I’m done–I actually still have many edits and a formal format review with the graduate office that still need to be addressed–or because I’m really proud of myself. More than anything it was the fact that I received the approval of a thesis committee that did so much to help me and whose scholarly and personal credentials I stand in awe of. These people took time out of their busy schedules to offer feedback and suggestions for my research while giving me room to make mistakes and find my own way through the process. To have their enthusiastic support meant the world to me, and I don’t take their approval lightly. Beyond these few words it’s hard to convey the sense of gratitude I have for my entire thesis committee and the countless other faculty members at IUPUI who have done so much over the past two years to help me discover the joys of studying history while becoming a critical thinker and engaged citizen in the present.

It is easy for people to construct a picture in their minds of academic scholars as out of touch with the world outside of their ivory tower (or in the case of my professors, the 1970s type building with terrible drinking fountains, windowless offices, and moldy ceilings). While I agree somewhat with Nicholas Kristoff’s calls for some academic writers to move beyond “turgid prose” in their writing and research endeavors, Kristoff goes too far in portraying academics as willfully ignorant of the outside world and perhaps even their classrooms. Academics, in Kristoff’s mind, have relegated themselves to their highly specialized research silos while avoiding the use of social media tools or commentaries on contemporary problems.

In my own experiences I have continually encountered and worked with academics who were the polar opposite of Kristoff’s portrayal. Sure, some disdain social media and blogs, and they all have specialized topics of study that provide fuel for their scholarly endeavors. But almost all of them have also been nothing but supportive of their students’ own scholarly pursuits, and they continually promote their own work in other ways besides monographs and obscure journals. These endeavors include consulting with outside cultural institutions, participating in workshops for k-12 teachers, and in the case of some of them, blogging and tweeting about their research.

I guess the point I’m making is that some of the biggest intellectual heroes in my life are the academics who not only do their own amazing research but also enthusiastically work to help their students in any way possible. Indeed, these academics care greatly about the world around them because they are helping to prepare students for work in that world. Isn’t that one of the reasons people become teachers in the first place? Isn’t the goal of the humanities to make us better humans at the end of the day?

No scholarly writing endeavor can ever be a fully individual effort. While a writer may do all the research and writing, no writer can complete the task of getting their work published without the help of others who offer suggestions, make edits, and ensure that your work is of the highest standard. I am thankful for the help I’ve received and can only hope that I get many opportunities in the future to help people–whether in or out of the classroom–pursue their own journeys in learning.


“This Will Be Our History and Our Glory”

I am presenting a paper about the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, and their memories of the Civil War at the 34th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians on Saturday, March 8. The paper is titled “‘This Will Be Our History and Our Glory:’ Civil War Memories and the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.” I will share some of my arguments from the paper in future blog posts. Below is my paper abstract:

In the only scholarly study of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, historian James H. Madison* declared in 2003 that Hoosier Civil War veterans remembered the conflict in a way that “created silences that denied the central essence of the war.” These veterans, argues Madison, reflected the racial attitudes of late nineteenth century Indiana, where racism, segregation, and violence against African Americans occurred on an all too frequent basis. As products of this racist society, the collective memories of Indiana GAR veterans by the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 allegedly reflected an active “forgetting” of the role of slavery, race, and emancipation in the nation’s deadliest war. More recent scholarship from Barbara A. Gannon and Caroline E. Janney challenges the notion of GAR veterans “forgetting” about these divisive issues, but both of these studies look at the Grand Army of the Republic on a national scale, raising questions about the applicability of these scholars’ theories to the local context of Indiana.

How did Indiana GAR members remember the Civil War? This study analyzes speeches, newspaper articles from the Indianapolis veteran-published American Tribune, and actions of Indiana’s Civil War veterans from 1880-1918 to argue that the members of the Indiana GAR remembered their role in destroying slavery, often intertwining the goals of Union and emancipation together in their interpretations of the conflict. Nevertheless, Hoosier veterans remained largely silent about the imposition of Jim Crow laws and legalized segregation throughout the country. This paper is part of a larger Master’s thesis and is a compilation of original research and scholarly synthesis.

*James H. Madison, “Civil War Memories and ‘Pardnership Forgittin’,” 1865-1913, Indiana Magazine of History 99, no. 3 (September 2003): 198-230.

On De-Mythologizing History

My Twitter buddy and fellow historian Andrew Joseph Pegoda writes a thoughtful essay outlining his conception of historical inquiry and the history of the historical profession itself. I left a comment on the essay, but would like to expand upon those thoughts here.

Andrew posits that there are two different definitions of history. History (with a big H) consists of the study of the past using evidence, resources, and historical methods to construct narratives and interpretations about what happened. history (little h), according to Andrew, is “everything that has ever happened, didn’t happen, everything that has been thought, etc., from less than a millisecond ago.” In sum, little h history largely consists of historical facts. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822. The United States was originally composed of 13 states. And so on.

Andrew continues by lamenting the state of historical literacy in the United States, suggesting that many students today are resistant to seriously analyzing their own myths about the past. He argues that public schools, politicians, and history museums have manipulated little h history to suit their own political agendas to create a mythic past that glorifies America’s alleged exceptionalism while downplaying its own complicated and sometimes dark history of slavery, segregation, nativism, and violence against indigenous populations. In this regard, Andrew’s arguments resemble those of Indiana University professor John Bodnar, who suggests that political and cultural leaders create “official memories” of past events through monuments, memorials, and other symbols as a way of establishing a consensus view of history within society. This consensus history aims to unify a society’s historical understanding of the past–sometimes through myth–as a way of maintaining the political, cultural, and social status quo.

There are many reasons for explaining why people conflate the myths they acquire growing up for big H history that relies on evidence and interpretation for understanding. One reason for this confusion, I would argue, is that the study of history itself has established its own myths over time, myths that historians have helped to perpetuate in their own commentaries about historical methods, the nature of truth, and what exactly constitutes “history” from a content perspective. Indeed, there remains a popular perception of historians working individually in an archive, writing a book, or teaching a class, using evidence obtained from research to objectively report on “how things were” all through the process. Even though public history and the digital humanities have recently emerged as serious and important additions to the field, many outside the walls of academia would be surprised to encounter historians working collaboratively in a digital humanities and/or book project, creating education programs in a public history setting, or working to address contemporary problems and enliven neighborhoods through historic preservation. Historians are often viewed as solitary reactionaries, struggling to pick up the broken pieces of the past while political and cultural elites create their own history in the present. They have struggled to convey the relevance of their field of study to public audiences because those audiences’ very conception of the historian’s craft is often rooted in a mythic understanding of history as it was practiced in the nineteenth century.

As Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier point out, the field of history became professionalized in the nineteenth century, especially towards the end of the century. Academic universities in Europe and later the United States began to include history as a curricular requirement and a field for research and publication. This professionalization led to what Howell and Prevenier describe as the “golden age of text editing and source publication” (41). Many of these scholars strove to make history a more scientific field of inquiry and sought to remove any rendering of the past that suggested a personal bias, a subjective interpretation, or a mythic understanding of the past. The German historian Leopold Von Ranke, for example, argued that historians should strictly limit their studies to provable facts and empirically testable material. This “positivist” view of historical methodology conceived history as “a rendering of the past strictly on its own terms, without grand theory about social systems, causality, or purpose” (88).

The rise of professionalized history can also be tied to the rise of nineteenth century nationalism. For all of their talk about objective truth, many historians during this period contradicted themselves by participating in national projects that aimed to record and celebrate the history of their nation’s past. Howell and Prevenier point to many European projects such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Germany (1819) and The Recueil des Historiens de la France (1899) as scholarly endeavors aimed at romanticizing the past in order to foster social cohesion and national identity in the present. These projects, of course, were hardly objective or strictly limited to historical “facts.”

In the same way that myths provide comfort and understanding about historical events, the mythic nineteenth century view of the discipline of history puts the past in a neat box. Here in the United States, the contradiction of nineteenth century positivist history still seems to have a hold on society’s understanding of historical facts. In my public history work I’ve had countless conversations with people who tell me they just want “the facts” of history without the interpretation. At the same time, however, they express discomfort over any analysis of United States history that might disrupt their own nationalist sentiments and subjective concept of American identity. History, in this view, falls outside the issues of today, allowing for the past to become a source of comfort (which it can and should be, within reason) rather than a source for questions about today. This nineteenth century view also privileges certain types of history (political, military, economics) over others (race, gender, class, material culture), which might explain why books about war, politics, and economics dominate the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble. It might also explain why the field of history continues to have a strong gender and racial imbalance that leans towards white males.

Leopold Von Ranke’s conception of history posits that the study of history has an “endpoint” defined by the discovery and confirmation of factual evidence to explain the past in a single narrative. I view history as a field of inquiry with no “endpoint,” instead representing a lifelong journey of questioning, revision, and interpreting of historical sources that often yield a number of competing perspectives about what actually happened. When we get too comfortable with our understanding of the past, it’s time to start asking more questions of our sources. Convincing young students and the rest of society of the power of history requires us to move our historical methods and thinking beyond the nineteenth century.