Week two in History Beyond the Classroom got off to a good start with almost near-perfect attendance and a good introductory session. Such a diverse range of students with a wide array of backgrounds and interests promises much for the semester ahead. We even have a social media expert in our ranks. That bodes well…
After introductions, we talked about some key questions, including “what is history?” and “What, or who, is our history for?” A spirited discussion ensured that we only scratched the surface of these questions, but I think we did a good job of interrogating what we have been doing so far in history units at the University. Key phrases that came up included “analysing,” “interpreting,” “questioning,” and “criticism.” Students noted they have been pushed to think about alternative perspectives, the richness of historiographical debate, the nature and absence of sources, new narratives, multiple narratives, and to define their own narrative, and also to see the contemporary relevance of what they study in the past to the present. Much of what we seem to do at University is to “subvert,” “undermine,” or “question,” what we thought we already knew, even while we still look for some kind of “lessons from the past” or “truth.”
Though EH Carr’s classic essay “What is History” is somewhat dated now, our sense of history at University is not too far off his idea that history is about a conversation between an historian and his/her facts, and between past and present. Some of this discussion pointed us toward the purpose of history, and while that remained an unfinished conversation, at first glance the “professional” historians’ goals seemed quite different from those surveyed in Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen’s landmark study The Presence of the Past, and the individuals and groups Anna Clark spoke with in Private Lives, Public History, both of which compel us to consider about how non-historians think about the past and do history in their everyday lives, and the deeply personal nature of that engagement with the past. Ultimately though, I think N. Scott Momaday’s preface to The Way to Rainy Mountain reminds us that all history is going to be a “turning and re-turning of myth, history, and memoir.” And Momaday’s definition resonates with the American survey respondents who wanted to explore the past to understand “why I am like I am.” While this might jar with politicians’ desire for citizens to understand “why are we like we are” with the “we” somewhat arbitrarily defined sometimes as the “nation,” I think the main task of students in History Beyond the Classroom will be about acknowledging these different approaches and aims, and trying to find some common ground between them.
One student also brought up the musical “Hamilton” as an example of a public history project that is stimulating all kinds of discussion in the US. A link to one great rap from that production can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNFf7nMIGnE and more info about the musical can be found here: http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com/ Some discussion of its reception among historians can be found here: https://earlyamericanists.com/tag/alexander-hamilton/. We’ll be talking more about public history next week.
And for those in the class who want to continue the discussion on “what is history?” and “who/what is history for?,” see our new Blackboard Discussion Group on extended conversations and make a contribution.
We finished the seminar with a very brief discussion of just how to get started on a community-engaged project, emphasising that the engagement should come first, with the historical questions arising from it.