What a moment to start a graduate career in history. Anxiety about the decline of the humanities has come to be tempered by whiffs of hope that critical thinking about society is highly valued, not just by intellectuals but by Capitalists. But even more important, as the United States has been overtaken by a violent contest over its own past, historians – and historical thinking – have become a part of mainstream discourse. A recent graph created by the Southern Poverty Law Center has been shared widely across the internet, explaining in a snapshot something that Americans desperately need to understand: public monuments praising Confederate military heroes were produced many years after that war, not to memorialize the dead but rather to intimidate and terrorize those Americans whom the likes of Lee and Jackson committed treason to enslave.
It’s a complex argument, but it’s been amazingly successful: Confederate monuments don’t represent the Confederacy, but the tyranny of the Jim Crow era and resistance to African Americans being included in full citizenship rights. Even the descendants of Stonewall Jackson have made the argument.
For the moment, and in the present context, I’m focused less on the civics lesson being made here than on the role of historians in the process, and the wider trend of historians using new media to build historical knowledge in the American public. The SPLC graphic is a great example of the kind of visualizations being done by digital humanists. The growth of graphical interpretations of history is one of the most exciting trends in the field. It has allowed historians to present enormous amounts of careful research to a much wider public audience, encapsulating complexity and encouraging exploration of humanistic data. The New York Times’s Upshot series bends towards the social scientific, but its influence on public discussion has included more than a little history as well. Then there are the many ways that this argument has been disseminated. The Washington Post has a new series that presents historical arguments. Scholars like Kevin Kruse and Joanne Freeman have leveraged Twitter to build followings. Group blogs, like Religion and American History and the Junto, get thousands of hits, and they use their platforms to speak to issues that are topical and historical. Podcasts, like Ben Franklin’s World, bring scholarship to a public that might be scared off by a book full of footnotes, but is more than willing to hear the complex insights contained within.
The current generation of history graduate students has an opportunity, and a challenge, to think through what these various mediums mean for the discipline. What kinds of arguments are best suited to what venue? How can we best help inform public discussions about issues that cry out for historical framing? How can we bring what we study – the arcane questions that animate us – to the public arena at the right moment?