Nick Kristof Ought to Be Paying Attention to History Camp

tags: public history, History Camp

Elizabeth M. Covart is an historian, writer, and platform builder. She received her PhD in early American history from the University of California, Davis. Her website is http://www.elizabethcovart.com/. Follow her on Twitter @lizcovart.

On Saturday March 8, 2014, over 120 history enthusiasts and professionals converged on the IBM Innovation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the first-ever History Camp. An “unconference,” History Camp came together because people wanted to share their passion for history with others. The initial meet-and-greet revealed the diversity of the attendees: web designers, high school teachers, surveyors, artists, writers, archivists, librarians, undergraduate students, tour guides, medical doctors, photographers, mobile app designers, museum professionals, and National Park Service interpreters. History Camp featured twenty-five, thirty-minute presentations offered by topic experts.

Lee Wright, founder of The History List, started History Camp with three speakers and a wiki page. Wright got the idea for History Camp after attending a BarCamp, a user-generated workshop about technology. Wright wondered if people would attend a history-themed BarCamp. He asked three Boston-based historians—J.L. Bell, Samuel Forman, and myself—if we would help him with his idea. Positive responses in hand, Wright created the History Camp page on the BarCamp wiki and waited to see how many others would sign-up to attend and present.

Within a few days, enough people had registered for History Camp that Wright needed to find a venue to host it. Wright found a partner in IBM, where a few employees with a passion for history convinced their employer to allow up to 160 people to use its Cambridge Innovation Center. Wright also found individual and corporate sponsors: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, TrekSolver, The History List, Hstry, and “Drums Along the Mohawk.” These sponsors paid for breakfast, lunch, and subsidized the event so that everyone could attend for free.

History Camp presented a well-rounded conference even without official organizers to shape the narrative and content of the event. The volunteer presenters offered programs that covered a wide-variety of history-related topics, methodological discussions, and advice about employment opportunities. Of the twenty-five presentations, twelve focused on specific historical narratives, three discussed graduate school, non-academic employment, and publishing opportunities, and ten panels explored interpretation methods (including digital history tools), crowdsourced resources, and technologies that both enhance and spread the reach of historical research.

History Camp proved a success. So many people wanted to attend a day-long conference about history that Wright had to turn interested people away after the 160 registration spots filled. The conference also attracted more than just Boston-based history practitioners and enthusiasts. History Campers hailed from all over New England with some who traveled from as far as New York City, Virginia, & Florida.

Conversations and tweets reveal that many attendees walked away with new ideas about how to view, write about, and present history. Erik R. Bauer, an archivist at the Peabody Institute, tweeted that his History Camp experience gave him “good ideas for some public programs that I’d like to do at my institution.” An interpreter with the National Park Service tweeted plans to organize a History Camp in New York City.

Although Wright and other supporters spread the word about History Camp through tweets, blog posts, e-mails, and fliers to area university and college history departments, no academic historians participated in History Camp. Their failure to take part stands as a missed opportunity to engage the public in their research.

Academic scholars need to look upon History Camp and other public history events as opportunities to answer the calls from both their peers and journalists to interact with the public. Even before Nicholas Kristof’s widely read op-ed appeared, historians at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Historical Association beseeched their colleagues to practice more public history.

The AHA annual meeting hosted at least three panels that discussed open access publishing and writing history for the public. The “Writing History for the Public” panel featured five historians and one literary agent, all of whom implored historians to connect with the public more.

Jonathan I. Zimmerman (New York University) noted that twenty to twenty-five years ago historians did not discuss “public history” because all academic historians understood that they had a duty to interact and communicate with the public. Steven Conn (Ohio State University) and David Paul Nord (Indiana University & History News Service) attributed the decline of the academic practice of public history to the mismatch between graduate education and the real world. Graduate programs train students to be research- and monograph-driven historians, the work they will spend the least amount of time doing. Both scholars believe that the profession would produce better teachers, journalists, and historians if graduate programs trained their students to be more publicly engaged. They observed that this type of training would also help solve the guild’s unemployment problem as publicly-engaged historians would be able to articulate the importance of their professional skills and research to non-academics.

In February 2014, Nicholas Kristof asserted that academics have marginalized themselves from American society by becoming more specialized and thereby more out-of-touch with the larger world. Kristof noted the irony that “professors today have a growing number of tools to educate the public, from online courses to social media” and yet he feels they interact with the public very little. As Jim Downs noted in “Can Academics Bridge the Gap Between the Academy,” Kristof values academic work and would like to see more Americans appreciate it.

History Camp provides a real-world example of how Americans thirst for more interactions with historians. The demographics of the History Campers reflect a widespread interest in history beyond the academy. Like many academics, these enthusiasts and non-academic history practitioners appreciate even the most specialized fields. They would love to interact with professional historians and discuss the minutiae of their specialized subfields. One camper remarked that they would have enjoyed History Camp more if “there had been more graduate students presenting their work and professors discussing their research.”(1)

Some may say that without tenure and advancement committee support, such outreach would yield little benefit for the time academic historians would need to commit. They may be right, at least for now. However, academic historians stand to benefit from participation in History Camp-like gatherings in at least three ways.

First, historians would benefit from networking with non-academic history practitioners. Conversations with museum professionals, tour guides, and re-enactors might yield interesting research leads, new insights on historical interpretation techniques, and opportunities to help further historical research and understanding. Some of these enthusiasts have studied even narrower niches than academics and may help point the way to obscure sources.

Second, the people who attend public history events read, buy, and talk about books. Historians who interact with this reading public stand to improve the accessibility of their narratives. Like academic conference-goers, public-history-event attendees ask questions and provide feedback. They tell presenters what they do not understand. This type of feedback provides insight on where historians might want to expand or contract their argument or narrative, which will help them improve the accessibility of their books and their book sales.

Finally, attending History Camp-like gatherings shows the history-loving public, as well as the public at large, that historians are relevant and that they care about society. Scholars should embrace these events as opportunities to help the public understand why their research matters. As historians create a more engaged and understanding public, college and university tenure and advancement committees will fall in line and reward them for their efforts.


(1) Lee Wright asked History Camp attendees to complete a survey about their experience. 98% of respondents said they would recommend History Camp to a friend or colleague and 94% would definitely attend again. Full survey report.

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