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Hey Babe, It’s OAH Day One: Public History Rock and Roll

April 20, 2012, 12:19 am

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I was sitting in the lobby of the Milwaukee Hilton and a civilian came up to me.  “Hey,” he said: “Have I seen you on the History Channel?”

“Uh, probably,” I said.  There are three different documentaries about crime in the 1930s that feature me as a talking head.  From time to time, someone makes the connection:  the working class family who lives across the street, a small child on the subway, and my all-time favorite, the men at the men’s shelter on Third Street in lower Manhattan. Because of this, I think the History Channel is one of the most popular enterprises ever created: not only do people love history, but I suspect that institutions – prisons, shelters, halfway houses – leave it on all the time because it is completely non-controversial.

“But you know what’s weird?” my new acquaintance said. “I’ve seen two or three other people in this hotel who I’ve seen on the History Channel and on PBS.  Is this a –history convention?”

Roger that.  Day One of the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting has just ended:  this Radical finished her day at Mo’s steakhouse with a former student, a filet mignon and an Absolut rocks.

After a rocky start (a 6 a.m. flight that required getting up at 4:00), it’s all good here in history land. The hotel is comfortable; coffee will be delivered in the morning; there seem to be an ample supply of restaurants three or four blocks away; there is no shopping to distract us; and the University of Georgia Press seems to have snagged an outstanding location at the front of the book exhibit where you can buy Renee Romano and my new edited collection, Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History That Talks Back. Of course, if you don’t want to carry it home, or you aren’t even in Milwaukee, you can always order it here.

Did you go to any panels, Radical?  Why yes, I did: because the National Council on Public History is meeting jointly with us, I attended a great round table on “Tenure and Promotion for the Publicly Engaged Historian.” I learned a lot, and here are the high points:

  • When public history scholar-practitioners are reviewed for promotion, the difference between evaluating the person and evaluating the projects they have done is far more porous than when a conventional scholar’s written work is being reviewed.  The vast majority of senior scholars, used to reading footnotes,  don’t know how to peel away the layers of an exhibition or digital project to see the dense archival basis of the work. In fact, the three traditional categories – teaching, colleagueship and scholarship – can merge and blur when colleagues don’t know how to “read” or take seriously publicly engaged work.  Things can get even worse when the case leaves the department.
  • Public historians are often hired by departments who genuinely want them, and who think civically engaged scholarship is valuable.  But because review processes are designed for books and articles, these candidates are not infrequently told by well-meaning colleagues to put off their public work until the book and articles are complete, or they actually have to do more:  mount exhibitions, websites and other tangible projects and write.
  • Public history is collaborative, and collaboration is not a universal value in a field that celebrates the individual labor of the monograph.

I learned a lot of really good stuff too: Many of us aspire to collaborative, public work but we don’t really know how to do it.  I wondered how things might change for tenure-track public historians if, as they are “required” to produce conventional writing, every conventional historian were required to execute one public project prior to tenure.

Here’s a final note before I sink into the Hilton’s pillow top mattress.  Why are conferences in such soulless venues?  When were all these beige boxes built in the middle of cities? We seem fated as a profession to meet forevermore in hotels and conference centers that are linked by long passageways, complexes that require employees to be posted at various points to keep us from getting entirely lost in tunnels that all look the same.  A pair of roller skates would be ideal here, except that they would probably pick up a lot of fuzz from the carpets and eventually come to a grinding halt. The only thing that is intriguing about this one is that there is something called a “water park” right in the middle, which did not seem to be open today.  But I might check it out tomorrow.

Challenge:  there is a button at the top of one escalator that says “press for a polka.”  Do it.  I double dog dare you.

 

Want to see the Radical? Tomorrow at 1:30 I will be on a roundtable with David Chang, Albert Camarillo, William Chafe and Gail Dubrow called “Politics, Economics and the Future of the Profession,” 101-A, Frontier Airlines Convention Center.  Be there or be square.

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