Reflecting on NCPH 2017

I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of the reflections and analysis of National Council on Public History’s (NCPH) 2017 annual meeting but haven’t quite formulated my thoughts yet. I spent most of my time at the conference connecting with old friends and talking about the field outside of organized sessions. Most of what I experienced and heard was concern and caution about the field, about training, and not forgetting our roots. Some, like Nick Sacco, have described the meeting as inward looking as the field faces challenges due to the political climate, the job’s crises in academia, and history departments’ attempts to respond to neoliberal demands for “skills” and “job training” that are difficult to reconcile with the ethics and philosophy of public history.

As primarily an academic, I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in the field and how I can best contribute. I’m aware that there are right and wrong ways to do public history and digital public history. I know that simply giving a public lecture or posting things online does not necessarily make you a public or a digital historian. There is a vast historiography of both fields that explains their ethos, methodologies, and theories. This is why I’ve personally always been a bit reticent in some of the larger conversations about public history. I’m a somewhat informally trained public historian (I had some formal training in master’s program but none during my PhD), and have tried to listen and learn, and defer to people with more experience than me. I try to openly admit places where I am less knowledgeable or need to do more reading or “doing.” I’m trying to avoid creating an inside-outside dichotomy, but I did sense some concerns about how the field has changed and worry about what the proliferation of public history programs at the undergraduate level while graduate training remains limited means. Does this create a watered down or less grounded field of public history? Is this why buzzwords dominate sessions instead of substantive discussions of theory and methodology? Has it affected the ethos of the field as some treat projects as CV builders for tenure and promotion rather than community centered and directed projects facilitated to achieve their goals? I don’t have the answer to these questions, and I hope that I am not adding to this problem as I straddle the academic and public history worlds. Yet, I think these are really important questions to ponder.

Despite these and many of the other critiques I have seen, I enjoyed NCPH this year. It gave me a chance to reconnect with my mentors, one who I hadn’t seen in over 5 years, and explore some new areas. I spent time reflecting about my approach, what I know and don’t know, how and why I choose to develop projects, and my overall career goals. Like many others, I used the conversations to be introspective. It helped me recognize that despite the fact I am nearing the completion of my PhD, I have a lot more work to do in order to become the public historian that I want to be, and that the field needs me to be.

I felt this inadequacy and frustration at times during my own session, which was my first time leading a working group. My hope was to bring together and extend conversations about campus history and sport history. I’ve worked in and been trained in both areas. During my undergraduate days I helped with my alma mater’s sesquicentennial celebration and provided the athletics department with substantial research that I turned into a digital exhibit. My dissertation about Oklahoma football deals with both too. Yet, I felt like I failed to fully ground the group in the campus discussion, and our conversations easily sailed into the intricacies of “sport” as a big-time entity instead of building on prior discussions of campus history at NCPH. I’ll write more about the working group at another time, but I worried that the essence of public history and the importance of sense of place sometimes got lost in our assumptions about (a somewhat narrowly defined conception of) sport as an automatically popular attraction. I struggled to get out of my own way and challenge us to think about sport’s various iterations on campus in more participatory and democratic ways beyond just fanhood. Instead, sport frequently served as a new site to rehash existing public history arguments from other panels — confederate iconography, authority, inclusivity, race and gender, and exhibit space. I’m not trying to paint the session as a failure (it wasn’t), but rather point to how it struggled to be collaborative and innovative in ways that I had hoped. This stagnation is my fault, yet it is also a part of some larger issues as a field. The panel was partially self-serving for me — I’m trying to find ways to fuse my academic and public work, and want to help shape how we talk about the history of sports with the public. Unfortunately, my experience doing this has been primarily on blogs and in classrooms. In this sense, I am guilty of overextending myself and pushing my agenda without a proper grounding in the practical and experiential aspects of public history required to properly contribute new methodology or theory to the field.

Maybe I am being too self-critical here. But as you can see, it’s a hard balance to strike. How does one carve out space in the field for their work while also trying to be cautious and adhere to the ethos of public history? This question, I think, will remain a concern for NCPH and other public historians as the field expands and more informally trained academic historians seek space to contribute. I don’t know the best way to proceed, or if I have followed the right path, but I am certain that we need the field’s veterans — those trained deeply and broadly in its historiography, and who are modeling public history’s values — to continue leading and mentoring us. That’s my biggest take away and what I am most thankful for from the 2017 annual meeting.

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