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Tag Archives: writing for the public

By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.

Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.

On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.

My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.

I had stumbled into new territory.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

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Yuri Gama, recently accepted Ph.D. Student, UMass History

Different from the rest of the city, Parramore was always a mixed-use neighborhood. Now, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s like a skeleton. It’s like the community is being squeezed out. —Vencinia Cannady, senior resident at the African-American community of Parramore, Orlando, Florida.

As I browsed through unconnected pieces of files inside libraries and talked with local residents unveiling the story of Parramore, I slowly gathered information about the historical convergence of urban planning, racial segregation and social inequality in Central Florida. Researching African American history for my Master’s thesis in such an understudied place, brought me straight to a public history alley. The more I would find in my research, the more I would feel the need to reveal it publicly. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I intend to delve into Brazil’s modern urban history with the help of my advisor Dr. Joel Wolfe and the digital and public historians at UMass.

During my Masters studies, I studied the process of urban sprawl in the American South and the history of the Jim Crow Era in the United States. My work combined studies of race and public policy to demonstrate how racial oppression and urban transformations pushed an African-American community into an economic, social and cultural decline in Orlando, Florida. During my research, beyond working with libraries, history centers, and museums, I established a connection with the community that I studied by interviewing residents, and publicly presenting my final work there. The several informal conversations with inhabitants of the city helped me grasp the “common sense” narratives running nowadays in order to understand preliminary issues that I could research in the past. Listening and interpreting the interviews and cross-referencing them with historical data allowed me to build a cohesive narrative out of an understudied city such as Orlando. Although oral history appeared just as a short part of my thesis, it was relevant to sew the broad story of Parramore. In this sense, the community indirectly helped me crafting the narrative.

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.

Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

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Dan Allosso, Ph.D. Candidate, UMass History

I was too far away (northern Minnesota) to attend last week’s events, but communicating history to the general public is a topic that interests me, so I thought I’d share some recent experiences.

Before I entered grad school, I spent a couple of decades in the computer industry. My first experiences with the internet involved text-based services such as CompuServe and The Well. I’ve been on the sharp side of “disruption,” selling semiconductors for an industrial distributor paranoid about “disintermediation” and doing systems engineering for Silicon Graphics while their proprietary platform was being end-run by folks rendering movies like Shrek on Linux clusters. But mostly I’ve watched—and helped—people use technology to evade hierarchy and find their markets and affinity groups more easily and directly.

For a few, the web has meant new opportunities to earn a living. For most, it has been about the satisfaction of finding peers who share our enthusiasms and are interested in what we have to say. For others, it has brought a scary breakdown of traditional authority systems. For writers, web-based technology has created a new world of possibilities, but also a new set of frustrations. There are plenty of places on the web where aspiring authors can contribute content. Not as many where they can reap rewards beyond name-recognition for their efforts. And in many cases, the structures of the past continue to hang on, attempting to control credentials and access as they always have.

Whether or not you believe “information wants to be free,” it’s fair to say the broadband web creates opportunities to challenge the status quo. MOOCs have been poorly implemented in America, but look at FutureLearn in England! High school textbooks, the most influential interface between academic history and the general public, are a nightmare. This is certainly a place where a little disintermediation could go a long way. It’s also a place where the battle is often about ideology and always about big money (for publishers, not authors).

Of course, it’s much harder to self-publish and find readers for a new textbook than a new novel. I’ve been turning the American Environmental History course I’ve taught online for the last few years into a textbook, so I’ve had some conversations with librarians and teachers. My main interest is getting Environmental History in front of more people than the few dozen who might take an upper-level History elective at each of the minority of American colleges that actually offer a course. So, what’s the best way to do that? I went through the proposal process with Oxford. A split decision among the readers resulted in no contract, and I basically lack the patience to go through the process again and then wait an additional year for the book to be produced.

Cover of Dan Allosso's new textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

Cover of Dan Allosso’s textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

So I’ve gone ahead and put it out there on my own. There’s an eleven dollar print version on Amazon, and a free iBook version on the Apple store. The iBook interface allowed me to add a link to every image in the book, taking readers directly to more information or the source of the image. And to add videos explaining key ideas. And did I mention, it’s free?

It’s been interesting, working on version after version of this material over a period of years, trying to make it more relevant to readers’ lives and also more understandable and compelling. Since my goal is to attract the general public to Environmental History, style and tone are important concerns. But even more, I think writing for the general public revolves around the “so what?” Unlike academics, regular people don’t seek objectivity and neutrality in their history—and they generally don’t believe it when authors make the claim.

That doesn’t mean that accuracy and truthfulness fly out the window. But I think a substantial part of the reading public has a much better sense of narrative bias than we often suppose. Readers want authors to take a position, and they’re up to the challenge of evaluating it and deciding whether they agree. At least, a portion are. Some are going to stick with Bill O’Reilly’s and Glenn Beck’s type of history, and there’s nothing to be done.

So what happens if readers or high school teachers discover my free stuff out on the iBook store, or my free videos on Vimeo and YouTube? Have I made them interesting enough that people will watch, even if they aren’t required to, to get a grade? Will online teaching allow people to begin building their own portfolios of credentials and skills, bypassing the authority of degree-granting institutions? Will readers and viewers accept material produced by an ABD grad student rather than a famous authority or a team working under the Oxford or Pearson banner? Only time—and trial and error—will tell.

Editor’s Note: Visit Dan Allosso’s blog about environmental history at EnvHist.net