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

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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

Pros and Cons of Historical Markers

Last week an Alabama-based Civil Rights organization, Equal Justice Initiative, released a report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report is unique in that it compiles a comprehensive inventory of nearly 4,000 lynching victims throughout the Deep South from 1877 to 1950, including many new names not listed in previous inventories. The New York Times also ran a story on the report with fancy visuals and more background information on Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI.

A lot of interesting discussions emerged on my Twitter feed about various strong and weak points of the report and the need to provide more context about the horrifying consequences of lynching so that these victims are not portrayed as mere numbers or crime statistics. Historian Kidada E. Williams covers some of these concerns here.

I’ve been focusing on the public history side of these discussions. Central to Mr. Stevenson’s vision for reckoning with this history is the erection of historical markers in locations where lynchings occurred. By installing these permanent markers at “ground zero” sites, Americans will have daily, tangible reminders of the lives lost by white mob violence in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. I believe the idea of erecting historical markers to commemorate this tough history is necessary, but that it’s only a starting point for further inquiry.

Historical markers come with certain advantages and disadvantages for thinking critically about history outside the classroom. Generally speaking, historical markers are a cost-effective investment in history for towns, cities, and states of all sizes. Besides the initial start-up costs for erecting a marker there is little expense beyond basic maintenance to maintain historical markers, which allows small towns like Kirvin, Texas, and Elaine, Arkansas, to preserve a part of their history without the expense of a museum, historical society, temporary exhibit, or professional staff. And historical markers, combined with digital technology, allow for viewers to write, photograph, collect, and share their experiences at markers through websites like Historypin and The Historical Marker Database. Historical markers also do a good job of emphasizing the importance of local, regional, and state history that often gets passed over in the history classroom. Many of the markers researched and cared for by the Indiana Historical Bureau, for example, do a nice job of connecting local history to national history in a way that demonstrates how small communities throughout Indiana have contributed to the story of the United States.

A historical marker, however, can only take you so far. A marker will not answer any questions in real time that you may have about the content you are reading. Most markers are limited to around 20 to 200 words, and in many cases that text doesn’t go beyond the restatement of basic facts, leaving readers wondering why a particular marker is significant (this marker dedicated to Hannah Milhous Nixon is a great example. Why is this marker important? Who cares?). I personally have had experiences at historic homes, museums, Civil War battlefields, national parks, and even monuments and statues that inspired me to learn more about a given historical topic and, equally important, share that interest with friends and family. With the exception of one uniquely notable historical marker, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such feelings after looking at a historical marker.

It’s one thing to read historical content on a static marker. It’s a whole other experience to engage in active dialogue with an interpreter or educator in a public history setting who has passion, content knowledge, and the ability to craft an interpretive story that creates meaning and raises questions that one may not readily consider when looking at a marker text alone. When at all possible I prefer to listen to and converse with an interpreter than read a marker text. I realize that not everyone would chose to learn in this manner, but the point is that we should strive to create interpretive opportunities in both settings so that interested parties have multiple avenues in which to connect with the past.

Talking about a difficult and sensitive topic like lynching requires intensive training in both historical content and interpretive techniques, however, and I’m curious to learn more about places where interpreters regularly discuss these topics. What are cultural institutions doing to discuss lynching and rioting in museum exhibits, public programming, and other interpretive mediums within public history?

The floor is yours.

Cheers

Brooks Simpson on President U.S. Grant and His Alleged “Corruption”

Who says Twitter is only good for selfies, LOLcats, and tweeting about coffee?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for The Atlantic, took to Twitter the other day to ask his followers a question about the extent to which President Ulysses S. Grant was “corrupt” compared to his contemporaries. He specifically requested the help of Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University history professor and noted Grant scholar. Simpson fired off a series of tweets in response that conveyed a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation that I find extremely helpful for my own purposes. I get more questions from visitors at my job about Grant’s presidency than about his generalship during the Civil War, and these corruption questions pop up frequently. Simpson’s response will definitely be a part of my arsenal next time I’m asked about Grant’s alleged corruption.

Here’s what Simpson had to say:

There you go.

Cheers