Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments

Ed+Ayers+color+compressed

Last weekend Edward Ayers gave a stirring and inspiration presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. (See our coverage here). The title was “Everyone Their Own Historian.”  I was not in Sacramento for the conference, but I followed along eagerly as Liz Covart of “Ben Franklin’s World” fame live-tweeted:

Over at Salon, Chauncey Devega interviews Ayers about Trump, Confederate monuments, and Civil War history.  Here is a taste:

The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?

I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.

You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.

We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”

If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.

Read the entire interview here.

 

OAH 2018 Dispatch: Digital History

History_Hero_11_061615_Messiah

Messiah College students engaged in the Digital Harrisburg Initiative

We are pleased to add this dispatch from Gabriel Loiacono to our coverage of the 2018 meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. Gabe is Associate Professor of History and Director of the University Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and is currently writing a book tentatively titled: “Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: Stories of Welfare in the Early Republic.”  Gabe writes:

This dispatch is about two digital history panels. I had a wonderful conference overall, including my own panel, “Beyond Northern Exceptionalism” (#AM2347). I will say nothing about that panel except that its genesis was on this blog when I read an interview with my co-panelist Christy Clark-Pujara about her book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. I read the interview and the book, reached out to Christy, and with Chad Montrie, Stephen Kantrowitz, and Sharon Romeo, we had a thoroughly enjoyable panel.

Now on to Digital History….

Giddiness and Guilt. I alternate between those two sensations when using digitized primary sources for my research and writing. The OAH panel “Consequences of Digital Technologies for History: A Roundtable Discussion on the Digital Future of the Historian’s Craft” (#AM2675) helped me to think about why that is. Panelist Lara Putnam caused much introspection in the audience when she said, and I paraphrase: “if you are feeling shameful about having used digitized sources, and that’s why you’re not citing the sources’ digital formats, we need to talk about that.” I, for one, have felt that shame and this panel helped me to think about why.

Panelists Andreas Fickers, Lara Putnam, Jason Rhody, and Jennifer Guiliano offered really thoughtful critiques about how, precisely, primary sources and the historian’s craft are changed by digitization. Fickers emphasized how we really need to think about the digital tools we use, how search engines are not neutral, and how sources are manipulated in the process of digitization. He offers a model of “thinkering,” thinking while tinkering, in order to come up with updated methodologies to fit our updated tools. Putnam pointed out how there have always been problems with how our sources are collected, preserved, and found, but some problems are new, like algorithmic bias. Now is the moment to “retro-engineer” old problems while thinking about new ones.

Putnam also pointed to what is lost in moving from the “analog” methods of finding and reading an old newspaper, and the digital method of encountering it as a search result. In particular, much of the contextual information about the newspaper, from other issues to what the rest of the issue says to where you can find this newspaper can disappear in a digital search. Rhody and Guiliano both referenced the ethics of google searches and Guiliano called into question the ethics of ancestry.com’s business model. Leaning on the work of communications studies scholar Safiya Noble (see Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism), they underlined how google searches of women or people color often turn up biased results. To what extent do biased results shape our and our students’ historical research? Moreover, how are historians of our period going to cope with using billions of tweets as sources?

The panelists only began to answer these questions. Guiliano warned that we better start learning statistical methods and how algorithms work. All underlined how important it is that we develop some methodology that takes into account the differences that digital tools make in our research and understanding.

This Digital History panel had my mental wheels spinning, and I decided to take in the next session in that room: “Teaching Historical Literacy in the Digital Age” (#AM2581). To my surprise, the rest of the audience was totally different, which was too bad. These panels spoke to the same big questions and there could have been a rich inter-panel conversation had more people listened to both. Four two-year college professors and one high school teacher made up this panel: Abigail Feely, Chris Padgett, Elise Robison, Rob Marchie, and Sara Ball. Where the first panel focused on theory and research methodology, this panel focused on the practice of teaching. The teaching expertise of the panelists shone in one after another example of how to harness digital platforms for teaching and how to help students think critically about digital sources. One of my favorites was to assign students to critique a website or even a google search in terms of what was missing and how dated or well-rounded the sources behind these digital resources were. Another favorite was to ask students to take digital photos of something (such as the suburb nearby) before students even knew they would be focusing on Levittown the following week.

Perhaps the single most exciting point I took from this panel was that historians’ skills are precisely the skills that students need to navigate the digital age. Evaluating the source (archival or digital) that you are looking at is what we teach. Likewise, building up context and the ability to take apart the argument being presented to you are skills that we teach! This was an exciting clarion call for us historians. Let’s tackle these new problems in research and teaching with our old methodologies, and develop new methodologies for new sources.

There were other digital history panels that I could not make. I bet those were good too. What an exciting series of issues to tackle at the OAH.

OAH Dispatch: Sometimes “I just need to listen”

Warner

Mary R.S. Bracy teaches history at Warner College in Lake Wales, Florida

Here is Mary R.S. Bracy‘s latest post from the Organization of American Historians meeting in Sacramento. Click here for Mary’s previous OAH post: “She Persisted: A New Assistant Professor Tells Her Story.”  Enjoy!

As is usually the case when I go to conferences, I have about five million things rattling around in my head at once. Yesterday was a full day. Today I’m headed back home, so I feel like this  has just been too quick!

I sat down to write this dispatch last night, but I was simply too tired to type any words on the screen. Our panel started off the day at 8:00 am. I was excited to get going, but was a bit disappointed when we only had three audience members.  I guess this is what happens when you’re up against a panel on “Hamilton!” I have participated in a lot of conference panels, but this was one of my favorite.  It was first panel I’ve been on where I’m the one with the most experience!  I would have never been brave enough as an MA student to even think about presenting a paper at a big conference like the OAH…so I was really happy to see my fellow panelists doing that.

I like to get out of my comfort zone when I go to conferences, so the other panel I attended yesterday was “When All That Is Left Is Words: The Writing Sensibilities of Civil War Soldiers.” Sarah Gardner (Mercer University), Peter Carmichael (Gettysburg College), and Timothy Williams (University of Oregon) each presented papers. I was especially intrigued by Professor Williams’s paper “Prison Pens: The Culture of Writing in Civil War Prisons,” which focused on prisons as intellectual spaces.

I only made it to two panels overall, which is about what I expected.  I gave up trying to do everything at conferences a few years ago.  If there are papers I really want to see, or colleagues I want to support, I do that, but otherwise I simply try to absorb the intellectual atmosphere.  Sometimes this is exhausting; other times it’s completely inspiring.

This time, I’m taking away a deep sense of inspiration from my fellow panelists, who are all young and excited and passionate about what they’re doing.  I am in no way old, but I am disillusioned.  The academy has hurt people I care about.  It hurts to see my friends leave the profession.  It’s been frustrating to talk with them as they fill out hundreds of job applications, only to have nothing.

But I’m an optimist at heart, and being on a panel with graduate students fed that optimism.  They know that this job market is terrible. But they love the job so much that (at least for right now) the problems seem like a distant future.  I tried to offer a dose of reality.  I mentioned that the job market is terrible and graduate students need to be thoughtful about the future.  But when they started talking excitedly about passing comps, planning dissertations, and writing grants, I just shut up.  Because in my disillusioned world, I just needed to listen.

OAH Dispatch: Historians on “Hamilton”

Rutgers UP

The editors of Historians on Hamilton sign books! (From Rutgers University Press Twitter feed)

We are happy to have Julianne Johnson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Julianne is a Ph.D student at Claremont Graduate University and Assistant Professor of History at College of the Canyons in San Clarita, California.  Enjoy!  –JF

Friday morning’s 8am session Historians on Hamilton at the OAH conference was uncharacteristically full.  Scholars Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond, Claire Bond Potter of The New School and Renee Romano of Oberlin College led a panel discussion surrounding their contributions to a new book from Rutgers University Press titled Historians on Hamilton; How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s PastRomano and Potter are both editors of, and contributors to, the book.  The panel discussion approached the phenomenon of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton The Musical by interrogating how the show has been received, how the show is revolutionary, and what historians can learn from the show about how to communicate the past to popular audiences.

All three panelists challenged the audience to consider how Hamilton The Musical does history.  Renee Romano, Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin, considered Hamilton in the context of historical memory and what she describes as a “new civic myth.”  Romano questioned whether Hamilton The Musical is expanding the circle of “we” for Americans by offering young people of color a sense of belonging and challenging white audiences to accept minorities in the roles of our founding generation.

Patricia Herrera, Professor of Theater at the University of Richmond, told a heartwarming story of her experience listening to Hamilton The Musical with her children while taking a road trip throughout our nation’s national parks.  Her young daughter’s desire to be Angelica Schuyler for Halloween pushed Herrera to interrogate how Hamilton The Musical conflates the historical figure of Angelica the slave owner with the beautiful African American actress playing her on stage.   For Herrera, the national parks and the musical perform a similar function.  The parks represent beautiful democratic vistas and leisure for white Americans on the backs of a tragic narrative for Native Americans.

Finally, Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at the New School, discussed her interest in Hamilton The Musical and Miranda from a social media perspective.  Her chapter in the book, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” looks at how the musical reaches a large audience on social media, allowing for a more authentic connection and turning fans into cultural investors.

Palpable throughout the panel discussion was the historians’ respect for Miranda’s work and a hope that other historians will use the musical as an entry into teaching and talking about history. At the end of the session, the line in the exhibit hall to purchase the book had the Rutgers staff sweating.  I secured my copy and am happily reading it now.

She Persisted: A New Assistant Professor Tells Her Story

 

OAh LogoI am thrilled to have Mary R.S. Bracy writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Mary is not new to The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Longtime readers will remember that she wrote for us as a graduate student from the 2013 American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans.  You can read her posts here.  I am also happy to announce that Mary just accepted a position as Assistant Professor of History at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida.  Congrats!!

Here is Mary’s first dispatch:

Greetings from Sacramento!

This is my first trip to the OAH, so I’m very excited to be here.  It’s also my first time to present at a major national conference, and my first time to present something about my teaching, rather than my research. Plus, I’m excited about my panel: I’m joining with some colleagues who are public historians, and we’ll be talking about how we foster collaboration in our work. (Shameless plug: 8:00 am Friday, Convention Center Room 305!) Shae Smith Cox, who is ABD at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, put together our panel. Shae is a friend of mine from my days at Oklahoma State, and I’m happy to be working with her yet again.

I spent today traveling (Tampa to Sacramento is a long trip!), getting registered, and wandering around the book exhibit. I found lots of things that I want to buy, but won’t, because I don’t want to lug a super-heavy suitcase back through the airport.

I also spent a lot of time today musing on the nature of academia and academic labor. This isn’t anything new. I’ve been thinking about academic labor and the tragedy of so many talented scholars having to leave the profession ever since my friend Erin Bartram’s brilliant and heartbreaking piece about the grief it causes.

And I think about the nature of academia and academic training every time I work with Shae. Both of us had really, really difficult MA experiences but went on to be successful PhD students.  I haven’t kept my experience a secret, but to briefly recap:

A professor once recommended I drop out of graduate school because I did not have the research and writing chops.  This professor said I was much better at recommending books to people, so I should be a librarian instead of a historian. (I worked in a bookstore in college, and I have pretty extensive bibliographic recall.) I also struggle with anxiety, and in graduate school tended to have panic attacks at the worst times (like when I cried through my entire MA oral comprehensive exam).  Shae (who has given me permission to share this) was told by professors she should “go back to working retail” and was “too dumb to be in graduate school.” And yet we both stuck with it and went on to be pretty successful. Shae has organized conferences and managed museum displays, and is working to complete her dissertation—a study of the material culture and memory of Civil War uniforms.

As for me…I’m feeling pretty good right now, because I just landed my dream job. Starting in the fall, I’ll be a full-time Assistant Professor at a small Christian college.  It’s everything I ever wanted out of my career.  But imposter syndrome is real, and even with my professional successes, I still see myself sitting in my car, crying because I don’t think this whole “being an academic” thing is worth the stress.

Warner

Warner University

So that’s the emotional space from which I’m coming to this conference. And it’s changing how I act here. I want to be kind in my interactions and my feedback. I want every single graduate student or early-career scholar (or late-career scholar!) who feels like they don’t know what they’re doing, or they don’t belong, to know that it’s perfectly normal to feel that way.

Tomorrow I plan on recapping my own panel and attending one or two others.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Write For Us From The OAH In Sacramento

a971a-oahI am a bit late to the game here, but if there is anyone in Sacramento for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians conference who would like to serve as a correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home we would love to publish your dispatches.

What am I hoping for out of these posts/reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend, job market updates, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about.

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want.  My only requirement is that you write material while the conference is in session.  I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

Though we can’t pay you for writing, we can introduce you, your writing, and your online presence to a several thousand readers a day and over 14,000 Twitter followers.  Our posts on the AHA are regularly picked up at other sites and blogs as well.

If you are interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu and we can get the ball rolling.  In the meantime, check out our posts from other conferences to get an idea of what some of our previous correspondents have done:

2016 Organization of American Historians

2016 American Historical Association

2018 American Historical Association

2017 Organization of American Historians