Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Final Frontier?

Will digital history facilitate sharing authority and inquiry? Will placing primary sources at people’s fingertips create a more historically literate public? As a class you read three articles that grapple with these questions. Cohen and Brown both discuss the possibilities and problems with digital history. Many of you remarked about how exciting data mining can be for historians. Many of you also raised good skepticism about the relationship between quantity and quality. If the public does not know how to read a source critically, then does it matter whether it is online? How can public historians help the public to think historically about a source? What do we gain by being able to access information online? What do we lose? What is the difference between looking at a specific newspaper article from the 188s or skimming through the entire issue? What is clear is that discussing digital history opens up more questions then it answers and that is an exciting proposition.

Can History Be Entertainment?

As a class you nicely identified the tension that exists between the Corley & Rose, Toplin, and Davis articles. It seems that historians want it all. They want to be included in rendering history on film but yet are frustrated by the process. In general, it seems that a historian’s desire for accuracy will always prove a sticking point. As many of you pointed out it isin’t the disregard for details that is disappointing but the disregard for the spirit of accuracy that is more troubling with Hollywoodized history. Can artists render history on the big screen in a satisfying fashion? The jury is still out on this question.

History Out Loud

It seems that Terkel’s memoir proved puzzling to most of the class until chapter five. I wonder is it because we (myself included) have preconceived notions about how a memoir should read? Terkel seemingly displaces himself from the center of his own autobiography. Is that what makes him a good oral historian? As a class, good job on distinguishing between the two styles of writing (Frisch and Terkel) and seeing how they could serve as complementary texts. Each raised questions about who owns history. Each asked how we, as individuals, can learn to see ourselves as part of larger stories. But we are still left with the problem of how does one become a good oral historian? How do we learn to be good listeners and conversationalists? Can practice make perfect?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Parading History Down Main Street

Unlike monuments, parades are ephemeral. However, as the group rightly identified, Bodnar argues these displays of history are pageants of power. As a collective, you nicely summarized the differences between vernacular and official constructs of memory and how the two interrelate. You also did a good job summarizing Bodnar’s analysis of how official memory appropriated aspects of vernacular throughout the early twentieth century. In doing so, ethnic memory became a part of public memory but in doing so lost some of its particularity. We know about religious dissenters not for their own story but how they fit into the larger narrative of progress so often told by our political leaders. One wonders whether in a post-1965 society that embraces multiculturalism and diversity in making our American nation whether we will see a new emphasis on vernacular memory.

Bodnar’s style is not conversational, hence making it in some ways a more difficult read. It is a good lesson on how to parse through an academic text. Read the introduction, conclusion, and the first chapter very carefully. The other chapters should follow the pattern and arguments set forth in these other places, allowing you more room to skim. At the end, reread the introduction or the conclusion if you are still having trouble. The secret art of reading is that we all reread. I was glad to see that all of you took on the challenge and attempted to cope with difficult material rather then giving up.

Stone, Marble, Bronze: Monumentalizing History

Do monuments foster discussion or does the public treat them like a temple? If government allows a private group to place a monument on public space, is government then sanctioning the beliefs of that marker? Can government discriminate which private groups can place markers in public spaces? As a group, you rightly gleaned that Levinson is concerned with the question of how public monuments legitimize particular stories of history. He examines the conflicts that occur when interpretations of history changes but the monument stays fixed. He also demonstrates how the history of monuments relates to the history of power. This is particularly clear from the Liberty Monument in New Orleans, where the victors of racism during Reconstruction are no longer viewed as the heroes of that period. As Brent stated, is this change in interpretation an expression of political correctness or political awareness? I think you might all be interested in following the recent controversy in Utah to see what the Supreme Court determines is the answer.

Archives are not Warehouses

Each of you identified the central problem articulated by this collection of essays: how do archives function in creating, shaping, and changing historical narratives. Quite clearly access to information is related to relationships of power, which is why so many of the scholars referenced Foucault. As a group, you rightly pointed out that these historians found their ability to examine events of history impacted (mostly negatively) by archivists limiting their access to primary sources. As the future archivists in the class noted, it would have been interesting to include a few archivists’ perspectives in this collection. How does preserving history impact decisions about access? This addresses a question Will raised. Is access to an archive a right or a privilege? Does it depend upon the expectations of the society within which the archives exist? For instance, was Robertson’s story more baffling since it occurred within the United States, a democratic nation that so often prides itself on providing freedom of information? In sum, as a group very nice job grappling with the fact that archives function as interpreters rather than warehouses.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Democracies

How did two democratic nations end up with such different mechanisms and perspectives on historic preservation? As a class, you guys summarized Barthel’s book with great thoroughness. Issues of authenticity and commercialism are central to this work. I especially liked debates between you about how history should be rendered for display. If tourism is built on pleasure then won’t it always cause problems for historic preservation? Not all of history is pleasing and uplifting. In fact, much of it is scary and depressing. How do we reconcile these two things when we participate in preserving history? Kristen raised the issue of school groups. I think we should ponder whether our 21st conception of childhood inhibits our displays of history.