In our hands

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.

Bradstreet Gate (also known as 1997 Gate), Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons.

Bradstreet Gate, Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago I was invited to a small university in California to talk about the crisis in the humanities. When I arrived I was greeted by a professor of philosophy, faculty members from the literature department, and a historian. We sat together in a small classroom overlooking a peaceful, park-like setting. But they all seemed worried, so I asked them how things were at their university.

“Well,” they said, “things were not going well.” Student enrollment in humanities courses and the number of majors were down. The president had reeled in a multimillion dollar gift, but none of it would be earmarked for the humanities. You could hear in their tense voices that they felt they were living in crisis. I pointed out that they might feel like there was a crisis at their university, but the humanities outside of the university were not in crisis–in fact, they were in great demand. It was an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia. Continue reading

Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Last August, fans of the Colbert Report saw Duke University President Richard Brodhead encourage study in the humanities as essential to a balanced education. The interview segment can be seen here. Brodhead’s appearance was part of a marketing campaign engineered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) that was designed to advance support for the humanities in much the same way that the National Academy of Sciences had promoted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with its 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm. Brodhead’s appearance may have been unusual for taking the case for humanities education to such a popular audience, but it reflected the AAAS’s conviction that a national dialogue on the importance of the humanities was necessary to its future. Continue reading

Project Showcase: At Home in Holland

holland-screenshotAt Home in Holland,” a new digital history project by students at the University of Amsterdam, responds to the way that hostile reactions to immigrants have undermined the traditional idea of Dutch tolerance and hospitality in recent years. The current Dutch asylum policy was developed in the 1980s. In that same period, Amnesty International Netherlands held its first campaign to draw attention to the problems faced by refugees in the Netherlands. How did a human rights organization usually focused on the plight of people abroad end up campaigning against human rights abuses back at home? Continue reading

A women’s history museum without women’s historians

From [http://www.nunes.house.gov/tours.htm] {{PD-USGov}}On May 7, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing the creation of a commission to explore the feasibility of establishing a women’s history museum on the National Mall. Yet many women’s historians and museum professionals are not celebrating. Why not? Because this bill (H.R. 863) carves out a special role for the National Women’s History Museum, Inc. (NWHM), a non-profit, non-professional organization that has been lobbying for this project for more than 16 years, but does not guarantee a place at the table for either professional historians or museum experts. Continue reading

“Sustainable public history” means action in Monterey

protest banner

Public history? A Pennsylvania action by the group Marcellus Protest invokes the state’s constitution. Photo credit: Marcellus Protest

After an incredibly engaging and well-attended American Society for Environmental History conference in San Francisco last week, I arrived in Monterey excited to extend the conversation about the connections among environmental history, sustainability, and public history. I did not expect, however, that the term “sustainability” could rouse the activist roots of our profession.  “What to do?”, as one of the discussants in the ASEH panel I chaired on “Perspectives on Environmental History” asked in ending his presentation, seemed to be the question for Thursday. Continue reading

A good-enough platform for change

report cover

Today’s post is also the introduction to the born-digital publication “Public History in a Changing Climate,” available now to NCPH conference registrants and to other readers by summer 2014.

In a television interview last year, American writer and neo-agrarian icon Wendell Berry spoke about the “dreadful situation” facing young people who are grappling with the cascading environmental, economic, and social challenges linked with runaway capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.  Berry noted that the recognition of our big problems creates an expectation of equally big solutions, but added that our own answers and fixes have too often been part and parcel of those problems, because we’ve tended to impose them in a way that ignores the limitations and needs of the environments we inhabit.  Real change, he said, means learning to listen in new ways to the non-human world and refusing to be rushed or impatient even while acknowledging the urgent need for action.  “I think of them,” Berry said of younger people entering this arena, “and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.  And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”

The idea of being patient in an emergency strikes me as useful for public historians to think about but from the opposite direction.  Rather than being impatient activists who need to be convinced of the value of patience, we tend to be inherently deliberate practitioners who haven’t collectively acknowledged that we are in fact in the midst of an emergency. Continue reading

What’s your new “Situation Normal”?

protester with sign

US federal government workers at an August 2013 protest of budget sequestration and employee furloughs. Photo credit: American Federation of Government Employees

As I sit down to write this post (and by the way, this is my first “official” history blog post), I am pondering what my “New Situation Normal” is as a public history practitioner for a federal agency. How has my work reality changed, for good and for ill, over the past 16 years? Certainly, technology and social media provide public historians with avenues to new and varied audiences. And with the Internet’s narrowing of time and space, interesting and exciting possibilities now exist for researchers and public historians.

However, there have been less positive workplace changes, namely budgetary and staffing constraints, which have created stresses and reprioritization at work for many American public historians in the public and private sector—as well as in other countries—regardless of agency or organization. Continue reading

Get your wind farm off my historic site: When visions of sustainability collide (Part 2)

people with signs

Large-scale wind-power developments often provoke strong pro and con feelings, as this 2008 band of satirical Cape Wind counter-protesters in Massachusetts shows. Photo credit: Phil LaCombe.

Continued from Part 1.

The case of Southern Öland provides a rather dramatic case where visions of heritage preservation and renewable energy development collided, but it is certainly not unique.  Other communities have faced similar challenges, including the World Heritage sites of Mont-Saint-Michel in France (where an off-shore wind project was blocked by the French courts), and Britain’s Jurassic Coast.  In the United States, the Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Bay off of Martha’s Vineyard has generated a fierce legal and political struggle that has spanned more than a dozen years.  Cape Wind’s Construction and Operation plans received approval from the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in 2011 despite a determination by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that the wind farm would negatively affect thirty-six historic sites and districts, and six resources of cultural and religious significance to the region’s Indian tribes.

The many compelling arguments in favor of renewable energy projects makes opposing them challenging.   Continue reading