“smart” history

23 Jan

I am struggling with the concept of what makes “smart” public, academic and digital history as I am preparing my project for HIST 501 and doing the readings for DH class. Today, I was struck by the comparison to the automobile industry. In the early days of the automobile, there were gasoline powered cars and electric powered cars, and electric cars gained hegemonic power due. Due to infrastructure and utility issues, gasoline powered cars have dominated. Today, backers of the electric cars are pushing for a return to the electric car days, but are facing stiff resistance by the public and technology. Hybrid cars, also termed “smart cars,” are gaining in popularity because they combine some of the better features of the different engines.
While there are a number of projects that include a combination of digital, public or traditional history, many of these projects fall short of true integration. A “smart” usage, would employ the most effective tools of the different paradigms to embrace, what I would consider the goal of all history endeavors, evidenced based storytelling. I would offer that projects organized around rich description and analysis of individual people, termed “critical digital historical narratives” offer a “smart,” effective way to create this hybrid.

I recently read a book “British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution by Don Hagist that made me realize how powerful biography could be for a hybrid history storytelling model. Don uses the story of nine enlisted men in the British Army during the American Revolution to offer a new portrait of the men who served in the American Revolution. He starts each chapter with a portrait of the soldier that places the biography in common understandings of British army life, and then shows how the portrait complicates this understanding. In the footnotes, Hagist sites his own research showing how each individual man’s experience fits into larger patterns in the army. Each chapter has a pencil illustration showing an artist’s rendering of the soldier. The heart of the chapter is the man’s testimony, whether gallows confession or pension application, about his service. This section has detailed notes providing context for the military campaigns described or other information to assist the reader.

Don Hagist is not an “academic” historian, describing himself as “an independent historical researcher.” He is an engineer by day and history research by night. He is a Revolutionary War living historian, but his research has made him a popular lecturer. He runs a blog, where he shares his research on individual soldiers. His book, which came out in November 2012, has won popular praise, recently featured on Public Radio International’s The World and a noted selection of history book club and goodreads.com. These accounts do not site his lack of academic authority, and no scholarly reviews have been published. My own “academic” critique of the book would be that it sheds new light on British military history and suggests new avenues of research, though the footnotes would benefit from citations of existing scholarship on the British Army and not only citations from Hagist’s own work.

Biography is effective because it can show the interplay of historical forces in an individual life, but it could also work as an effective tool to personalize and organize digital narratives. Studies of public presentations of slavery have shown that biography is an effective way to “give a face” to the experiences of slavery in a way that audiences can accommodate with their own preconceptions of slavery. Innovative museums, such as Magnolia Hill Plantation in Louisiana, demonstrate that telling the story of an individual enslaved people has the power to engage the viewer while more effectively illustrating the experience on the plantation.

British Military history is not a generally an area of innovative historical research, mostly dominated by traditional studies of “bullets and bad guys.” Unlike the navy or the French Army, or the British commoners, the enlisted men of the British army have very little social history nor scholarship on their interactions on campaign with “colonists.” As traditional history, Hagist’s project is effective because it adds new information on the scholarship of British soldiers, particularly in the areas of punishment, reasons for enlistment, desertion and interaction with colonists. As digital history, Hagist does effective data-mining of British army records, particularly those from Chelsea hospital, and online presentation on the results and the resources would add considerably to the project. In terms of digital presentation, his profiles could work effectively on their own stories, the “critical editions” of the primary sources would work well on their own, and the data-mining projects would also work independently, or interconnected in a number of ways. His blog is an effective way to share his research on interesting soldiers that emerge in the course of his other research, allowing them to be published quickly and widely for scholars, living historians and the public at large. As Public History, Hagist actively engages the public’s stereotypes of the British Army weaving them into truly amazing tales that captivate the reader, and teach him a bit along the way.
I think that our “smart” history, might be described as a “critical digital historical narrative.” When researching this idea, “Doc. South” has an interesting article on “digital historical narratives” that focuses on their impact for teaching. This article emphasizes qualities of storytelling such as dramatic questions, point of view, Emotional content, Economy and pacing, and multimedia elements.

Though Hagist is quite tech savvy, there is not an integrated web presence of the type I am imagining for the project. Currently, there is a hard back book, which I ordered for our library, an electronic copy of the book with some hyperlinks, his blog and some online articles.


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