Whose History? Rethinking Access to History in a Digital World

Well, I didn’t really believe Dr. Miller when he said that students are often frustrated during the first week of their independent reading, but I should have. I’ve struggled this week to find readings that led me in any particular direction – I read plenty of interesting stuff, but I often felt as though I was spinning in circles, and while I kept waiting to hit the one reading that would set off a chain reaction of other readings, it didn’t really happen. Equally frustrating is the fact that what I’ve found doesn’t led itself to any tidy organization here. I fear my blog post this week won’t be much more than a chronicle of these frustrations and a sense that I’m merely scratching the surface of a much deeper field of literature. But, I’m going to give it a shot anyway, walk you through where I’ve been this week, and hope something I say here will perhaps spark an idea from someone else that will lead in the next direction.

As a reminder, my research questions include:

  • How can we design history curriculum in a way that broadens access to history, in three senses: whose history is told, who is involved in the process of making history, and who is the target audience for the dissemination of history?
  • What, if anything, do digitization and pedagogy that makes use of digital technology have to do with expanding who has access to the creation and dissemination of history?

These are big questions, and I have yet to find a really handy way to turn them into a GoogleSearch (suggestions welcome!). I started with a few rabbit holes — starting with George Lipsitz. I was in search of a particular Lipsitz article in American Quarterly from the past few years that might address the idea of situated knowledge. I don’t think I found the exact article that Dr. Miller had in mind, but I did stumble across an article Lipstiz authored in June entitled “How History Happens and Why Culture Counts: Twenty Years After Becoming Mexican American” (in American Quarterly, June 2013). In it, Lipsitz reflects on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, by George Sanchez. Lipsitz celebrates Sanchez’s work in particular for its awareness that “the official archives are always structured in dominance,” and its ability to work its way around the restrictions of these power structures. Sanchez did this in two ways: he “made the evidence sing in a different key through his skilled use of emerging currents in interpretive ethnography, cultural geography, sociology, literary theory, and cultural studies,” and he “discover[ed] alternative archives,” including turning to vernacular culture in order to access a “repository of collective memory” (409-410). Lipsitz argues that Sanchez’s work laid the foundation for the strategies that future scholars of history would use to circumvent the dominant narratives in search of the more histories of underrepresented groups.

Lipsitz, then, started to hit on something I’m interested in: whose stories are told, and what are the actual techniques we might utilize in order to tell a broader story, and to include more people in the telling? What I was looking for next, however, was a way to connect this information to pedagogy: what it would like to design a course with these ideas in mind, how curriculum can be structured around these goals, how we can teach undergraduates to look for history in all sorts of places, to value and engage with a multiplicity of historical voices. And, maybe even more, what we can learn from undergraduates about how to do this?

In search of answers to these questions, I ended up next at former AHA president Bill Cronon (after a brief detour through David Pace). I landed on Bill Cronon’s AHA Presidential Addresses and Presidential Columns in Perspectives on History. Cronon’s obviously thinking about the same stuff, and his writings were the most fruitful part of my search – but they pulled me in a slightly different direction, towards a focus on the relationship between the professional historian and the public historian. I know Hannah’s written about Cronon before (and I see from her blog post that she’s covering really similar stuff), so I will try to just pull out some of the main themes that related to my interests:

  • Cronon wants to highlight that professional historians, like any other group working within a particular narrative structure, must make choices, and those choices present a particular narrative of the past, with its own omissions and distortions. Historians choose “not to represent aspects of the past about which our documents are silent,” but Cronon argues that some of these areas of omission are so crucial to daily life that to omit them is “distorting” (2013 Presidential Address).
  • Digitization matters, whether or not you or your classes are particularly plugged in to digital technologies. The increasing digitization is creating seismic changes throughout the field, especially in regards to what scholarly authority looks like. For some, these changes are frightening, while for others, they represent a “democratization of knowledge” (January 2012).
  • Wikipedia (along with other outline outlets) is fundamentally changing the way that we seek and distribute knowledge. In particular, it is providing “an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy,” and collapsing the boundary between professional and non-professional historians (February 2012). Digital forums may provide an opportunity for a bridge or a meeting ground between professionals and amateurs.

Cronon clearly views these changes as containing potential opportunities to really rethink the field, and he encourages historians to meet this brave new world head on. So, with Cronon, I’ve landed in the work of someone who is engaged in the same sorts of questions I’m interested in – but the link to pedagogy (rather than just practice) is still missing, and as most of what I’ve read by Cronon thus far took the form of something closer to personal musings than full-length article, these presidential columns also didn’t lead me towards many more sources.

So, in short, I’m a bit stuck, and I’d love anyone’s thoughts. Inconveniently, I also won’t be in class tomorrow, as I’m currently on my way to Chicago. That said, I hope any thoughts are sparked through this post or through class discussion tomorrow, please let me know! I’ll be emailing Dr. Miller to check in as well, of course.

In the absence of other ideas, I do have some thoughts of where to go next:

  • Lipsitz made mention of the term “insurgent knowledges,” which he borrowed from Foucault. I may go in search of where this term might lead me.
  • I saw several mentions to the work of Roy Rosenzweig, who seems to write a lot about what will happen to history in a digital age. I’m not sure that he specifically addresses the question of whose stories are being told or who is making those stories, but it seems like a good place to go next.

Forgive this rambling post, everyone! I’ll make it up to you next week, once I’ve stumbled across a trove of fascinating information perfectly tailored to my research interests, of course.

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