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Mind the Gap

A Self-Reflective Essay

Angela Smith November 28, 2007 Introduction to Public History Rebecca Conard

Mind the Gap: A Self-Reflective Essay
Communication technology is rapidly changing, and as a historian, designer, and media specialist, I am interested in how this change will affect the history profession. It is important for both academic and public historians to examine the issues that come with this media transformation: How do we know what we know about history? How do we understand the past? How do we engage the public in “historical thinking”?1 The answers are important in the academy and in the public sphere where, for well over a century, historians in both have relied on the written word to communicate their craft. Today, however, the written word is less dominant in the wider culture, and advancing technology has created alternative pathways to communicate history. There is often a vast distance between these arenas, a distance that suggests watchfulness – in Britain, there are everpresent admonishments to “mind the gap,” and they could well be used as historians make the leap into technology. These changes do not signal the death of written history; on the contrary, they open new doors for historians to teach their subject in different and creative ways, but they require scholars to make a leap of faith. Professional historians cannot ignore new media without neglecting the students of a new generation who have grown up with technology and relate to the world in a much more visual way than their predecessors. In the next twenty to thirty years, I hope to create a career that bridges history, design, and media technology, as I communicate history to the public and train other historians and students of history to do the same. As I forge ahead to incorporate media technology into the practice of history, I am also mastering the traditional tools of the historian: analysis, Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 110.


research, and writing. These fundamental tools are the ones I utilized most often in the Stones River class project, although I was able to convert some of our group’s research into useful visual material to share in our final report. Applying new technologies to history is my passion, though it has taken two decades to discover it. In 1984, before the advent of the personal computer, I graduated from Belmont University with a degree in English and communication arts. Two years later, I found myself learning to use the first “desktop publishing” computer, a Mac Plus with an accompanying laser printer, while working for a small printing company. I rode a quickly evolving technological wave as I worked for graphic design firms, prepress shops, and printers. Although most of my experience has been in design and print production, I was introduced to web technologies while working in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. A few years later, I began to experiment with digital video at a Nashville design firm. At that time, I was unaware that the experimentation was preparing me for a new career that would allow me to merge history and technology. When I learned about the MTSU public history program in 2003, I expected it might be an entirely new field for me – I had always enjoyed research and learning, but those things had not been part of my livelihood. After talking to Dr. Susan Myers-Shirk, the graduate director at the time, it seemed public history might be a good direction. After taking twelve hours of undergraduate history to qualify for the masters program, I was admitted in fall 2004. None of the four tracks in MTSU’s public history program seemed to fit my personal goal of merging history and new media technology, so I decided to focus instead on a master’s degree in traditional history. I knew enough about media technology, but I needed more academic history to add to the mix. It was during this time that I realized there were


few history programs addressing the changing world of communications and history. George Mason University implemented the Center for History and New Media in the mid1990s to use digital media and computer technology to democratize history; the Department of History at the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany, at about the same time, began adding to and changing its curriculum to blend historical scholarship and teaching with digital technologies. Others have followed, most to a lesser extent, but still testing the waters that will take both the teaching and practice of history into the twentyfirst century. It was at the dawn of that century that I began and completed a master’s degree, and I found many opportunities to blend new media and history in my professional life. When I spoke out about my interest, I was pleased to find several professors of traditional and public history who were willing to listen, to take a chance. During my first semester at MTSU, I had an opportunity to work with Dr. Rebecca Conard on a brochure and poster for the Teaching American History Project, a series of summer workshops for teachers. In spring 2005, I designed the brochure for the department’s newest offering, a PhD in public history, and again I had an opening to blend my sensibilities about history with graphic design. These projects gave me a chance to merge visual and historic elements in interesting ways. Simultaneously, I began working part-time for Belmont University as a web and graphics adviser for the student newspaper. New opportunities emerged as a few Belmont students indicated an interest in history and documentary studies. Since then I have taught four Belmont independent studies in which each student produced a 20- to 30minute documentary film during a semester and one summer intensive with a group of four students who produced two films. These documentaries that undergraduate students


produced are outstanding, and I became a proponent of a teaching model I call process learning. I describe this style of learning as an opportunity for students to learn narrative from the inside out, rather than a lecture style, which necessarily takes place from the outside in. The effectiveness of this style is exciting and presents history teachers with new tools to reach students. Following the success of these independent studies, Dr. Lorne McWatters, a public history professor at MTSU, decided to use his historic preservation class in fall 2006 as a vehicle to introduce a similar process in a graduate class. The resulting film on historic preservation in Murfreesboro has been shown at the NCPH conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and to several other groups; positive feedback has come from traditional and public historians and many other viewers. In addition to documentary work, there have been several other opportunities to blend web design and history. One was my class project for the fall 2006 African American History Seminar, for which I designed and implemented a website for the 1946 Columbia, Tenn., race riot. As a GTA in Dr. McWatters’ spring 2007 spring Historic Preservation class, I worked one-onone with the students to create a website for the Heritage Partnership of Rutherford County. The quality and the range of the work I have done blending history, technology, and design illustrates the value of incorporating these crafts into history education, a scholarly enterprise undertaken with a contemporary cultural application. Presenting a past people can relate to is one of my goals as a historian. In fact, historians have a responsibility to bring the past to life. “Material restoration and commemoration of relics, both painful and inspiring, allow people to ‘touch’ the past viscerally, much as they do through their powerful material presence,”2 Edward Linenthal Edward T. Linenthal, “Epilogue: Reflections,” chapter to Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 217.


explains in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. To effectively bring the past to life, as public historians Katherine Corbett and Dick Miller have noted, teams consisting of a historian, designer, educator, and curator often work together on exhibits in museums. Corbett and Miller warn that the historian’s intellectual authority is diminished in these situations.3 In contrast to their concern, I argue that the public historian should have the opportunity to train not only in the historical craft, but also in technology-related fields, thus expanding the historian’s authority. Technology is an incredibly powerful tool that gives us the ability to “touch the past” in an infinite number of ways. We are limited only by education, time, and our imaginations. Additionally, university history departments and many professional history associations are concerned with graduate education, and they frequently ask the question, “What kind of jobs can graduates get?”4 Blending media and history in graduate education can make history professionals significantly more attractive to a range of employers, from historic houses to museums to public archives and even television and film, as technology continues to evolve. This fall, I began coursework in the Public History PhD program at MTSU, and the Stones River project is my introduction to cultural landscape work. Through the class readings I was exposed to the roots of the public history profession and the issues that every public historian must be aware of as we began our research. I realized quickly that the story of the black and white residents of the Stones River area before it was a national park was not simple. As we continued our research, I saw that its complexity holds deep Katherine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006), 21.

Thomas Bender, Phillip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 65.


layers that may never be uncovered. We were assigned the task of exploring land ownership on Van Cleve Lane between the end of the Civil War and the War Department’s purchase of the park property between 1929 and 1932. Additionally, we were to evaluate the archaeological prospects in the same area, known as the Cemetery community. As our group set out to research the ownership of the land, I began to think we could really benefit from some kind of system to share information; I began to put together a project database. The idea is built around all groups sharing information by entering what they find in a searchable database. After talking to Albert Whittenberg, we decided to bring this project to life by working with a database programmer at MTSU. I passed my database design to Dave Munson to implement on one of MTSU’s servers. Though it is not complete, the concept shows promise for future classes to easily pick up where the current class ended. I have limited skills in database implementation, and I hope to be able to take a class at MTSU or at another local school to learn more. Understanding database programming both for sharing information and data analysis would be an extraordinarily useful skill for my work in history and new media. Our group work focused primarily on research in deeds and tax records. Learning to do the tedious research in the deeds office and at the county archive exposed me to research methods I had not used before. I enjoy a search for information that brings the subjects to life. There was little time, however, to dig for that kind of information, yet through trial records, wills, and census studies, I was able to find some human connections in the research. The Center for Historic Preservation files also contained fragments of information that helped illuminate the social and economic situation of the residents of the Cemetery community, a place surely full of anticipation as its residents absorbed their very


new freedom. Readily accessible history of that time, however, does not address the establishment of Cemetery. Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, writes about the “silences” of history, and the Cemetery community was silent until recently.5 It became our job to give voice to the silence of the community founded between the bloody battle that occurred in 1863-64 and the effort of white southerners to shape a new Civil War narrative. The historic context of the Stones River project came into focus through the assigned readings. For example, D. W. Meinig, in The Shaping of America, described the situation of African Americans in the South after the war: “Freedmen were generally regarded as wards of the whites – whether of the Whites in the localities they shared or of the nation that had rescued them from bondage was deeply in dispute.”6 He explained that a negotiation occurred between ex-slaves and white landowners that ultimately produced the sharecropping system. As a result, African Americans created “loose clusters commonly known as ‘settlements’ (usually named after a leading family and often unrecorded on the map), and a group of such settlements was usually referred to as a ‘community’ (often named after some natural feature, such as a creek, a cover, a hill).”7 This is exactly what happened as African Americans moved into the Cemetery community after the war. The fact that African Americans owned property near the battlefield is important for many reasons. “Memory has geography,” Stuart McConnell wrote in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, as he explained the importance of physical places in Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26.

D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 196.
6 7

Ibid., 201. 8

history. 8 “Monuments demonstrate forcefully in physical space the same sorts of tensions that less obviously characterize cultural and political space.”9 It is not surprising that after the Civil War African Americans would be drawn to battlefields. Though they did not yet have political power, the fact that Union soldiers were buried and commemorated near their community was a powerful reminder of their hard-won freedom. It was still a precarious freedom because, as Meinig explained in Color in the Plantings: The AfroAmerican Presence, both Southerners and Northerners made many attempts to solve the racial problem by exporting the “problem” (African Americans) to Africa or sending them to other regions such as Haiti to eliminate the social conflicts caused by integration. Black land ownership was thus a bold act announcing to the world a right to own land in the United States.10 While the black experience was obviously different from the white experience after the Civil War, even black experiences varied dramatically. “The varieties of black memory of emancipation and the war are as diverse as region, education, generation, experience, and political and social outlook would, of course, shape them,”11 David Blight noted in Beyond the Battlefield: Race Memory, and the American Civil War. Both Linenthal and Blight addressed the battlefield as a cultural symbol that changes over time with memory and commemoration. Linenthal described slavery and the Civil

Stuart McConnell, “Epilogue: The Geography of Memory,” chapter to The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 258.
8 9

Ibid., 260.

D. W. Meinig, “Color in the Plantings: The Afro-American Presence,” in The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, vol. 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 296-311.

David W. Blight, Beyond the Battlefield: Race Memory, and the American Civil War (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 200.


War as one of America’s “indigestible stories.” He illustrated the difficulty of the subject by comparing it to a “fishbone stuck in the throat.” 12 The treatment of African Americans in this country both before and after the Civil War is difficult to grasp. Yet, as Linenthal noted, “We are not responsible for events long past, but we are responsible for the preservation and presentation of them to coming generations.”13 Though Civil War battlefields originally were scenes of death and violence, Blight wrote, “Over time, in a variety of ways, [they] have become sites of healing and reconciliation in our nation’s culture.”14 Memory and culture, he explained, have clear roles in creating a narrative that changes over time. These two historians impart wisdom public historians can store away. As we move forward into the “real” world and interpret history to a public not always receptive to difficult histories, it is helpful to understand there is a way to honor the facts and value the evolving story. Interestingly, the Stones River project sheds light on a social history that has not been fully told; we are uncovering information that will help create a narrative about African American activities near the cemetery after the war. Dwight Pitcaithley, in “A Cosmic Threat: the National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” contended that it is time for the National Park Service to move beyond its military interpretation of the Civil War and begin to “illuminate the social, economic, and cultural issues that caused or were affected by the war…”15 Our project is helping to do just that.

Linenthal, “Epilogue,” 213. Ibid., 224. Blight, Beyond the Battlefield, 174.



Dwight T. Pitcaithley, ““A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 173.


Though this project has given me only small opportunities to blend media and history, it has significantly stretched my research skills. That said, I feel creatively challenged to communicate the vast amount of information in visual ways, such as using map overlays to show changing land ownership through time or creating charts to illustrate white and black land ownership. The exacting work of data collection and synthesis has made me faster and more confident researching local history, plus working with interesting and interested students like Kristen Deathridge and Richard White has been great. We divided the responsibilities, and they supplied data for me to synthesize in many different ways. The project was time consuming and tedious, but I have grown and stretched as a historian by participating.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Bender, Thomas, Phillip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer. The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Blight, David W. Beyond the Battlefield: Race Memory, and the American Civil War. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. The Public Historian, A Journal of Public History. Santa Barbara: University of California, 1980-present. Fahs, Alice, and Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Horton, James Oliver, and Louise E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: New Press, 2006. Meinig, D. W. The Shaping of America, A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.