From the News column of the April 2007 Perspectives

History Graduate Students Hold Conference at University of Maryland

David M. Darlington, April 2007

On Friday, February 9, 2007, the History Graduate Students Association (HGSA) at the University of Maryland at College Park held its second annual graduate student history conference. This day-long event featured eight panels on a diverse array of topics and a keynote address on digital history by Roy Rosenzweig of the Center for History and New Media. All of the panelists were graduate students, with representatives from Brown University, Catholic University of America, the University of Connecticut, Florida State University, George Washington University, Marquette University, the University of Maryland at College Park, Mississippi State University, San Francisco State University, Temple University, and the University of Virginia. All the commentators, except one, were graduate students from Maryland. The conference was cosponsored by Maryland's Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies.

There were 27 panelists and commentators at this year's HGSA conference, according to conference director Gus Grissom. Grissom said he was surprised at the number of papers HGSA received—over 40—with abstracts coming in from graduate schools across the country and even one from overseas. They had to turn down a few because of lack of room. Though the conference did not have an organizing theme, Grissom said the papers logically arranged themselves as they came in. As a result, panels tended not to be arranged geographically but rather thematically. If transnational thematic history is the new trend in the field, it was clearly evident in College Park.

There were panels on sexuality and control of women's bodies, imperialism and control, nation building and myth-making, power, memory, religious identity, urban communities, and "the Other." As an example of this thematic arrangement, the "Nation Building and Myth-Making" session, which presented how nations use history to write their own national narratives, featured papers on divine nationalism in 19th-century central Europe, the use (and abuse) of Jefferson Davis in creating a post-Civil War Southern identity, and the birth of Chinese nationalism in response to the Japanese government's "21 Demands" in 1915. The theme of "Sexuality and the Control of Women's Bodies" had a similar international flavor. Two presenters looked at American topics, one on the meaning of nymphomania in the Victorian era and another on girls living in reform houses in the Progressive era, while another looked internationally at female physicians using the language of eugenics to achieve status in Weimar and Nazi Germany. Under the theme of "Managing Memory in North America," one presenter looked at how language and social movements in 1968 Mexico tried to incorporate memory of prior revolutionary acts into their social disobedience, while another looked at state records of how Virginia negotiated the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jamestown against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. The presentation on Mexico in 1968 was most enjoyable, as it incorporated multimedia—photographs and cartoons from contemporary Spanish-language magazines—while most just read their papers like at a typical academic conference.

Roy Rosenzweig, Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University, and the founder of the Center for History and New Media, delivered the conference's keynote address, "Toward a Democratic Digital Past: Prospects and Problems." Rosenzweig addressed the myriad ways in which new technology disrupts traditional techniques and methods in historical research, challenging historians to think about "why they do what they do." As such, Rosenzweig presented his vision for a "democratic digital history," featuring democratic content, democratic access, and democratic practice. By democratic content, Rosenzweig meant that multiple, common voices are heard in history, sometimes literally. He spoke of the Who Built America? series, which, in addition to being a traditional encyclopedia, features the oral histories of hundreds of regular people. He added that the web further democratizes content, because it allows people to contribute their own histories, at sites such as the 9/11 Digital Archive. Indeed, the web, because of its dynamic nature, might eventually make the static CD-ROM encyclopedias extinct.

By democratic access, Rosenzweig meant that with documents on the web, anyone can be a historian. There's no need to make it the all the way to an archive if documents are available on your home computer. Illustrating his point, Rosenzweig said that 9,000 people annually visit the Library of Congress reading rooms, but millions hit the reading rooms online. By democratic practice, Rosenzweig meant that new technology can make anyone a historian, even if they do not have approved "credentials." The web can make anyone a history writer, whether through digital memory banks like the 9/11 archive, or through contributions to encyclopedias like Wikipedia. Rosenzweig said the quality of the latter was "astonishingly good, in my opinion," reiterating the view that he had expressed in the article he wrote about the popular web site in the June 2006 Journal of American History.

But there are realist problems facing the democratic digital history dream. Regarding voices, Rosenzweig said that internet filtering and censorship is a big issue, especially in countries such as China, which places restrictions on search engines and web encyclopedias such as Google or Wikipedia. More subtly, the corporate money behind massive archives and encyclopedia projects can bring pressures on content generators to silence certain voices. Rosenzweig told a comical (in retrospect) story about how right-wing groups pressured Apple Computer to pull an early edition of the Who Built America? CD-ROM because it had an article about gay cowboys. Rosenzweig also referenced the infamous "digital divide," which, he said, does not just refer to the access side (poorer communities having less access to the web), but also to the content side. With giant corporations controlling the dissemination of information, how do historians make sure all information gets out and all voices are heard, Rosenzweig asked.

Digital history also raises the problems of accuracy and authenticity. Rosenzweig said, contending that while these problems are just as bad in print, the web made dissemination of frauds easier. "We've democratized the tools for creating fakes," he said. Fortunately, two developments may help to solve this problem. First, the "collective wisdom" of the web can help researchers separate the good from the bad, as good resources can be discerned via more refined search algorithms. To put in another way, the web may be right in aggregate, but wrong on specific pages, and the "right" answers can be forced to the top through better searches. Rosenzweig also saw nascent forms of peer review on the web. This exists on good research sites like World History Matters, in the blogosphere where writers fact-check each other, and in social bookmarking sites like http://del.icio.us/. Nascent peer review is also why Rosenzweig gave Wikipedia a passing grade. In the end, he encouraged the graduate students assembled to embrace open sources, saying the humanities lacks behind the sciences in that regard.

HGSA plans to hold another graduate student conference at Maryland during the 2007–08 academic year. Gus Grissom said that next year they plan to have a more distinct theme, but hopes that both the quantity and quality of papers continues to grow. For the list of papers presented at this year's conference, please see the HGSA blog at http://hgsaumd.wordpress.com/2007-hgsa-conference/.

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives.