American Historical Association 2013 Roundup

11 Jan

In his plenary address, outgoing AHA President William Cronon argued that unless historians can continue to tell great stories we’ll find ourselves without a place in the public sphere and without a home in the academy. It was a clarion call for historians to balance the limitations of their document-based work with the pressures of the market for our work’s reception. We’ll thrive if we can find ways to move within those limitations and adapt to the pressures–whether that’s the advent of digital history, great flexibility to tell stories, reducing jargon, and so on.

In that vein, I was struck by a conversation today with my father. He said he found my recaps pretty interesting but didn’t know how to respond effectively to them. In other words, I hadn’t succeeded in creating an accessible narrative for those stories. There could be several reasons for this: I was summarizing for academic peers, I was preserving academic notes in a public setting, or maybe I was failing to capture the conversations in a way that connected them beyond the academic-to-academic conversation.

So here’s another casual effort to tell some of those stories better:

After spending a weekend in New Orleans with several thousand committed teachers and researchers who specialize in the study of the past, I came away convinced that translation remains essential to the profession of history. In shorthand we often say “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This positions historians as guides, interpreters, insiders. We are the experts you want to hire to show you the “real” past. Here’s the thing though, the best guides are those who know their audience and can speak in ways they’ll appreciate. It’s the historian’s challenge historian to effectively translate the past and recognize the needs of the audience they are translating for.

On Friday I attended a conference-within-a-conference that focused on technology. As a graduate student just older than the current generation of students that have never been without the culture created by the internet and computers, I feel intensely awkward holding onto teaching and research methods created before the advent of the printing press. I’m looking for ways to meet my technologically-saturated students half-way. Some of my elder colleagues have called this pandering to the younger generation. They shake their fists at students that see little incentive in reading novels, nevermind textbooks or academic articles. How can I avoid this fate for my own work? How can I find ways to bridge that gap with my students? How can I help my students use the technology effectively for their education? It’s translation of and with technology. Don’t mistake the availability of iPads and mobile phones for technical proficiency. If anything, the rapid pace of technological change has made our students less able–perhaps far less able–to cope with the new landscape they find themselves inhabiting.

The mini-conference, called THATCamp, was full of other educators who want to balance the past, present, and future of teaching and research. Few of us are ready to pack up our texts or stop trying to publish print articles, but we are trying to expand the ways we do scholarship. Why? So we can be more effective educators. So we can reach wider audiences. So we can be better researchers. Because we are hopeless optimists that are not deterred by the problems we see in our students, our classrooms, our universities, or ourselves. We are problem solvers and technology is both the problem we’re solving and its answer. At least, we hope so.

In my own field, religious studies, there is pretty intense resistance to this culture of DIY problem solving. We seem more wedded than other allied fields to texts, older non-digital methods, and instruction that privileges older models where teachers are experts disseminating important facts to be learned. Sure, we’ve made progress–more dynamic lectures with pop culture references, AV materials, or seminars where we focus on exploring questions and not delivering sermons, sorry, lectures.

If I’ve made a part of my bed with the historians and with the technologists of THATCamp it’s because religious studies is especially vulnerable to attacks against the humanities that question its merit in training future employees. This is the danger with a relatively young field that the public often fails to distinguish from our older, more visible sister the Seminary. If you ever want to start a ruckus among religious studies professionals, ask them what happens when they get asked what they do by folks at parties or on airplanes. Many of us–sadly and horribly–save ourselves the inevitable headache of explaining the difference between the seminary’s MDiv and the academy’s PhD. Some progress is being made, as exemplified in Stephen Prothero’s call for greater religious literacy.

More generally, the distinction between religious professional and academic professional who studies religion is the failure of my own field to provide a satisfying translation of our work to the public. If you doubt this, head to your local bookstore (if you’ve still got one) or to Amazon and try to figure our why certain books fall under the category of “study of religion” and others under “religious books.” The blurry lines between academic and religious treatments of religion mean we have poorly differentiated our work.

I attended THATCamp with the hope that I could find some ways to use technology to create clearer boundaries. Part of that is accessibility–techniques that are at home on the web and free for the public to find and use–but another significant part is using the biggest bullhorn that’s available to explain what religious studies is about. [I hope this blog helps and doesn’t hurt that cause!] It seems imperative to many of us in the “digital humanities” camp that promotes new technological solutions that scholars alone can’t inhabit this space. We must also bring along our students to educate them (and be educated by them) about what it means to participate/live/experience/innovate/survive with technology.

When I spent the rest of the conference listening to carefully crafted papers on specific areas of America’s religious history, the lesson that kept coming back to me was that lesson about translation and technology: our methodological (research) and pedagogical (teaching) challenges are about identifying and speaking to our audiences. We must persevere even as the foreign country changes, even as the tourists to the foreign country change, even as we change as guides.

It is in this respect, that I said of my first day at the conference:  why isn’t there a prominent digital religious studies movement?

It is with focus this that I said of day two: How do we add complexity and still say “big” things about history?

It with this in mind that I said of day three: Is biography the perfect genre for empathetically telling stories about religious subjects?

It is with all this that I found on day four: When we discover our work has biases borne of the lenses through which we see our subjects, what should we do to correct it?

These are the big stories for me after a long weekend at the AHA. They aren’t really what I expected, but they are driven, at least to me, by a logic that William Cronon captured quite well. Spend the time, if you’ve got an hour, and listen to his address courtesy of the History News Network:


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