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New Media And Public History?

September 25, 2014 at 10:47 PM

I was wondering if it might be time to think of alternative ways of presenting history to the public? Academic history has only a few acceptable venues—the conference, the article, the book, the roundtable. The landscape of new media on the other hand has been vibrant: wikis and podcasts have become incredibly influential sources of historical knowledge; the askhistorians forum on reddit sustains a vibrant back-and-forth between historical experts and laymen; amateur historians publish blog posts on everything from 18th Century haircare to the social networks of the American Revolution. Can academic historians jam the subtleties of long term history into the micro-second attention spans of our computer screens? Should we? Is it more important for academic history to be written for other historians--with all its complexity, subtlety, and difficulty? Or is there a space for pitching these new historical narratives to the wider public?

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Re: New Media And Public History?

November 10, 2014 at 3:46 AM
Prof. David Armitage and Prof. Jo Guldi's book, The History Manifesto, pronounces a new social role that historians should take. As a history graduate student, probably I should thank them for potentially creating more job opportunities in the future, e.g. a consultant of the White House or U.N. But, my sense of "conservativeness" hinders me from embracing their new proposal--there are big dangers behind the historian's new role as a public speaker, or a data specialist. There are mainly two problems.

First, instead of jumping outside the highly specialized "profession" of being a historian, these two historians are seducing other historians and university education into a deeper trap of professionalization and specialization. As soon as historians identifying themselves as "data specialists," with high possibility, they will turn themselves into slaves of diagrams, big data, and huge amount of statistics; records containing human feelings and emotions will be discarded into the trash, since such records will be difficult to "digitalize." Even if we will be able to find various key words in various documents, as the authors suggested by using fancy visualization tools, story lines and deeper meanings behind these "words" will be lost. The two historians' proposal that historians can be critic of the big data will be too idealistic to be realized.

The second "danger" embedded in their proposal worry me more. As the last chapter indicate, what they appeal is a publicly active role for historians. But, once become "public speakers," can historians still criticize the government, the reality and speak for the "public"? Once belong to one of the prestigious institutions, such as White House and U.N. can historians still be able to jump out of the entrenched interests and stand aloof to reject the "institutionalization" of themselves? Once publicly taking the role as a representative of "public" or as an interpreter who claim to "read behind the data," I highly doubt that a historian could offer objective, humanistic, and more neutral opinions. Probably, instead of appealing historians to take on more active public roles, these authors (together with other people who are interested in this topic) should be more self-reflective and self-conscious, criticizing themselves before speaking for the "public." As far as I can think, it may be independent individuals who reject any form of "institutionalization," and "publicity," that can remain most clearheaded in the face of the vast changes happening around us. Therefore, rather than becoming a "technic," historians should learn more from philosophers and litterateurs to listen to the "deep emotions" of human beings.
 

Re: New Media And Public History?

September 15, 2015 at 7:01 PM
The proposals put forward by Prof. David Armitage and Prof. Jo Guldi are well worth acknowledging in regard to the role that historians can and sometimes should play in today's society. That they should be taken as definitive answers is another thing.
The text itself does leave some clues about various possibilities and outcomes, particularly when it talks about multiple causalities and different futures. In other words, what they propose is only their suggestions and opening the debate is a way of listening to other ideas and refocusing the objectives for our profession's future through dialogue; including with other social scientists, philosophers and literature critics/experts.

In regards to your concerns about deeper professionalization and losing credibility through "institutionalization", they are both well-founded and not well dealt by the authors, but I don't think they are insurmountable:

New technologies have definitely opened new ways for historians to work and even to redefine themselves in new roles like "data specialists". But in order to avoid becoming dependent on big data and its results, we must learn from the mistakes of the quantitative school of the 1970's and (as you rightly point out) not discard those records containing human feelings and emotions. Big data is very helpful but it cannot solve everything; we just need know to use it without sacrificing other historical methodologies for its own sake.

As for the issue of historians losing their ability of being "public speakers" upon working with a prestigious institution or government, the problem stems from the lack of trust many of them have suffered over the last 20 years. While the presence of historians in their ranks won't necessarily improve things in immediate future, there has to be a changing of the guard. That it will take some time and may cost the position of certain academics as objective, humanistic and neutral observers is right, but the sacrifice has to be made for the long-term good the profession and the public at large. For the time being, remaining independent is the way to go in order to stay clearheaded and neutral, but eventually we need to start infiltrating these institutions and begin transforming them anew if we want a better future.