On November 18th and 19th 2012 PBS debuted The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns. The documentary joined a long line of historical films created by Burns the United States’ most popular documentary producer. Indeed, since his 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Burns has revolutionized the genre and become a formidable figure in public history conversations. Although many historians have taken issue with the historical interpretations of his documentaries in reviews published in journals such as The Public Historian, few object to his ability to connect history and bring it to life for broader public audiences. To be sure, some even point to Burns and his methods as an example to be emulated by public history professionals trying to engage a wider audiences.
History and Public Engagement
Over the past two decades much of the scholarship produced by and for public historians has focused on this issue and Burns’ documentaries have served as one of more frequently studied media to measure public engagement. In his 2001 study, Sense of History, David Glassberg waded through thousands of letters responding to Burns’ The Civil War. He found that personal and family connections undergirded individuals’ attachment and interactions with places and events. Glassberg argues that one’s sense of history and sense of place are a dynamic components of public history, historical memory, and the public’s connection to the past suggesting that we ground our sense of history in our personal social and physical experiences within places. The methods utilized in Ken Burns’ documentaries capitalize on these themes, according to Glassberg. Burns’ use of images, stories, landscapes, noises, and a unifying narratives are powerful and help draw viewers into an understanding of the past that is grounded in local and personal experiences that viewers can relate to. For Glassberg places matters as he argues that the general public is more interested in the here of “what happened here” than the what. Thus Burns’ use of these local settings and perspectives provides a more engaging narrative compared with the large-picture perspectives often presented by academics.
This disconnect partly motivated Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen to study popular uses of history in the United States and how Americans interact with the past. They published their findings — based on a series of surveys and phone interviews — in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. The study was built on the premise that understanding how audiences perceive and interact with history is crucial to presenting it to them. One of the study’s biggest takeaways is the template it offers on how to make history accessible, interesting, and relevant to the public. Like Glassberg, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that individuals preferred to engaged with the past through personal connections and experiences. They often found stories from relative and eyewitnesses, conversations, and informal experts more believable and convincing than professors and teachers. Likewise, people commented that they’d rather see actual artifacts, footage, photos than read about events. Although some of these conclusions seem obvious, their emphasis on the personal is striking. Respondents preferred to draw conclusions and make interpretations on their own terms. According to Rosenzweig and Thelen, the use of artifacts, personal stories, and lived experiences helped people chart their own pasts and futures by internalizing new information and contrasting it from their previous perspectives.
They also noted that many of these preferences are present in Burns’ documentaries. Although he does present larger themes and interpretations in his work, they’re rarely uncomfortable or imposing. Instead, Burns gently guides his viewers by assembling perspectives, images, stories, and settings that contribute to his vision. History is informal in his documentaries because it comes predominantly from personal perspectives and lived experiences through interviews and journals that allow viewers to connect-the-dots and extract their own meanings.
To be sure, this is a very broad overview of the glut of scholarship on this subject. I admit I haven’t revisited this scholarship in several years, yet it offers some real lessons for both public historians and teacher alike. I firmly believe that the goal of public engagement and interactions is no different than what teachers do in the classroom. Public historians, digital humanists, and professors alike should focus on developing lectures, displays, readings, and teaching methods that cater to personal engagement and interests as ways to make history relevant and enjoyable.
Twitter and The Dust Bowl
There is no doubt that Burns offers one model of presenting history to the public and making it accessible to a variety of audiences. As my brief overview of public history scholarship suggests, personal engagement is key, but what exactly does that engagement look like? The three authors I cited both engaged with the thoughts and perspectives of viewers after their experiences. Today, however, social media allows to survey and view the real-time reactions and perspectives of viewers. Over the last couple of years, Twitter has become a dominant force in social communication and provides instant feedback. Likewise, it offers a broader cross section of responses as many people who tweet probably would not write fan mail and may not answer a phone-survey.
For these reasons, when The Dust Bowl aired a month-and-a-half ago, I took special interest in following the Twitter conversation. Many networks have begun promoting hashtags for their programs so viewers can interact online while they watch. During The Dust Bowl, PBS advertised the hashtag #DustBowlPBS and the Twitter account for it’s American Experience history series (@amexperiencePBS) regularly interacted with and retweeted viewers. Although I am sure how or if PBS saved and used the tweets, it is obvious that the network both encouraged and was interested in feedback and engagement with its viewing audience. This aspect of Twitter, social media, and public history deserves more study.
I can, however, speak to audience engagement. During my viewing I tweeted along, and, because I used the hashtag, some of my tweets were retweeted and favorited by other viewers who I didn’t know. During the show, I saw the engagement and it reminded me of the scholarship I noted earlier. I began to think of ways to analyze and use the tweets as public engagement data. Admittedly, I did very little analysis of the tweets during the show but I kept seeing things that I liked. After the program ended, I went back and starred and saved many of my favorite tweets. I did not exhaustively archive and save all of them. Looking back, because I was doing this on the fly, I can admit that my methods were rather flawed. I had no set criteria for why I saved one tweet and not another. Also, I did not collect information about each viewer (although it is still possible to go back and read their Twitter “profiles”).
Despite my extremely flawed collection method, I did save a fair number of tweets (56) and compiled them into a Storify story. Unsure of how I was going to use them, I didn’t arrange them in any particular order nor did I added any explanatory text in the document. I used it merely as an archiving tool (you can see the archived tweets here). After I archived the tweets they sat for several months until I had the free time to come back and review them.
During my review I noticed a few trend and categories. For the most part I saw that they fit into six general categories (many of them overlapping). These categories include: political views/observations, family history, connections to the present/relevance, people connecting to a sense of place in NE/KS/OK, quotes/facts from the film, and students/professors/historic sites adding their 2 cents. The vast majority fit into two categories: those offering quotes and interesting facts from the documentary, and the ones that drew connections between the film and present conditions and views.
Indeed, many viewers immediately tried to make relevance of the information and process through their existing experiences and knowledge. Many placed the documentary in relationship with their prior knowledge by connecting the Dust Bowl to family history or things they learned in school. Following Rosenzweig and Thelen’s findings almost exactly, one even noted “in high school #DustBowlPBS was always one of the most confusing and uninteresting part of history class I guess cause we NEVER SAW PICTURES” while another asked “Anyone else tempted to do #genealogy searches on the families in #DustBowlPBS?” Similarly, one viewer used the documentary to add context to his own family history “#DustBowlPBS Difficult to comprehend that less than 2 yrs after Black Sunday my parents had confidence to marry, start family in central NE.”
One of the viewers I followed fairly closely was Okie and Public History PhD student at Loyola-Chicago, Devin Hunter (@dvhunter). Although he’s not an environmental historian, he offered an interesting balance to the documentary as someone who grew up in one of the specific areas being discussed. Devin’s tweets offered commentary on the information presented in the form of questions, additional information, and his reactions to the style of the documentary. It was interesting to see him at work as both a pubic historian, Oklahoman, and inquisitive scholar. Yet, reading his tweets alone without his background information is it difficult to see the different between him and any other viewer. This is by no means a knock on Devin, but rather what I see as an interesting phenomenon. It indicates the accessibility and democratic nature of the documentary and social media to share and exchange ideas. This interaction is the goal of most public historians and so it shows the vast utility of Twitter to gauge an audience.
To be sure there’s a lot more interrogating and examining that can be done within these categories, and others. Analyzing the tweets alongside the documentary offers a new, or perhaps more intimate and real-time, view of how people interact and make sense of history. It’s useful along the same lines for public historians to analyze and understand how people draw connections and interact with history through the Internet and social media.
The question of the utility of live-Tweeting and social media for public history is complex. It provokes us to consider a multiplicity of factors: Does this also happen with museum and other events? What do the tweets mean? How are they useful? What aspects did people most identify with? What did they ignore or leave out? Did they ask questions and offer other stories? What conclusions and connections did they make from the documentary? Why? Who engaged with the film? Who didn’t? Were interactions different based on locations/place, education/occupation, political views? Can we evaluate the depth of engagement? Etc., etc.
To be sure, I failed at addressing nearly all of these in my quick and dirty study, but they’re things we should seriously consider. Although my focus here has been on the Ken Burns documentary and PBS, I do think we can broader our utility to other sites and places. There are ways to use hashtags and Twitter to connect with visiter of historic sites and museums. Many historical sites and museums have joined Twitter already. These accounts are often used as marketing tools that tweet facts and connect with users beyond the confines of the site. I think these could also be useful on-location with real-time, digital curation that could help guide visitors through museums and instantly answer questions tweeted to curated accounts (images could easily be a part of this too). Digital visitors could then also learn and follow on-ground visitors through the museum (I understand this probably isn’t easy to do). The idea is that instant feedback and information helps make the experience more personal, more democratic, and more accessible.
The University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections has something similar. They created two Facebook profiles based on former students from the early 1910s and they regularly post status updates, photos, and short quotes and newspaper articles. The profiles tell the story of the two students at the University, Joe McDonald and Leola Lewis, and their activities. It’s one way to bring digital curation, history, and personal connections to life.
PBS could follow suit by responding to the many questions and observations by creating digital exhibits with links to further information. In this way, the feedback would drive further lessons and the development of future web exhibits and/or documentaries. The feedback could also be useful for teachers using the documentary. In addition to the curiosities of viewers, the tweets often reveals broader themes and lessons. Someone organizing a lecture or unit based on the documentary would better know what areas needed more coverage and some of the major themes students can easily identify. In short, these tweets, combined as an archive, could potentially be used for lesson planning.
Of particular note for digital humanists, teachers, and public historians is a tweet by Liza Zahn. She observed that “Tweeting a show is like taking notes during a lecture. Makes it easier for me to pay attention retain the info. #dustbowlPBS.” This tweet helps explain why so many felt compelled to post quotes and facts from the show. It was a way for them to process the information, share it with friends, and perhaps even review them later (although I doubt many actually archived their tweets). Although this is one tweet, it provides another creative way to integrate Twitter into the classroom as a form of digital note taking.
So far I’ve thrown out a lot of ideas about public history, digital humanities, pedagogy, and public engagement. What I haven’t talked about, is the actual history presented. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Ken Burns often brings a vision to his documentaries and pieces them together to show a personal, on the ground narrative in his distinct style. Like academic historians, Burns has a thesis and offers evidence. Burns, of course, it not a historian himself. This causes him to catch quite a bit of flak, as many historians, but not all, disagree with his perspectives and methods. It is common for his documentaries to conceal opposing historical interpretations and messiness of history. However, it is difficult for someone not well versed in the historiography of his subject to notice these omissions. Some blame this on Burns’ preference to focus on individuals and localized experiences rather than the larger picture gets because this leads to inauthentic generalities.
One of the things I noticed throughout The Dust Bowl was the film’s focus on a relative small area of the Great Plains. Boise City, Oklahoma was the center of “no man’s land,” the narrator explained, the hardest hit area of the Dust Bowl. As a historian and fourth generation Kansan, I wondered about other areas besides Northwestern Oklahoma and Southwestern Kansas. For me, the documentary provided a great view of a fairly localized area of the plains, those hit the hardest, but I longed for more of the story. I didn’t see any tweets, however, from people who also wanted a broader scope of geography and severity.
To be sure, the studies by both Glassberg and Rosenzweig and Thelen found that public audiences preferred this method. Yet, history is not always localized. Larger patterns, themes, and events are important too. The question remains then, how do we make this type of history personal? Is it possible to portray messy and nuanced ideas to the public, or are those issues better left for them to discover on their own? The studies suggest people prefer to come to their own conclusions and interpretation. Personally, I think we should do our best to a large cross-section of views and exampled, and then let the audience decide.
Burns does this at times, but probably not as much as he should. I admit that I am not well-versed in the Dust Bowl era, nor environmental or agricultural history, so I can’t fully comment on the issues with The Dust Bowl. I did, however, briefly talk to R. Douglas Hurt who was briefly featured in the film. Professor Hurt is the the Head of the Department of History at Purdue University and a preeminent Agricultural historian. He described the film a great human interest piece, but commented that Burns had his own story and perspective to tell. He disagreed with much of Burns view and suggested that perhaps that was why he didn’t get featured as much as someone like Donald Worster. Although our conversations was brief and he didn’t share with me his full nuanced view, Hurt told me that he thought the dust bowl was mostly about the drought, not purely capitalism. Again, I’m not well-versed in the scholarship, but I get the feeling that Hurt thinks the Dust Bowl was grounded in the environment and land more than human actions, greed, etc. I’m not exactly sure, though.
Do these difference matter to the average viewer? Probably not. Should they matter? I don’t know, maybe. Burns definitely points to a need for more involvement and research into climate change and the human roles in accelerating natural disasters, which is noble. Likewise, I am pretty sure Hurt would not discount the role of humans in environmental change entirely. The difference really comes down to the use of a specific historical interpretation to advance a particularly political stance. Historians aren’t keen on doing this. Our research is guided by our empirical questions answered by exhaustive research and a careful reading of our sources. This should never be sacrificed or skewed to fit a certain position or temper our findings for a broad audience.
This analysis is not meant to be full celebration or critique of Ken Burns and his documentaries. Rather, I want to identify their utility to the public historian particularly when it comes to public engagement and social media. Indeed, Burns and PBS offer a great model for making history accessible and interacting with the public. As Dr. Hurt noted, The Dust Bowl documentary was a terrific human-interest piece that doesn’t attempt to tell the fullstory, but effectively got people interested in and thinking about the Dust Bowl as wellas larger environmental and political issues in new ways. The #dustbowlPBS hashtag promoted by PBS during its airing allows us to use Twitter to further investigate theses interactions and thoughts in real-time (provided you archive and save the tweets soon enough). Doing so, I believe helps better understand how public audiences interact with history offering lessons and possibilities for the integration of social media into other forms of public history, teaching, and other digital projects. I’ve attempted to imagine a few of these possibilities and offered some quick and dirty analysis of the Tweets, but believe that this field is ripe for more investigation. Social media has the ability to transform public history, pedagogy, and history writ large.