Tony Soprano Loves Watching History Documentaries

A History Channel documentary and bowl of ice cream after a hard day’s work in the waste management industry. Photo Credit: AskMen https://www.askmen.com/entertainment/galleries/tv-s-7-deadly-sins-sloth/

In 2019, the American Historical Association published a fascinating study titled “History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey.” Broken up into ten different chapters, this study saw thousands of people respond to a 40-question survey about their relationship to history. Among other things, the study asked respondents to define what history means to them, what their experiences were like in history classes growing up, and what aspects of history they wanted to learn more about. One of the most fascinating chapters of the study asks respondents to explain what mediums they use to better understand history.

The first thought that came to my mind when seeing this chapter was that the internet had to be the number one source for obtaining information about history. Historians and lay audiences often spend a lot of time online, after all, and scholars of all different disciplines have been pre-occupied with promoting media literacy in recent years given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.

Much to my surprise, however, only 59 percent of respondents stated that they relied on a “non-Wikipedia” source online to learn about history and only 46 percent relied on Wikipedia as a source. In other words, only about six in ten people use the internet as a source for obtaining information history.

Instead, the survey found that the top three sources relied on by respondents were documentary films/TV series (69%), fictional movies/TV series (66%), and TV News (62% – yikes). As the study itself noted, “the top three choices were all video format . . . of note is that such sources are readily available, usually take minimal effort to engage, and may ask for little imagination on the part of the viewer.” For a variety of reasons, televised historical content does the best at reaching people where they are and meeting them on their own terms. Moreover, these results give the impression that casual viewers are more interested in watching content in a visual format rather than reading that content in a digital or print paper form.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications of this study, but my own TV watching habits led me to an unlikely source of enlightenment: Tony Soprano.

Tony Soprano is a history enthusiast. He cares greatly about his family’s history, his neighborhood’s history, and the history of the United States more broadly. He likes talking about history at the dinner table. He likes to watch old black-and-white movies and History Channel documentaries, particularly about World War II, in his free time. Very perceptively, Tony also distinguishes between history and nostalgia, arguing in one of my favorite lines of the series that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Tony’s life is full of chaos, but those rare moments at the TV set provide watching the History Channel provide some sense of normalcy.

Importantly, other sources of information about history—the internet, history books (popular history or academic history), lectures, museums, historic sites, or a formal classroom–do not figure into Tony’s life. After all, he’s a busy guy in a face-to-face industry. There’s been a lot of change with the internet between 2007 and 2022, but I suspect that many people, particular baby boomers and older, still don’t spend a great deal of time online.

I think the point of my thoughts here is that while I am someone who prefers to read historical content with an academic flavor, I am constantly reminded that the vast majority of history enthusiasts do not consume history the same way I do. Public history, as I have said time and time again, is about meeting people where they are. In this case of Tony Soprano, that means working to ensure that historical documentaries convey good information to their audiences. After all, some people who watch these documentaries might “graduate” to learning more online, visiting a historic site, or reading a book, but many viewers like Tony Soprano might never go beyond watching that documentary. I totally get it. I love watching National Geographic documentaries about nature, but I don’t have many books about science in my library. My interest in science is to a large extent centered around the television and an occasional science museum visit. It’s not that I don’t care about science so much as that we all have busy lives that require us to choose what we want to be experts in.

Moving forward, I’m going to try and work on taking more time to study history documentaries and to think more critically about their format and content delivery. I found Brooks Simpson’s review of the History Channel’s 2020 documentary, Grant, to be quite enlightening on this front. I also applaud the work of my colleagues in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who have designed an innovative course on documentary filmmaking for public history graduate students that teaches them the basics of historical interpretation, script writing, and video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Such a course could be valuable for public historians wanting to pursue their passion for history through film and television.

Cheers

Can Colorized Photos Help People Better Understand the Past?

My colorization of Thomas Easterly’s photograph of Bob Wilkinson, a prominent barber and member of St. Louis’s free Black community before the Civil War. The original photo is courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.

It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.

A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.

How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.

In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.

To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.

A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.

My colorization of an unidentified USCT soldier stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Original photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of Enoch Long’s backdrop used in many photos he took at Benton Barracks during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hoffman, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.

Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.

Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.

Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.

Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.

It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.

Cheers

Notes on the “Reframing History” Report

For many years, public historians have called for an updated version of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1998 book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. That book summarized the results of a phone survey of 1,453 Americans from a range of backgrounds who reflected on their relationship with history. Participants in that study were asked how they define history, what value they put on it, and what sources they relied on to generate their understandings of the past.

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have recently formed a partnership called “Reframing History.” This partnership is working with FrameWorks to conduct research and update our collective understandings of how people define their relationship with history. This work should be applauded. I was excited to read their recently published report, “Making History Work: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” when it was published earlier this week. According to the report’s research methods paper, 54 people were interviewed via Zoom and nearly 5,000 people filled out an online survey, tripling the number of respondents who participated in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s 1998 study.

What follows here is a summarization of four recommendations the report makes and some comments I have on these recommendations. Overall I think this report is a useful tool that public history sites should keep on file and discuss among staff that interacts with the public. I certainly look forward to chatting about it with my colleagues. However, I question a number of arguments and assumptions made in the report.

Introduction

The report argues that history communicators should strive to frame history as an ongoing process of developing critical thinking skills. These skills will help people better participate in contemporary society and promote a better future. The authors suggest that there are popular misconceptions about the purpose of history and the methods historians use to better understand the past. Somewhat controversially (to me, at least), the authors assert that “the reality is that people think of history as a hobby for enthusiasts rather than as something they should be concerned about.”

I disagree strongly with this latter assertion. History is of great interest to many people who are not professionals or don’t consider themselves professionals. The Barnes & Noble history section always gets a lot of traffic, history documentaries get high ratings, and people turn to a wide rage of sources to obtain information about the past. People who consume history often describe themselves as enthusiasts and are certainly concerned about history and the way it is taught. The challenge, to me, is not that people don’t care about history. It’s that new academic historical scholarship is not taken seriously or viewed with suspicion by many of the same enthusiasts who readily consume content on the History Channel or a David McCullough book. Public historians who challenge conventional understandings of the past or attempt to broaden narratives to include new racial, gender, or sexuality perspectives often face potential backlash for their efforts.

Another note with the introduction. One thing that immediately stuck out to me is that this report uses the term “communicators” as opposed to “public historians” or even “history communicators.” I’m sure this term was used in an effort to be inclusive given that not everyone who discusses history with public audiences identifies as a public historian. Fair enough. But as someone who personally identifies as a public historian, I find the term “communicator” awkward. What are we communicating about? We are communicating the stuff of history to public audiences from all different types of backgrounds. Regardless of whether one personally identifies as a historian, that person is a “history communicator” when they work within the realm of public history. Somewhat relatedly, while the list of authors and advisory board members of this report come from impressive backgrounds–including National Park Service sites and history museums–I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these scholars currently communicate with the public on a regular basis about history as a part of their daily work beyond the scope of this report.

Recommendation 1

The report argues that lay audiences consider the study of history to be an effort by scholars to find one universal, factual “truth” about the past. This truth, once it has been obtained, is definite and unchanging. Anyone who challenges historical “truth” is therefore criticized as being biased, subject, or a “revisionist.” To remedy this popular perception, the authors argue that history communicators should focus on skills-building rather than finding the “truth.” They should avoid talking about “historical truth” and instead help people formulate a “deeper understanding of our society and how it came to be.” Moreover, history communicators should stress the importance of using a variety of methods to study diverse perspectives and forms of evidence. The authors even go so far as to suggest that rather than saying “by studying history, we make sense of the past by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting [historical] stories,” history communicators should say “by studying history, we build critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of our lives.”

While it is certainly important to stress the methodological benefits of studying history, the teaching of critical thinking skills should not be prioritized at the expense of answering difficult questions people may have about the accuracy of a given historical event. Rather than avoiding discussions about the meaning of “truth,” I would rather expand the idea of “truth” to suggest that multiple truths can coexist simultaneously. By extension, multiple plausible interpretations of a given event can coexist simultaneously. To this point, I think there is real value in what the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes as the “four truths of history.” These truths–forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, and healing truth–do a nice job of highlighting the intersection of memory and history in understanding the past. A person may have a memory about the past that they consider the truth. A society may have an understanding of the past that they consider the truth (as expressed through monuments, memorials, and other public iconography). And yet individuals and societies may hold individual and collective truths that don’t fully align with the historical record, which leads to the creation of myths and misinformation about the past. An important part of public history is helping people navigate the intersection of memory, history, and The Past. Avoiding discussions about the meaning of truth seems counterintuitive for any effort to discuss the meaning of history.

Recommendation 2

The report argues that people view historians as objective journalists who are asked to simply “report the facts.” With this view of history, the historian-journalist dutifully reports past events exactly as they happened. Eyewitness accounts are prioritized as the final word on what happened in the past; efforts by historians to critically analyze, contextualize, or interpret these eyewitness accounts is seen as a potential road to a biased understanding of the past. “The belief that the past can be easily and straightforwardly documented and reported on is connected to the public’s belief that ‘one truth’ about the past is out there waiting to be found,” according to the authors. The best way to work through these misconceptions is to use the metaphor of detective work to describe the historical process (but not the term “detective,” which the authors believe could lead to negative associations with police). The report argues that the detective metaphor is preferred to the journalism metaphor because it better demonstrates the use of sources and methods to provide new understandings of a past event.

The detective metaphor is not a new innovation. Nikki Madel and Bobbie Malone’s 2008 guidebook for k-12 history teachers effectively used the detective metaphor to help teachers explain the purpose of history to their students. Nevertheless I do think it is a useful metaphor and I have used it myself to explain the purpose of history to audiences (although I admit that I don’t see how the term “detective work” does not convey images of law enforcement while the term “detective” does). But it’s worth asking whether the terms “journalist” and “detective” are as opposite as the authors make them out to be. Doesn’t detective work also rely on eyewitnesses? Don’t journalists try to rely on a wide range of sources when conducting research and not simply eyewitness testimony? At the end of the day, aren’t journalists and detectives trying their best to find “one truth about the past . . . out there waiting to be found?”

A different metaphor mentioned in the methods report would be the advancement of medical knowledge. Simply put, nobody wants to receive medical care today using medical knowledge and tools from 1850 or 1950. That doesn’t mean that medical knowledge from 1850 or 1950 isn’t useful. On the contrary, we could learn a lot about what worked and didn’t work by studying medical history from those periods. But ultimately our understanding of medicine is updated as new insights are made and new technological advancements are made. The medicine metaphor is as useful if not more useful than the detective metaphor.

Recommendation 3

The report argues that non-historians recognize the importance of learning from past mistakes, oftentimes repeating the overly-simplistic Santayana quote about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it. The authors argue that this knowledge suggests that many people recognize the importance of studying history. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that what it means to reckon with and “move forward” from the past greatly varies from person to person. They suggest that history communicators speak to universal ideals of progress and justice when explaining the significance of history, although they stress that communicators do not need to use these terms explicitly. With this view of history, the authors suggest that history communicators should not simply explain how we’ve gotten to the present, but that an emphasis should be made to highlight how history can create a more just future. The authors argue that framing history as essential to a better world “builds support for dedicating more resources” towards history education in schools, museums, and elsewhere.

In a world where every word is seemingly politicized and even bland terms like “social justice” and “progress” are viewed with scorn in certain quarters, I am skeptical of the pivot towards the future rather than what’s happening here and now. While I certainly believe history can help create a more just future, I am doubtful that such claims will lead to increased resources for history education.

More philosophically, I do not believe history automatically provides a roadmap for a more just world or helps us predict what is going to happen next. Without being overly pessimistic, it seems obvious to me that history proves that the arc of the moral universe does not automatically bend towards justice. I am reminded of what historian Robert Greene III argued on Twitter several years ago. While I don’t have his exact tweets on hand, Greene essentially argued that there will always be new mistakes to be made, unprecedented problems that can’t be solved by studying history, and new challenges that history alone can’t solve. Moreover, those who have a strong knowledge of history (see history and law student Vladimir Putin, for example), are often just as susceptible to making grave, tragic mistakes that negatively harm the world.

Am I opposed to promoting justice and progress? Of course not. But I do feel that the work of public history should be rooted in appreciating the ways history shapes our world today. How we move forward from history and what will happen in the future are questions that cannot be resolved by historians alone.

Recommendation 4

The report calls for history communicators to use specific, concrete examples to build support for inclusive history. Harkening back to a crucial insight from The Presence of the Past, the authors call for history communicators to emphasize local history when discussing inclusive narratives. This method shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) made a difference in local communities and will “help ward off abstract worries about the ‘liberal agenda’ of distant elites being imposed at home.”

I thought this recommendation was the strongest of the report and I don’t have many thoughts to add to it.

Discussion of “Critical Race Theory”

The report argues that:

“The recent backlash against ‘critical race theory’ (that is, teaching about systemic racism in schools and universities) is grounded in the assumption that when it comes to history, what matters and counts is the history of white people.”

This is a shortsighted, overly simplistic explanation of “critical race theory” criticisms that does little to advance the conversation forward.

While I have no doubt that racism does play a role for some CRT critics, I would argue that a great number of them are not opposed to having people of color in the history curriculum. They want discussions of Martin Luther King, Jr., but they want a non-controversial version of MLK who expressed his love for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and not the version of MLK who questioned capitalism, criticized the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, and criticized white moderates for their indifference to racial justice. They want Frederick Douglass as a loyal Republican party member, but not the Douglass who eloquently explained why African Americans did not view the 4th of July as “their” holiday or who believed Abraham Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” They want examples of minority success that reaffirm notions of American exceptionalism. They want stories that highlight the idea of individual success because any examination of systematic, structural racism (such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the reservation system, or immigration restrictions based on race and ethnicity) is deemed “critical race theory” in the service of socialism, Marxism, or some other boogyman “ism” that is declared to be at war with American values. In other words, critics of so-called “critical race theory” ground their position not in wanting an all-white history, but in the assumption that what matters and counts are positive individual stories that promote patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the United States.

The failure to probe the relationship between participants’ views towards history and their views towards the nation is disappointing given the long history of “patriotic education” in the United States. Since the late 19th century, a central aim of history education has focused on promoting love of country and a belief that America was the shining example of democracy for the rest of the world. In this sense history education was seen as a “practical” study that prepared students to be ready to defend the country in times of need. Much of the anxiety surrounding CRT is rooted in the fact that history education in recent years has aimed to highlight stories of struggle, marginalization, and violence that do not automatically conform to the “patriotic education” model. Therefore critics fear that students are being taught to “hate” their country, when in reality the aim of many history teachers (and public historians) has been to demonstrate how concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy have been contested throughout U.S. history, and that this work continues today.

(You can read and download an article I wrote about “patriotic education” below).

In conclusion, I think the spirit of reframing history is much needed, and I think this report will be useful for future public historians. But I was surprised by how often I found myself at odds with some of the central conclusions of the report. I hope future studies can be conducted that take a deeper look at how people conceive of history’s purposes within the context of how they view the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, and the nation-state.

Cheers

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, “Muster,” is now live. I wrote about my experiences running the Facebook and Twitter accounts for Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, from April 2017 to April 2018. I discuss a few strategies I learned for crafting effective social media posts during that time and the importance of historical sites making a dedicated effort to interpret the past on social media.

Being the social media manager for REER was a high honor and something I take great pride in as a public historian. The chance to participate in the formative stages of a new National Park Service unit’s overall development is rare; that REER is the first NPS unit to make Reconstruction a central interpreting focus of the site is all the more significant. So it was pretty exciting when I got a call from folks in the NPS Southeast Region seeing if I’d be interested in helping to promote the site online. The reason I got that call, I should add, is because of my social media presence on Twitter and my writings on this blog. Someone noticed my historical scholarship and my passion for Reconstruction, and that in turn opened this door for me.

I can’t stress enough to readers how time-consuming it can be to create a good social media post. In addition to having a strong knowledge of a given historical topic, one must work to write and re-write drafts of their posts so that they are clear, concise, and interesting. They also need to find compelling images and make sure those images are copyright-free. For REER I had to come up with an idea, conduct research, write a draft, have that draft reviewed by historians at the NPS Southeast Region, make any necessary changes, and then schedule the post for publication on Facebook and Twitter.

I was in a unique situation with REER because I am based in St. Louis and have never been to South Carolina before. I have a good general knowledge of the Reconstruction era but needed to read up on South Carolina’s particular circumstances during that period (Thomas Holt, Willie Lee Rose, Richard Zuczek, Stephen Wise, and Lawrence S. Rowland helped me a lot). Since the site is currently closed to the public, there were few events going on and I wasn’t part of the daily, on-the-ground experiences at the site. I therefore focused largely on historical content–both nationally and relative to Beaufort–and the historiography of Reconstruction studies. As I mention in the essay, REER had more than 1,100 Facebook followers and 700 Twitter followers by the time I finished. Not bad! It was sometimes challenging to find enough time to consistently update and keep an eye of REER’s social media accounts, but overall I’m proud of the work I did and I hope I can keep helping the site in some capacity moving forward.

Cheers

Yes, I Am A Historian Who Cares About the Truth

A real photo of WWII soldiers raising an American Flag https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima#/media/File:WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising.jpg

Phil Leigh, a Civil War author and blogger who I’ve never heard of or interacted with before, criticizes me in a recent blog post about the Confederate flag on his website. The issue begins with an essay by Andy Hall. Noticing that a popular photo-shopped image of a World War II Marine in the Pacific with a Confederate flag was going viral on social media, Hall did some quick research and clearly demonstrated that the photo was a fake. I re-blogged the essay here because I appreciated Hall’s detective work and efforts to correct misinformation on the internet. By sharing it on this blog, however, I seemed to have fallen into Leigh’s bad graces.

Leigh argues that both Hall and I ignore tangible evidence that some white southern soldiers flew the Confederate flag during WWII and that they flew it as a genuine expression of southern pride. He also points to a different post of his where he shares nine real images of WWII soldiers with Confederate flags.

Okay, great, but that wasn’t the point of Hall’s post or why I shared it here. Neither Hall nor I deny the existence of Confederate flags among WWII soldiers, and Hall did not write the post with the intention of providing an overview of the flag’s use during the war. The point of the post was to highlight a deliberate attempt to falsify history for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political position and a preferred version of history. The post also highlights how quickly misinformation spreads on social media. If you want to use images of WWII soliders flying Confederate flags, share the real pictures, plain and simple. Why distort the past to promote Confederate heritage today? It’s lazy and dishonest.

Leigh is not finished with me, however. In a detour of his critique of Hall, he also criticizes my recent essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era about Civil War gift shops and concludes that “[Sacco] sees no reason why items displaying the Confederate flag should be sold in Civil War museum gifts shops.” Again, that was not the point of the essay. My argument is that memory scholars and public historians need to undertake a more critical analysis of the items that are sold in these spaces. What do those items say about the ways people remember the Civil War? What are the values of a given historic site, and how do gift shop items reinforce or detract from those larger values and mission of a site? That is not the same as saying all Confederate flags must go, and I even concluded the essay by saying that a “one-size-fits-all solution” to the questions I raise does not exist. If Civil War gift shops want to continue selling Confederate merchandise, great. I think it is more than fair, however, to put that merchandise under a critical lens and push museums to think about gift shops as an extension of their mission. My point is not to engage in “political correctness” or an outright ban on selling Confederate flags, which Leigh and his commenters suggest.

On top of these critiques, Leigh feels the need to point out my employment status to his readers, although he does not do the same for Hall. One wonders why he feels the need to do that other than to suggest that my employer creates a bias that prevents me from practicing honest history, or that I have some sort of alternate motive for writing about history besides seeking truth and understanding. Perhaps there’s a different way to interpret Leigh’s mention of my employment status, but I do find the action very odd regardless.

Let’s get to the bottom of this strange discussion and put it to rest: altering historic photos for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political cause or a preferred version of history is wrong. Sharing these photos online is doubly wrong, and the image in question that Hall exposed as being photo-shopped has unfortunately gone viral. Hall was right to correct it, as he’s done with a lot of bad history over the years on his blog. Why does Leigh feel the need to criticize Hall instead of the people who create and share false history? Furthermore, it’s rather pretentious for someone who does not know me to title their post “Which Historian Cares About the Truth?” and then subtly suggest that I (and Andy Hall) don’t. You’ll have to forgive me if I find such an approach obnoxious and bothersome. It’s one thing to say “I disagree with your conclusions,” but another thing entirely to say that I don’t care about the truth.

I welcome comments of the former variety, but not of the latter. Mr. Leigh suggests readers view both of our essays and draw their own conclusions, and I encourage the same.

Cheers

Exploring the Past Turns 5

Photo Credit: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/explore/helicopter-cake/

January 1 marks the fifth anniversary of creating Exploring the Past. Establishing on online presence to share thoughts, ideas, and scholarship with interested readers and to network with other history scholars has been immensely rewarding for me on a personal and professional level. I initially created this website as an avenue to work on my writing skills while I was a graduate student at IUPUI and to contemplate (in a public setting) what studying history meant to me. I continue to write here for those same reasons, but as a professional public historian I’ve also worked to discuss challenges I face in my work and to contribute to larger conversations within the field about fair employment practices, “public engagement,” and interpreting difficult histories.

Through this blog I’ve written more than 400 posts and have received thousands of comments, most of which came from real people and were positive in nature. I’ve developed strong real-life and online friendships, have been offered speaking and writing gigs, and have felt a sense of personal accomplishment from this blog. Most notably for this year, through this blog I was offered a regular writing position at the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog Muster, which has put me in contact with some of the finest Civil War scholars in the field and has challenged me to become a better writer.

What guides me in my public writing is the belief that historians should make their work accessible in content, style, and location. Historians will continue writing in long-form mediums like books and journal articles because the field needs “slow scholarship” – scholarship that needs time for comprehensive research, thinking, and evolution over a long period of time, oftentimes several years. But blogging is a unique art form in and of itself: the ability to break down a complex topic into 100 to 1,200 words is a challenge not easily accomplished even by the best historians. History blogging oftentimes reaches an audience much broader than the one reached by books and journal articles, and it forces writers to put their best foot forward when making an argument that will reach an audience beyond the confines of the academy or the museum. I consider my public writing an extension of my work as a public historian and it offers me a chance to discuss topics that I may not get to discuss in my regular job.

I believe 2017 was a major year of growth for me as a historian, intellectual, and scholar. I gave several talks, including one you can see here in which I discussed controversial public monuments; I wrote a journal article on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret that now looks to be published next year; I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education; I made huge strides at work, where I’ve taken on increased responsibilities, including developing education programs for schools and senior groups, running teacher workshops, and conducting historical research; and I wrote five online essays that in my belief constitute some of my best writing:

Conversely, my personal success was marked on this blog with a good number of negative, personally insulting, and trollish comments – more than the previous four years combined. I attribute part of this development to the internet in general, where efforts to improve the public discourse are Sisyphean in nature, but I also believe it’s reflective of this blog’s growing readership. If a post shows up on Google and ends up being shared by a few people who may love or hate what you have to say, you’ll quickly find out that people from all parts of the globe will find your writings, for better or worse.

What was particularly strange for me was the number of negative comments on blog posts that I wrote several years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect writer, and the work of improving one’s writing is a process that takes years to develop. There has been a noticeable movement among Twitter users to delete old tweets that could be harmful in the present, and more than a few times I have contemplated deleting old blog posts here that no longer reflect my thinking (and there are a good number of them here). I have made mistakes over the past five years and it would be easy to remove them. At the same time, however, I believe this blog is in some ways a tangible story of my growth and development as a historian. It is a personal archive of sorts, and I choose to leave it as is not just for others but for myself.

2018 will start with lots of exciting projects and I look forward to seeing what happens from here. As always, thank you for your readership and support over the past five years.

Cheers

Where Can I Find Primary Source Documents on the Causes of the Civil War?

Are you teaching your students about the Civil War and looking for primary source documents connected to its outbreak? Have you engaged in a conversation with a friend who doesn’t want to acknowledge the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war and you want to direct them to an accessible online resource? Are you starting your own journey into Civil War causation and not sure where to start?

Look no further than James F. Epperson’s wonderful website, Causes of the Civil War. Started in 1996, Jim has meticulously researched and digitized literally hundreds of speeches, newspaper articles, and statistics related to the secession crisis over the past twenty years. We are fortunate to have these documents preserved and so easily accessible on the internet today. I cannot recommend Jim’s website enough. If I could recommend a starting point, go with the various state Declarations of Secession, especially Mississippi and South Carolina. They clearly tell us why those states attempted to leave the Union.

Also, Jim is an occasional reader of this blog and he recently posted a Letter to the Editor of the Missouri Republican in support of slavery and sectional compromise that I shared on this website not too long ago. That letter was a fascinating insight into the thoughts of a pro-Union border slave state resident as the country was on the brink of disunion.

Cheers

Public History, Social Media, and the Importance of Place in Shaping Meaningful Dialogue

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is an organization dedicated to commemorating difficult histories throughout the world. They have done much work in recent years to reshape the field of interpretation with groundbreaking initiatives that place facilitated dialogue front and center in public history programs, and I’ve had the privilege of taking several training courses with ICSC over the past year. I’m a big fan of ICSC and their mission.

The training I received focused on facilitating dialogue at National Parks. In the most recent course I took it was reinforced repeatedly that place is an extremely important element in fostering good conversation; where the dialogue takes place is as important as the topic under discussion. A nineteenth century farm owned by a German-American resident opens up an avenue for discussing immigration to the United States today, whereas if that farm was cultivated by slave labor it could open a different conversation about race or slavery. I took that point to heart at the time, but it was reinforced today after flipping through ICSC’s Facebook page. To commemorate Black History Month, ICSC reached out to a number of different history museums this week asking them to pose a question on their page about race and civil rights in the United States. While this attempt to start a meaningful online dialogue came from a place of good intentions, few followers of the page (which number more than 3,000) chose to engage in the discussion, and the comments that did come were…interesting:

Sites of Conscience Troll

While it’s perfectly valid to ask where the numbers came from for this post, we can also see a troublesome Ben Stein approach to discussing racism which implies that any desire to discuss race or racism in American society is itself a racist act. More broadly the place where this discussion occurred–Facebook–presents a serious barrier to partaking in a meaningful dialogue about this topic. While public historians over the past twenty-five years have embraced the “shared authority” paradigm as a way of including visitors and communities in the creation of history exhibits in museums and other educational programs, I think we continue to struggle with how to put the shared authority paradigm into practice within the world of online websites and social media outlets because they are places we still haven’t figured out yet. Fellow public historian Elizabeth Catte even wonders if shared authority will be around much longer given that many digital audiences use platforms like comment sections for the sole purpose of trolling and being confrontational with others.

A few years ago my local paper decided to get rid of its own internal comment section (which allowed people to post anonymously) and instead outsource this task to Facebook so that all commenters had to post from their personal accounts. The prevailing belief among the paper’s editorial staff was that people would be inclined to tone down their hurtful rhetoric if they had to post something with their name attached to it. That of course never happened, and just about any hot-button issue you read about in this paper will be accompanied by confirmation bias, insulting and racist comments, off-topic rants, silly memes, and much more.

Can we ever get beyond “don’t read the comments!” in internet discourse? While Facebook proclaims itself as a place for making and maintaining relationships with people, the sheer size of the platform and the still relatively easy path for creating a sense of anonymity creates an emotional distance that leads some people to say hurtful things and manufacture outrage at the smallest slight or perceived issue. I gave up trying to have conversations there about politics or current events a long time ago because it was obvious that even people I considered to be great friends would have no qualms about posting rude comments towards me because my views didn’t meet their standards of ideological purity.

The biggest problem I see with a group like ICSC trying to hold a facilitated dialogue on Facebook is that there is no mechanism to establish boundaries and guidelines for maintaining a productive conversation besides deleting comments after they’ve been posted. Facilitated dialogue is premised on the idea that participants seek to gain a better understand of each other and different perspectives rather than trying to convince others of any particular viewpoint, so in that regard the medium is fairly open-ended in terms of content. But dialogue without any regulations is essentially an unproductive newspaper comments section. Directing Facebook users to a moderated space within ICSC’s website could be more productive than trying to host the conversation on Facebook itself. A set of rules on the organization’s website asking all participants to respect each other, put a check their on biases and assumptions, listen to others, and consent to these standards before commenting could provide a useful mechanism for advancing important conversations. It would be no different than providing a disclaimer page similar to the one on this website. My idea is not perfect and I don’t think anyone has really figured out how to make the internet a more civil place, but it’s the start of a much larger conversation we need to have about sharing (or perhaps moderating) authority on the internet when it comes to interpreting the stuff of history.

What do you think?

Cheers

Print Books Still Play an Important Role in Learning Experiences

By User:David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, User:Jorge Ryan, and User:ZX95 - File:Uncut book p1190369.jpg , File:Used books 001.jpg , and File:Austria - Admont Abbey Library - 1407.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21987941
Photo Credit: Wikipedia, David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, and Jorge Ryan.

In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.

I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.

Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!

Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.

Cheers

I’m Not Worried About Teenagers Taking Selfies at National Parks

"What's the Wi-Fi Password for this area?
“What’s the Wi-Fi Password for this area?

The National Park Service recently began debating the merits of adding free public wi-fi to its various units throughout the United States. At Yellowstone, for example, park officials in 2014 discussed the possibility of adding a $34 million fiber-optic line to the park’s facilities, and Director Jon Jarvis made a pledge to have Wi-Fi up and running in all NPS Visitor Centers by the end of 2016. Advocates of adding wi-fi typically make an argument about achieving “relevance” with young people and so-called millennials, while critics argue that wi-fi will detract from the experience of visiting a national park by adding an element of modern life that is costly and distracting. The discussion has been passionate and at times heated, and good points have been made by all sides. But it’s important that any talk of wireless internet and other digital technology in national parks be rooted in actual evidence about the ways people use such technology. Alison Griswold’s unfortunate essay in Quartz demonstrates how all sides have over-inflated their arguments and made the false assumption that digital technology is primarily a concern for millennial audiences only.

Griswold immediately indicates her position with a ridiculous title for her essay: “Democrats want to ruin America’s national parks with Wi-Fi.” That claim assumes that wi-fi would in fact be detrimental to the parks (that hasn’t been proven), that only Democrats support this initiative, and is about as silly as overgeneralizing that “Republicans want to ruin America’s national parks with privatization and fracking initiatives.” While a recent letter to President Obama in support of national parks with wi-fi was in fact penned by Democratic members of Congress, such a characterization of this discussion in blue and red terms is ridiculous and says a lot about the authors of such partisan hitpieces.

The central focus of the Democrats’ letter to the President asserts that “improved connectivity will help to make our parks accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics.” This is a flawed approach for several reasons. We might point out, for one, that while outreach efforts to millennials are important, the largest generational demographic currently patronizing National Parks are Baby Boomers, primarily because they have the financial means and the post-retirement freedom to travel. So Baby Boomers must play an integral role in this conversation because it involves more than just millennials on phones. The letter, however, does just that by assuming that adding wi-fi is necessary insofar as it might attract millennials to National Parks. But research about millennials and cell phones suggests that they are not necessarily the social media-obsessed, glued-to-the-phone caricatures they are often portrayed to be. Studies conducted by Michael Welsh, Sue Bennett, and Eszter Hargittai all confirm that millennials are “no better or worse at using technology that the rest of the population.” Millennials’ skill level and comfort with digital technology varies widely; Hargittai points out that socioeconomic factors such as family income levels, parental education, internet access, gender, and geography all shape the ways millennials first become acquainted with technology. In sum, millennials might feel an impulse to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon, but others may opt to go hiking or take in an interpretive program with a ranger. It’s not guaranteed that millennials’ first impulse at a National Park would include pulling out a phone, or that if they did pull out a phone it would only be used for social media-related reasons.

But there’s more. A lengthy study by Pew Research on U.S. smartphone usage suggests that older generations eagerly use digital technology too. 64 percent of all Americans own a smartphone, including 79 percent of Americans aged 30-49 and 57 percent of Americans aged 50-64. More than 50 percent of Americans aged between 30-49 have done online banking or looked up health information on a smartphone, while more than 40 percent have looked up a government service, searched for a job, or viewed real estate listings. More than half of all Americans aged 30-64 have used GPS on their smartphone. One study argues that “Baby Boomers embrace technology as much as younger users,” while a USAToday report finds that seniors are relying on smartphones, the internet, and other digital technology to communicate with loved ones and obtain healthcare-related needs such as filling prescriptions and finding information about local doctors.

Griswold, as a representative of the anti-Wi-Fi crowd, engages in her own distortions about millennials and digital technology. She suggests that “while improving Wi-Fi coverage in Yellowstone might increase its popularity among young people, it could also deter visitors looking to unplug,” a claim she makes without explaining how or why someone who visits a park without a phone might be deterred from visiting because someone else would want to experience a park with a phone. Perhaps she’s subtly suggesting that there’s a “right way” to visit a National Park and that long-time visitors to National Parks resent that their favorite sites are becoming more popular and being experienced in ways that differ from their own. Finally, she paints her own “grim vision of the future” at National Parks: “Wi-Fi campgrounds, and parks teeming with Snapchatting- and Instagramming-millennials.” Oh, the horror!!! Griswold, of course, is creating a caricature of smartphone usage that narrowly defines who uses smartphones and for what purposes they are using those phones.

The point I’m trying to make is that people of all ages use smartphones, access the internet, and embrace digital technology as a means for communicating with others and obtaining important information. Wi-Fi at National Parks could benefit everyone that visits a park, not just millennials.

Rather than portraying Wi-Fi at National Parks as some sort of narcissistic millennial oasis of selfies, tweets, and snapchats, we should broadly consider the ways Wi-Fi enhances and detracts from visitor safety and enjoyment during their experiences at National Parks. How can digital technology enhance learning experiences at National Parks? How could Wi-Fi make visitors and employees safer? Access to Wi-Fi could allow an injured hiker to more easily access help in case of an emergency or allow relatives at home to contact loved ones at isolated parks. It could possibly help someone who takes a wrong turn in their car get back onto the correct street. More than 700 people have died at Grand Canyon National Park since 1850 and about twelve people a year die at the Canyon today. How many of these deaths could have been potentially avoided had Wi-Fi been available? Could NPS employee Chuck Caha’s 2014 death in the heat of Death Valley been avoided had there been Wi-Fi around?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a strong opinion one way or the other on this topic. But I think a reasoned discussion that revolves around the benefits and pitfalls of Wi-Fi as a means for promoting enhanced safety and enjoyment of National Parks makes a lot more sense than debating whether or not teenagers will be taking more selfies on their phones when visiting parks with Wi-Fi.

Cheers