Following The Trail

My goal this week was to look for a way to bridge the conversation between activist teaching, as articulated by bell hooks and George Lipsitz, and 21st century pedagogy, as promoted by the likes of James Gee and T. Mills Kelly — and, in particular, to think about how these conversations might come together in a history course.

I had a plan, including a number of articles I was intending to read, and even some notion of the kinds of ideas I was expecting to find.

Instead, something slightly different happened.

I started with one article, which referenced a source I thought I just had to check out — and then I read that article, which contained a reference to another source I just had to look at, and so on. I decided to just see where the trail led me, and although I ended up in a slightly different place than I might have expected, it was a really exciting and productive week.

I’m left with a much more fully articulated idea of where teaching for the 21st century might meet teaching for social justice — and, somewhat to my surprise, my readings this week have got me thinking about how all this relates to the importance of place in a digitizing and globalizing world.

The end of my trail brought me to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (1998), but that’s where I’m going to start articulating how I think all this ties together. The Presence of the Past presents the results of a multi-year survey Rosenzweig and Thelen (along with many others) conducted in the mid-1990’s, in which they interviewed 1,500 Americans to get a sense of how everyday individuals engage with and make sense of the past. The many take-aways from this survey are fascinating, but perhaps the most important finding of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study is that Americans are engaging with the past all the time, in myriad ways — although not necessarily in the same way as most professional historians. For the subjects of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study, there was a distance between history — an abstract, often cold and distant set of content material taught in school – and past, a more living, malleable, and personal conception of history as it relates to one’s family and experiences. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that most Americans are heavily engaged with the past, but through the lens of personal, family, and community history rather than broader narratives of national history. As Rosenzweig and Thelen put it: “Americans feel at home with the past; day to day, hour to hour, the past is present in their lives. Encountering the past, examining it, interpreting it, living and reliving it, they root themselves in families — biological or constructed — and root their families in the world” (Rosenzweig and Thelen 1998, 36).

However, as much as Rosenzweig and Thelen tried to draw a distinction between the personal and the national, they found that respondents “often made national stories personal, personal stories national, and formal settings for studying the past intimate” (126). In other words, respondents wanted to “personalize the public past,” using the framework of family or individual experience to interpret and engage with broader or more distant experiences (115). While white Americans were particularly prone to “personalize the past” — African-American and Native American respondents were much more likely to articulate a connection with a broader communal history — a deep sense of disconnect from school or “official” history was pervasive across the survey. Respondents might have appreciated individual teachers, but they found official history dry and inaccessible, “shaped by remote bureaucrats,” and too focused on “regurgitation of senseless details” (111). In their personal lives, Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study suggests, most Americans seek a past they can engage with, interact with, see themselves in, and put their hands on — and they are likely to trust primary documents, eye-witnesses, and individual experiences far more than official accounts or second-hand narratives.

I’m struck by the many resonances between Rosenzweig and Thelen’s text and the kind of scholarship that hooks and Lipsitz are calling for: a scholarship that values the knowledge of individuals and communities as much as official documents, that includes the public in the process of history-making, that removes authoritative knowledge from the exclusive domain of a small elite, and that knows how to listen rather than only to teach. I’m also struck by the emphasis on community in The Presence of the Past: whether community is a family, a neighborhood, or a cultural group, Americans look at history through a communal lens. They connect with history that they feel close to, they care about the stories of the people and places they know and love, and they don’t always see much connection between these stories and the kind of history they learned in school.

However, thinking about how to teach history through a local, community lens raises some interesting questions about what community looks like in a digitized, globalized world. This brings me to Karen Halttunen, who took up this question in her 2005 American Studies Association presidential address, entitled “Groundwork: American Studies in Place.” Halttunen uses the presidential address as an opportunity to rethink the importance of space and place, and to question claims that place has lost its meaning in the 21st century. “Globalization — with its acceleration of border crossings — has actually made space more important, not less,” Halttunen claims, and she goes on to argue that place matters not only as a useful theoretical construct (she references the many ways in which scholars have adopted the language of borders, frontiers, centers, margins ,etc.), but in a real, material way (2005, 2). While acknowledging that ideas of home, community, roots, and spatial belonging are always constructed and always in flux, Halttunen asserts that knowledge is always “emplaced, inescapably situated,” and our lives are “conducted in place” (7). As the digital world makes it easier and easier to connect with a broader audience, Halttunen goes on to argue, it becomes increasingly important that we take place seriously, or, as she puts it, that we “plunge into the groundwork of making and remaking place alongside our neighbors” (8).

Halttunen goes on to a list of a number of totally fascinating projects conducted by historians and American Studies scholars that sound like exactly the sort of thing Lipsitz and hooks are calling for — and I might compile a list of some of the most relevant ones next week. All of the projects Halttunen lists, however, are conducted by scholars aiming to rethink how to partner with local communities, how to build history from the ground-up alongside the public, and how to re-envision history through the lens of local knowledge. Halttunen ends with a call to action that is worth quoting at length because, I think, it speaks to the sort of work that we’ve been talking about all semester: “As scholars,” she writes, “we have all the necessary tools for critically exposing the ‘power geometries’ that hide behind such powerful place symbols as flags, maps, and ceremonies, and behind such spatial practices as landscape design, urban planning, sites of memory, and border patrols. But we also have the expertise and the power to remap and redesign the places where we live, to correct the misrepresentations of the heritage industry with our own sites of memory…, to create new public places with new meanings, in collaboration with our communities beyond the borders of our campuses.”

If you’re thinking this sounds pretty good, but you’re not sure what it actually might look like — well, you’re not alone, and I’m hoping that next week I’ll get to dive into that question a little more, perhaps by exploring in more depth some of the projects and scholarship that Halttunen mentions. But I’ll leave you with this last idea (actually the first article I looked at this week), which not only suggests the sort of work Halttunen is talking about, but brings in 21st century technologies, too. In “Putting Harlem on the Map,” Stephen Robertson reflects on his experience setting up Digital Harlem, a completely fascinating interactive website in which Robertson has mapped (using GoogleMaps) a sort of astounding amount of data from his research on Harlem in the early 20th century onto a map of the area. Not only is Digital Harlem a really interesting way to make spatial sense of data — and to share that data with a wider audience — but it also allows Robertson (and his audience) to make use of a different kind of data. Play around with Digital Harlem and you’ll find that you can search for traffic accidents, women’s basketball games, and housing records; you can follow the lives of average individuals; you can look at where the speakeasies were located. “The geospatial web,” Robertson writes, “allowed us to incorporate and organize a range of material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis” (Robertson 2012). Working in this way caused Robertson to rethink the kinds of questions he was asking, and the way he thought about the neighborhood. He writes, “Trying to understand those maps draws me down to the level of individual places, and to the relations between them, into the web of locations in which individuals lived their lives, where they resided, worked, and spent their leisure time.” It also resulted in a pretty fascinating and interactive website, free and available to the public, and accompanied by a blog.

This is only one example, of course, but it alone brings together all kinds of different strands: digital technologies, an emphasis on sources that might previously have been discarded by a traditional historian, an interest in the lives of everyday individuals —  all rooted in a very particular time and place, and all available for a 21st century global audience to engage and interact with. Pretty cool, if you ask me.


Works Cited:

  • Halttunen, Karen. “Groundwork: American Studies in Place: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 4, 2005.” American Quarterly 58.1 (March 2006).
  • Robertson, Stephen. “Putting Harlem on the Map.” Writing History in the Digital Age. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. University of Michigan Press, 2012.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past : Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
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