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Doing History in Public

Cat dressing in a birthday hat and shirt

If you’ve been following Nursing Clio this past week you know by now that we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary. As of this post, it’s been just over a year since we went live and we’re thrilled by the ways we’ve grown in that time. I’m honored to have been one of the co-founders and still just as excited as I was then to count myself among Nursing Clio’s authors.

In this final reflective post of our anniversary week I’ll explain some of the reasons I’m still so jazzed about Nursing Clio and where I think we can keep growing. Some highlights include:

  • Public history: important (and fun) (and challenging)
  • Nursing Clio and digital humanities (DH): including the values of open access, collaboration, breaking down traditional academic hierarchies, and the DIY of DH and Nursing Clio
  • There’s still more to do: fostering comments, building community, encouraging debate
  • The near future: self-hosting (whee!)

First, a quick reminder: this piece, like everything else on Nursing Clio, reflects my views and not necessarily the opinions of other Nursing Clio authors.

POWERED BY HISTORY

One of the things that drew me to graduate school in history — and the primary thing that keeps me going — is that I want to share the complexity and messiness of history with as many people as I can.

“History professionals can help to enrich popular uses of the past by introducing people to different voices and experiences. They can help to counter false nostalgia about earlier eras.”[1]

History has a fabulous power to teach us things about the present by tracing change and continuity over time. It also helps to shake our everyday assumptions about everything from gender and (dis)ability to fashion, medicine, politics, and emotion.

History helps us question claims based on “tradition” or the way things “naturally” are by reminding us that even the most seemingly timeless ideas came from somewhere and have changed over time; that is, they aren’t so timeless.

MORE PUBLIC HISTORY

History — or the past — is immensely popular. Consider how many recent blockbusters were historical films and how often the past crops up in everyday life. The problem is, most historians don’t have the opportunity, desire, or experience to try to reach those larger audiences. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen describe this disconnect in their wonderful book The Presence of the Past and give some suggestions (see the above quotation), and they were neither the first nor the most recent to make these arguments and observations.

The past is important, and present in our everyday lives, and historians do a disservice when they don’t join the conversation.

Notice I said join, not lead (or dominate). I believe in the value of expertise, training, and professionals, but I believe even more firmly in the fact that our knowledge and expertise can only be enriched and deepened through diverse engagement with others.

I believe, then, that much more published history should be public history. This is part of what draws me to projects like Nursing Clio and keeps me excited about studying history. I see Nursing Clio as one part of this process of talking about the past, and how it relates to the present, in an open format and with a wide audience. As Sheila Brennan, Sharon Leon, and others have argued, more historical work should be both publicly accessible and perhaps should also engage in more back-and-forth with that public.

So why isn’t more history public history?

THERE ARE CHALLENGES

Of course there are challenges. One is that the system for how people get and keep the scarce stable jobs in colleges and universities (the coveted “tenure track”) doesn’t generally reward public history. In its current state, the system primarily rewards peer-reviewed publication, which is often gated through things like JSTOR, and scholarly monographs aimed at gaining citations in other scholarly monographs; they’re not really meant to be read by a general audience. The fourth issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities is a great place to find more about these challenges.

A second reason is that writing for a broad audience is hard. As historians we’ve been trained how to write like academics. We haven’t been trained how to write in a more popular readable style. Patricia Limerick offers a fun (if biting) and generally spot-on critique of “academic” writing called “Dancing With Professors” that’s well worth the read. She calls for “an end to scholarly publication as a series of guarded conversations between professors.”[2]

The fact that I’m unpracticed in writing for a wide audience is something I’ve learned rather acutely while writing for Nursing Clio. It’s hard to write for a mainstream audience — to be interesting, relevant, maybe even funny, and yet retain the level of complexity and nuance that we so value. But, as Tim Hitchcock argues, “if historians are to avoid going the way of the book, they need to separate out what they think history is designed to achieve, and to create a scholarly technology that delivers it.”

All history is challenging. We need to choose to meet these particular challenges.

Tesla Broadcast Tower, 1904

Wardenclyffe Tower, Shoreham, Long Island, NY, 1904. Early wireless tower designed by Nikola Tesla. Source: Wikipedia.

DIGITAL HUMANITIES AND NURSING CLIO

Another area of academia that I feel is working to meet these goals (and that keeps making new ones) refers to itself broadly as digital humanities. There are many definitions of digital humanities. Two of my favorites right now are Tom Schenfelds’ “dodge,” “Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by its Values,” and the approach outlined in the introduction to the inaugural issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities.

I see Nursing Clio as a part of digital humanities in a couple ways:

  • Open access, free to read and share
  • Collaborative
  • Takes a rather DIY approach
  • Breaks traditional academic hierarchies

Open

I take pride in the fact that our work is open and available for anyone to read. All of my posts, for example, have a Creative Commons license that allows reproduction and reuse of my work with attribution. My hope is that this openness makes our ideas more accessible to a wider audience, and encourages that audience to chime in and help shape the discussion. This is in many ways a reiteration of my arguments for public history, above. And, as Dan Cohen has written, “the open web enables and rewards unexpected uses and genres” that might never exist otherwise.

Collaborative and DIYish

Relatedly, Nursing Clio is collaborative and benefits from the many voices of its authors. We don’t necessarily agree about everything, but that’s where a lot of the excitement comes from. It means that we all bring different experiences, perspectives, and ideas to bear on a variety of topics, and that we can pool expertise.

In this sense, we also embrace the hacky, do-it-yourself kind of approach common in digital humanities. Jacki and a few other co-founders hatched the idea, they brought me and a couple others on board, and we sort of plowed forward. We looked for similar projects, read up on current best practices and approaches, and then started learning by doing. I’ve been teaching myself various markup and scripting languages for some years now, so I could throw that into the mix. Together we’ve harnessed the sort of DIY “scrappyness” that Trevor Owens has used to describe digital humanities.

Bridging Hierarchies

Another value that I feel Nursing Clio shares with digital humanities is its effort to look past the traditional hierarchies of academia (those connected to where one goes to school, for example). Tom Scheinfeldt notes that:

“Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center–small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.”[3]

This approach is closely tied to the value of community — one that’s more than “an insular community of mostly tenure-track academic scholars.”[4]

None of this is to say that digital humanities, or Nursing Clio, for that matter, is perfect or has fully achieved these goals. It certainly has things to work on, like all areas, but what I love about it is the fact that it often seems more self-reflective, self-aware, and open than other academic (and non-academic) endeavors.

CONVERSATIONS: AUDIENCE AS COLLABORATOR

How else, then, can we work toward exercising these values of openness, collaboration, and inclusive communities? I love Miriam Posner’s critiques and suggestions in “Think Talk Make Do,” which touches on continuing inequalities in academia, technology, and digital humanities, and also presents some insights into community and debate.

Something Miriam Posner opens with in this piece is that one of the “odd things about blogging is that the the final product, the thing you’re left with, is not what you’ve originally written.”[5]

Odd, but also exciting. All communication depends on audience interpretation. What I love about blogging is the potential for this process of interpretation, building, and rethinking to take place on the same page as the original piece. It isn’t static, and that’s fantastic.

Miriam Posner finishes with four suggestions she originally posted as a follow-up. You should go read them now.

Webcomic by XKCD

XKCD’s “YouTube.” (He offers a solution too.)

WHERE TO NOW?

Over the summer we’re hoping to begin the transition to self hosting Nursing Clio. We’ll still be using the WordPress content management system (because it’s what I understand and know how to work with best, and I like PHP) but this move will give us more flexibility to try out some new things.

Number one on my personal list is to try to foster more comments on the blog. There are often great conversations going on on the NC Facebook page, which is wonderful, but misses some of the opportunities I talked about earlier — they’re disconnected from the post itself.

Part of this will be challenging — we’ll have to think about where to draw the line, for example, between disagreement and cruelty. Anyone who’s been on YouTube or some major news website recently knows that comments can be truly soul crushing.

I don’t speak for everyone at Nursing Clio, but my personal philosophy is to meet speech with speech whenever possible. As Miriam Posner suggested, we need to think about “when our niceness could be shutting down important conversations.”[5] But there needs to be a middle ground, and ideally one that transparently shares editorial decision-making. One option that I’ve seen is to create a public list of comments that have been removed and an explanation of why we felt they weren’t constructive.

If you have any ideas for us as we plan for the move I’d love to hear them in the comments, along with anything else that you agree, disagree, or would like to build on from the rest of this post.

Nursing Clio 1 year anniversary computer with balloons

NOTES

1. Roy Rosenzweig, “Afterthoughts: Roy Rosenzweig: Everyone a Historian,” in Roy Rosenzweig and David P. Thelen, eds., The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

2. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic Prose,” in Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 333–341.

3. Tom Scheinfeldt, “Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by Its Values,” Found History, December 2, 2010, http://www.foundhistory.org/2010/12/02/stuff-digital-humanists-like/.

4. The Editors, “A Community-Sourced Journal,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter 2011).

5. Miriam Posner, “Think Talk Make Do: Power and the Digital Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (Spring 2012).

Feature image by Flick user lindsayloveshermac via Compfight and licensed CC-BY-SA.

Ballons in birthday image by Flickr user xadrian and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Creative Commons License
This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jean Perry #

    I loved this article, especially the links to “The Presence of the Past” and “Think Talk Make Do”. Reading just “The Book Introduction” link in The Presence of the Past was fascinating although i found the lack of comment about women’s connection to the past disappointing and telling. Were there no such responses from women about having connections to women in the past, whether to their families or at museums, reading history, etc? 

    In one sense i can understand that, if it is true. I’m fortunate that various generations before me have extensive information about four Scotch-Irish brothers/ancestors who came to south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700′s and that my biological family has stayed in the area, so i know a lot about their environment and the history they lived through. Of course, i have no history about any of the women in their lives! It’s very frustrating. 

    I also recognize that most people that the surveyors talked to probably know little women’s history unless they read some biographies, or the women were connected to men whom historians have written about – and lord knows that info has often not been factual! 

    It still surprises me that as women’s history and women’s historical sites have been getting more attention since the 1970′s that there was only one place where the word “women” was mentioned in that explanation of how they interpreted the information from the surveys.

    I found NC about six months ago and have loved it. Thank you for your initiation of this blog and for your time and expertise in sharing it with us. I have frequently shared some or all of it with friends who are feminists and some who have an interest in women’s history. I taught high school and then college history at various times in my life, but have been a reader about women in history since my sophomore year in high school – 50+ yrs ago. I have had women’s history as both a vocation and an avocation ever since. I was a founding member of the Alice Paul Institute, which continues educating school children and adults in Alice’s fight for a suffrage amendment and an Equal Rights Amendment. I actually met and talked with Alice Paul in her 92nd year.

    Some of those women who were with me on the founding board of API are still dear friends and many of us meet every Jan 11 – Alice’s birthday – for dinner. They are all women who are interested in women’s history. I know there are millions of such women in the country, which is the reason for my surprise at the lack of mention in the link to The Presence of the Past.

    Here is the link to the API, it is housed in the home she grew up in which was bought and renovated by an interested group of women and conducts tours, telling Alice’s and the suffrage and ERA story, and trains school girls in leadership skills and the fact that they CAN be leaders! Certainly “Doing History In Public.”

    http://www.alicepaul.org/

    May 10, 2013
    • Jean, thank’s for your insightful comment. You make a very good point about the fact that not only are we still lacking a large number of histories of women in the US that really integrate them into the full narrative, but also that public history is also lacking in this regard. This definitely deserves more work! Thanks for the link to the Alice Paul Institute, I’ll be sure to check that out.

      May 12, 2013

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