Friday, February 4, 2011

Presenting History to the Broader Public

Morgan Hubbard

One of Heather's posts from December got me thinking about the challenges of presenting history visually. As a public historian I'm interested in narrowing the gulf that exists between professional historians and the broad reading public. Part of this job involves thinking about how we've always presented our arguments about the past—and how we might make those presentations more engaging, more memorable, and better suited to the twenty-first century.

A historian who wants both job security and to teach people about important things might find herself pulled in different directions. Tenure committees want to see specialized monographs best suited to university libraries, books that expand the boundaries of what we know. The emphasis in these works is on mastery of the subject and relevant historiography, exhaustive research, and a style that puts the book's conclusion first. But the general-interest reader is interested in the story, not what other historians have said about it, and tends to want a narrative that is plotted and paced more than a conclusion that is delivered up front. (I understand these are gross stereotypes and that real life is more complicated, but my goal is just to sketch the outlines of the problem.)

There's no simple way to resolve this tension, but it seems to me we can start to address the problem by conceiving of our projects from the outset as both scholarship and storytelling. Easier said than done, I know. One way to start is by capitalizing on the power of the internet to relay information visually. This doesn't mean “dumbing down” the historical analysis we produce and present. But it does mean realizing that some historical processes are best expressed visually and dynamically. Traditional books can't give us that. But the web can.

One of my projects this semester is a statistical analysis of the ways that themes in American science fiction changed between 1945 and 1965. I'm sampling about a thousand science fiction stories from three of the major English-language science fiction magazines (Amazing Stories, Astounding Science-Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.) After I read each story, I classify it according to a taxonomy of themes, “tagging” the story with as many themes as it takes to approximate its content and tone. When the data set is complete, I'll display it visually, in a short animation that will condense 20 years of historical change into about a minute.

I could use the results of my statistical analysis to write a report that shows how science fiction changed in the first two decades of the Cold War. But if I do a good job, the animation will accomplish the same task more intuitively, in less time, and with more panache. Die-hard fans might read a written report, sure, but most of the people I know wouldn't want to sit down with twenty-five pages of explication and graphs. But picture this: the story of science fiction's evolution, demonstrated instead of merely described, in colors that draw the eye and with an aesthetic that echoes the vintage science fiction in question.

This project isn't guaranteed to work. But if it does, I think it will be good public history.


Unknown said...

That sounds very cool, Morgan. Even a tag cloud that moved along some sort of time axis would be interesting. I'd love to see how the keywords grew and shrank, appeared and disappeared over an extended period.

hcr said...

Morgan: This also suggests an answer to the nightmare of figuring out "public discourse." It is now possible, I believe, to see how many times certain words have been used in certain sources over time. While that's of huge interest to historians, it's also of interest to current-day policy makers. What are people talking about, and how are they talking? Buckley was very aggressive about the use of language to direct public debate, and it seems to me people of his ilk are still doing it. Anecdotally (because I haven't done this sort of a study!) it seemed to me that attacks on immigration arrived largely out of the blue a few years ago. Ditto for attacks on unions. If you could pinpoint when those discussions began, you could pinpoint the triggers. Very cool.

Unknown said...

Back in the very early days, google had a little widget that ran a ticker of terms that were being searched in realtime. It didn't last long. As I recall the official reason had something to do with porn. I think the real reason was, that was the moment when they realized how valuable that information really was. Changed their whole business model...

Todd Arrington said...

First, I must commend this blog. I work as a public historian but also teach as an adjunct at a nearby college. In my class this morning, when discussing the structure of argument, I was able to reference Heather Cox Richardson's recent excellent post on Stephen Ambrose and his "interviews" with D.D. Eisenhower. If not for THS, I might never have seen this and wouldn't have had her post as a reference. (You can imagine the response in an 8 a.m. class full of undergrads on a Friday...but still.)

I really believe that we public historians have the best jobs in history. We get to talk every day to people that come to our sites because they (gasp!) WANT TO LEARN ABOUT HISTORY! I love my teaching gig, but I know that most of the students to whom I'm teaching are there because of academic requirements, not a love of history.

I entered this field because I have always loved history (and have almost three degrees in it) but also because I didn't want to be bound by the current confines of academia--"publish or perish" and all that. I honestly believe that in my job, I can take the best of academic history and make it accessible to the public but not beat them over the head with it as we tend to do with students. In public history, we can take the best "popular" historians--a Doris Kearns Goodwin or (shudder) Stephen Ambrose--and not only provide proper context to and interpretation of their work, but also correct their errors while stimulating further interest in and study of the subject at hand. In our line of work, these historians may plant the seed, but it's our job to water it and make it grow.

Morgan Hubbard makes a great point in this post: it's about both scholarship AND storytelling. In my view (as someone who works in both academia and public history), academic history is often too much about the scholarship and not enough about the storytelling. Public history, however, provides the chance to do the opposite: emphasize the story by incorporating the scholarship and making it accessible to all.