Expanding into Public Scholarship

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

By Jordan X. Evans

How can we as scholars, educators, and historians engage with students and the public in the age of “alternative facts” and constant funding cuts? This is of utmost importance to us at CMU because in April the University decided to cut nearly ten percent of the financial operating budget for the College of Humanities, Social & Behavioral Sciences. A recent article in The Chronicle by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” attempts to answer some of those questions. One of their suggestions was to become public historians: pull ourselves out of the archives, conferences, libraries, labs, and the historical jargon. Our history department has already started to engage in this through activities like Reacting to the Past. where students gain an appreciation for how complicated history is by placing themselves within a historical moment. Through the use of RTTP students also learn to critically think about historical events in a fun way. Teaching critical thinking skills in a game brings value to the students and our own classrooms.

However, this is one step; what are some other methods and activities we can do to reengage and fight against the world of alternative facts? Instead of engaging in a highly specialized field that is nearly inaccessible for the public, we as historians must become the defenders of truth, critical thinking, and history. If we take seriously Blain and Kendi's call to become public scholars, what might that look like?. Public scholars engage with people in unique ways, for example; giving public lectures, editing and creating blogs, and inventing interesting and different ways to publish scholarship. The focus is on accessibility, not demonstrating your impressive vocabulary. Can we as historians capitalize on alternative methods to combat alternative facts inside of and outside of the hallowed walls of our university?

On April 21, CMU hosted Dr. Ari Kelman as a speaker for our Blackburn Lecture series. During his time on campus he spoke about his new project with co-author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm the creation of a graphic novel called Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. The book tells the real history of the American Civil War in a graphic novel-style format – , full of pictures and simple language, it would be highly accessible to the public. Kelman’s project is following in the footsteps of the award winning graphic book series March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell,  which traces the history of John Lewis during his struggle in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. March exemplifies a singular narrative that traces one story, captured in a fun, easy, and insightful way. Following Kelman’s visit, the use of graphic novel style to bridge the academic and public worlds lingered on my mind. If we could incorporate them then how do we start creating work like that in our own classrooms?

Dr. Christopher Jones, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, answered that question by sharing a series of photographs on Twitter documenting his students unessays. An unessay is meant “to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity” (emphasis added). One picture is a collection of four paintings that depict “the near-erasure of all but white men from American history + efforts to correct that record”. A Landscape Management major “drew up ‘landscape blueprints’ to depict clash of cultures b[y] Powhatans and English in 17c Virginia”. Scholars should keep in mind that students working on their undergraduate degrees come to learn carrying their own unique talents and interests. Using unessays could be one way to keep them engaged in a class they may otherwise lose interest in. In addition, assigning work like this can challenge us as historians beyond the classroom to be more creative and make work like graphic histories.

As the country becomes ever more entrenched in a battle of facts and alternative facts it falls on us to remember our duty to engage and teach in ways that the public and undergraduates will value, understand, and share. Are we doing that effectively? If we cannot easily say yes, then what more can we do before this ten percent funding cut becomes twenty percent next year? Scholars must defend truth, critical thinking, and history, not just in our academic sphere but with the public as well, by using methods previously scoffed at before historians become a matter of history ourselves.