History in Public

As a historian of American culture and of the Civil War in particular, it has been hard to know how to feel about the events of the past year.

On the one hand, the 2016 election, with its shocking (at least to me) and devastating effects, has resulted in an almost daily onslaught of destructive rhetoric and action from the Trump Administration and its GOP supporters. In response, my social media feeds crackle with rage, a seemingly endless stream of angry posts, tweets, and re-tweets.

On the other hand, all of this political and emotional chaos – and the violent acts it has spawned – has provided historians with almost daily opportunities to share their knowledge of the past, and to argue for how it informs and shapes current events.

It can feel uncomfortable and slightly skeevy to see this moment as an opportunity.

And yet historians must do this work. We must reach out to publics beyond classrooms, in order to try to make sense of all that has happened, and will happen.

To this end, I proposed a roundtable for this week’s Western History Association Meeting in San Diego, to bring together scholars who work in a variety of media, to talk about strategies for communicating what we know (and want to know) about the past to large public audiences.

Most of the roundtable participants began their projects before the 2016 election, but their work helps us think through ways to convey the historical underpinnings of contemporary events and issues using podcasts, digital history, oral history, visual art, museum exhibits, magazine and newspaper journalism, and television.

This session is also meant to give graduate students a sense of the kinds of work that can be done with a History PhD, and the different ways that scholars can do the things they love – write, read, research, argue – in contexts connected to academe but not necessarily on the tenure-track.

The roundtable’s participants are listed below, with links to websites that demonstrate their approaches to the study of history and culture “in public.”

After the session, I will add to this post, reporting back on our conversation and the recommendations these prolific and impressive scholars have for doing this useful work.


Jon Christensen is adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Department of History, and the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles. http://christensenlab.net

Natalie Fousekis is professor of history and Director of the Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton. http://coph.fullerton.edu

Monica Martinez is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow and the Stanley Bernstein Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. https://dh2017.adho.org/abstracts/447/447.pdf

Nathan Masters is Manager of Academic Events and Programming Communications at USC Libraries and Host/Producer of the video series “Lost L.A.” https://nathanmasters.me

Ed O’Donnell is professor of history at Holy Cross and the host of the podcast “In the Past Lane.” http://inthepastlane.com

Jason Patterson is a visual artist working in Urbana, Illinois. http://jasonpattersonart.com


Featured image: Jason Patterson, Drawing after a detail of a Cartes-de-viste print of a half length portrait of a Black woman holding a white baby, taken by A.P. Beecher, Wilmington, DE, ca 1875. From Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection. Soft pastel on raw canvas, under self leveling clear gel, 2016.

2 thoughts on “History in Public”

  1. Talking to a couple of hundred kids in a classroom while the Republic is endangered can’t be the only venue for historians to add their insights to the resistance to the mangling of our democracy. Glad to see this panel will be offered.

    In keeping with the importance of educating the public, I hope it will be videoed and that the video will be available on-line.

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