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Sessions of Value at the American Historical Association Even If You Can Not Attend: Civics

The annual conference of the American Historical Association will be held January 3-6, 2019, in Chicago. I will not be attending the conference. I have reviewed the program book and there are many sessions which are of value to history organizations, municipal historians, and educators. Below are the abstracts of these sessions. If someone is attending the conference and would like to report on them to the history community, that would be appreciated.

This post focuses on sessions related to civics. The previous one addressed education. Some of the papers presented are available on the web by clicking on them.

Historians and the Public Sphere in Turbulent Political Times

Chair: Daniel M. Bessner, University of Washington
Panel: Daniel M. Bessner, University of Washington
Patrick Iber, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Nancy MacLean, Duke University
Rebecca Onion, Slate Magazine
Alejandro Velasco, New York University

Session Abstract

Recent political developments in the U.S., including the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, have engendered an outburst of popular historical writing. From books that explore the connections between the contemporary United States and the Weimar Republic to essays that analyze the deep-seated origins of American racism and xenophobia, historians have entered—and been welcome into—the public sphere in ways unimaginable as recently as two years ago. This roundtable, which consists of historians of various ranks, genders, and backgrounds, will address the problems and prospects of professional historians writing for a broader public in a moment of profound transformation and anxiety.

While historians have been encouraged to fight for the influence of our ideas in the public sphere, the conditions now making that possible seem fraught with potential problems. Trump, after all, campaigned on a platform that derided expertise, and described reported facts as “fake news.” How do professional historians cope with an environment in which many of their arguments raise present-day political concerns? Is there a risk of normal professional work being branded as a partisan activity—as something akin to “fake history”? At the same time, social media platforms make possible the wider dissemination of our work and allow us to interact with readers almost immediately. But they can also create the possibility of writing for popularity rather than complexity, or they bring with them the risks of abuse and harassment.

This roundtable will discuss the manifold public roles professional historians may play in the present moment. Questions we seek to address include: How do we balance roles as writers, activists, and pundits? How can we write effectively for a larger audience? How can historians bridge the gap between the academy and the public? To what ends should they do so? Can historians and the public learn from each other? How can we respond when we become the center of a public firestorm? And, perhaps most importantly, how should we think about professional obligations and responsibilities in these unsettled times? By examining these questions in depth at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, we hope to begin a conversation that will reverberate not only throughout the seminar halls of the university, but in the public sphere as well.

Loyal to Their Own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration, and Contestation

Chair: W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Papers: Who Are the Real Americans? African American Civil War Memory and Narratives of Loyalty Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

“Legacies of Triumph”: African American Women’s Memorialization in Public History Sites
Alexandria Russell, University of South Carolina

“Belles Who Were There . . . 1960 Sit-Ins”: The Gendered Narratives and Commemoration of the Greensboro Sit-Ins Jasmin C. Howard, Michigan State University

This Costume Called My Skin: Black Historic Site Interpreters on the Front Lines of Public Memory Elon Cook Lee, Rhode Island School of Design

Comment: The Audience

Session Abstract

Loyal to their own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration and Contestation is an exploration of how African Americans have been publicly memorialized in the contested physical landscape of the United States thereby critically engaging memorialization in both the North and South. The controversies surrounding the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Durham, Baltimore and various other southern locales last year has sparked conversations about how legacies are commemorated in contested spaces and thereby represent contested loyalties. Historically the South has been situated as a terrain fraught with racial violence and trauma where contestation associated with race has often led to blood shed. Contrastingly, the South is simultaneously situated as a homeland and a place of comfort. Engaging the South as a site of both collective pleasure and pain for African Americans, panelists seek to further examine the troubling of dominant and often limited southern narratives about African Americans throughout history. Relatedly, panelists seek to transgress narratives that frame the South as the predominant space for scholarship on early African American History by exploring the North as well as a contested space. Prior to the twentieth century Great Migration to the North, the North was a space of dynamic and complex African American life. Further, the lives of enslaved and free African Americans in the North during enslavement deserves further study. The history of African American life in the North during and after enslavement was also a site of pain and pleasure which is exemplified by the violence of Northern slavery and twentieth century urban race riots coupled with the opportunities that the North presented for African Americans fleeing the South during enslavement and Jim Crow.

Understanding the distinct contours of how African Americans have been memorialized highlights the intersection of race, gender, class, and space in public history. Panelists will examine the trajectory of African American commemorations from the seventeenth century to the modern-day, through their discussion of the roles of enslaved men and women in the North through an examination of current public historical interpretation in New England, freedmen and freedwomen as memory crafters of the Civil War, the commemoration of African American student activism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and African American women’s memorialization in the 1970s. In short, this panel seeks to make three notable interventions. We seek to showcase efforts by Black southerners to commemorate their past and contest White southern public memory because White Southern nostalgia or the lost cause is but one type of loyalty. African Americans are also committed to their own narratives and memory. Secondly, we seek to examine African American commemoration as a gendered process. Lastly, we seek to examine both commemoration in the North and South in order to produce rich scholarship and public history that is more reflective of true African American life. Timely in nature, we assert that to understand American historical memory we must reconsider African American public history through an examination of contested memory and spaces throughout the United States.

The American Revolution in World History: A Teaching Roundtable

Chair: Thanasis Kinias, Northeastern University
Panel: Marcus Filippello, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Jason Herbert, University of Minnesota
Amy-Elizabeth Manlapas, The Paideia School
Serena Zabin, Carleton College

Session Abstract

This round table will address the conference theme of ‘loyalty’ through a discussion of teaching the American Revolution in world-historical context. The standard narrative of the American Revolution is familiar and seldom problematized in survey courses at the high school or undergraduate level. Placing the American colonial rebellion in its global historical context gives students access to unfamiliar perspectives: British, French, and Spanish; Native American/First Nations; African diaspora; and so on. The participants in this round table are high school teachers, doctoral students, and university faculty members. They are both Americanists and world historians, with specializations that include the British Empire, Indigenous history, British and Spanish colonial America, and Africa.

Each panelist will speak briefly about how she or he uses world-historical context to challenge students’ preconceptions about the American Revolution. The chair will then moderate a conversation among the panelists and audience about how each other’s approaches can enhance all of our teaching of the American Revolution.

This round table is sponsored by the World History Association, which is committed to facilitating discussion of world history pedagogy among teachers and academics.

Prison/Education: Historians Take on a National Debate

Chair: Robert Smith, Marquette University
Panel: Jessica Neptune, Bard Prison Initiative, Chicago
Claire Potter, The New School
Shana Russell, Rutgers University at Newark
Liz Ševčenko, Rutgers University at Newark
Heather Ann Thompson, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

What role should historians be playing in the debate about mass incarceration in the United States? This roundtable proposes that understanding the role that “prison” plays in the American social order offers multiple opportunities for engagement, critique, publicly engaged scholarship, and activism. With these opportunities also come responsibilities to different constituencies. Participants in this roundtable will speak about their engagement with one or more of the publics engaged in rethinking the role of mass incarceration in our society: our students, in and out of prison; prison authorities and employees; a public that is often divided about the utility of prison for the social order and the justice system; public funding for scholarship that encourages debate but prohibits the politicization of that debate; and a reading public that requires well researched scholarship to re-engage and re-evaluate the rise of incarceration in our society.

Roundtable participants include a best-selling popular author who engages popular audiences, media producers, incarcerated people and their families; two directors of a public history project who facilitate college students doing community-based historical research on the local impact of incarceration; a scholar who taught a college course on comparative incarcerations under the auspices of the NEH Enduring Questions program; and the Director of the Bard College in Prison Project in Chicago.

The Student as Citizen: Loyalties, Disloyalties, and the Politics of Education

Chair: Jon Hale, College of Charleston

Papers: “To Participate in Their Own Destinies”: Detroit’s Community Control Movement and the Struggle to Redefine the Black High School Student as Citizen Dara Walker, Penn State University

The Moral Politics of Divestment: South Africa, the Anti-apartheid Movement, and American Higher Education in the 1980s David Busch, Carnegie Mellon University

Learn for America? American Studies in the College Classroom, 1945–60 Mario Rewers, Vanderbilt University

Comment: Andrea L. Turpin, Baylor University

Session Abstract

In 1965, Fredrick Rudolph published a small essay titled, “The Neglect of the Student as a Historical Tradition.” As the title suggested, he lamented the lack of scholarly attention paid to students and the way they shaped ideas of education. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rudolph wrote this piece in 1965, a year after the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley captured national headlines. Historians since have taken up his call, especially scholars of social movements who have brought to light the ways student activists helped establish black, ethnic, and women studies on American college campuses. This panel continues in this tradition and brings together scholars who explore the relationship between students and state institutions (social, educational, political, and cultural). How did state institutions conceptualize students as citizens? What mechanisms or practices did these institutions use to realize their vision of “the student as a citizen”? How did students respond to these practices and mechanisms? And what politics and social forces did they marshal in their responses? The scholars of this panel take up these questions, among others, in their papers that explore students and politics in mid-century America.

5 thoughts on “Sessions of Value at the American Historical Association Even If You Can Not Attend: Civics

    1. The blog reported on the sessions at a conference related to the general topic of civics without passing judgment on any of them. Nonetheless I will remove you from the distribution list.


  1. Peter,

    Thank you so much for sending this! I doubt I can attend, but I am happy to know about them and learn about some new resources. I can’t think of more timely or thoughtful session topics.

    I really appreciate this!

    All the best,


    Sally Whipple
    Executive Director
    Connecticut’s Old State House
    Connecticut Democracy Center
    860-522-6766 ext. 17

    1. Thank you Sally. Your comment is the exact opposite of another one I received where the person asked to be removed from the distribution list because of the identical blog.

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