by Mark Tebeau | March 13th, 2013
The emperor has no clothes. Or so I declare in a comment on a post at the brilliant public history blog, History at Work. I didn’t mean to spoil the feel-good digital party at History at Work, really. But, the post was about a scholarly volume, Subjecting History that claimed to be “open review,” when it wasn’t. And, it also claimed to be “public” engagement. I didn’t see that either.
Here is the story, as I understanding it from reading Subjecting History: Seventeen scholars respond to a call for proposals. Some (all?) are accepted, apparently. (Are any rejected?) There is no evidence of review, review criteria, winnowing, or exploration of the volume’s content. In other words, it is a garden-variety essay collection. I have no problems with this aspect of the book, to be published by Ohio State University Press.
But, the book claims to be an “open review volume.” Thus, I presumed that I’d see something in the open about how it evolved. There is no indication as to how comments before/during/after solicitation would/will shape the essays on their eventual publication. Moreover, to date, there are handful of comments there, but nothing incisive or from others outside the volume. As far as I can tell, none of the comments engage the material as a peer reviewer might.
Likewise, there is no evidence, that I can see, of “public” engagement. I don’t see “public” (apparently defined here as non-academic) participation in review for acceptance or in comments on the site. I see a general statement about reaching out to interested constituencies and public audiences that might be interested in engaging the essays. I find this statement unsatisfying. Public historians, in our reviews of grants or such public projects or publications, would ask not just whether you were going to do such outreach (it’s obvious that it’s necessary) but *how* you would do it and *how* you would make such outreach successful. Doing outreach to public audiences is hard work.
I also don’t see how this volume presents material in a fashion that the “public” might actually engage. Really, public historians have taught us a great deal about the complexities involved in engaging the public. Writing words on a page and asking people to respond directly to those words is hardly public engagement, whether it is done digitally, on exhibit labels, or in a book. What would I like to see? How about alternative visions for “public history,” outside the text? How about solicitations of particular publics that might engage the essays through planned partnerships? How about some analytics (though that would impose a new standard than has been accomplished in previous comment-press books.)
I want to be clear here that I applaud such attempts. In fact, I think everyone should go over and comment on “Subjecting History.” But, I’m not sure that comments can save a project that does not seem to emphasize open review. Indeed, what makes the work Jack Doughtery and Kristen Nawrotzki, Writing History in the Digital Age, so interesting was the process. The strength of Writing History in the Digital Age was that the project that evolved, grew, and morphed through an open scholarly process. This not only met the goals of openness that is surely valuable, but it met the standards of peer review. Moreover, it involved lots of participation, both inside and outside the project. It is a model. We should strive for it.
We should strive for it, because there is very much at stake. Surely, we need to find ways of publishing material, openly and with review, both to improve the process but also so that digital scholarship become more deeply part of the scholarly review process. Although I would note that this last statement validates old-fashioned academic standards that are increasingly antiquated by the digital age. And, of course, peer review is often (though not always) a sham embedded in 19th-century scientific practice, so I am not sure we should even see it as a gold standard. Still, there is something critical here and that is the importance for scholars–public historians and more traditional research historians–to connect with the public beyond the ivory tower. Our failures or successes in this regard are critical to the broader shape of civic society, which historical interpretation shapes in significant ways.
Which brings me to my final point. There is a claim here that “By implementing a digital platform that enables an open review process and inviting comments and discussion from the general public, we are experimenting in making history the subject of popular gaze, rather than the other way around.” If (as I’ve said) I don’t see the first part of this claim, I surely don’t see the second part. Isn’t “history” already “the subject of popular gaze?”
Really, heritage tourism is a global industry measured in trillions of dollars. History abounds in multiple media forms and is avidly consumed. History is actively debated in our civil and political culture. Elsewhere the volume proclaims that the term subject is also used because the volume seeks to “put History somewhat under the power of the public.” Commenting on scholarly essays, without any real say over their publication accomplishes neither of these tasks.
And, incidentally, I would suggest that history is already fully “under the power of the public.” As public historians (actually as historians–is there really a distinction?) one of our great challenges is to engage, challenge, interpret, and re-frame understandings of a past that is surely outside our limited power.
I do have another model, other than the book–and there is a place for books written for public historians–from practicioner to theoretician. My suggestion, and a plug as to why my own work has importantly reframed our approach. We should abandon the conceit that our scholarship is “history” or even what makes our work specially. Indeed, public historians do more than write and theorize. We are brilliant at *practice* at project development. We should get into the trenches with the public and produce digital (or non-digital) projects that collaboratively remake the past, including memory landscapes (which is ostensibly one of the contributions of essays in the Subjecting History volume.) I’ve been at work on that here in Cleveland with my work on the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Rather than theorize the Gardens, imagine how they could be better, or simply write their history (I’ve done all three, incidentally), I joined the fray and with students built a history website, www.culturalgardens.org. Oddly, we didn’t merely open up the site for public comment, or solicit the input of folks involved in the Gardens. No, instead, we invited our partners to use it as their voice, to reinvent it with photographs, text, and their own vision. What has emerged is an amalgam of traditional scholarship, student essays, enthusiast contributions, and community involvement. While the site does not quite make the grade as “scholarship” because of its form (and non-academic contributions), we have shaped public reinterpretation of the site by participating in, and helping to lead that change. Oddly, history in the Gardens is neither subject or object. It is collaboration–exactly what it should be.
NOTE (3/13/2013, needs spelling/grammar check.)by