Category Archives: public history

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.

The Perils of Writing and Citing Blogs

There was a great Forbes piece circulating the interwebz yesterday, calling for us to read and cite more academic blogs. I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment, and not just because I run the Sport in American History blog. There is a lot of fantastic work being done online. I generally point to 2014 as the “blogging moment” when academic group blogs proliferated and became a tad more formalized, but three years later they are still producing amazing, intellectually rigorous work and broadening academic conversations to larger audience (Tim Lacy noted this the other day on Facebook). I make this argument in my forthcoming article in the Journal of Sport History on the “Power of Blogging.”

Yet, the ephemerality of digital content makes it really difficult to cite blogs. One in five articles suffers from “link rot” according to an article in the journal, PLOS ONE (thanks to Paul Bracke for sending it my way on Twitter). I ran into this today while doing the last round of copyedits for my article. Three of the links had changed since I submitted my revisions in November. One of the blogs no longer exists. You can read this as either a commentary on the time it takes to publish something in a traditional print journal or the impermanence of digital publishing. Either way, it is something important to keep in mind (I should note the Forbes article does get into this a little bit). If we want our digital work to matter, to be cited, and make an influence, we have to be smart and strategic about access and preservation. We also need to think about the long-term life of our work and where we think it can have the biggest impact today as well as in the future.

Luckily for me I was able to update the links and find the deleted blog in the Wayback Machine to provide a stable archived URL. Yet, as Brandon Ward wondered on Twitter, what are the ethics of citing something that has been deleted? That’s a debate for another day, but also one worth having!

NCPH Working Group 2017: Call for Discussants

Sport History and Public History are two fields that I think were made for each other. I’ve said this a few times. Sport history is also, in many ways, embedded within Campus History, i.e the history of college and universities, high schools, etc. After all, they say sports are the front porch of the university. And Campus History is another stakeholder in public history, with resounding consequences for public perceptions, politics, and much much more. Recently the National Council on Public History has had panels and working groups addressing both sport history and campus history at its annual meetings. This year I am facilitating a working group that seeks to bring public historians working on campus history and sport history together to talk about how we can better work together and tell multilayered stories to the public. I am intentionally casting a wide net, hoping to bring together a lot of approaches and variety of voices from different vocations.

While I am organizing and facilitating this group, it needs members. The call for discussants from NCPH went out today. Here’s the part about my group:

Sports on Campus: Sporting Traditions as Public History and Memory

Sporting traditions serve as a de facto form of public history for many colleges and become a central part of their and their alumni’s identity, operating as a what historian Brian Ingrassia describes as a form of “middle brow” culture that appeals to the broader public. Athletic teams are also crucial components of university marketing and recruitment strategies, offering a window into student life, inviting people to campus, and attracting news coverage. Furthermore, campus culture is often viewed as a contributing factor to the success and failures of athletes and teams. This use of sporting traditions divorces them from critical public history, obscuring the context and conditions of sport and campus histories.

Extending conversations from last year’s conference, this working group explores the relationship between campus history, sport history, and the identities of colleges and universities, their students, fans, and alumni. In addition to bridging the gaps between sport history and campus history, it hopes to develop strategies for better adding historical context and complicating the narratives told by marketing and sports information departments and sports media. The discussion will center on research and presentation practices, sites for sharing this history, and ways to use sport to track collective pasts and chart collective futures. Key questions that this working group wishes to address are:

– How have marketers and sport media portrayed campus history and sporting events? How can public historians help shape those narratives?

– How might sport history benefit from a deeper understanding of campus events? How might campus history benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of sport?

– How does sport affect our understanding or perception of educational institutions and their history?

– How might public historians respond to sport-related controversies on campus (such as fan behavior, sexual assault, NCAA scandals, mascots, etc.)? What are some effective strategies?

– Where are the best places for public historians to share these histories?

Building off of the 2017 conference theme, the intersection of sport history and campus history serves as a middle ground for multiple interest groups and a place to tell multilayered histories. The result of these conversations will be a best practices document that we hope to make public at History@Work and/or Sport in American History.

If you have never been to NCPH working groups are a bit different from workshops, roundtables, and traditional panels. They usually involve 9-10 people who submit brief “case studies” ahead of time. Group members then discuss the issues, our experiences, and think about how we can shape the field by create guidelines. For example, one outcome for my group is to create a best-practices document. At the actual conference, we will talk about our findings and discussions and open our discussion up to the public for further input.

f you’ve never been to NCPH, working groups are discussion based panels of 9-10 people. Being a discussant involves submitting a brief case-statement and interacting with other group members ahead of time, discussing the issues, our experiences, and thinking about how we can shape the field. For example, one outcome is to create a best-practices document. At the actual conference, we talks about our findings and discussion, and open our it up to the public for further input.

Here are the instructions for joining the group from NCPH:

To join a working group, please submit a one-paragraph email message describing the issues you wish to raise with your peers, together with a one-page resume, c.v., or biographical statement by October 15. We welcome submissions from individuals across a range of professions and career stages. Please see the specific working group descriptions below. Individuals who are selected will be listed as working group discussants in the conference Program and will participate in the working group session at the annual meeting.

This winter the group facilitators will ask participants to contribute a case statement of no more than 500-1,000 words for discussion. The case statement will describe a participant’s particular experience, define the issues it raises, and suggests strategies and/or goals for resolution. Case statements will be circulated among participants by email and posted in the Public History Commons or in PDF format on the NCPH website. Discussants are expected to read and comment briefly by email on one another’s case statements well before the conference date. Some working groups may also have additional shared background reading materials identified by their facilitators.

To apply, please send your paragraph and one-page resume/c.v./biographical statement by October 15 to ncph@iupui.edu with the specific working group title in the subject line of your email.

If you have any questions about the goals or purpose of the group, feel free to comment here or contact me via email.