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The American Historical Association and NY History

One of the types of posts which I have writing is conference reports. The purpose is to share with people who have not attended a conference what I have learned by attending one. In this post I wish to deviate slightly by reporting on a conference I did not attend but from which relevant information still is available. The conference is the annual meeting of the American Historical Association just held in New Orleans.

The story begins with a request last year through a list serve for high school social studies teachers. “We seek your help to increase the number of sessions on Teaching High School History and Social Studies represented at the AHA [conference],” American Historical Association Project Assistant Nike Nivar wrote. “We hope you and your colleagues will put together sessions that represent the best and most innovative work in your field. Our theme for the 127th annual meeting is “Lives, Places, Stories.”

Keep in the mind the reference to “stories.”

One of the responses suggests the possibilities which are available based on the techniques, used separately from the topic researched.

“Get your students out into the community and do oral histories. Any and all born before the 1960s can help your students learn about the US Civil Rights Movement, including recent immigrants,” Randolph Hollingsworth, of the University of Kentucky responded. “Unlike with the stories portrayed in many history textbooks, with oral history interviews your students may discover from their elders that the real strength of our democracy was (and remains at) the local, grassroots level. That’s where the rich diversity of voices, including women, union workers and youth activists, can be found.”

“If your students choose to create a digital narrative out of what they find,” he continued, “I’d love to include their findings on local women’s roles in the Civil Rights era in the Open Knowledge Initiative I’ve started up here in Kentucky.”

Note the references to oral histories in the community and the use of digital technology. I am aware that there are communities in New York which have done this.

David Walsh, editor at the History News Network, began a post on the highlights of the first day of the AHA conference with this observation about local history:

“And while it’s true that New Orleans historians are engaged both with the local community and the broader scholarly community in remembering — and studying the remembrance of — Hurricane Katrina (though there’s only one session this year, out of over a dozen on local history, dedicated to post-Katrina New Orleans), the hurricane devastated the city a scant seven years ago, hardly time for the pain to have healed.”

So there were over a dozen sessions at the conference devoted to local history although not necessarily New Orleans history. One would have to access the conference program website to determine what those sessions were, but it does suggest a scholarly awareness of the importance of local history. One should keep in mind that according to the New York State Local Historians Guidelines (online), such academic research is part of the municipal historian’s responsibilities.

1. Research and Writing

The first, and primary, responsibility of the Local Government Historian is interpretation of the past. This will involve research and writing on aspects of the history of one’s jurisdiction and may include scholarly monographs and articles as well as writing for a more general public audience in magazines and newspapers.

Professor Judith M. Wellman noted: “The best local historians have upheld high standards of gathering and evaluating evidence, making thoughtful and appropriate generalizations, writing well-organized and readable narratives, and sharing their work with others through the most appropriate mediums.”

It would be interesting to know what the compliance rate is with this guideline and if it isn’t high, to discuss what should be done.

The Presidential Address at the AHA conference by outgoing president William Cronon was entitled “Storytelling.” Highlights of his address included some strong comments on the impact of the new technologies on the critical reading skills of students today as reported by David Walsh.

Then there’s the Internet. “The book-length monograph upon which our discipline has relied is under immense pressure,” Cronon said, “My deeper fear is watching my own students, who no longer read books for pleasure. If they have any prior experience of doing research, it’s online. If a piece of information cannot be Googled, it effectively does not exist for them. … [Long-form] reading itself is at risk.”

Students simply are no longer familiar with the basic skills of reading and researching critically.

“In a distracted world where even undergraduates at top universities are hard-pressed to read books that [historians] have traditionally written, and there is widespread public doubt” about the study of history as it is traditionally understood he said, “what is the future of history?”

How, in other words, do professional historians defend the study and practice of history?

Cronon’s answer was Storytelling. “We need to remember the roots of discipline and keep telling stories. … though the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the needs of our digital age.”

Part of the problem is that professional historians — professional academics as a whole, really — speak in their own jargon when communicating with each other, and thus tend to wall themselves off from a broader audience. But he argued that the past is an inherently interesting story, to understand the current world and reclaim worlds lost. “Our core business is RESURRECTION: to make the dead past live again,” Cronon said “Other professionals can afford to be boring. We cannot.”

So how do we make the past come alive? By telling stories. But storytelling as a craft is all-too-often neglected by professional historians. “History is just as committed to its own peculiar narrative forms, Cronon said referring to the third-person omniscient narrative which has dominated since the 19th century, “Historians chose not to represent certain aspects of the past to which their documents are silent.”

But because so much of the experienced past — in particular conversation and stream-of-consciousness — are impossible to replicate through documents, historians might have a little bit more respect for the alternative narrative forms of fiction and narrative journalism. But the single most important mission for historians, he reiterated at the close, is to tell stories about the past, and bring the dead past to life again.

Walsh commented positively on Cronon’s keynote address. He feels there is a paradigm shift moving at glacial speeds with the emergence of a younger generation of scholars. He noted that one scholar even suggested the AHA membership elect a president who does not work at a research university in order to better represent vast majority of historians who don’t work at research universities either.

Where then do they work? That reminds us of another topic which also appeared in my posts on the 2012 conference – JOBS, or the lack of them. History budgets are down, enrollment has dropped, and tenure jobs are dwindling, so what is the history profession to do? One suggestion was to promote history education not to develop historians but to solid, marketable skills for today’s knowledge economy. Perhaps public history was mentioned as well but if so not in the report I read.

Since we survived the fiscal cliff and Mayan cycle this conference at the beginning of the new year provides food for thought about New York State history. What do we think the responsibilities of municipal historians should be? What are the stories the citizens of our hamlets, villages, towns, cities, counties, and state should know? What is the role of the school in this process? What resources are needed to succeed in fulfilling our goals? What are the venues where even discussions on these questions can occur? I guess there really still is a lot to write about because it doesn’t look like these problems are going away or are being sufficiently addressed.

You can watch William Cronon’s Presidential Address online.

Photo: Outgoing AHA President William Cronon delivering his farewell Presidential Address.