BY Claire Potter ON October 26, 2016
On Friday, October 21, the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at CUNY Grad Center celebrated its 35th anniversary. As part of hte celebration, I participated in a roundtable about the achievements, and future challenges, of public history. These were my remarks.
First of all, Happy Birthday, American Social History Project, a collective scholarly effort that led the way in bringing social history’s commitments, not just into the mainstream of the historical profession, but also into the K-12 classroom. I think it’s reasonable to say that without ASHP, public policy interventions like California’s FAIR Act, that mandates LGBT history in secondary education, would have been far less likely. We would also know a great deal less than we do about how to transform the conversation about the history curriculum at all levels of education, and how to implement necessary changes. ASHP was a pioneer in the creation of digital resources that brought state of the art history to broad audiences. ASHP’s effort to put a ground-breaking textbook, Who Built America, in conversation with digital archives, helped to conserve the historical profession’s commitments to critical thinking, and to teaching students how to make arguments drawn from primary sources. Establishing itself in the 1980s and 1990s, our colleagues made an enormous contribution at a moment in history when high stakes testing based on so-called “content delivery” began to transform the landscape of the humanities and social studies.
As a young historian interested in women’s history and the history of sexuality, I had a front row seat while this was happening. In the 1980s, I was a graduate student at NYU, in a history department that had fine archives and public history programs, as well as a cadre of graduate students vitally interested in the women’s and LGBT history projects that were emerging from the social hisstory movement. For a time, I was also part of the Radical History Review collective, and all of these groups overlapped.
I never became a real public historian: I have to emphasize this to people all the time, because the increased association between public history and digital history, in which I now engage and that ASHP promoted, increasingly muddles the two – particularly in the minds of administrators. But my friends were public historians. Between those friends and the osmosis that naturally occurred as we all migrated between Columbia, CUNY, Rutgers and NYU, public history had a great impact on those of us in the emerging fields of women’s history and the history of sexuality. The public history commitment to change through uncovering a past and making it accessible was never distant from the projects I, or we, took up as we established ourselves in the profession. And I think public history has proliferated in ways it did not anticipate at its moment of origin: in blogging, particularly feminist and queer history blogging; podcasting; and in the emergence of #twitterstorians, who chronicle the present, create historical narratives on the web, and tweet conferences like this one.
So what remains to be done – other than getting rid of high stakes testing? First on my list, as a co-Director of OutHistory.org, where I have finally assumed a role as a public historian, would be digital literacy. This is a project in which I am engaged at the Digital Humanities Initiative at The New School, where OutHistory.org is currently based. One of the things I have learned since we launched the DHI is that the assumptions of digital practitioners and the ambitions of administrators to support public scholarship are profoundly at odds with the proficiency of most faculty and students to conceive or engage either digital pedagogies or publicly engaged digital projects. If you don’t know what you don’t know, creating the intellectual architecture for a digital public history project, even from the simplest tools, is difficult to impossible. Learning from one may be equally difficult, because of DH’s non-linear qualities. In addition, the problem with moving scholarship to the Internet, as many of us know, is that questions of accessibility are quite different and engage fields well beyond history: broadband access, universal design, reading practices, the capacity and durability of tools all have to be addressed to create a truly public project. None of these skills are routinely taught in history graduate programs.
The second is that queer digital projects need to be in better conversation with each other, and learn better how to support each other. In fact, I would like to see a major digital summit that brings all public history practitioners and digital historians together for a week to assess and refresh our collective practice and resources. ASHP has been consistently at the forefront of digital history practice, and its members and fellow travelers wrote some of the earliest and most important books about digital history practice and designing for the history web. Yet the digital requires particular acts of preservation and, most importantly, revision that too many of us are either not good at, uninterested in, or have no time for because we are moving towards our next project, grant or book. These acts of revision range from refreshing important early texts that have become outdated because of advances in technology, to routine maintenance of the kind that all platforms and sites require, to keeping up with new devices that change the way that people access web content. At OutHistory.org, part of our public history mission is to engage youth, who tend not to sit in front of computers, but use mobile devices. Thus, those of us who learned to design for the web as recently as ten years ago, now need to retool to design for iPhones and Galaxies. We may need to design for apps to truly keep up.
Which brings me to my final, and most important, point: most of us are in desperate need of money. We at OutHistory.org believe ourselves to be engaged in a public history project that may even save lives: suicide rates among LGBT youth are astronomical, as is homelessness, addiction and unemployment. It is a long standing premise of LGBT social history projects that we not only preserve and uncover, but use history to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are marginalized and oppressed because of race, age, nationality, gender and class. But although LGBT foundation and social justice funding has made the turn from marriage to youth outreach, they aren’t particularly interested in funding history. And frankly, public history – whether digital or not – is expensive. So at this 35 year birthday we want to look back at our successes – and we will want to work with practitioners across the profession to make the arguments that can take our scholarship and activism to the next level.
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