Friday, November 05, 2010

Uncomfortable, and aspirational, conferencing

I'm attending a regional women's history conference right now. It resembles pretty closely many of the conferences I've attended. As a women's historian and feminist, it's pretty common for me to find myself at conferences where 85 to 90 percent of the participants are women, and even a higher percentage are white, with a majority (or nearly so) nearing retirement age or older.

I have a great deal of affection for such women—perhaps because I expect to be one of them in 30 years.

Yet there's something about these conferences that always leaves me a little bit cold. I often feel as if I've stepped back in time 20 or 25 years, as these conferences are very second-wave feminist—and it's not just because the women attending cut their feminist teeth in the 60s and 70s. It's because these conferences remind me that so much second-wave work has yet to be done in K-16 history education (and yet I'm beyond ready to move on). Many of my U.S. history survey students say they never had to consider women's history or black history or Chicano history in their K-12 years, and education-focused panels at this conference have reminded me that it's not just Idaho students who aren't engaging with women's history—students in much more progressive states are still getting mostly privileged-white-male history.

At the same time, if you drop me down into a more third-wave conference packed with feminists of color or with a more queer sensibility, I'd be equally uncomfortable. The cultural studies Ph.D. in me thinks they're fighting the good fight and that American society is waaaaay behind the curve in terms of civil rights, but my inner second-wave, white woman history educator also realizes that, in education at least, we haven't adequately set the foundation for such work.

So, for example, on my midterm for my U.S. history survey a couple weeks ago, I told the students they would have an opportunity to answer a question about the three greatest challenges to women's advancement in colonial and early federal America. We had just read Clarence Walker's book Mongrel Nation, and we had watched bits of documentaries addressing Jefferson and slavery. I even pointed out that slavery was a barrier to advancement for all American women. And yet fewer than half the students who addressed that question placed slavery in their top three challenges. Black women weren't even on their radar when they answered the question—even when the question itself asked them to be sure to consider women of color.

* * *

I don't mean to criticize conferences of the second-wave or third-wave persuasion. Rather, I'm trying to express my discomfort with both of them.

I'm also trying to find a way to articulate—in the sense of bones and joints, as well as of language—my own theoretical and methodological and physical space in the field of American women's history. And I need to do so in the next, oh, six hours, as I'm stepping in for a more senior colleague from another institution when I sit on a roundtable this afternoon. And hoo boy, do I ever have a sense of impostor syndrome.

When I agreed to participate in the roundtable, I didn't look closely enough at the timing and the participants. I didn't realize it was the closing plenary with a couple hundred women's historians in the audience, and I certainly didn't realize that some giants of women's history in the U.S. west would be sitting on the panel. I also didn't realize the focus would be primarily on women's history in Washington state, which is a topic with which I'm only passingly familiar. When I saw the long list of questions the moderator suggested we might address in the panel, I had a tiny panic attack.

But someone has to be the most junior person on the panel, so why not me?

I'm thinking, therefore, that my small contribution to the roundtable is likely to be methodological. I suspect if I can stave off further panic attacks on the dais, I'll be pushing (gently) for a democratization of public history, specifically for more innovative and participatory digital history projects. The subjects of public history projects are becoming more populist—for example, yesterday an architectural historian discussed attempts to get National Historic Landmark status for sites of queer struggle or sites significant in labor history. However, I'm not seeing—and maybe I'm just not looking in the right places—projects in which historians are, borrowing a couple of pedagogical terms, guides on the side rather than sages on the stage. Even many oral history projects make me uneasy on this account. I'll have more to say on this topic, I suspect, in the coming months and years, but for now I'll end with this question: How do you think we ought to go about increasing public interest in, engagement with, and initiation of history projects? Which is more important, broadly speaking, in increasing engagement—a project's subject or its methods?


Joyce said...

I keep wondering why it is that we women have been so utterly passive about insisting that the real history of our country be included in basic texts, especially when women are the majority of teachers in the US!

MMH said...

Wow! What a thoughtful post and right on in so many respects. I'll link this to my blog and ask my readers to read.