Subjecting History: Launching a digital open review process
13 March 2013 – Zachary McKiernan
The recent [email protected] post postulating the importance of peer review and its possibilities in digital form challenges us to rethink more traditional methods of scholarly review. [email protected]’s inaugural year demonstrates that the uptick in attention to public history’s products and projects in academic, international, and other circles is pushing and pulling us in new directions. Some of these can be seen in/as a demand for speedier, more inclusive methods of subjecting our histories to broader audiences, a wider array of scholarly and professional disciplines, and the subjects of history themselves. We also see this push and pull in perceptions of NCPH’s conference and publications, where long-standing tensions around the balance between scholarship and practice, professionals and publics, continue to make themselves felt.
Coincidentally, late last year, my chapter proposal “Popular History Makers and Activist Tools: Public Memorials in a Post-Conflict Society” was accepted for an innovative project whose ultimate goals “are to enhance the democratization of knowledge through an open review process and to enrich teaching, research, methodology, and theory in the discipline of History by providing a forum that enables the thoughts and contributions of the wider public to have direct impact on the discipline of History.” Subjecting History: Building a Relationship between History and its Alternatives (Ohio University Press) utilizes a digital forum to subject contributors’ chapters to not only peer review but, of equal importance, the public writ large. Co-editor and historian Trevor R. Getz submits that, “By implementing a digital platform that enables an open review process and inviting comments and discussion from the general public, we are experimenting in making history the subject of popular gaze, rather than the other way around.”
Lured by Subjecting History’s public nature and potential to expand on diverse and international notions of pubic history, I believed my own experience in Chile and as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara (where I am lucky enough to work with Randy Bergstrom as my advisor) could help shed light on potential answers to the project’s three motivating questions:
- How well does academic scholarship represent the past?
- Does it align or conflict with nonacademic ways of understanding the past?
- What are ways that academic scholarship can better represent the past without appearing to ignore interpretations that run counter to it?
That these questions may look familiar to public historians isn’t a surprise so much as it is a call to move outside of our discipline and practice to enter into dialogue with and learn from others interested in it. Even a cursory glance at Subjecting History’s contents conveys the pervasiveness or, better, applicability of public history, its methodology, diverse interpretations and definitions, and the like. Bill Cummings’ entertaining analysis of Go Tell the Spartans (1978) is an attempt to invite broader interpretive possibilities and historical comparisons that written histories sometimes write off. Sarah Crabtree’s “Remembering Cowardice?: Public History, Pacifism, and the American Revolution” is an excellent piece that uncovers the problems of “partial (and partial) representation” at a Philadelphia historic site and its implications for notions of citizenship and civic engagement. My own chapter explores a special type of popular historical production and consciousness at public sites of memory and conscience in the wake of human rights violations in Chile, concluding that a smart way to understand non-academic/professional historical proclivities is to take part in them.
What makes Subjecting History particularly unique, of course, is the digital open review process that Cathy and Adina challenged us to think about in their post. The format, in a nutshell, makes the contributors’ chapters the subject of public gaze and comment for a period of five months. Authors and editors then provide a follow-up piece based on these comments. Then the chapters and public comments go to print. Voilà! An innovative attempt to draw the public into conversation with historians and scholars via a digital forum.
~ Zachary McKiernan
For a previous project utilizing this platform and method of open peer review, see Writing History in the Digital Age (Jack Doughtery and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds., University of Michigan Press, 2012).