NCPH 2018: Where Do We Go From Here?

Last week I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Las Vegas. It was my fifth straight NCPH conference and my first time in Las Vegas, which in itself was quite a treat as I took some time to take in the city’s sights and sounds. As a pretty active member of NCPH I ended up spending lots of time during the conference in committee meetings and planning for my own presentation in session 36, “Rewiring Old Power Lines: The Challenge of Entrenched Narratives.” I did have the chance, however, to attend a range of sessions during the conference. Overall I enjoyed my experience and left with a lot of satisfaction about my participation in NCPH. I do have questions and concerns moving forward, however. What follows are three thoughts about the conference and the state of public history:

What is the meaning of the term “Community”?: One of the strong points of attending NCPH conferences is that presenters are constantly exploring ways to bring the ideals and values of public history to new audiences. Every year there seems to be passionate discussion about three different questions:

1. How to rewrite narratives to incorporate the perspectives of previously marginalized historical actors in interpretive programs.

2. How to bring new audiences to public history sites, particularly young people and people of color.

3. How to establish a community-oriented culture of inclusion and equity at public history sites.

I believe these concerns are fundamental to the public history profession, and they’ll always play an important role in how the field defines itself. Effectively addressing these questions is a great challenge without clear answers. I confess, however, that this year I felt like some of the conversations I heard were akin to listening to a song on repeat. Sometimes I felt like asking, “okay, these concerns are valid, but I’ve heard these same thoughts for the past five years. What are we actually doing to push the field in a new direction?”

Part of the problem, I think, is that the term “community” is sometimes thrown around in an irresponsible way. Like the term “general public,” there really is no such thing as a “community.” There are only “communities,” and any discussion about “meeting the needs of the local community” really should be pluralized. Take, for example, my hometown of St. Louis. St. Louis County has 90 municipalities, all of which have their own histories and present-day needs. St. Louis city is a separate legal entity from the county and has its own neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves. Nearby Jefferson County and especially St. Charles County have experienced explosive suburban growth over the past twenty years. Several counties in Illinois also have a close association with St. Louis. All of these areas fall under the term “St. Louis Metro Area,” but as a public historian I can’t really talk about “meeting the needs of the St. Louis community.” The area is too big and the population is too unique to be described in historical terms as a single community. Ferguson, Chesterfield, and Affton are all in St. Louis County, for example, but have different histories and different needs. In reality there are some communities in St. Louis that are well served by their public history institutions and others that are not. So when we talk about meeting the needs of a local population, we need to start from the premise that there are many communities in a given locality we should be reaching out to and serving.

Concerns about Mid-Level Professionals: I think NCPH has done a wonderful job of making its annual meeting a welcoming place for graduate students and new professionals. Both groups benefit from a mentoring program, a special outing the first night of the conference, the Speed Networking session, and an environment that is friendly to new attendees. In general I think students and new professionals get a lot out of the NCPH Annual Meeting.

As I experience my own transition away from the term “new professional,” however, I’ve been thinking more and more about mid-level professionals and what the organization is doing to meet their needs. Those of us who have been in the field between four and ten years are most likely still in the field because we were fortunate to find jobs to support ourselves. But what happens when you’ve got your foot in the door with that entry-level position but can’t move up? I am greatly concerned about the number of mid-level professionals that I spoke with that are struggling to find career growth and new opportunities to put their skills to practice. For many, there is no career track to speak of. Throughout the conference I thought about a former cohort from graduate school who left the public history field to find a job in sales a couple weeks earlier. Another NCPH conference-goer who recently retired mentioned that his position isn’t being filled. I also admit to my own concerns about my future in public history.

What can NCPH do to help mid-level professionals find the career growth they seek? I’m not sure, but it’s my hope that the Professional Development Committee (of which I am co-chair) along with other NCPH committees can begin discussing strategies for the future. Additionally, while I could not attend working group 2, “Negotiating Power Lines: Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History,” the tweets from that panel were fascinating and hint at some interesting ideas about promoting better pay for public historians.

Props to South African Public History: A significant highlight of the conference was having the chance to attend session 36, “South African Recovery from Cruel Pasts: Using Creative Arts to Visualize Alternatives.” Members of Rhodes University’s Isikhumbuzo Applied History Unit came all the way from South Africa to present at the conference, and it was a real treat. Historian Julia Wells and historians/performers Masixole Heshu and Phemelo Hellemann discussed the 1819 Battle of Grahamstown and efforts by the Applied History Unit to bring this history to life through creative arts, including poetry, storytelling, and pantsula dancing, a type of dancing invented in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Dancers Azile Cibi and Likhaya Jack demonstrated pantsula dancing for all participants, and for the first time at a conference I ended dancing myself! They also demonstrated scenes from a play the Applied History Unit developed to portray the story of “Pete,” a native South African who was able to save his mother, a POW during the Battle of Grahamstown, and return her from bondage (true story). The session was extremely fascinating and a real treat to attend.

(Another thing I noticed about this session was that the presenters went into the crowd, introduced themselves, and thanked each audience member for attending their session. I was struck by the kindness of this small act and think presenters at future history conferences should embrace this practice).

All in all, NCPH 2018 was a great time and I look forward to next year’s meeting. For now, it’s back to the grid.

Cheers

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Speaking to Students About Public Monuments

Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!

Cheers

Should Historians Make “Judgements” About the Past in their Scholarship?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.

There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?

In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.

Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.

To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂

Cheers

Institutional Authority and the Value of History in a Time of Uncertainty

The National Council on Public History’s 2017 Annual Meeting has concluded and I’m back home doing my thing. There were more than 800 registrants at this year’s meeting who undoubtedly had a range of experiences during the conference, but on a personal level it was a true pleasure seeing old friends, making new ones, and having the chance to participate in important conversations about the state of the field.

In thinking about the conference’s theme since coming home–“The Middle: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?“–my mind keeps going back to two sets of questions I have about the role of authority within the field. One is between public historians and the publics they work with, the other is between public historians and the people who employ them.

Regarding the former set of questions, I was struck by how various sessions grappled with whether public historians should cede or assert their authority in these situations. To cite one example, various presenters analyzing controversial monuments in the United States and Argentina all admitted during the conference that beyond doing research on the monuments and presenting their findings, a correct path for navigating where to go in the future was mystifying. Do historians conclude by presenting their findings and avoid making declarative statements one way or the other, or do they use their authority to advocate for a particular position that may or may not reflect the viewpoint of a majority of a local community’s residents? If historians take a position, whose voices within the community do they choose to amplify and why? More specifically, since community members already have a voice regardless of whether or not public historians are there, whose voices do we choose to use our privilege and platform in service of?

Additionally, are their times when further dialogue over something like the presence of a controversial monument is unnecessary and public historians must start taking political action to achieve a larger goal? How useful is it for public historians to keep discussing so-called “counter-monuments” and contextual markers for something like the Liberty Place Monument when local residents in that community are ready to take that monument down?

In “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States,” a session I had the privilege of moderating, the question of historical authority in the visitor experience to sites of violence was a central question. Erica Fagan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explored the use of Instagram at Holocaust sites like Auschwitz and Dachau and mused on what extent historians should moderate these posts, arguing that these sites needed to have a social media presence to dispel historical myths and falsehoods. Yagmur Karakaya of the University of Minnesota assessed several museum exhibits in Turkey that romanticized the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. She made connections between the exhibit content and the rhetoric of the current Erdogen administration in promoting their own goals, wondering if there was a role for public historians to offer a more balanced and less nationalistic portrayal of the Ottoman past. And Amanda Tewes explored Calico Ghost Town, a small historic site in San Bernardino, California, that is entirely volunteer-run and is probably better described as a theme park than a historic site. Volunteers engage in battle reenactments and glorify the mythic western white miner who drank heavy, carried a gun, and asserted his individualism and masculinity. Meanwhile, the actual history of Chinese laborers in the area and Calico’s peaceful, relatively non-violent culture are completely ignored.

Assessing the correct relationship between public historians and their publics is not a new concept, and NCPH 2017 continued a long conversation within the field about this topic. Unfortunately I believe we all too often use buzzword jargon words like “shared authority,” “giving groups a voice,” “community,” “radical history,”  and “relevance” without thinking critically about what, exactly, we mean by these terms. This is something I warned about after last year’s conference, but I still think it’s a problem within the field. Moreover, while I won’t get into specifics here, I think we sometimes run the risk of taking too much credit for capturing the stories of disaffected groups who, once again, already have their own voices regardless of our presence. And when we do that, we come off as condescending and patronizing at best.

With regards to my second set of questions–the relationship between public historians and the people who employ them–it was obvious from the beginning that this conference was very much inward looking towards questions of employment and financial support for the long-term health of the field. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the humanities have struggled to maintain support since Socrates died for asking too many questions. But circumstances change over time and with our current political moment being highlighted by hiring freezes, potential budget cuts, and an increasingly politicized culture not just at the federal level but also the state and local level, it is safe to say that grad students about to hit the job market and new professionals at entry-level jobs are wondering about finding work and establishing career tracks. What happens when institutions face severe cuts and education is the first thing to go? What are the implications when the number of public history programs increases in times of economic uncertainty?

We are not sure what’s next and we all admitted it at the conference.

So, in sum, I think the big challenge for the field of public history continues to revolve around authority: Asserting our value as historians who enlighten, challenge, and inspire our many publics to understand and learn from studying history, but also using our positions to give those many publics a platform to share their experiences, stories, and perspectives about the past without us dominating the process.

Oh, also: I did a workshop on starting a walking tour business with Jeff Sellers and Elizabeth Goetsch, and it was probably one of the best experiences I have ever had at an NCPH conference.

Cheers

Getting Ready for NCPH 2017

Next week I’ll be heading out to Indianapolis to attend my fourth straight Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. I lived in Indy for two years while pursuing my Master’s degree at IUPUI and am looking forward to seeing a lot of my old friends inside and outside the public history field while there.

I initially planned on keeping my obligations light for this conference compared to past years, but that changed quickly. As co-chair of the NCPH Professional Development Committee I helped organize this year’s Speed Networking session and will be emceeing the actual event. I was also asked to moderate/facilitate a really fascinating panel on Friday, April 21st at 3:30PM: “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States.” Each presenter is really talented and the conversation should be fascinating. On top of these events I’ll be mentoring a grad student throughout the conference and will help run the Professional Development Committee’s yearly meeting at the conference.

Last year’s conference theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” and I came away thinking that the actual theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.” This year’s theme is “The Middle: Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” I’m not sure what to make of this theme right now because “The Middle” seems like an ambiguous term in the context of public history, but hopefully after what will turn out to be a fruitful meeting my thoughts will clarify afterwords. Stay tuned!

Cheers

Historical Thinking Promotes Informed Citizenship

In looking back at this recent and torturous U.S. Presidential election, I believe the blatant and irresponsible sharing of fake news, inaccurate memes, and outright propaganda, combined with a general lack of civility and informed online conversation, contributed in some way to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. I do not mean to suggest that there were no other factors that contributed to this particular outcome or that people on the left side of the political spectrum don’t also share fake news and stupid memes – they do. But evidence is mounting that fake and inaccurate news–particularly Pro-Trump news–is widespread on social media and that many people regardless of political preference take misinformation seriously if it lines up with their own personal and political views. Facebook is especially bad in this regard. The chances are good that many voters who are also Facebook users went to the polls and made their respective decision based partly on false information gleaned from articles shared on their news feed.

Professor Mike Caulfield’s particularly sobering analysis of fake articles created by a fake paper, the “Denver Guardian,” that spread like wildfire across Facebook demonstrate how easy it is to get duped by someone with an agenda and basic computing skills. Friends and family that I care about have also engaged in this sharing of fake news on Facebook, which I find deeply troubling. Facebook has evolved into a news-sharing website without creating a mechanism for effectively moderating fact from fiction, and at the end of the day the site isn’t fun anymore. I haven’t checked my account since the election.

As a historian and educator I have stressed on this website the importance of teaching not just historical content in the classroom but also historical methods. When we teach both content and methods, we convey to students the idea that history is not just a mess of names, dates, and dead people, but also a process that enables students to conduct research, interpret reliable primary and secondary source documents, and ultimately become better writers, readers, and thinkers in their own lives. I think that now more than ever these skills need to be taught not just for their utility in understanding the past but for also parsing through the vast multitudes of information that bombard our social media feeds on a daily basis. Historians have much to contribute to contemporary society and they should lead the way in accomplishing this important work. When we learn to think historically, we enable ourselves to become more informed citizens who have the ability to participate in electoral politics with an understanding of the issues at hand and how our system of government operates.

I am interested in hearing from history teachers about what methods, tools, and practices they employ when teaching students how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and how to interpret these sources to construct informed arguments and narratives. Sam Wineburg’s scholarship has been instrumental in my own thinking about these topics, and I believe everyone should listen to or read his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. I have also utilized historian Kalani Craig’s guide on the 5 “Ps” of reading primary sources, which is equally relevant when assessing sources on contemporary topics.

What has worked for you when teaching others how to assess and interpret documentary sources? Please let me know in the comments.

Cheers