Allen Mikaelian, May 2014
One of the conversations we’ve been following as it develops in the pages of Perspectives involves historians’ responses to inaccuracies. When an account of the past is dead wrong, what should be done? Historical errors are legion. We must regularly suffer through errors of fact or interpretation, errors resulting from faulty premises, from a hidden agenda, from a desire for a more compelling narrative, or from sheer sloppiness. The more you know, the more you notice. We notice them in movies, in video games, in students’ utterances, and on Wikipedia, which has become synonymous with error in some circles.
Two years ago, William Cronon caused a stir with his column for Perspectives, “Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World” (February 2012), in which he advised, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Historians should not shy away from Wikipedia, he wrote, although it “sometimes harbors howling errors, even outright fraud.” Despite all the problems with the encyclopedia, it points toward a world where traditional boundaries are nonexistent and the academic historian can engage with, and learn from, the amateur. Not long after (December 2012), Perspectives published an essay by Lori Byrd Phillips and Dominic McDevitt-Parks on Wikipedia that offered a model of open authority, a “combination of expertise and transparent collaboration.”
While Wikipedia articles can be shot through with errors, Cronon, Phillips, and McDevitt-Parks effectively asked historians to set their sights on something more important—collaboration and communication with those outside the discipline. But the mistakes remain, as does the important question of what to do with them and how this collaboration would work.
Stephen Campbell’s article in this issue offers solid practical suggestions for historians who want to follow Cronon’s advice. Campbell’s article engages directly with some of the most problematic Wikipedia policies and puts them to use. He edited an article and, instead of deleting passages wholesale, restructured them in a way calculated to avoid a “time-consuming editorial war.” He worked more as an editor than an author, a collaborator rather than an expert, even as he used his expertise and scholarship. His corrections demonstrated what is best about the discipline—not merely what was wrong about the previous editors’ facts.
Also in this issue, Nicolas Trépanier writes, “I got tired of being stuck in such a dismissive mode” when it came to students asking questions about video games inspired, however loosely, by historical events—because something in them had clearly sparked their interest and imagination. Historically based video games present historians with a choice: “list the game’s (numerous) inaccuracies, and leave it at that” or talk about why the game is wrong, and “show students that history is not merely ‘what happened,’ but rather the result of research, source criticism, and debates in theoretical approaches.”
As one of Paul Bjerk’s students put it, “By looking at what is wrong, you see what is right.” The student was in Bjerk’s class on slavery in Africa, and had watched films that showcased one or another way of being wrong (and a few ways of being right) about that history. Each presented nonhistorical premises applied to a historical narrative, efficiently demonstrating the importance of “the unspoken thesis driving each film.” The extensive readings Bjerk assigned informed the critiques of the films, but the critiques of the films also show how to think about the scholarship.
In different ways, these historians have reconfigured historical authority, as did Andrew M. Koke after he recognized that his students had adopted deference as a classroom strategy. Koke looked to Robert Bain’s ideas about hidden authority and “ritualized and traditional deference” to open up his classroom discussions, and also found help in the Decoding the Disciplines model, which has been applied to history classrooms by the History Learning Project at Indiana University. Decoding the Disciplines encourages teachers to show students specific thought processes and activities that make the discipline what it is. It aims to show not just what historians know but what they do and how they think.
Kenneth Pomeranz had a compelling column on a related idea last year. In “Advanced History for Beginners” he argued, “If historians merely ‘complement’ other disciplines by adding cautionary notes, our place in the curriculum will be small.” Likewise, if the main cultural function of historians is to lambaste errors, our place in the culture will be small. The teachers and researchers in this issue have found ways of engaging with material rife with errors to bring out what is most exciting about doing history (and correct the errors along the way). But doing so has meant putting aside, momentarily, the reflexive impulse to speak from authority and stamp out errors the moment they arise in order to model the thinking and activities that will allow audiences to arrive at the right answers on their own.
Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.
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