This week we paused to think more about our work with local and community organisations, and our major projects. To help us think through what we might do, we heard from Michaela Cameron, a PhD student in the Department of History who specialises in early Native-European relations, and particularly the “soundscapes” of early North America (see: https://sydney.academia.edu/MichaelaCameronhttp://) .
On the side, Michaela has also been exploring the local history of her own neighbourhood in Sydney, and over the past few years has developed quite a wide and interesting public history presence. She has written numerous reviews of historic sites for Yelp, for example, created a Sydney history twitter account (https://twitter.com/sydneyhistory), an instagram account for promoting Parramatta history and especially the Female Factory in particular (https://twitter.com/oldparramatta and https://instagram.com/oldparramatta/ and https://www.facebook.com/parrafactory?_rdr=p) and has also done work for the Dictionary of Sydney, including creating a walking tour app of Convict Parramatta which should be out shortly (http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/) .
Michaela showed many of us what an “outsider” and a trained historian could bring to the public history table, particular if one listens, learns, and collaborates with local experts and the vast knowledge they often bring to the subjects. Michaela offered practical tips about having clear aims, and knowing what purpose any engagement and its public outcome might serve, including thinking about the audience for any public history project.
Michaela also stressed the need to go multi-modal, and think about bringing in text, visual, and audio material. She also showed us some fabulous examples of using primary sources and social media to “sell history” – and noted that while some organisations are already very good about using social media, it is often something we can help with if we are on top of it. So, too, can we try to draw attention to great resources such as Trove (http://trove.nla.gov.au/)
Primary sources in particular can entertain as well as inform, but they can also draw attention to some important causes (see for example: https://twitter.com/1815now and https://twitter.com/queenvictweets and https://pastnow.wordpress.com/ and https://twitter.com/otd_ni1825 and http://parrafactory.tumblr.com/ ). Michaela also notes that we should use a wide range of sources, and look for the ‘gaps’ – the silences, or the history that is not being done, or communicated particularly well.
Finally, Michaela also showed that history students could collaborate with each other to strengthen their efforts, and also help local/community organisations make connections between themselves and others, and with other organisations in particular that might help. Putting a grassroots campaign in touch with the Mitchell library, or the Dictionary of Sydney, for example, can pay dividends. And of course, we can use social media for activist purposes. See the petition to save the Female Factory here: tinyurl.com/mozayt6
Following this stimulating talk, we divided the class into small groups according to the kinds of organisations they were working with, or hoping to work with. There is a great range of interests and different kinds of organisations, ranging from historical societies and historic sites, museums and libraries, to sports and community clubs, health and welfare groups, and activist/political groups. Students shared experiences and challenges, and with Michaela’s talk as inspiration, began to think about how that work might translate into a public history project. The possibilities are endless…
This week we had both Louise Prowse and Mark McKenna in as guests to talk about local history. Both have “done” local history, as well as engaged with their communities and with local historical societies. They spoke about the theoretical/conceptual challenges of doing local history, as well as some of the practical issues that might arise. Of course, there is a strong relationship between the two, especially when raising questions that don’t always resonate with those who you are raising them with, as Louise pointed out. This can at least help push us to change the questions or think differently about our approaches.
Discussion ranged across a number of issues, including the relationship between the local and the national, the kinds of sources that might be important, and relationships between local authorities, the community, and the professional historian as well as the “hierarchies” of local knowledge and authority too.
We also talked about the tension inherent in working with local groups and writing analytical history, which again raised questions about who our histories are for, and what are they for? Do we need a sense of personal connection, or a common point of interest to work well together? Where do we feel a sense of belonging? What do we feel connected to? Do we need to connect with communities/localities that we study? Can we “own” a history that is not ours? Or is written by someone else? What can we bring to the table as “insiders” and as “outsiders”?
And the key question again, what is our role as historians? Mark McKenna has written that history should be about confronting myths, rather than reassuring stories. But Frank Bongiorno and Erik Ekland have written in their article “The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History,” that instead of confronting myths, we should think about excavating the “historical meanings of social memory.” What role do myths play in our historical consciousness?
Building on all of this, I think one of the most important questions that arose from the readings and discussion this week is whether we can/should think of our histories as acts of reconciliation?
This week Annette Cairnduff, the University of Sydney’s Social Inclusion Director, came to talk to the class about the issue of inclusion, especially at Universities, and the University of Sydney in particular. She told us of her own background, the work done at the University of Sydney over the past six years, the collaborative projects encompassed in the Bridges to Higher Education Project, and why she is a passionate believer in the goal of inclusion. Both Annette and Hannah Forsyth, whose work we read in tandem (A History of the Modern Australian University ), noted that while Universities have become more inclusive over the past one hundred years or so, they have also continued to be sites of exclusion, too. And Sydney University still has some way to go to fulfil a more expansive vision of an inclusive University. For some of the efforts of Annette and the social inclusion unit, including Compass, see http://sydney.edu.au/compass/.
Annette’s talk echoed the readings on community history, too, or perhaps histories in communities. As noted last week, Martha Sears has urged us to think about history in ecological terms, as a dynamic and organic system where diverse and different parts contribute to the health of the whole. A more diverse and inclusive University will be a healthier and more dynamic place, too. Genuine engagement with a broader community is also a route toward a healthier University and is of course part of the University’s strategic plan.
Based on some of the exciting proposals for community work that have emerged so far in this unit, and which we discussed a bit this week in our tutorials, I am hopeful that students can play an important part in both connecting and engaging with diverse constituencies, and thinking more inclusively about history and history-making. It is clear from the readings and discussion this week that that would involve a recognition of the limits of our own knowledge; an openness and attentiveness to new forms of expressing knowledge; and a valuing of other ways of thinking about history and knowledge.
As Michael Frisch has written, an engaged history is about sharing authority, and letting go of some of our preoccupations and interests and what we know (like our traditional idea of research, writing a history essay, and playing it safe with something that we already know we do well). Doing so does and has raised anxiety levels a bit. This is understandable. Students are doing something new here – something so new that we don’t actually know what will result exactly. As Martha Sears notes, if we take this seriously, let go of our “authority” (as a history student) and engage, listen, and learn, history and history-making can be something more alive – organic, dynamic, etc. But not knowing what will result is scary, maybe even terrifying at times (and part of the “letting go”), but it is also the point at which we’ll all hopefully learn most.
In an essay entitled “Public History” in Clark and Ashton, eds., Australian History Now (2013), Paul Ashton reflected on his experiences as a public historian and the growth of the field in general. He concluded by noting his working definition of public history as “the practice of historical work in a wide range of forums and sites which involves the negotiation of different understandings about the nature of the past and its meaning and uses in the present” (179). Such a definition draws on Raphael Samuel’s idea (discussed last week) that “history is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands,” and also points forward to Martha Sears’ ecological view of different forms of history-making as “part of a dynamic system where every diverse and distinctive element contributes to the vigour and health of the whole” (Sears, “History in Communities,” in Clark and Ashton, Australian History Now (2013), 212-213).
For me, this is a useful way of thinking about public history, and immediately encourages us to reflect on the practice of history in the University and classroom, which often (though not always) precludes these kinds of negotiations about different kinds of understandings about the past, and present uses. Our reading this week about the Enola Gay controversy in the United States in the early 1990s reinforced the dangers of not doing so, but also how difficult it might be to do so. Our discussions invariably shifted to the History Wars in Australia, but particularly the commemoration of Gallipoli and the ANZAC tradition. Is there a historical middle ground between commemoration and historical analysis? What role should the historian play in negotiating a kind of common ground that might move the debate forward, too? Opinions varied… Of course the Enola Gay controversy has resurfaced once again, especially in the USA and Japan, where the seventieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has just passed. History News Network, a useful clearing house for history-related news has been alive with discussion of this event (see, for example, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159701http://).
We were also fortunate to have Bruce Baskerville https://twitter.com/mrbbaskerville join us to share his story of how he became a professional historian and the many challenges and opportunities he has faced. We were impressed with just how hard he has had to work at this and yet how many interesting projects he has been involved with. Students were keen to know how he got started, and also his hints on practical issues such as how to approach local and community organisations. Questions about ethics and responsibilities of the historian doing public history again came up in the discussion. Bruce, who is the current chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT http://www.phansw.org.au, talked about some of this and also noted that the Professional Historians Association of Australia has some guidelines that might be useful in their “Code of Ethics” (see http://www.historians.org.au/). But Bruce also recognised that there are many grey areas that need more fulsome discussion. No doubt we’ll be coming back to some of these questions throughout the unit.
This week we kicked off discussion by watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Performance of “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House in 2009 (click the link above for it). Since then, the musical Alexander Hamilton has been hugely popular in New York and now become a Broadway hit. See:
The clip was an appropriate starting point for a discussion about “What is History?,” “What is History for?”, “Who Does History?”, and “What is the role and responsibility of the historian in public history?.”
Our readings ranged from EH Carr’s classic essay “What is History” to M. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain, the former seemingly caught between the positivists of the 19th century and the postmodernists of the 20th, and the latter making an argument for history as a “turning and re-turning of myth, history, and memoir.” Momaday’s definition was arguably given some extra weight by an excerpt from Raphael Samuel’s 1994 book, Theatres of Memory, called “Unofficial Knowledge” in which Samuel pointed out the myriad ways we learn, and do, history (and in the process outlining an agenda for a new generation of cultural historians). We finished off with a discussion of an excerpt from Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen’s landmark study The Presence of the Past, with students pointing out that even since 1998, when they published this work, we seem to know a lot more about how non-historians think about the past and do history in their everyday lives.
We finished our seminar with a short discussion of just how to get started on a community-engaged project, emphasising that the engagement should come first, and let the historical questions arise from it. Several students shared their ideas about the kind of local/community organisation they might like to work with, and there were some terrific ideas. Very promising…
While we only managed to scratch the surface of the questions raised this week, they will of course be at the heart of this unit throughout the semester.
(Photo by Michael McDonnell, Broken Hill Railway Museum)
After several years in the planning, HSTY 3902: History Beyond the Classroom is finally under way this semester. I’m looking forward to teaching this, and to learning a great deal from each other. The main aim of this unit is as follows:
In this unit you will produce an independently framed and original researched project drawn from an engagement with communities and organisations outside the University. Students will explore history in action in a variety of contexts and think about different ways of creating and disseminating
history other than the traditional research essay that might appeal to a public audience. Lectures and field trips will help students frame relevant community-based questions, adopt appropriate methodologies, and explore new ways of presenting arguments or narratives. In tutorials we will workshop every stage of your project.
Part of the aim of this unit is to introduce students to history as a lived and lifelong practice and to appreciate history as a vital individual, community, and organizational practice. Together, we will explore a variety of histories in action via time spent working with or alongside community organizations outside the University and discuss the challenges and opportunities of history beyond the classroom. In keeping with this idea, we will also explore different formats for presenting our histories that might reach a wider and more public audience. In doing so, we will also discuss the vital questions around the issue of whether reaching for a wider audience means changing or diminishing academic standards. Can history beyond the classroom co-exist with and inform and enrich history practiced in the classroom?