Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How do you use history?

I'm kind of thinking aloud here, and as an academic I'm hesitant to put baby ideas into print, even virtually, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

In a month I set off on the tenure track in history, with a trifold focus on U.S., gender, and (especially) public history.

Whereas public historians traditionally have done history for the public--e.g. in museum exhibits or in documentary films--there's a small but growing group of public historians who want to foster and study history done by the public, by passionate amateurs and average folks instead of created for them. I'm one of those historians, and as I transition to life on the tenure track (I'll have 4-5 years to prove I deserve to be employed for the next 30-35 years), I'm searching for a project or two in which I can make significant progress in 3-4 years.

I'm hoping you can help me by telling me a bit about how you use history in your life, either everyday or on special occasions. I want to find a project that not only interests me, but that really gets people excited about engaging with the history of their family, neighborhood, house, community, hobby, or whatever else they're passionate about.

Just FYI, clusters of things that have piqued my interest thus far, in no particular order:

The use of mobile devices to experience additional "layers" of a place

- augmented reality
- GPS-enabled smartphones that provide text or video about a place
- smartphone apps that let people contribute their own stories about a place while they're in it

Crowdsourcing histories

- Davis Wiki does this in cataloging the present and past of an entire city, with no aspirations to objectivity
- The public's use of virtual spaces like the Smithsonian Commons or the Powerhouse Museum's collections database--creating new taxonomies and folksonomies, repurposing historic material in creative ways

Conservatives' uses and abuses of history and historiography

- The Texas school board's revision of the history and social studies curriculum to deemphasize the contributions of people of color and to lionize some very bigoted people.
- The Arizona law that implicitly forbids the teaching of many kinds of ethnic studies.
- Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers' reinscription of white male privilege in the American historical narrative

The thousands of ways people use history in everyday life, sometimes without realizing they're doing history

- Connecting to their past through personally or communally resonant objects
- Historical reenactment
- Video games, simulations, or alternate reality games inspired by historical places or events
- Communities of genealogists
- Memorials, formal and informal
- Oral histories gathered by amateurs
- Scrapbooking and photo albums

I'm really curious about what happens if a historian (me!) approaches conservatives' uses of history almost at face value, with a good deal of curiosity rather than immediate criticism (academics' typical first response). I'll be living in one of the country's most conservative states, and I'm wondering if there are ways I might engage with some of the more conservative groups in constructing historical projects and programs that

a) are meaningful to them
b) depend on their participation

but also

c) are packed with opportunities for people to learn to do history in more rigorous ways, rather than stick to simplistic K-12 textbook views (or Fox News' views) of history
d) get participants to think critically and creatively about people, places, and events, in light of existing evidence or evidence they've gathered (e.g. through oral histories)
e) prod people on the ends of the political spectrum to engage with one another's stories and in important conversations about community, through historical research and production

Regardless of your political persuasion, if you had access to an eager, energetic, and open-minded historian who wanted to work with you and your friends/neighbors/affinity community on a meaningful project, what might that project or program look like, and why?

Thanks so much. I can't wait to see what my brilliant and creative readers share.


Jeffrey McClurken said...

Hmm, great question, great idea.

My initial thoughts are:

1) Create a centralized set of resources on a topic. I'm thinking of collecting links to web-based resources, but they might just be lists of various sources/works for the topic. Gathering those together in and of themselves could prove valuable to a group that has not done that yet for its own history and would allow you to bring the experiences of a public historian to help as well.

2) Create a resource that would provide access to tools, methodologies, approaches that would help people engage in their own group/family history. This would be a kind of DIY family/group history kit. You might include advice on how to do interviews; how to scan images and documents for historical purposes; discuss using WP or other blogging software (or software like Omeka) to create exhibits; how to use wikis to create crowdsourced projects like the Davis Wiki; examples of other sites (and ones that inspire a sense of possibility, not major, grant-funded institutional projects); how to fact check family/group stories (or why those stories are valuable regardless of their validity), etc.

Here I'm thinking of initially virtual tools. But with an outside grant or support from your institution, you and your new department might become known for lending the equipment (cameras, audio recorders, scanners, etc.) and expertise needed to empower people in your area to do their own individual or group history projects.

I can't help but approach it as an historian, though that's not what you asked for (and those other responses about how people actually use history in their lives will likely be more useful to your project and more interesting to me).

Bardiac said...

This sounds fascinating!

(I mostly use history in a fairly traditional way, especially in my early modern work, but I love the local historical society's displays on neighborhoods in this community. They take a neighborhood and do a display thing on its history and development, and so forth. They're lots of fun to see.)

Tad Suiter said...

This may be painfully obvious, but one thing that sort of touches up against several of the topics you're talking about here is how crowds and notions of objectivity influence one another.

Wikipedians have an almost-religious fervor when they talk about their NPOV.

The conservative legislation in Texas and Arizona is all trying to re-insert an imagined lost objectivity (read: simplicity and ideological purity) to a history they see as politicized by an imagined leftist cabal.

Much discussion of crowdsourcing highlights an irrational attachment to an imagined objectivity-- the opponents worry about bad data, the "what if someone is wrong?" response. Crowdsourcing's advocates, likewise, play to notions of objectivity-- Clay Shirkey and James Surowiecki both focus primarily on problems that can be solved, on binaries of right and wrong, answerable questions for which there are definable parameters for accuracy.

How does the growing trend toward bringing "the crowd" into history-making, and bringing history-making to the crowd, necessarily impact our views of history and objectivity, as historians? As members of the crowd?

Alan said...

Woah, Neo, I have a swirling list of thoughts that feel incoherent; kudos for brainstorming in the open.

* I'm a fan of the AR concept which really seems in a gee-whiz stage. What seems missing is that it is more or less some one way content coming towards you (the user)-- what will be more interesting, as you hint, is the ability to contribute back, but more so, what happens when there is something like social augmented reality; when the experiences are shared or somehow connected with another?

* For your regional intrest, it seems to remind me of the interests of our good Vermont friend Barbara. How do small towns record, preserve, write, share their own history? The small community I am in has rich history, but its buried in the minds of elders or paper artifacts in a community museum. History is not just only for the big cities and Standardized Monuments; it is everywhere.

* I was just thinking of maps and location as an organizational layer. We can now easily annotate things like Google maps with descriptions or media associated with place. What if there were another dimension of time on maps? So you could annotate a place in a different period, and scan the geography of a place in time; or to view the history of a single place in different times? Or what if there were some way to say, see Streetview of a place in different times?

Interesting stuff simmering... BTW, the new Blogger look is very elegant!

Barbara said...

Ha--I was excited to see this post, thrilled, really, that someone inside the university, someone who is on the tenure track, no less, is committed to public history projects. Yay!

Alan is right that I am passionate about community stories, about all the stories, not just the big ones. Ironically, I'm the daughter of a historian who had some extraordinary stories of his own about being deeply against war while he was in WWII, stories he never told but in letters home (that we, his children only read after his death), who in his own books wrote the big -movement stories. What a shame not to share those fascinating letters home--we're thinking of just how we want to share them. Indeed, having an online space for people to scan and share their memorabilia, their "evidence" as well as their stories would be part of any project I'd recommend.

Here are a couple of ideas /projects I've run across and/or would love to see done--there are so many!

1. A "Murmur"-type project (http://bit.ly/9YAQze) for local history, marking the local hotspots here things "happened," people lived and died, events occurred, Nature had her way. Anyone can identify a "history hotspot;" anyone can add a story about a hotspot; anyone can hear or view a story or comment on one. The hotspots are actually located in the town to anchor self-guided tours as well as captured online. Place those stories on a map and timeline that overlays ones with the stories told in history books and in the factual records. Use visualization features, such as the University of Virginia/U of Nebraska project did with emanicipation.

2. Local story circles about the historical events and/or themes within the community, in which people from across the community spectrum come together to tell their version of, say, Europeans moving to a particular valley (I did this is Victor, Idaho). Then youth could interview those with stories about local history and make digital stories or audio ethnographies to be shared at community gatherings & meetings as well as stored archives to be analyzed, connected and synthesized.

3. In Vermont, the Vermont Folklife Center is doing some excellent work with oral histories. (http://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/) I'd like to see them use the stories as ways to get people not only to look at the past, but to the future, by embedding these stories right in the towns. Appalshop is also doing great work with oral histories (http://appalshop.org). Then there's the fascinating Whyherewhynow project in Ohio: http://whyherewhynow.org/

Check out the Orton Family Foundation's Art & Soul project in Starksboro, Vermont: college students interviewed townspeople about the history of the working landscape, and those stories did not merely become part of an attractive book or archived for historians but were brought to the town as evidence of how things got to be the way they are, and are being used to bring people together to plan for the community's future.(http://whyherewhynow.org/)

ACMI in Melbourne, Australia (http://www.acmi.net.au/) also has done some remarkable work capturing history as people's stories as has The Museum of the Person in Brazil, and the Canadian Film Institute of Toronto.

You are moving into this arena at an incredibly rich time!

Susan M said...

If you're looking for conservative uses and abuses of history (U.S. history especially), you cannot beat the Christian Dominionists. Check out Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation, Geoffrey Botkin, Bill Gothard, and Vision Forum to get started. Better known Baptist, strict Presbyterian, and other fundamentalist-inclined entities include Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, & the Family Research Council.

Stacey said...

I'll leave a comment as an "average Jane," since most of my thinking time concentrates on making concepts accessible to 4-year-olds. :) One part of doing history has to be getting people involved in it, both creating historical accounts and experiencing them. Facts are valuable, but what draws me in are the stories of individuals. I haven't looked, but I could see places such as The USS Midway, internment camps, NASA, whatever having a blog on their websites where people can post their experiences during different events. The tough part would be to make blogs, especially blogs with a video component accessible to non-techies (like me!). Another opportunity to create would be to have people at historical places that can interview people and create records to be displayed on sight.

Another part of me says there has to be a way to take advantage of the geocache trend to create history. It's a gimmick, but who knows?

luke said...

I think the historical profession needs to be careful about advocating that non professional historians do history. Obviously human beings have historically made do without professional historians, but as a potential future historian I believe that there has to be a way to promote the vitality of the history profession without compromising its legitimacy. Tenure track professors can worry about incorporating non historians, but some of us have to worry about getting a job.

Sarah said...

I was happy being just a lurker, but feel the need to comment on the previous post. I'm not sure how being trained as a historian makes their version of history more valid than another. If anything, a non-historian "doing" history can give a fresh view of an event, a public perception that may be overlooked otherwise.
As professional public historians, it is our job (well, part of it) to incorporate those individual glimpses into a larger, more useable form; whether that is a webpage, Murmur, book, exhibit, whatever; to give a greater understanding of places, events and people. Allowing non-historians to "do" history certainly doesn't take away from a historian’s job, in my eyes, it enriches it.