This past weekend I was in Columbia, South Carolina for the biennial conference of The Historical Society. The focus of this year’s conference was “Popularizing Historical Knowledge: Practice, Prospects, and Perils.” It was hosted by the University of South Carolina.
On Friday morning I chaired a session entitled “Religious History and the Public Imagination.” Adam Brasich, a graduate student at Florida State working with John Corrigan, gave a presentation on the way Reformed Evangelical minister and author John Piper utilizes the legacy of Jonathan Edwards to promote his 12st century religious agenda in the same way that Jonathan Edwards used the life of David Brainerd to promote an 18th century version of evangelical Reformed piety.
Charles McCrary, another Corrigan student at Florida State, lamented the way that the news media does not understand religion. His paper focused on popular evangelical preacher Rob Bell and the response to his controversial book, Love Wins. McCrary encouraged historians to bring historical thinking skills and responsible American religious history to bear on current events
Jason Wallace of Samford University traced the history of the way Americans have looked to the religious past to promote popular causes. He suggested, rather controversially, that historians did not have much to offer the public in the promotion of a virtuous republic.
After lunch with friends–Jay Case, Beth Lewis-Pardoe, and Christopher Graham–I attended a very interesting session on “popularizing Andrew Jackson.” Mark Cheathem of Cumberland University and Jacksonian America blog fame, offered a very entertaining paper on the way the contemporary play “Bloody Bloody” enlists Jackson in the cause of populism. Cheathem questioned this appropriation of Jackson because it failed to account for his elitism and status as a wealthy planter. (I could not help but ask him about the play poster and its possible connection to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album cover). Dan Allosso followed-up with a talk on some nineteenth-century letters of a New England family who settled the Old Northwest.
At 3:00pm, I sat on a roundtable entitled “The Perils and Promise of Popular History in a Digital Age.” I was very happy to be included in this stellar lineup of historians who are committed to trying to reach the public through the Internet.
Yoni Applebaum started things off with a discussion of the “digital essay” (or what Dan Cohen has recent called the “Blessay“). He discussed his work as a writer for The Atlantic and encouraged the audience to consider this kind of writing as a way of bringing history to larger audiences. I told Yoni that his talk inspired me to try to do some more writing in this genre.
Christopher Cantwell introduced us to digital history through the exhibits he is helping to design at the Newberry Library. Of particular note was an upcoming exhibit on religious pluralism in Chicago and his own work on the Pullman Digital Collection. Chris gave us a glimpse of what looks to be a very informative map of congregational life in the Windy City. His talk got me thinking about some of our own digital humanities initiatives at Messiah College. On the way to dinner we had a good chat about the world of digital humanities and Chris gave me some good suggestions for moving forward in this area.
When my turn came I talked a bit about The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I shared how I got started in blogging and some of the “perils” and the “promise” of this kind of writing.
Finally, Beth Lewis-Pardoe of Northwestern University discussed her work as a blogger and a writer for the Inside Higher Ed blog “University of Venus.” Beth’s talk was particularly insightful for those of us who are trying to write good history for popular audiences. She shared the ease in which she is able to write popular blog posts and the difficult in using the same style of writing to make her scholarly work accessible. I think that this is a struggle that many of us face, but I was disappointed that there was not more discussion of this during the Q&A.
I was only able to stay in Columbia for one day, but it was certainly worth the trip. I left the South excited about the possibilities of doing a new kind of public history and public writing that brings the past to light for non-scholarly readers.
It was also great to meet so many people who, until now, I have only known through the Internet or e-mail. This list includes Heather Cox Richardson, Dan Allosso, Mark Cheathem, Chris Beneke, Seth Bartee, and Yoni Applebaum.
My 8 hour ride back to Pennsylvania was less than smooth. When I pulled out of Columbia on Saturday morning I realized that one of the tires on my rental vehicle was rapidly losing air. Thanks to the good folks at Pope-Davis Tires in Blytheville, SC, the massive screw (see below) was removed, the tire patched, and I was back on the road in less than an hour.
By the time you read this post, I will be in Mount Vernon for the George Washington Book Prize dinner.