Subjecting History: Launching a digital open review process

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magnifying-glassThe 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] 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.”

subjecting-historyLured 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).

  1. Linda Shopes says:

    I’d be curious to know how the public – or specific segments of it – learned about this project, how their involvement was solicited and encouraged, and,in general, the nature of their comments. In other words, how this innovative project worked in practice.

  2. The emperor has no clothes. I love History at Work, and I don’t mean to spoil the feel-good digital party here. Really. (Those who know me, know I’m a televangelist for the Digital Revolution, so sometimes, perhaps, I bring our efforts under closer scrutiny, I suppose.) But, really the claims to”open review process” for this volume don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. And, the project claims to be “public” engagement, which I didn’t see that either (a question Linda has beat me to asking!)

    Here is the story, as I understanding it from reviewing Subjecting History: Seventeen scholars respond to a call for proposals. Some (all?) are accepted, apparently. (Are any rejected?) There is no evidence of review, review criteria, winnowing, or exploration of the volume’s potential content prior to acceptance. In other words, it is a garden-variety essay collection. I have no problems with this aspect of the book, to be published by Ohio State University Press.

    But, the book claims to be an “open review process.” What this appears to mean is that we are entitled to review the essays and comment, prior to publication but not as a condition of publication. This is not quite “review.” I presumed that I’d see something in the open about how the evolved. There is no indication as to how comments before/during/after solicitation would/will shape the essays on their eventual publication. Moreover, to date, there are handful of comments there, but nothing incisive or from others outside the volume. As far as I can tell, none of the comments engage the material as a peer reviewer might.

    Likewise, there is no evidence, that I can see, of “public” engagement. I don’t see “public” (apparently defined here as non-academic) participation in review for acceptance or in comments on the site. I see a general statement about reaching out to interested constituencies and public audiences that might be interested in engaging the essays. I find this statement unsatisfying. Public historians, in our reviews of grants or such public projects or publications, would ask not just whether you were going to do such outreach (it’s obvious that it’s necessary) but *how* you would do it and *how* you would make such outreach successful. Doing outreach to public audiences is hard work.

    I also don’t see how this volume presents material in a fashion that the “public” might actually engage. Really, public historians have taught us a great deal about the complexities involved in engaging the public. Writing words on a page and asking people to respond directly to those words is hardly public engagement, whether it is done digitally, on exhibit labels, or in a book. What would I like to see? How about alternative visions for “public history,” outside the text? How about solicitations of particular publics that might engage the essays through planned partnerships? I don’t see I don’t see how the “public” is engaged. Also, btw, I’d like to see some analytics about audience?

    I want to be clear here that I applaud such attempts. In fact, I think everyone should go over and comment on “Subjecting History.” But, I’m not sure that comments can improve a project that does not seem to emphasize open review at its core. Indeed, what makes the work Jack Doughtery and Kristen Nawrotzki, Writing History in the Digital Age, so interesting was the process. The strength of Writing History in the Digital Age was that the project evolved, grew, and morphed through an open scholarly process. This not only met the goals of openness. It also met the goals of review. And, finally as a result, it offered an alternative to peer review that is quite substantive. Indeed, it involved lots of participation, both inside and outside the project. It is a model. We should strive for it.

    We should strive for it, because there is very much at stake. Surely, we need to find ways of publishing material, openly and with review, both to improve the process but also so that digital scholarship become more deeply part of the scholarly review process. Ironically, this last statement validates old-fashioned academic standards that are increasingly antiquated by the digital age, and perhaps won’t survive another generation. And, of course, peer review is often (though not always) a sham embedded in 19th-century scientific practice, so I am not sure we should even see it as a gold standard. Indeed, I like the goals–whether met or unmet–of an open review process because it important for scholars–public historians and more traditional research historians–to connect with the public beyond the ivory tower. Our failures or successes in this regard are critical to the broader shape of civic society, which historical interpretation shapes in significant ways.

    Which brings me to my final point. There is a claim here 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.” If (as I’ve said) I don’t see the first part of this claim, I surely don’t see the second part. Isn’t “history” already “the subject of popular gaze?”

    Really, heritage tourism is a global industry measured in trillions of dollars. History abounds in multiple media forms and is avidly consumed. History is actively debated in our civil and political culture. Elsewhere the volume proclaims that the term subject is also used because the volume seeks to “put History somewhat under the power of the public.” Commenting on scholarly essays, without any real say over their publication accomplishes neither of these tasks.

    And, incidentally, I would suggest that history is already fully “under the power of the public.” As public historians (actually as historians–is there really a distinction?) one of our great challenges is to engage, challenge, interpret, and re-frame understandings of a past that is surely outside our limited power.

    Note: I blogged this over at urbanhumanist: Why Open Review Matters (

    1. Trevor Getz says:

      Mark’s comments (and Linda’s questions) certainly deserve some response — and I do want to say these kinds of questions are welcome on the Subjecting Histories website as well.

      I am an historian. I’m not a digital humanities expert in any way. Nor do I consider myself a “public historian” per se. Yet like a number of historians, especially those trained in traditional ways like myself, I see History (the discipline) as having forms that are not in fact open to the public. It’s important that we distinguish disciplinary history here from popular ways of knowing the past, since the discipline so distinguishes itself (whether that is epistemologically accurate or not). History is not the same as heritage, is not subject to the same public pressures…. but rather to the peer review system, to internal structural rules of the review essay & monograph etc. nor is public History in quite the same position as academic History in this regard. If I believed that before this process, I believe it even more having read the articles of the contributors. So no, I do not agree that (academic) History is already subject to the public gaze (in the way that public histories, heritage, and lore are, for example).

      My second response is that I entirely agree with Mark about the long-term goals of this kind of project — to devise ways to create the kinds of public-academic partnerships that take quite a lot of thinking. However, I do think his post contains an unfortunate undertone of assumptions… he seems to know answers already to questions that we, the editors, don’t know. We don’t know yet who well respond to our public outreach campaign — the papers only went live yesterday. However, the responses by a user-public to at least one of the papers is already very interesting, and the authors are unfolding their outreach for the other papers. The editors are also going to be using media to reach out in the coming days. In other words, we don’t make assumptions as to the degree to which this will work yet.

      I think Mark has missed the fact that the “public” — i.e. those outside of academia — are already present in most chapters prior to the review process. If he were to read the articles, he would see that most are topically about productions of the past that in the first instance were created by non-academics: activists, elders, movie-makers, worker-archivists, politicians, what-have-you. Having the public return later in a second incarnation — by contributing to the essay may not create perfect equality between the historian/scholar and the public in terms of power in knowledge production, but it’s an experiment in that direction. Nor do we know that the outcome we want is perfect equity — the importance of the critical role of the scholar remains… it has not been resolved…. and this project asks but does not answer the question of where the line should be drawn.

      Moreover, even where public response to chapters in this volume is muted, I don’t think that this makes it a “garden-variety essay collection”. What it is, instead, is an attempt to ask scholars to write about public-academic interfaces, and then to ask the public to interpose themselves in the process, and then to ask the scholars to reflect on how that changed their understanding.

      In short, Mark’s points are well-taken, and certainly contribute in the long-run to more and more interesting possibilities. However, the critique is not entirely correct because (1) it presumes a closer History-public relationship than exists in the case of academic Histories, (2) it ignores the originating role of the public in the histories (not sources) being studied by the scholars, and (3) it prejudges the efficacy of the public comments, which none of us can know. I think anyone who actually reads these chapters will see the first two and will hopefully reserve judgement on the third until the project is well underway.

  3. zach says:

    When I put together the outreach plan required of SH’s contributors, [email protected] took the top spot. I couldn’t think of a better place to help raise awareness of and promote open lines of communication between SH and a whole host of historians, public and otherwise, who might take interest in such a project. I, like Mark, love [email protected]

    Given the comments and questions generated by this post, reaching out to the public history community has, it appears, already proven productive. That is, this maybe representative of how outreach “works.” So, I say thanks to Linda and Mark and Trevor in his response to both for starting, if not advancing, the kind of conversation I think we need to be having as we are pushed/pulled in new digital directions; and I offer another thanks in advance to all of those who heed Trevor, Mark, and my recommendation of visiting, reading, and commenting on SH.

    As such, subjecting SH and similar projects (are there even that many?) to the scrutiny of [email protected] smart readership might offer one answer/aspect to the question of how outreach might be done (successfully!?!? remains to be seen), especially because outreach methods/modes of engagement are dependent on specific project objectives and goals and, therefore, do not easily satisfy everybody’s definitions or criteria. But if raising awareness and opening lines of communication between stake-holders and communities are basic outreach aims, then [email protected] seems a great place to start such efforts.

    Concerning review: as far as I know, it is true that public/open review wasn’t part of the chapter selection process. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the chapters produced by professional/Ph.D. historians and scholars (in fact, as a graduate student I might be pulling up the rear of this accomplished group) are, in fact, open to public gaze, comment, and critique. Again, I find this unique because, as Trevor points out, it gives the public an opportunity to “interpose themselves in the process” and, in effect, challenge and change our academic “sensibilities” and interpretations and the like.

    Furthermore, I was incredibly conscious of this as I produced the chapter, that it’s potential to be read by the people I write for and about was very consequential and maybe even more powerful than when I have produced scholarly work for more traditional academic audiences. So, even in producing the chapter, the public review process or “public presence” that was on the horizon played a major role, notwithstanding the “public presence” in the work itself.

    (Also, it must be noted, that SH’s editors challenged the authors to write in a language accessible to broader audiences. Admittedly, I personally don’t think I fully achieved this. My own self-critique, then, is that in keeping with academic standards, I sense that I might almost automatically alienate some members of the audience I hope to engage. And this is a major problem).

    That most of the chapters in this volume have popular historical production, work, and consciousness at their core (which, really, gave rise to SH re: scholarly historical work as a result or consequence of its popular counterpart), complemented by the fact that an inverted gaze (hey, not to “other-ize”: but if we as historians and scholars exercise ‘academic freedom’ to study/analyze/comment on/write about, etc. popular, non-scholarly (historic) work and audiences as/in History, why shouldn’t there be space for an inversion of that?), at least in my case, affected the production itself, makes SH in my humble opinion not only an experiment (which it claims to be, and nothing more) but an already positive experience where public involvement, no matter how major or minor, in tangible and also intangible/unintentional/unexpected ways, affects scholarship.

    And that’s a good thing.

  4. adina says:

    This lively debate has certainly made me eager to read and comment upon the Subjecting History essays. As an editor at [email protected], this is exactly the kind of response to posts that we’re hoping to encourage!

    Thinking about the kind of commenting and response discussed above, I wonder how best to encourage reviewers, no matter their background, to engage a “deep archive” of information and experience (both personal and collective) when writing comments. I think what many fear about public comment is a potential for “uninformed” response. What role should citations play in review and commentary? What would be considered a valid citation when making a claim in a review? And if there is no citation, should it be assumed that a critique is an entirely personal opinion? Reading public comments on newspaper, magazine, and journal websites, from the New York Times to Inside Higher Ed, raises a lot of questions for me about comment validity.

    Sometimes I think that the whole social purpose of academics and professionalization is to produce a kind of “vetted” group with an understood knowledge base. This forms the basis of traditional peer review. Is this a valid endeavor? And if not, how do we weigh one person’s critical opinion against another’s?

  5. zach says:

    Hi Adina! Thanks for this. Sometimes I also think: the whole social purpose of academics and professionalization is to produce a kind of “vetted” group with an understood knowledge base. Likewise, I understand the “fear factor” of uninformed responses. But at the same time, I for one gladly welcome any and all responses, “uninformed” and otherwise. I think we can glean great insight from feedback of any kind. So, even if comments come from the “uninformed” field, there is value and historical perspective to be had. It is our job to interpret these comments (and non-comments), whether in a substantive sense or in a sense of the commenting/review act itself or what have you.

    For me the SH project makes me ask: What are we doing with our scholarship? And how are we using it? Who is it for?

    I think projects like SH are great simply because they’re making scholarship more accessible while also forcing authors (as academics) to conduct outreach re: consciously engage the public. That is, the scholarly work in the form of chapters represents only one part of the process. Another part means moving perhaps outside of our comfort zones, finding public audiences who might be receptive to this work, and engaging others who have professional experience with it.

    Open-internet/public review projects change the relationship between the public and scholarly source where anybody (and I mean anybody) can comment on, for example, Subjecting History’s scholarly work. Who we write for and who reads and has access to what we write has important implications for the practice, pursuit, and production of History.

    I can’t help but to imagine (and, yes!, it is okay to imagine and hope) who might potentially read SH’s professional work; people who under more conventional constraints might not have access, time, affiliation, etc.: journalists, policy-makers, community leaders, museum directors, etc.

    So, not to take too much attention from “deep archive” reviewing and commenting, my take away question has much to with a comment made by a dissertation advisor: “Why ‘create knowledge’ if you’re not going to share it?”

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