Crossing borders, or not, at the AHA

I go to the American Historical Association annual meeting about once every ten years. The usual complaints keep me away: too big, too crazy, most of the sessions too far outside my interests. And the more specific complaint you’d expect from someone interested in public history and public humanities: too academic.

Just everyone I talked to had similar complaints. Even more important: they always have.

That’s one of the lessons from a fine talk at a fine session (now that I’ve got over the complaining): Rob Townsend’s talk on the early history of the AHA, in a session that looked at the history of public history. The organization has heard complaints for a century or so, ever since it got big enough and powerful enough to define exactly what counted as history, or more precisely, academic history.

The AHA, at its founding, included what today would be public history and archives, but in the 1910s and 20s it got into the business of policing boundaries. Archivists and local historians set up their own organizations, and the AHA narrowed its focus to, mostly, the research work of academic historians. It’s a typical story of professionalization.

Rob’s paper, the other talks at that history of public history session, and some provocative twitter discussions, got me thinking about boundaries: setting them, policing them, crossing them.

And once it was in the air, I saw it everywhere. We were all policing boundaries, or trying to open borders, or trying to work across various lines. True, I went to sessions that were mostly on the fringes of the academic history business – public history, digital history, museums – and it’s from the borderlands that you see the borders.

It’s in those borderlands, too, that battles happen. Even sessions designed to help cross boundaries could reveal treacherous terrain. A session of historians looking at history museums made clear to me just how difficult it can be to even see across the boundary, much less cross it. Why did these historians, many of whom had studied museums, or consulted with them, seem so oblivious to the parts of the museum that weren’t directly historical in nature: visitors, for example? Or perhaps well-meaning historians were crossing into my territory, raising my hackles? Was I defending my territory? There are two sides to fences, and you need two countries for a border station. Diplomacy is hard; but it starts with respect, not the assumption of empire. As Jesse Stumel tweeted, “Maybe we should stop thinking about inviting people into a tent and work to get ourselves outside tents. #AHA2015 #s158.”

And I did see some good progress in crossing boundaries. A session on scholarship beyond text showed historians working well with artists, creating comic books and historically informed abstract art that drew equally on the skills of artist and historian. Digital history, a field much concerned with definitions and making a space for itself, has begun to make its way into the mainstream of historical work: papers in a session on the history of slavery made strong arguments for crowdsourcing, GIS, and tumblr for new ways to answer important questions and reach new audiences. Digital humanities is finding ways to be both its own field as well as a set of tools for other fields. A session on archaeology and history made clear just how much could be gained from combining two fields in imaginative ways, though also the challenges of talking across disciplines. William Walker’s talk, on the ways that hybrid fields were created at the Smithsonian in the postwar era, suggested the possibility of new combinations: folklore/history, for example.

But there’s also something to be said for the freedom new fields offer. Denise Meringolo raised the question, in that history of public history session, about how public history might be different if it didn’t see itself as a sub-section of history, if it weren’t located in history departments. Will noted that interdisciplinarity is a key aspect of the development of public history. The public humanities program at Brown is, in some ways, an answer to the question of what public history would look like if were done by the generally more boundaries-crossing-friendy of interdiscipline of American studies. It may be that its success comes the relative ease of boundary crossing that Brown, and American studies, encourages.

There’s a balance to be struck here, between creating new disciplines and defending old ones; between taking ideas and tools from other disciplines and using them in our own. between between inviting others into our tent and getting outside it.

Going to the AHA, I suppose, is one way of getting out of my tent. Like a century of conference goers, I’m annoyed by the ways in which the AHA doesn’t put my work at its center, or even make it easy to visit. But like them, and like all visitors to foreign lands, you learn things. Doing the work of crossing borders can be worth the trouble.

Be back in a decade or so.

With thanks to @DDMeringolo @urbanhumanist @ProfessMoravec @Jessifer @rbthisted @MarlaAtUmass @willcooperstown and other #twitterstorians who shaped this through their tweets and talks.

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    1. Wednesday Link Roundup #79: AHA 2015 Conference Roundup - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart

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