Sage By the Side, Repair Work, and #MeToo: Some Reflections on attending NCPH 2019

Downtown Hartford. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.

 

  1. “The Sage by the Side”

The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.

Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.

This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.

 

  1. Repairing Language

Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.

The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.

In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.

 

  1. Repairing Relationships and Trust

Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.

Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.

 

  1. Repairing NCPH

On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.

That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.

This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.

I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.

Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.

Cheers

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Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers

When Nostalgia Overwhelms History

Photo Credit: Singapore Management University: https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2017/09/29/nostalgia-makes-us-more-patient

I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.

Or so I thought.

Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators. 

Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.

One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!

(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)

This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.

The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of the Past for the digital era.

Cheers

How History and Memory Converge to Make Sense of The Past

Photo Credit: https://sites.google.com/a/worth.org.uk/worth-school-activities/history-society

History is the process by which individuals and societies make sense of the past. Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “History” and “The Past” are not mutually exclusive. “The Past” is the verified, factual information we know about past events in human history. We know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. “History,” however, is the process by which we document, contextualize, and interpret the meaning of a particular event. Why was the Declaration of Independence written? Who wrote it? What was going on in the world at the time of its writing? What social, economic, religious, and political forces inspired the document’s author? What were the consequences of its publication? These are the types of questions historians ask when researching and interpreting “The Past” to make an informed historical argument about something like the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Memory plays a necessary and crucial role in creating history. “Memory” is the process by which individuals and societies choose to remember (and forget) their pasts. Memories are created after an event has taken place and take the form of oral recollection, art, public iconography, and many other expressions of personal reflection. How did Thomas Jefferson remember his role in writing the Declaration years later? What did members of the Continental Congress think of the event? How did citizens of the colonies remember hearing about the Declaration of Independence? What monuments, statues, markers, and plaques were created to commemorate the event? What messages did these icons attempt to convey to viewers about the Declaration? How is the Declaration remembered by society today? These are the types of questions historians and memory scholars ask when researching how present-day conditions simultaneously shape and are shaped by past events. History and memory intersect to tell us what happened in the past, and what it means for us today.

What are the distinctions between history and memory? Is there a distinction between the two? Scholars disagree on this question, but I think there are distinctions, albeit very subtle.

Take the case of the veteran’s recollection of a wartime experience twenty years after a significant battle. The truthfulness of that soldier’s recollection may not be fully verifiable based on the evidence that was created from the time in which the battle originally took place. His or her recollection may contradict the official battle report created at the time (“The Past”), or it may include details that were previously omitted. Sometimes the recollection may even unintentionally confuse or invent crucial details with the passage of time. Nevertheless the veteran’s memory exists as a “personal truth” for him or herself; an individual process by which the soldier copes with, comprehends, and understands their experiences in that battle. The tricky task for the historian is to determine whether the veteran’s recollection should be incorporated into the body of evidence being used to interpret the history of that battle. Is the recollection reliable? Does it help advance the story? Does it help or hinder the historian’s effort to make sense of The Past?

Historian Jonathan Hansen argues that history advances through hypothesis while memory evolves over time but never really advances. I like that description because memories of a given event will change over time (a new personal reflection or the erection of a new monument, for example) but those memories may not be verifiable in the same way a historical fact can be through a hypothesis.

Much of what we understand about The Past is based on memory, which simultaneously informs and muddles the historical process. As such, the concept of “Truth” does exist within the historical process, but it takes multiple forms. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience defines four different forms of “Truth”: forensic truth (The factual, verifiable past), personal truth (a personal memory), social truth (a collectively held truth as expressed through art, public iconography, political speechs, etc.) and healing truth (a collective process of historical reckoning such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

The above description is how I understand the distinctions between The Past, history, and memory.  These three phenomenons constantly interact and shape each other, leading to the creation of individual and collective understandings of past events that in many cases contain multiple truths for us to learn from.

Cheers

News and Notes: September 13, 2018

Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Here’s an update on some upcoming projects and life in general:

1. I received a promotion at work earlier this summer and have moved up from a “Park Guide” to a “Park Ranger” at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The promotion has been great so far. I’ve picked up more administrative duties but am now essentially the park’s education coordinator and historian. We’ve been doing some great programming initiatives over the past couple years and I’m excited to see where things go from here as I take on an increased leadership role at the park.

2. I was in Beaufort, South Carolina, a few weeks ago to visit Reconstruction Era National Monument and tour the area’s historic sites. I had served as the site’s social media manager from April 2017 to April 2018 (which you can read about here) in addition to my regular duties at the Grant site, but I had never been to South Carolina before. It was great to meet the staff at REER and get a better grasp of the local context in which Reconstruction played out within the South Carolina lowcountry.

3. I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs and how they’ve shaped my interpretation of his life while working as a Park Ranger and educator. The essay will appear as a chapter in an upcoming book on the American Civil War in popular culture that is being edited by Chris Mackowski of Emerging Civil War and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in early 2019. It will be the first essay of mine to show up in a book and I’m thrilled to see how the final product will turn out.

4. I have another book chapter that will be appearing in an upcoming anthology about St. Louis culture and history through Belt Publishing. This one is slated for release in Summer 2019. I went a little outside my usual research interests for this piece, which explores the Italian American community in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century and examines a case of race and class conflict within that community. There’s also a little family history in the essay; during research I did some genealogy and discovered that my Great-Great Grandfather Julio Sacco had immigrated to St. Louis from Sicily around 1890. He makes a short appearance in the essay. In any case, there’s an amazing lineup of essayists from St. Louis who’ve contributed essays to this anthology and if you’re interested in all things St. Louis you’ll want to get a copy of this book.

5. My journal article manuscript on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret was slated for publication last year, but due to circumstances beyond my control the manuscript’s publication was delayed. Thankfully I can now say that the article will be published in the November 2018 issue of The Confluence, a scholarly journal published by my Alma mater, Lindenwood University.

6. I have another manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery before the Civil War that has been accepted for publication by a top Civil War journal, but I have numerous revisions that still need to be made. More details on this article in the future.

7. My next essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s “Muster” blog will go live on Tuesday the 18th. I’ll examine Alabama Congressman Charles Hays and his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

8. I have a pretty substantial book review essay on Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History that will be published with H-Net most likely within the next week.

9. I will be moderating a panel on Civil War politics in Illinois on October 5th for the Conference on Illinois History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

10. I have two upcoming talks in St. Louis about U.S. Grant and slavery before the Civil War and the Missouri-Kansas Border War on October 13th and October 16th.

11. Finally, I will soon start working on an essay for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association about Grant’s Personal Memoirs that should be published either late this year or early next year.

I think that’s it for now!

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

How Historians and Musicians Receive Similar Training in College

Yours Truly Performing at Off Broadway in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rick Miller Photography

Over the years numerous friends and family, knowing that I studied history in college and now work as a public historian for a living, have come to me with a range of questions about people and events from the past. I think more often than not I have failed to give them a satisfactory answer to their questions. That’s because in most cases they’ve asked questions about time periods in which I have only a basic and limited understanding. As fascinating as I find the Roman Empire, the Medieval Era, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and other periods in history, I just don’t have the specialized knowledge to give an accurate, informative answer in most cases. And yet oftentimes these questions are prefaced with a comment like, “you’re a historian, so you should be able to help me…”

The reality is that most professional historians specialize in a particular time period, and that time period can be quite small in scope depending on the individual historian’s interests. I think non-historians sometimes assume that the primary goal of studying history is the accumulation of facts. As historian David McKenzie pointed out on Twitter, historical knowledge for many is “simply cramming facts into one’s head to be spit out at a moment’s notice.” While learning facts and establishing historical accuracy are certainly important facets of any history degree program, there are many other elements of good historical practice. This includes (but is not limited to) the ability to search for and interpret the larger context surrounding a particular event, the need to understand change over time, the importance of crafting solid research questions, the talent to be a good reader, writer, and speaker, and the training needed to become well-versed in both primary and secondary source material of a particular, specialized historical era.

When I struggle to answer my friends’ and family’s questions, I point out that historians are in some ways similar to musicians. My area of expertise is nineteenth century U.S. history–particularly the Civil War Era–and that is my “musical instrument,” so to speak. You wouldn’t say “oh, you’re a musician! Go over and play that guitar” without first asking that musician what instrument they play and if they could play guitar. And just because a musician can play guitar doesn’t mean they can play tuba or do a freestyle rap on the spot. The situation is similar with historians. I can talk about the Battle of Shiloh or the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but I’d have a more difficult time giving a detailed answer about, say, the Battle of D-Day or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As much as I’d love to give detailed answers and remarkable facts about every event in human history, the limits of human intelligence require a more specific and concentrated focus.

Music education students in college are required to learn how to play a string instrument, a brass/woodwind instrument, and sing in a choir regardless of their prior expertise. They also learn music theory and develop an ability to read sheet music whether it’s in treble clef or bass clef (or alto clef!). As future teachers of band, orchestra, and choir in a k-12 setting, this training prepares them to help students learn how to play an instrument, read sheet music, and perform together in an organized creation of musical sound. History students at the undergrad level receive a similar curriculum in that they take courses in U.S., European, and World history during their training. They receive a broad instruction that enables them to educate younger students about a wide swath of human history. But like the musician with a specific instrument that they specialize in and perform with in concerts, the historian finds a time period to specialize in and contribute to through public talks, the creation of scholarship, and, in my case as a public historian, by interpreting history to a wide range of publics.

Cheers