The exploration of digital methods in historical scholarship has become a central theme at history conferences over the last few years, including at our own annual meeting. In Thursday night’s plenary session, “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age,” AHA president Bill Cronon, together with a group of five panelists, grappled with the various ways that a growing digital presence is changing the practice of history and the profession itself. Cronon introduced the panelists—Ed Ayers, Claire Potter, Michael Pollan, Niko Pfund, and Mary Louise Roberts—by explaining that each has a rich understanding of a particular part of this issue, and none is afraid to think creatively and out loud about a range of new media and their problems, from blogging to Twitter to e-publishing.
The following are just a few of the topics discussed during the two-hour conversation:
Collaboration and Connections: A Growing Digital Community of Historians
Conferences are no longer the primary way in which to connect and form professional networks and communities of historians. According to Potter, Facebook and Twitter have moved beyond providing simply a space for personal networking, and are being embraced by academics as a form of intellectual community in which to crowdsource syllabi, commiserate during grading periods, and announce professional achievements. Indeed, in the past few years, historians have not only begun using Twitter in rapidly growing numbers, but have also defined distinct spaces for debate and conversation via hashtags—including #twitterstorians and #PublicHistory.
Moving Away from a Linear History
Many of the panelists discussed the concept of a “linear history,” though each used the term differently, describing anything from the formats in which historians publish materials to the actual act of storytelling. Never, according to Ayers, have there been more forms of history and digital resources—and yet, we “don’t know what to do with them.” Historians, Ayers argued, are now charged with the hard task of making sense of this information fragmentation and discovering the critical continuities and trends that form a historical narrative.
The panel unanimously agreed that historians want to begin bridging the gap between academic and general readerships. How do historians reach new audiences? According to Pollan, historical writing can and should be approached as a literal art: the art of storytelling. Potter pointed to the ways that bloggers are experimenting with the use of different perspectives and voices.
In their closing remarks, the panelists found common ground discussing the discipline’s future in the digital age: regardless of how we define or reconceive what history is and in what format it’s presented, historians need to do a better job of commanding the attention of the general public and demonstrating the value of history to public life.
Behind the scenes ensued an equally interesting conversation over Twitter, between historians reacting and offering follow-up questions to the panelists’ insights. Read the ongoing conversation on the AHA Storify space, found here.