Audience of Women and child sleeping

Time, Authority, and Publics for the Past, Part 1

Our publics take many forms. From students to professionals in the heritage sector, to amateurs and volunteers who find existential meaning through encounters with the past. As historians and history graduate students, we are one of the highly interested publics for history. “Pastkeepers” and storytellers, we have the disciplinary training in content and method that allows us to shape the relationship with our audiences. Professional gatekeepers might portray themselves as mediators between a lost past and a marooned present. But for many oral and local history practitioners the historian mediates the past alongside the audience, acting instead as part of a community of inquiry that shares different skills. From this last few weeks’ encounter with the literature, it appears that the way we relate to our audiences is often directly related to the way we portray historical time.

For many historians, the past is considered, to borrow L. P. Hartley’s turn of phrase, “a foreign country.” Its ways are strange, and unknowable; its people inscrutable to the present, but through a translator. Here the historian becomes an explorer – venturing into strange lands and returning with fragmented insights for a contemporary public—stories distilled for an undisciplined other. Students sit and learn the lessons of these intrepid sojourners, and with sufficient effort and memory, might one day make the trip themselves. Drawing on De Certeau, we might think of the past in this formulation as a “corpse” upon which it is the professional duty of the historian to operate and make known. The past is dead and gone, but for our forensic efforts. Our audiences must wait for our pronouncements, lest they mess up the whole business of historical discovery.

Many of the scholars on this week’s reading list have largely rejected the notion that history is lost to the present. Instead they offer a past interwoven with the everyday, which however insignificant in its manifestations, helps us find our footing in time.

Carl Becker and the Histories of “Mr. Everyman”

Thinking about the relationship between history and the general public, Carl Becker wrote presciently in 1931 that history was in its most succinct definition “the memory of things said and done.” In a social context, however, history is also narrative rooted in an aspiration to truth. By its narrative quality, history is never fixed, never definitive, and always retold to suit the needs of the day. Writes Becker:

… in every age history is taken to be a story of actual events from which a significant meaning may be derived; and in every age the illusion is that the present version is valid because the related facts are true, whereas former versions are invalid because based upon inaccurate or inadequate facts. (Becker 1931)

Rejecting what he calls “the permanent contribution”—those “Complete Histories” which still haunt our library shelves today—Becker calls for an engaged history that better connects with the needs and wants of a Mr. Everyman. For this theoretical character, “the history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.” His past is always with him, always being retold at the whim of his desires and interests. He performs the task of the historian on a daily basis. The simple paying a bill for his company requires recall of things said and done; examination of documents to supplement unaided memory; and critical comparison of conflicting reports in order to evoke a reliable picture in his mind. What confuses the observer as to Mr. Everyman’s status as a historian is that he is not writing a book or giving a lecture (1931). For Becker, the methods of the historian do not distinguish us from our Mr. Everyman. The questions we ask (why were pirates described as “Enemies to All Mankind?”) and the activities we undertake (lectures and publications) are what makes us different.

For all its gendered language, Becker’s description of Mr. Everyman, the historian and their shared use of the past, levels the professional hierarchy that separates the expert historian and the “everyday public.

More important for our questions about the audience, however, is Becker’s assertion that the history that matters is the one that does “work in the world.” The historiographical legacy of this perspective on history has been profound. It underpins (or at least complements) concepts such as “usable pasts,” “shared authority” and “participatory historical culture.” History that does “work in the world” also lies at the heart of national surveys on historical engagement in the United States (1998), Australia (2001), and Canada (2012).

Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop Movement

Becker’s line of thinking is clearly reflected in the work of Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop movement. The History Workshop website describes itself as “a popular movement for the democratisation of History which flourished in Britain from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s (with sporadic activity continuing into the 1990s)” Culminating in Samuel’s Theatres of Memory (1996), the movement’s practitioners conceived of history as a process involving “many thousand hands.” With contributors coming from a variety of fields, and from both within and from outside the academy. The History Workshops asked how we might configure public history if we see it as a process of constant engagement between many practitioners.

As Jan Benson points out, Raphael Samuel’s efforts to break down the artificial division between past and present were central to his historical activism. A concept of history connected to the present allowed him to reach out to contemporary audiences in a way that could not be accomplished by epistemic formulations of time that situated the past outside of lived experience. Rather than an interpretative crutch, hindsight here becomes a tool for engagement and deeper appreciation of the role of history in the world—one that is shared by a broader, interested public.

The Presence of People and Their Pasts

More recently (2009), Hilda Kean and Paul Ashton offered yet another way of thinking about the social role of history that draws on Becker and Samuel. They argue that public history continues to be defined as a conversation between academic practitioners and their publics—anchoring the historian as mediator between the past and the public—Kean and Ashton present a vision of the discipline that decenters authority from the expert to a wider audience.

National context, with its emphasis on respected experts and institutions of memory, matters a great deal in traditional historiographies. Kean and Ashton, instead, point to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s arguments in The Presence of the Past, mirrored in many ways in Paul Ashton and Linda Hamilton’s Australian survey that found people understood history first in a local context that is focused on family stories and regional topics than on unifying narratives of “national significance.”

They note the widespread popularity of history work that has been marginalized in academic circles, most notably family history and genealogy, bringing a critical eye to this hierarchical ordering of historical research and expression. While public history continues to be seen as the work of professional historians and various publics, Ashton and Kean invite us to embrace the constantly negotiated nature of history and identify valuable contributions to understanding the past from outside the academy.

There are more titles and approaches to working with audiences that I won’t much discuss here. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski’s collection Letting Go? (2011) offers insight into the role of authority in historical research in “a user-generated world. They suggest that collaborative environments for history-making don’t require “letting go” of authority, so much as simply stepping out of the way of interested community members. The historian does not relinquish expertise, only the final word. Taken to the extreme, Adair’s (et. al.) “user-generated world” becomes the crowdsourced one. To this end, Mia Ridge’s Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, examines a growing use of (unpaid) volunteer labour to digitize, transcribe, and curate the sources of historical inquiry in order to lend underfunded projects an ethically dubious form of scale (some critics call the practice: “crowdmilking”).

While the influence of Becker’s Mr. Everyman on the historiographical developments listed here is occasionally indirect, we can easily colligate them on the same epistemic map. By rejecting the notion of a lost and irrecoverable past, the historian can find traces of history in the present, and so can everyone else. The incontrovertible fact that the historian has no monopoly over the lived and remembered experience of things “said and done” demands that we rethink where our expertise is situated in the social construction of historical knowledge, as well as how we frame the audiences for our stories.

Both user-generation and crowdsourcing approaches emerge from the digital age—in particular the development of Web 2.0, which enables near-instant feedback and geographically dispersed participation. It would be naïve not to recognize that the communities formed through digital technologies are not in some way affected by the techniques that underpin them. Just as the self and the community are transformed by the mediation of wires and mainframes, so too are our conceptions of time and sociability. Knowledge can now be produced in a radically different way than even ten years ago, with notable consequences for our practice as educators and storytellers.

In a second part to this post, I will examine how historians have incorporated diffuse authority in their oral history projects and pedagogical practices.

Works Cited for Part 1 and 2

Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. 1 edition. (Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011).

American Alliance of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, and Center for the Future of Museums. Trendswatch 2013: Back to the Future. (American Alliance of Museums, 2013).

Cantu, D. Antonio and J. Warren Wilson, Teaching History in the Digital Classroom. (M.E. Sharpe, 2003).

Cohen, Daniel J., and Tom Scheinfeldt, eds. Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities. (The University of Michigan Press, 2013).

High, Steven. “Introduction: Sharing Authority,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 43, 1 (Winter 2009):  12-34.

Kee, Kevin B., ed. Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. Digital Humanities. (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

Kean, Hilda and Paul Ashton, eds.. People and Their Pasts: Public History Today. (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009).

Kelly, T. Mills. Teaching History in the Digital Age. (University of Michigan Press, 2013).

Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century. (University of Toronto Press, 2008).

Ridge, Mia, ed. Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage. (Ashgate Pub Co, 2014).

Seixas, Peter. Benchmarks of Historical Thinking: A Framework for Assessment in Canada. (Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, University of British Columbia, 2006).

Taylor, Tony, and Robert Guyver, eds. History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives. Studies in the History of Education. (Information Age Pub, 2012).

historical photo with google pins

History in Crisis?

When I mentioned the title of my PhD field’s first category–which is also the title of this post–to one of my department colleagues, he quipped that it sounded like a CNN headline. It’s the type of subject heading that should be accompanied by talking heads, breaking news graphics, reporters in the field and conversations with teary-eyed historians, displaced by a collapsing academic discipline. After the break, an interview with William Pannapacker.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the budget to support those types of production values. Even more to the point of this post, however, I’m also not looking to jump into a sensationalist diatribe about history, heritage, and pastkeeping in the 21st century. The fact of the matter is that in the last fifteen years I’ve spent in, around, and outside the academy – as a student, a public servant and a consultant – a quintessential something has changed in the way we practice and teach history, something more than just the introduction of the Internet.

Many historians and humanists have written on continuity and change in the nature of academic work over the past two centuries. And every change in the way we do history seems to be accompanied by traditional gatekeepers who cry foul, and revisionists who seek to expand the scope of the discipline. In the ensuing debates, some approaches are brought to the center of practice just as others are forced to the margins. Even the introduction of positivist approaches to source work – epitomized by Ranke and seen by many as the progenitor of the modernist approach to the profession – lay the groundwork for robbing amateur historians of their right to speak on matters historical. Simliar sea-changes occurred with the emergence of social history, the linguistic turn, cultural criticism, and the long-standing curricular debates that seek to frame the discipline as either a social study or as an art. Seen in this light, all historiography is a study of the ongoing change in the nature of the discipline, and every historiographical intervention positions the historian within a dynamic conversation about the validity of their approach and their topic.

What then, is unique about this current juncture, and how useful is it to frame apparently regular changes in the contours of a conversation within the rubric of a “crisis?” To answer this question, I want to discuss the power of the historian, drawing on a few select readings that help illustrate my points. I don’t think anything below is particularly ground breaking, but framing the conversation around power can help us think about historical authority and the loss of that authority (I also recognize that I’m leaving out a substantial body of literature on historical authority, but bear with me as I’ll get around to more of it in coming weeks).

Ephemeral and Structural Authority

The power of the historian is ephemeral; this despite the results of national surveys in Australia, Canada and the United States that show the public continues to see historians as trusted sources (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 1998; Ashton and Hamilton, 2001; The Pasts Collective, 2012). This can be attributed in part to the immaterial and negotiated nature of history-work—arguments and stories crumble far faster than do city blocks or bridges. With its manifold components and dependence on diffuse centers of material production, a car is real in a way that a story is not. The very act of surveying a population in order to situate the role of the historian within that broader population suggests that there is nothing a priori about the right for the historian to speak authoritatively.

It would probably be easier to talk about historical authority if we could agree on what a historian is, but even within the discipline we see a constant negotiation of legitimacy. When I took my first stab at a PhD program in 2009, I had already consulted on a museum exhibit, worked as a researcher for a private consulting firm, acted as a research assistant for a project on literacy in medieval France, and gathered source material for a digital archive with Library and Archives Canada. Explaining that I was hired as a historian to deliver a public lecture on maritime piracy for Montreal’s Belles Soirees lecture series, my supervisor at the time dismissively stated: “We’ll see when you get to call yourself a historian,” by which she meant “You don’t have a PhD yet, so you’re not a historian.” She’s not alone in holding this attitude, but I know that other historians do not subscribe to this degree of professional boundary-setting. For many within the discipline, the PhD is the source of professional power and it’s important to guard the borders against interlopers from the private and public spheres in order to protect academic integrity. But if the broader public is willing to admit a more diffuse cadre of pastkeepers to their circle of legitimacy, as we see in the preference for family stories and the testimony of witnesses in all three national surveys, then the rants of academic minutemen seem as futile and bigoted as those of people who want to build a wall along the Canada-US border.

The legitimacy of history as a profession and an epistemic mode is not entirely in the hands of historians. Instead, it is negotiated within a broader social context that imbues people, institutions and informal communities with the right to speak. So while that authority is not structural, its authority is shaped by permutations in these structures. The authors and researchers I’m examining this week all recognize this. For the researchers of the three national surveys, “engagement” is a structural benchmark, as the places and events at which people perform and consume the past becomes an indicator of where authority lies. For others, like Jack Granastein, awareness of content is a benchmark of authority insofar as history is seen as fundamental to shaping national character (Granastein, 2007). For the latter author, curricular change and results on citizenship tests reveal a dangerous shift in authority for the primary institutions that underpin our profession—the academy and the government. All scholars on this list identify the structural shifts resulting from political decisions and changes in communications technology.

We could exaggerate the structural at the expense of individual power, as concentrations of authority allow those who hold that power to shape national character and determine institutional resources. Hence, The Pasts Collective’s concerns about the role of the Internet in diffusing public historical authority to private and corporate interests. If history has arisen as a modern discipline with a nationalizing mission underpinned by democratic values of good citizenship and supported by public institutions that reinforce these values, what happens when power shifts from those centers to more diffuse locales such as a company history page, a documentary film, or a Wikipedia entry? Each of these sites require a set of skills and literacies that are fundamentally different from those that evolved within older sites in the modernist tradition. While I will discuss the implications of skill-based pedagogies in another post, it’s worth noting that the construction of historical “skills” is often framed in reference to broader institutional frameworks, despite the considerable power individuals have to exercise decision-making authority within those structures.

Within these broader and changing frameworks for historical practice, historians must make decisions that will shape the nature of those institutions. The authors of The Historians’ Manifesto, for example, argue that he the content decisions made by historians– in particular the decision to focus increasingly on small time frames and discrete subject matter–have marginalized historians as useful commentators amongst broader publics who are hungry for long-term thinking and longer narratives (Armitage and Guldi, 2014). Here Granastein, with his emphasis on unifying narratives with a public and national purpose, would likely agree. For many people, history provides factual or likely stories about where they came from and the context in which they came to be. This in turn allows them to make decisions in the present and about the future. As storytellers and educators with a professional obligation to “speak truth to power,” historians can shape how people come to value the past.

The Value of History

The places where value are negotiated, however, are diffuse—in newspapers, in stock exchanges, in meetings, in blog posts, in video games, in commemorative spaces, in legislatures, and of course, in the class room. I think we have a professional obligation to intervene in these spaces both as cultural critics and as storytellers. In Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History, Bronwyn Dalley defines public history as “other peoples’ history” and involves working to the agendas and research priorities of other parties (Dalley and Phillips, 2001). But situating history within other peoples agendas makes of historians “knowledge workers,” and here Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool can help us appreciate the implications of this way of seeing the profession.

The Laws of Cool presents us with a historicized account of knowledge work and its development in the 20th century. Beginning with the implementation of scientific management in the early 1900s, he charts the separation of work and leisure in factories such as those owned by Ford, and the regulation worker behaviour both inside and outside the workplace. For Liu, companies such as Ford and thinkers like Taylor created perpetuating structures for the management of feelings, subordinating workers’ internal motivations to those of the company. For knowledge workers, this alienation was different from that experienced by labourers because they never had a product from which to be alienated. Instead, companies created distance between the knowledge worker, their fellow employees, and from their very selves. Later in the century, with the development of human resources departments and information-based machines, companies positioned themselves as the outlets of emotion for workers. “Service with a smile” became the norm for employees, so whereas the “Ford Face” of the early 20th allowed no emotion for workers, latter companies of the informating age allowed only positive expression, obliging the individual to embody the company’s values and norms. Now, in the networked age, Liu sees something quite different and sinister for workers—the emergence of “cool” as an ethos of knowledge work in a networked society.

What makes this development particularly noteworthy is its colonization of workers personal time in the name of the machine. Gone is the sublime, the beautiful, and the serendipitous—all made to kneel before an all-consuming cool that replaces coherent political expression, passion, and emotional depth with detached irony and professional competence. Over the century, legitimate knowledge has become oriented towards an axis of technology/technique-based modes that leave little to no room for other ways of knowing. Gone also, is the weekend and workers leisure time as the new expression of the Ford Face manifests itself in quasi-theological demands for improvement to productivity under the guise of “lifelong learning” and “continuous improvement.” The result, argues Liu, is a perpetually anxious knowledge worker who can only express herself through technology and mastery of its associated techniques. So complete is this development, that cool and the techonology/technique paradigm have become ingrained in the worker’s fundamental way of being in the world. No small wonder then, that imposter syndrome is so rampant in graduate school and other knowledge-based centers—we are what we know, so it’s very important how much we know.

How does this parallel with the historical profession? Obligated to maintain professional distance from their students and a broader community in order to justify their esteemed position within the middle management of the public sphere, historians have become alienated from that public. We instead justify this power by framing our expertise within a discourse of historical “skills,” “mastery” of content, and the simultaneous focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and adherence to occasionally obscure disciplinary jargon. This is only further exacerbated in digital humanities circles, with their emphasis on coding and information literacy, but most scholars in DH are also sagacious critics of the disciplining effect of technology on the self and in the construction of “crowds.” What we need to be better at, as a whole, is connecting why all this stuff matters to the public, and recognize that they have a say in whether it matters or not.

Audiences Matter

While it’s too sensationalistic to describe history as “in crisis,” it’s entirely fair to say that we are held in a perpetually insecure position by disciplinary norms that alienate us from our audiences and centralize authority in the body of the expert. Any historian who has written popular non-fiction, performed an historical play, or consulted on government policy knows that authority is negotiated and that audiences matter. I’m certainly not alone or in any way original by arguing that we ignore our audiences at our peril.

I also think that the situation has become a lot better for history, if not for the professional historian. As all three national surveys reveal, people are very interested in the past and want to see quality research in the public sphere. That said, they don’t only want to get their history from experts in the academy. The question that remains is what we do as professionals with that knowledge.

There’s no shortage of solutions and in thinking about how history can change and I’m inclined to defer to more experienced voices for negotiating our current impasse. For David Thelen, we need to meet people on their own terms, engaging in the sites and media where they prefer to consume the past. For Roy Rosenzweig we need to seek out opportunities to foster broader engagement with the past. Armitage and Guldi, for their part, see opportunities in digital media and technology to provide the public with the long-term thinking and broader narratives it craves. And while digital media provides an outlet for most historians considered here (many writing at the turn of the millennium), Granastein suggests instead a policy-based approach that roots historical education in a national unifying pedagogical framework.

That said, I’m particularly inspired by William Cronon’s 2013 speech to the AHA, where he argues that storytelling is the key role of the historian. This leads me back to Alan Liu, who suggests that art may be our vehicle for negotiating the relationship with our publics. We have at our disposal the ability to connect with artists locally and around the world and can produce work employing a wide range of textual, aural, haptic and visual media. Through these stories we can help people find meaning outside market indicators, the cubicle and the performance review and can contribute the beautiful, the meaningful, and the sublime to daily life. While this involves decentering academic authority, and whether we like it or not, as many scholars considered here suggest, this process already started a long time ago.

Works Discussed

Ashton, Paul, Paula Hamilton, and Curtin University of Technology. Australia Research Institute. Australians and the Past / Edited by Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton. ACH, 0728-8433 ; 22.  Australian Cultural History; 22, (University of Queensland Press, 2003).

Dalley, Bronwyn, and Jock Phillips, eds. Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History. (Auckland University Press, 2001).

Granatstein, J. L. Who Killed Canadian History?. 2nd edition. (Harper Perennial, 2007).

Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage. The History Manifesto. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Pasts Collective (Project). Canadians and Their Pasts. (University of Toronto Press, 2013).

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. (Columbia University Press, 1998).


Photographer with young assistant beside tent

A Personal Note on Studying for Comprehensive Exams “in Public,” or The Historian Has No Clothes

Over the next eight to nine weeks, I’ll be working towards my comprehensive exams in Public History at Carleton University. This is a two-to-three oral hour examination by five professional historians who will measure whether I read what I say I read, and whether I can make the books “speak” to one another. The list of 91 titles for this examination – including articles, monographs, and multi-authored volumes of essays in topics ranging from commemoration, to performance, and to technologies of historical representation – was assembled and categorized by myself with assistance from professors Shawn Graham and John Walsh. It’s a wide field and often the connections identified between books are obscure and based on what I bring to the act reading.

One of my supervisors, Shawn Graham, has been on me to start blogging for some time. Some time ago, the eminent digital humanities scholar and cultural critic Alan Liu told Shawn to get his ideas “out there.” It’s worked out really well for him. Shawn’s thoughts and experiments are regularly shared on, and they are seen by a fairly large number of people on Twitter. So in this eight week lead-up to my comps, both Shawn and I agreed that it would be a great time to have me think through the titles on my list in a public way. No problem, if weren’t for those two challenging words: “in public.”

Those two innocuous words carry more emotional baggage than I think they get credit for. In the news, the expression “in public” is frequently juxtaposed with activities that, we are made to believe, belong in the private sphere. Take this sample of excerpts from recent headlines found in Google news: Drinking in public;” “Breastfeeding in public;” “Dancing in public;” “Urinating in public;” “Drugs found in public;” “Undressed in public.” In these formulations “in public” signals trespassing – the colonization of the public sphere’s moral order by the private sphere’s vice and lasciviousness. In public denotes a claim of public authority to do, say, or simply be and as such carries with it the specter of regulation, lynching, mob justice and shaming and occcasionally the promise of legitimation. It suggests a contest for the commons where the transgressor is vulnerable to the generosity and temper of the crowd. No wonder so many people have difficulty “speaking in public” and “working in public.”

I’ve been putting off working in public for some time. Although intimidated by the threats of sanction and criticism that having my stuff “out there” carries, two things make assembling these coming posts difficult.

First, I’m not a “sharer.” I recognize the benefits of articulating ideas for an audience of colleagues and strangers, and leaving behind a written record of my experiences preparing for comprehensive exams, but I don’t “like” doing it. I stumble over what I want to say and in my selection of supporting evidence. I worry about the quality of my ideas and dread having them out there for even a small audience to engage with. When I look back on my first blog – now generously tended to by the Internet Archive – I cringe in shame; the ideas are not as articulate as I would like them to be, I don’t have adequate evidence to support my arguments, I make sweeping, impressionistic claims about the state of the humanities completely ignorant that more articulate debates were already taking place in digital humanities and public history circles. And it’s all out there, for everyone to see – stuck in time and at the whim of the obscure quality indicators of the index. There’s no room for intellectual evolution and change in a search engine results page. Given the risks of being frozen out of time by a search engine, and the hundreds of millions of articles in the networked wilds of Google’s servers–not to mention the millions more in other electronic repositories–my reflections on a discrete set of readings strikes me as simultaneously too dangerous and too insignificant to bother with.

Second, while I’m not a big fan of writing my ideas down, I generally don’t mind speaking in small groups. Close networks are intimate, more-or-less supportive, and allow people to have a discussion in a way that large networks don’t. A small group is also more likely to be focused on a similar interest. The seminar environment–one that historians and humanists are familiar with–is a case in point. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in undergraduate and graduate programs have been in these environments, and the same could be said for meetings with clients and working groups in my professional life. Everyone around the table has a similar interest (if a different agenda), we’re all reading the same books and articles, or we’re all working around a common subject. Generally speaking, the less familiarity and comfort I have with the people around the table, the more likely I am to shut down and resort to anti-sharing behaviour. The specter of the public’s gaze grows stronger with every new person around the table.

Despite these concerns, however, sharing is central to academic practice. The fundamental activity of the “scholarly contract” as defined by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig–that exchange of quality work for deliberate attention–requires that work be shared. Recognition in the field derives from articulate and considered communication with members of scholarly and interested publics. In training to be speakers, teachers and even teaching assistants we need to become comfortable with the public gaze and the scrutiny of colleagues. The exploration of truth and meaning is too valuable to be kept locked in a closed seminar room. Historians can’t “speak truth to power” if we don’t speak.

It’s with these final thoughts that I begin this eight week journey into working in public. My contract with those that will read these posts goes like this:

I promise to give serious consideration to the questions asked by the humanists on my list. I’ll be honest in my reflections and identify my own gaps in knowledge that may be getting in the way of my understanding a particular work. When additional reading and study change my thinking about a historian’s work, I will update previous posts with an addendum, but I will leave my original reflections in place to allow readers to follow how my thinking about a topic evolves. I’ll try to avoid being defensive about my work and graciously accept the feedback of people who take the time to comment. That said, I won’t tolerate meanness and bigotry, either against myself or other commenters on these pages.

In many ways the web and in particular the search engine, is an instrumental medium. In contrast to the library stack, search engine algorithms and social networks encourage utilitarian rather than exploratory approaches to discovery. Search results are highly personalized and specific, orienting us towards pages that most closely resemble our search terms and what the engine suspects we intend by those terms. Some scholars (Kim Martin, for example) have argued that what’s lost in the technological complex of search is the serendipity that so often guides the most interesting discoveries. That said, it’s my hope that others who undertake comprehensive exams in public and digital history, and who find this blog through a Google search or a Twitter link, will find the reflections on this blog help them think through the rough contours of their own readings. Perhaps in sharing we will find unexpected connections that help us better understand the more sophisticated and complex arguments on our lists.

Best of luck,