Lynn Hunt on Why History Matters Now More Than Ever: An Enthusiastically Biased Report

by Dr. Gregory Smith

When I volunteered to write a brief report on Lynn Hunt’s keynote address for the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, I knew enough to expect a tour de force. (Anyone who has encountered Professor Hunt’s work has learned to expect tours de force.) But it was only in the days leading up to the conference, when I finally got a chance to finish her excellent book History: Why It Matters (Polity Press, 2018), that I started to suspect her talk might upend my other expectations.

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Frankly, I was expecting a jeremiad. When I see a title like “Why History Matters” I expect to hear something like the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to take courage in the face of (1) a gathering storm where our words will likely be ignored, effaced, or taken out of context; and/or (2) a world of declining history enrollments, where people equate a liberal arts degree with un(der)employment or “useless” skills, no matter how often and loudly we cite decisive evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for those of us present and for readers of this post, Professor Hunt’s address was emphatically not a jeremiad. Instead she argued persuasively that historians make a demonstrable difference, that the world (our world) is in no more danger of ending than it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, and that we should not give up on interpretation or epistemological self-scrutiny in the face of “alternative facts.” “Why History Matters Now More Than Ever” also featured a brilliant thumbnail sketch of postmodern theory – the kind of perfectly distilled summary that makes graduate students wonder why their teachers didn’t just say so in the first place —- and closed with an exemplary Q and A. Current and future professionals take note: this is how to do it.

On the major point, Professor Hunt reminded us that history matters because ordinary people listen and respond to how historians interpret the past. No, seriously, they really do! The last few decades have witnessed wide-ranging and non-trivial changes to the way Civil War history is taught in American schools, for example, even in those states where “revisionist” history textbooks were most resisted in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] There are many reasons not to be satisfied with the status quo, but in the midst of culture wars and literal wars it is easy to forget that professional historians have made a lasting difference. Crucial claims that used to be “controversial,” such as the role of slavery as primary cause of the Civil War, have become commonplace. Inclined to focus on how long it took, historians often underplay the more important fact that it happened in the first place.

In the aftermath (or in the midst) of “post-truth,” historians might also be tempted to give up on the critical self-evaluation that has always been a feature of the best sort of history. After all, isn’t postmodernism at least partially to blame for the rise of alternative facts, echo chambers, and the legitimizing of conspiracy theory?[2] Some might go farther still and eschew interpretation (at least temporarily) in favor of establishing “what actually happened”: historians as fact-checkers awarding Pinocchios. To all this Professor Hunt says “no.” It is the wrong response, and a self-defeating one. Facts are important, and historians know what to do to establish and debate the basic evidence. But interpretation remains central to the enterprise. Particular interpretations can be more or less persuasive than others, and we can still have meaningful debates that are not reducible to power-plays, aesthetic taste, or individual whim.

Another cause for cheer, and re-evaluation: Professor Hunt observed that public interest in history is as high as it has ever been. History museums, sites, parks, television – all are being consumed in numbers that present a bracing contrast to recent declines in history majors. Among other lessons is the fact that people who want history will get it from somewhere: professional historians ought to be playing an instrumental role in answering the demand.

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

I, for one, was convinced on almost every point. (I am not sure I quite share Professor Hunt’s long and broadly optimistic view on social media. She thinks it need not be any more negatively disruptive than other revolutions in the history of human communication, whereas I suspect that the invention of writing and printing are as different as they are similar to the sudden concentration of knowledge, power, wealth, and proprietary algorithms in the hands of an extraordinarily small set of people in California and Washington.)

But the best final summary and recommendation I can make, for those who were present and those who couldn’t make the talk, is to read History: Why It Matters. To list all the things I love about this book would be to write another blog post (or ten), but I cannot endorse heartily enough its observations about the universality of history-writing (pp. 48–52), its warning that “one day our histories will look just as incomplete” as the older work whose limitations we so often (and rightly) challenge (p. 55), its warnings against “presentism” (p. 111), and a set of almost-final words that reflect my own understanding and experience of history as well as anything I have ever read: “What do we learn from the past? For me, it is above all else respect for those who came before us” (p. 112).

  1. Jacey Fortin, “Texas Students Will Now Learn That Slavery Was ‘Central’ to the Civil War,” New York Times, November 21, 2018.

  2. Among many possibilities, see Matt McManus, “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” Quillette, May 17, 2018; Carole Cadwalladr, “Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’,” The Guardian, February 12, 2017; and a rejoinder by Aaron Hanlon, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.” Washington Post, August 31, 2018.

IGHS Conference Recap

by Erik Noren

As a former graduate student at Central Michigan University, and current PhD candidate at Wayne State University, I was recently invited by the leadership of the International Graduate Historical Studies Conference to come up to CMU to serve as a commentator. It was an honor to be given this responsibility, and I also learned a great deal from the panels during my stay. 

Acting as commentator on a conference panel was quite the learning experience. Just as a teacher learns their subject material far better after teaching, one also learns much more about a paper after engaging with it critically. I enjoyed hearing the presentations by Julianne and Kristian at my panel, but reading their papers beforehand had given me a better grounding in their respective subjects. Julianne’s presentation on the Ford Administration’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s was very intriguing, discussing it through the lens of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and international economics. Kristian’s work explored the history of the Equity, a farmer’s union that formed in 1902 and helped pave the way for larger organizations to follow. In both cases I couldn’t be a passive member of the audience, but instead had to constantly follow the material. Even if the criticism towards a paper is minor, writing comments can be quite challenging.

Thankfully, my visit did not stop at providing comments. Instead, I was able to attend other sessions and learn from those other panels. Following that, I was able to reconnect with several familiar faces. It had been a couple years since I had spoken at the IGHS conference and it was good to be back. My earlier time at CMU was a significant period in my development as a historian. I earned my MA in History here back in December 2014. Walking through those familiar halls brought back old memories. Some of those memories included my time as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Dr. Donohue, the informative classes I took with Dr. Euler, Dr. Harsanyi and many others, and also the great conversations I had with my fellow colleagues. Even though some of my old colleagues were not on campus that day, it was good to meet up with some of the current graduate students in the department and learn about their interests.

Another part of the conference that is definitely worth highlighting was Dr. Lynn Hunt’s keynote address. Her examination of the recent role of social media was very interesting. In many cases it resonated with her previous work Writing History in the Global Era, in which she stipulated that writing history from below requires a familiarity with how people think and act. Even though I was not able to talk to her for very long, I still enjoyed meeting such a fantastic scholar in person. In my own classes I have often used the short Bedford books as useful ways to introduce students to primary sources, and Dr. Hunt is at the top of the series’ advisory editors. To conclude, I found my short visit back to CMU for the IGHS conference to be both eventful and rewarding. I hope in the future to be able to return to the conference as a commentator or presenter. The scholarship in my panels was top-notch, and I look forward to seeing more good work in the future.

You are cordially invited to: The International Graduate Historical Studies Conference 2019

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by Amy Greer

It is that time of year again. The beginning of a new semester brings the joys of course work, deadlines, and, for many of us, teaching and the mountain of grading we sleep under every night in our office. Despite this, I am here to tell you about something that could be a promising addition to your calendars, that I am sure are beginning to fill up (if they aren’t already). What is this promising addition you ask? It is the opportunity to present at our annual International Graduate Historical Studies Conference (IGHSC), taking place on the 29th and 30th March 2019! Our conference this year, “Transcending Boundaries,” welcomes graduate students from across the social sciences and the humanities to submit proposals that apply interdisciplinary or transnational approaches, all within a grounding of original research. Last year, graduate students from five different countries presented fascinating research analyzing a wide variety of areas and fields, including painted illustrations in Medieval Islamic Cartography, language migration, and masculinity’s link to the failure of soccer in California, just to name a few. 

Our conference, held here at Central Michigan University, is unique, and for many reasons it is not difficult to understand the longevity of the annual event. The IGHSC is a realistic and well-rounded professional experience. Unlike many graduate conferences, it is a full two-day event with panels that are commented and chaired by a historian of the field, as well as the chance to network and socialize (and of course the most important part, eat lots of food), as our event has professional development experiences built in. You will leave our campus with real experience of what it is like to present your research at a professional historical conference, as well as detailed comments on how to further build upon your research. Panels are open and free to the public, so even if you do not wish to apply, come and engage with exciting historical research. Social lunches, dinners and receptions are also open to non-presenters for a fee at the door. Details of these events will be in our program, which will become available in the weeks prior to the conference.

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Every year we invite a historian to present the keynote speech, and this year we have the honor of hosting an early modern European historian, Dr. Lynn Hunt, author most recently of The French Revolution and Napoleon: Crucible of the Modern World (2017) and History: Why it Matters (2018). Professor Hunt currently teaches at UCLA and her keynote will address ‘Why History Matters.’ For more information on Dr. Hunt or for information on how you can contact her, please visit http://www.history.ucla.edu/faculty/lynn-hunt. If you would like to hear the answer to the question of why history matters, and enjoy a weekend in the beautiful Mount Pleasant, then please send an abstract and apply by February 3rd, 2019. More information can be found on www.ighsc.info. We look forward to seeing you there!

Adventures and Conferences

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By Marcel Haas

If you ever wondered whether immersing yourself fully into academia is a good idea, this week’s post has some ideas that might convince you to do so. Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy going to conferences. Think about the fact that the university allows you to go on a short holiday where you meet some interesting people, make great new friends (who can also be quite influential and helpful), and all you have to do is give a short presentation and listen to why people think that you should use different sources. Conferences become even more enticing when they are held in a different country than the one in which you are currently working. In my case, that foreign country was Mexico, and that conference the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (of which I am a shiny new member). 

Right away, I felt the rush of oncoming adventure when my plane touched down on the runway of Oaxaca’s Xococotn Airport and I emerged into October’s tropical heat. The conference took place in a comfortable hotel a little outside the city center, which commanded a magnificent view of the valley. Oaxaca is an incredibly beautiful place that boasts architecture from the Spanish colonial era as well as modern art, markets, and restaurants that overlook the tremendous sight of ancient Monte Alban. The latter truly feels like the city of the gods it was meant to resemble. Built entirely upon the peak of the central mountain of the valley (which had been razed to create a massive plateau), it surely takes its place besides Mexico’s other archaeological highlights such as Teotihuacan and Palenque.

As a center of art, culture, and history, Oaxaca was the ideal place for a very special conference. The Society for Ethnohistory is generally focused on examining the history of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but more specifically highlights the agency and achievements of Indigenous people in interaction with the colonizing Europeans (the latter part is mostly due to the source availability of course). In South Mexico, this focus allowed conference attendees to experience the region’s history while presenting their new research on exactly that. Coupled with the brilliant organization by the colleagues of UNAM and Oaxaca, the proximity to world-renowned archaeological sites (apart from Monte Alban, also the fascinating former Zapotec city Mitla is only a short cab ride away) made the conference week very special.

Besides its historic relevance and culinary excellence, it seemed to me that Oaxaca (and Mexico specifically) had also been chosen as a political statement in the face of increasing xenophobia in the United States. The choice reaffirmed the close connection of the Society with Mexico (especially considering that the “American” in its title does not simply refer to the US!), and the importance of Mesoamerica for the study of Indigenous peoples and the history of the continent. Importantly, a fiery speech by the outgoing president of the Society, Matthew Restall, emphasized the need for empathy for the suffering of other people, especially Indigenous women who have been the target of violence for centuries. 

After five days of talks, presentations, round tables, receptions, and late-night chats, the conference came to an end. Exhausted, amazed, laden with ideas and photographs, I finally made my way back to Michigan. The week in Oaxaca had been special, but also a perfect example of the experience we as graduate students, early career researchers, and even established scholars can have at one of the many conferences throughout the academic year. Alright, why aren’t you applying yet?

 Oaxaca, 2018

Do You Think You Have What It Takes to Organize a Conference?

By Julianne Haefner

With the end of this year’s International Graduate Historical Studies Conference also comes the end of my tenure as conference coordinator. In the following post I am going to take you through my work as the coordinator. My main job description would probably be: make sure everything runs smoothly, and in the process write lots and lots of e-mails. These past two years have been a great experience in which I have learned organizational, multi-tasking, and problem-solving skills. Who knew that in this process I would also learn which countries require a visa to enter the U.S.? Or that the university does not allow the use of confetti in its event space?

The preparation for each year’s conference begins in the fall of the preceding year. Since our conference is an international one, the call for papers goes out both internally and externally: it gets sent to some of Central Michigan University’s departments and to universities all across the globe. In the weeks before the submission deadline I monitored the e-mail address, acknowledged the receipt of the abstracts, and informed the potential presenter of their acceptance to the conference. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work as the coordinator has been reading all the abstracts. It is absolutely fascinating to see what other graduate students work on.  This ranges from studying Scottish razor gangs in Glasgow, to examining painted illustrations in Medieval Islamic Cartography, or studying female high school students’ activism in a New Jersey community.

Once the final submission has passed, the real work begins. One of the biggest challenges at this point is putting together the panels. Each panel has three presenters and a common theme, a geographic area, or time period. Some panels are a natural fit. Others are more difficult to group together and it takes some creativity to come up with a connection. After the panels are put together the conference director e-mails potential commenters and chairs. Commenters are from outside universities and provide valuable feedback for the presenters. Presenters in the past have often commented on how helpful the commenter’s feedback was for taking their work to the next level.  In addition, each panel has a chair. Chairs introduce the presenters and commenters, and have the hard but fundamental role to keep track of the time so that at the end of the presentations there is time for questions from and discussion with the audience.

As the conference comes close much of much work is to advertise it: send out the program to various departments, make sure all outside presenters and commenters are aware of the parking situation on campus, and answer any questions about transportation to and from Mount Pleasant. Especially in the last weeks before the conference, all members of the organization team come together to make sure it runs smoothly: the conference director, catering, the office staff who puts together the program and the conference folders, and graduate and faculty judges who read the papers for the awards. And it is at this stage that having rigorous organizational skills becomes a must. Indeed, being able to keep track of all the several things going on and of all the individuals involved so that everything runs smoothly requires good managerial and problem-solving abilities.

However, it is only after a lot of work behind the scenes that my favorite part of being the coordinator finally comes: meeting everyone on the days of the conference. After e-mailing with many of these people for months, it is a pleasure to finally meet them in person and get to know them. Graduate students from all walks of life, different nationalities, and specialties come together – and the one thing they all have in common is a passion for history. The days of the conference are usually the first time to take a deep breath. On the days of the conference most of my work was technology-related. However well prepared one is, technology also has its own will. (My best advice for that always is: Have you tried turning it off and on again?) Other than that the conference coordinator also gets to listen to the presenters, attend the keynote, and of course enjoy the conference dinner and luncheon.

At this point I would also like to thank everyone involved in the conference: from the conference director, to the History Department’s Office, catering, University Events, and members of the History Department. They all make it possible that the conference runs so smoothly. This year has been my final year as the conference coordinator. I am taking with me a range of skills: organization, time management, problem-solving, and the ability to multi-task. While I have enjoyed this learning experience, I am also looking forward to once again being a presenter at the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, and I know that I won’t be bringing confetti to my presentation.

For more information regarding past conferences, please visit: http://ighsc.info/


Julianne Haefner is a German-American doctoral student. Her main research interests include the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Ford Presidency, and diplomatic history in general. She has been a CMU squirrel enthusiast ever since arriving on campus.

What Makes the IGHSC a Great Conference

Presenters and people attending the panel titled "When Faiths Collide: Religion and Power in South and East Asia." Photo Credit: Julianne Haefner.

Presenters and people attending the panel titled "When Faiths Collide: Religion and Power in South and East Asia." Photo Credit: Julianne Haefner.

By Jason Romisher, Simon Fraser University.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2018 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference (IGHSC) at Central Michigan University.  I returned to Central Michigan after attending the 2017 Conference because of how well organized it was, the quality of the presentations, an amazing keynote speaker, and an expert discussant who provided me with invaluable feedback that significantly improved the historiography section of my thesis.  Once again, the 2018 conference did not disappoint.  Julianne Haefner was the conference organizer for the last two years, and she did a great job of ensuring that the conference is organized and that everyone has their needs and concerns addressed.  Last year she picked me up from the airport and this year the conference provided shuttle service from the hotel to the conference and to social events off campus.  This year’s conference took place over two days and included eleven total panels. 

The keynote speaker was Dr. Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Chair in American History at the University of Virginia.  Dr. Taylor had an excellent lecture that challenged a lot of my understandings of the War of 1812.  As a Canadian, I very much appreciated learning about a war that is a major part of Canadian historiography.  Dr. Taylor’s presentation asked us to reconsider the War of 1812 as a larger series of conflicts that he described as the War of the 1810s.  He argued that the central goal of the United States at this time was not the invasion and conquest of the British colonies of Canada but rather, the neutralization and elimination of the alliances between the British, Spanish, and Native Americans.  I very much enjoyed chatting with Dr. Taylor at the evening social.  It was an incredible honor to have a light-hearted conversation with a historian with not one but two Pulitzer Prizes.

The quality of the conference panels and the way they were thematically organized was quite strong.  Furthermore, Central Michigan has a rich diversity of scholars because of their efforts to internationalize the program.  CMU has international students from among other places - Italy, Germany, and Scotland.  Some of the students have moved from an MA program at a university in Europe to full-time study at CMU at the PhD level.  Scholars attending the conference also came from Great Britain, the Czech Republic, France, and Canada.  From the United States, there were presenters from various schools in Michigan as well as from Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, Washington D.C., California, New York, and West Virginia.  The presentations included several fascinating examples of new and emerging research covering topics such as 20th century international peace activism, a framework for understanding Armenian Genocide denial, the trial and execution of a twenty-two year old female German concentration camp guard, painted illustrations in medieval Islamic cartography, war and slavery in comics, Scottish razor gangs, and the imprisonment of homosexuals at Alcatraz. I have been to several conferences where there is a chair and no discussant.  CMU ensures that each panel has an expert in the field who reads each paper and provides detailed feedback. Many of the discussants also come from outside CMU because of the many universities and colleges in Michigan.   I was very happy to have a gender historian not only give me feedback on my paper but detailed edits.      

The international nature of the conference really allows for scholars to connect from different universities, nations, and cultures.  I very much appreciated the conversations and social atmosphere of the conference.  I enjoyed hearing stories about the revival of squirrels using CPR, what it is like to walk the streets of Jerusalem, the location of a Santa Claus training academy in nearby Midland, Michigan, and the thrill and connection to culture and community when hiking a Scottish mountain and playing bagpipes from the summit.  I also enjoyed finding hiking enthusiasts and sharing with them the glory of Canada’s National Parks. 

The conference included some excellent perks and amenities.  For example, it gives out an array of awards including: the President’s Award for best paper, Best CMU Graduate Paper, Best Paper by a Non-CMU Student, Best Paper in Transnational History, Best Undergraduate Paper, and the Women and Gender Studies Program Award.  The conference also included a catered dinner on the first night, an open bar social with hors d'oeuvres, and a catered lunch on the second day with different meal and dessert options.  The university itself is modern with new buildings and is a state of the art facility.

I have been to nine conferences the last two years at seven universities, and the IGHSC has been the best experience of all of them for the reasons mentioned above.  I am already looking forward to next year’s conference!


Jason Romisher recently completed an MA in History at Simon Fraser University.  He also holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree from Queen’s University (Kingston, ON) and a Bachelor of Education Degree from Lakehead University. Jason spent the summer of 2016 doing extensive historical research in the New Jersey area as part of his MA thesis entitled: “Youth Activism and the Black Freedom Struggle in Lawnside, New Jersey.” He is currently a secondary school teacher in Ontario with sixteen years of teaching experience.  Jason’s non-academic interests include: birding, photography, backcountry hiking, and athletics. 

Attending Conferences: Tips for Grad Students to Maximize Opportunity

By David Papendorf

As many graduate students know, conference activity is both important professional experience and vital for being seen in your scholarly community. But, for graduate students, conferences are big, expensive, and inconvenient trips that can mess with deadlines.  However, I want to encourage students (myself included) to continue to press on and attend conferences.  Based on my experiences – both good and bad – I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions:

First, continue to take initiative.  Look for conferences year-round.  For my field, often some of the smaller conferences will take place during the second semester.  Though attracting fewer presenters, the smaller community gives you an opportunity to speak with more scholars in a more meaningful and substantial way. My suggestion is to spend some time looking around online for conferences.  Start with the journals you read and consider their conferences.  You can also look at faculty pages of scholars you admire for ideas.  Often they have a CV that shares where they present.  Get a little stalker-y and see what people in your field are doing.  If you would like a chance to meet someone, go to a conference that they routinely attend.  Chances are other important people will be there too.  I actually sent an unsolicited email to a scholar I admire concerning conferences and, not surprisingly, received an extremely helpful reply in return.  Simply put, get out there and take initiative.  Conferences are not going to find you, you have to find them.

Second, conferences are more for networking than anything else. You will present a paper that people will really only remember by its title and basic content (if you’re lucky). Most scholars treat conferences as opportunities to receive peer reflection upon their current or future writing projects rather than as an opportunity unveil brand new ideas. Conferences are a great place to vet your research.  If you are at a later stage in your PhD, it can be a great place to propose the premise and basic evidence of your dissertation chapters.  Getting comments and questions from colleagues can be very beneficial. But, remember, you only get about 20 minutes to present your paper, and over the course of the conference you will only manage to take in some simple research profiles. Therefore, the real benefit is meeting people and seeing their research process.  Do not be afraid to go up to someone and chat with them concerning their research.  A great way in is to tell them you enjoyed their paper, and most scholars are happy to engage from there. Most scholars are happy chat with you.  Also, send a follow up email with the people you have conversations with for more than five minutes.  This solidifies the connections and gives you an in next time you’d like to speak with this person.  Networking can be hard especially if you are more introverted, but it is so important.

On that note, when you find a conference that is important for your field or beneficial professionally be sure to go again.  Plan to have a “home conference” that you attend every year.  If you go more than once, your likelihood of being recognized is much higher.  Imagine what consistent attendance will do for your recognizably.  I have friends who have reminded me that this is how they got writing projects.  Just this past weekend, I got an offer for a multiple book review from a prestigious journal just from being around and talking to people at the conference.  If you consistently present on a topic, you get known as a person who does research in that area.  You never know when someone will contact you or speak with you about a project you’re doing and see if you can write an article/chapter/entry or something else.  It is important to think this way – parlay your conference experience into future writing projects.  On another level, consistent attendance gives you the opportunity to organize panels for future conferences and be even more connected with scholars and researchers in your field.  Who knows, you may hear of open positions for which you can apply.

Hopefully these words of advice from my experience are helpful.  I’m still learning on how to do conferences well myself.  To get to more conferences in a cost-effective way, try to piggyback trips together with research ventures.  Or, find a colleague that can go with you so you can share gas/lodging/meals, etc.  Your experience with conferences can be rewarding if you have have high expectations and prepare in advance.  If you are proactive in talking to scholars and selecting your work for presentation, you can make experience beneficially personally and professionally.