Friday, January 4, 2013

The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age

If you missed tonight's AHA plenary session you missed a real treat.  William Cronon presided over a session entitled "The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age."  (This was not his presidential address as I mistakenly wrote in previous posts.  That address will take place tomorrow night and the title is "Storytelling."  Looking forward to it). Cronon assembled a stellar panel of historians and intellectuals to discuss the ways historians can more effectively reach the public with their work.  Joining Cronon on the panel were:

Ed Ayers
Claire Potter
Michael Pollan
Niko Pfund
Mary Louise Roberts

I have posted several of my tweets below (with some additional riffing in bold)

Ayers: Talking about new course he's teaching called "Touching the Past." He's president of U of Richmond and has time to teach?   This sounds like a great course.  It reminds me of Thelen and Rosenzwieg's book Presence of the Past.

I love listening to Ed Ayers speak. So dynamic.  

Ayers class "Touching History" will have Richmond freshman dissect a copy of the *AHA Perspectives* as a window into profession. The goal is to have 18-year olds, who know virtually nothing about the historical profession, try to make sense of the world of historians by reading their monthly magazine.

Ayers is discussing "Backstory" and radio as a means of public history. Broadcast in 57 markets. Podcast reaches 2 million people.   Even a history radio show on a tiny station like WVMM in Grantham, PA could reach the world through podcasting.

Ayers: "Backstory" would be impossible without social media. Many international listeners who find them online or on Facebook.

Ayers: Historians must be fluent in the present as much as we are fluent in the past. Must take opportunities afforded to us.

Clare Potter, "The Tenured Radical," is now up. Says she is not used to being "Clare Potter" and "Tenured Radical" in one place.   Added that she felt like Batman and Bruce Wayne at the same time.

Potter: On our blogs we create "history community" both on and off-line, but blogging is only one space online for "doing history."  

Potter: Bloggers cannot use their blogs for tenure because blog posts are not refereed. I'm not sure about this. For those of us who do not teach at research universities or elite liberal arts colleges, blogging could certainly be factored into the tenure process as either a form of scholarship or a form of service to the profession.  I know several places where this is already happening.

Potter: Blogging allows historians to respond swiftly to public events. A space to be a public intellectual.  

Mary Lou Roberts: Was resistant to change until a grad student created Facebook for one of her courses and she got 141 likes.  

Roberts: Will not abandon the lecture. Isn't there something valuable about forcing students to listen?  

Roberts: Can we replace the experience of 1 person in the room, the smartest person in the room on the subject, telling a story?   I agree with Roberts here, but not everyone is a great story-teller.

Michael Pollan, the food writer, is up. Claims he is not sure why he is here. Not a historian, not very digital. Glad he is here.  

Who cares about what Pollan thinks about history--I want his writing shed!    Here and here.

Pollan: Why are some of the best-selling history books written by authors who are not historians?  

Pollan: Write in a human voice to other human beings. In doing so, you get a sense of your audience.

Session is being taped by C-SPAN  

Potter: Do not use the phrase "lacunae in the scholary literature" in a book proposal.

Pollan: I Love his outsider perspective. Asks why people of AHA just can't change how history writing is judged in academy  

Seems like there is a much younger audience in the room than is usually the case at these AHA plenary sessions. I also think that attendance was sparse.  It seems like the people who could have learned the most from this session did not bother to come.

Cronon: History is one of the only remaining academic discipline that still relies heavily on the monograph or the printed book.  

Roberts is old school. Wants a physical book in her hands (as opposed to a digital book). Pollan agrees. I think I agree too. Romanticism abounded during this few minutes of discussion.

Pollan: Perhaps time to rethink the length of narratives. Digital publishing opens up new possibilities at 30k to 40k words.   Why don't historians write something equivalent to the short story in literature?

Potter: Likes books, but she used to like record albums too.Points to short-form books, chapters, and Kindle singles

Pfund the book publisher will not let Potter question the "intellectual authority" of the printed book. Surprise!  

Ayers: The monographs we write look like the monographs and papers presented by the AHA 100 years ago. We missed everything. Why? 

Ayers: Everything is up for grabs. Changes are happening everywhere. We must use these changes to write a new kind of history.  

Pollan: Does not write every day. Writes about half of the year. Recommends software "Freedom" to clear space for writing.  

Q&A: What is the difference between journalism and history? Pollan says not much. No moaning from the AHA audience.  

Ayers: History is anything you can say about the past as long as you use evidence. It can be said in many different ways.  

Potter: Blogging can bring history closer to the field of journalism.  

Cronon: Historians struggle with the limited nature of evidence in a way that journalists do not. Excellent.

Historians are lining up at the microphone to ask a question and get on C-SPAN.  

After this session I am really interested in Cronon's presidential address tomorrow night at 8:30pm: "Storytelling"  

This session is really helping me connect my childhood passion to be a journalist with my eventual vocation as a historian.  

Cronon says he teaches some students for which his class is the only history course they will take. Not new for us in the trenches   Most of the students I teach are not history majors.  This is everyday life at non-research universities.

Ayers: A person who has interesting things to say about the past is doing history. AHA does not have a monopoly on doing history.   Tony Horwitz (or at least I think it was Horwitz) was sitting a few rows ahead of me and he was nodding in support of this point.

Potter defends her view that we need more Ph.Ds, not less.Why can't you have a Ph.D and be journalist?  Here.

Cronon: We cannot allow tenure to define the practice of history.  

These panelists would sound like aliens from another planet if this panel took place ten years ago.

Ayers: Do not forget about the "public" in K-12 schools--students and teachers. They are our "kinfolk."