AHA Online , Annual Meeting , Features
A New Gathering
Although it was an absolute delight to hold the 2022 annual meeting in person in New Orleans after two years of pandemic-induced isolation, the realities of the Omicron variant cast a pall over the proceedings and kept many participants, both presenters and attendees, at home. The meeting was quiet, almost intimate, unlike the grand and nervous excitement experienced in the past. One new source of tension, however, appeared: Would all (or any) of the participants be at the session? And so, despite the thrill of the in-person event, there was simply too much good scholarship left on the table, work that deserved time, care, and attention from a broad and engaged audience. This work found its home in AHA22 Online, held February 21–27. From the more than 200 sessions that took place in this new venue, here are some highlights.
—Leland Renato Grigoli, Claire Vanderwood, Alana Venable, and Sarah Jones Weicksel
Teaching Pandemics While Surviving One
Since March 2020, history educators teaching across time and place have faced the issue of teaching past pandemics while living through COVID-19. In the session “Teaching Plagues and Pandemics,” chairs Janet E. Kay (Princeton Univ.) and Carolyn Twomey (St. Lawrence Univ.), along with panelists Amy Brown Curry (Lone Star Coll.), Katherine L. French (Univ. of Michigan), and Merle Eisenberg (Oklahoma State Univ.), discussed their methods for teaching about disease in a pandemic society.
Primary sources from plagues and pandemics are filled with accounts of death. French uses statistics as a way for her class to approach these records. In her class on the Black Death, her students, including majors from both the humanities and STEM fields, tackle the task of interpreting English manorial court rolls from Walsham-le-Willows. Data spreadsheets list the death records of the manor residents, and students are tasked with making sense of it. French said, “These assignments turn a mundane if depressing list into something meaningful,” and went on to discuss how the exercise encourages students to think about the historical narratives that can be drawn from administrative sources.
Curry and Twomey offered an interactive approach to understanding plague in medieval society. From medieval North England to the classroom, Curry transports her students in a Reacting to the Past–style game called “1349: The Plague Comes to Norwich.” Reacting to the Past is an active pedagogy that assigns students character roles and objectives based on historical turning points, and students are asked to create solutions based on contemporary worldviews. Curry assigned students to play roles such as merchants, priests, and bailiffs and tasked them with saving the city. The game forced her students to grapple with the knowledge limitations of historical actors as they made decisions about shutting borders, enforcing quarantine, and seeking justifications for the sickness. Through this exercise, she wanted students to understand the “humanity of us all.” Twomey took a page out of Curry’s book, developing a role-playing exercise that fit a shortened semester. She focused on objects as gateways into the lives of those experiencing death and sickness. Her assignment encourages students to understand that people from the “past were strangers but they were not strange.”
Through this exercise, Curry wanted students to understand the “humanity of us all.”
Access to the primary-source documents and digital media needed to supplement interactive classroom assignments became increasingly difficult as COVID-19 pushed instruction into remote learning spaces. Eisenberg, along with the combined efforts of a group of medievalist experts, created the website Middle Ages for Educators, which aims to democratize access to medieval information, digital learning, and resources. This led to the curation of mini–lesson plans, such as A Medieval Plague Lesson Plan. The group hopes to adapt these lesson plans to meet the individual needs of state requirements.
The panel concluded with Kay’s discussion of her course, the Art and Archaeology of Plague. Spanning 2,500 years of human history in just 12 weeks, she kept students engaged through podcasts, videos, lectures, weekly guest speakers, and a plague simulation assignment. Using ancient medicine and knowledge, she tasked her students with devising solutions to save the university campus from a pandemic. Her assignments allowed students to place themselves mentally in a university environment without being present on the campus. Her goal was to help students understand their own experiences of COVID-19.
As classes switched to remote learning, and pandemic restrictions increased, teachers were faced with a new set of challenges on how to keep students engaged. This group of medieval scholars used history, primary sources, and a bit of creativity to meet this challenge. By linking the pandemics of the past to the pandemic of the present, these scholars were able to create lessons to help students understand the humanity of us all.
You Can’t Escape Paleography
Paleography, the art of reading old handwriting, is a necessary skill for historians of almost any era. Ancient historians grapple with Roman writing, medievalists struggle against Merovingian scripts and Gothic cursives, and early modernists wrestle a seemingly infinite variety of chancery scrawls and eccentric personal hands. Even those modernists whose sources are typed or printed still must read the occasional note scribbled hastily in a margin or between lines, a task that has become increasingly difficult as K–12 instruction in cursive writing (and thus reading) has all but ceased. Learning paleography is also a process with benefits beyond simply understanding the letters on the page. Because it is difficult, it encourages a slow, close reading of the text at hand and a better understanding of the semantic range of the words involved. Still, for many, the process of learning to read old hands is slow and painful.
Can instruction in this necessary skill be made pain-free? Julie A. Fisher (Bard High School Early College DC), Sara Powell (Houghton Library, Harvard Univ.), and Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library) thought it couldn’t hurt to try. Together, they set out to develop a “no-tears paleography” course. They had long observed that paleography was more accessible when it was made into a group activity, using group transcription assignments to teach the subject to students as early as the ninth grade and running regular large-scale “transcribe-a-thons.” The logical next step, they thought, was to turn the act of reading a text into a game.
Searching the archival collections at their disposal, Fisher, Powell, and Wolfe developed a narrative following the popular escape room model in which participants are tasked with solving a series of puzzles in order to get out of a trap or solve a mystery, as if Clue were mashed into Dungeons & Dragons. Students would be placed in a room, with low lighting and fake candles to set the mood, and be asked to solve a series of puzzles from locked boxes to riddles and word games. In iterating scenarios through their play tests (a vital component in development!), Fisher, Powell, and Wolfe found that the tactile was critical to creating immersive experiences. Documents, even reproductions, needed to be made so that participants would at least be willing to pretend they were the real thing. Although this took substantial logistics and planning, avoiding anachronisms and keeping a sense of immersion among the students yielded interest in the game and excellent learner outcomes.
“Participants are tasked with solving puzzles to get out of a trap or solve a mystery, as if Clue were mashed into Dungeons & Dragons.”
Then the pandemic hit. As they shifted to an online production, the team found that they needed an entirely new approach to keep players engaged. Tactile puzzles were, of course, impossible in the digital space, which forced them to develop a stronger narrative. A single room became many; players had to find clues and solve the puzzle of one room to advance to another. In essence, the three had become video game designers—not an easy task without a premade platform or a budget.
Session attendees were invited to solve one room of this new game, “rated MA: for mature archivists only.” After a brief introductory video, players were given their puzzle: a static image of a room where a player had to click specific locations to uncover a handwritten 17th-century letter. Players could obtain clues only by deciphering it. Participants were provided no guidance as to what to do, only that they needed to finish all tasks to advance. Some breezed through the task while others struggled, but all reported enjoying the challenge and there were indeed no tears. It was, in other words, a success.
Opening the Gates
What does it mean to open the gates at a liberal arts college? Continuing from a series of Virtual AHA Colloquium sessions in 2021, “Opening the Gates: The Futures of History from a Liberal Arts College Perspective” included a workshop, a roundtable, and a social hour in which participants learned about different ways to make liberal arts history education more inclusive, diverse, responsive, and engaging for students and faculty alike.
Jakub J. Kabala (Davidson Coll.) moderated the workshop, which featured five short presentations by history instructors at liberal arts colleges, each explaining a different means of “opening the gates.” Several participants focused on course design. Kabala, an instructor of programming in the humanities for students majoring in computer science, presented on the ways history can inform other disciplines, though interdisciplinarity often means the other way around. Danielle Sanchez (Colorado Coll.), a scholar of French colonial history, explained how she incorporates digital history to engage students in her first-year seminar, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Conflicts to Star Wars. The class watches a selection of Star Wars media together, and then students must pick a scene and create a body of documents to tell the story of that scene through a particular lens. After meeting with special collections staff at the college library, and specialists in ceramics and digital learning if they choose, students learn to understand how power operates in the construction of the archive by creating an archive of their own.
A theme of “Opening the Gates” was students charting their own paths, whether constructing their own archives or helping to grade themselves. Jessica L. Pearson (Macalester Coll.) shared how she has reworked her syllabus from a document that tells students they don’t belong to a tool to invite people in—“a key to open the gates.” Practicing the idea of ungrading, allowing students to set their own course goals and determine their grades alongside the instructor, Pearson explained her method of structuring her syllabus as a living Google Doc, where students can make comments and ask questions, modifying the course to suit their needs.
History can inform other disciplines, though interdisciplinarity often means the other way around.
Many participants recounted difficulties. One attendee noted that some students give more respect to professors who run traditional classrooms or expect more leeway the more instructors give. Panelist and department chair Kathleen Phillips Lewis (Spelman Coll.) spoke about recruiting and retaining diverse and stellar faculty. In small departments, any faculty turnover can be disruptive, drastically reducing the number of faculty and burdening their colleagues with searches. Even at HBCUs, mentoring diverse faculty can be a challenge. Other participants echoed such concerns, including Ernesto Capello (Macalester Coll.), who emphasized the need for support for professional development to retain faculty.
The discussion on fostering inclusivity at liberal arts colleges continued at the roundtable, in which three more history instructors spoke of tactics they use to engage students and make them feel empowered as historians in the classroom. Anthony Donaldson Jr (Sewanee, Univ. of the South) shared how he challenges students to reflect on whose voices are missing from prevailing narratives, guiding them to discover primary sources that highlight overlooked agency. As a result, his students see how historical actors, people to whom they may not have connected before, charted their own paths, just as the students did when they analyzed the sources. “The content is there,” Donaldson said. “We just have to make sure we select the most inclusive aspects of it.”
In a similar vein, Tyran Steward (Williams Coll.) draws students in with sports history, a subject “captivating to people of diverse backgrounds,” and then asks questions to encourage thinking about sport beyond meritocracy. Sport, to Steward, structures notions of race making and state making, empire building and imperialism. Students see historical actors, athletes, who reflect their own identities, and in Steward’s classes encounter literature that emphasizes a commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
All presenters encouraged gearing course content to a wider audience. Stephanie Montgomery (St. Olaf Coll.) presented on using digital pedagogy to create a “hands-on, hopefully immersive, impactful learning experience.” Using examples from a premodern China course, Montgomery shared how digital tools and digitized resources allow students to provide feedback on one another’s assignments and speculate on the lives of ordinary people long ago.
So how do historians at liberal arts institutions open the gates? The panelists open the gates by selecting documents that appeal to and reflect the identities of their students and by using digital tools to make courses more accessible. They open the gates by allowing students to negotiate course outcomes. And they can open the gates to diverse faculty by creating clear tenure and promotion guidelines and by mentoring early career colleagues in their teacher-scholar careers. Stay tuned for more “Opening the Gates” sessions at future AHA annual meetings.
Not a Lost Cause
Teaching medieval studies in the American South poses specific challenges due to unique social and cultural circumstances: the popularity of Lost Cause ideology, the particular religious and racial composition of the normal student body, and the place of premodern history in the K–12 curriculum, to name but a few. Originally organized to bring historians from across the region together in New Orleans, this roundtable discussion among historians Kate Craig (Auburn Univ.), Robert Ticknor (The Historic New Orleans Collection), Brad Phillis (Univ. of Southern Mississippi), Mary A. Valante (Appalachian State Univ.), and Lauren L. Whitnah (Univ. of Tennessee at Knoxville), and chaired by Courtney Luckhardt (Univ. of Southern Mississippi), was wide ranging, but several themes repeated throughout.
The Middle Ages are usually pushed aside in K–12 education in favor of American history.
The first of these was the role of medieval studies in the classroom, or rather its absence. The Middle Ages are usually pushed aside in K–12 education in favor of a curriculum focused on American history. Often, students are simply told that the American Constitution is a successor to the British Magna Carta, and that is it. To the panelists, this was both a curse and a blessing. It makes it significantly harder to help students relate to the Middle Ages, though the use of medieval imagery at the Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the pandemic have given some teachers a foothold. But the interpretations of history in the K–12 curriculum in states like Mississippi have not been updated since the 1950s, and the only texts widely available to teachers are from the 19th century, and so there are also few ideas that instructors need to unteach. Similarly, premodern studies are mostly ignored in the controversies surrounding “divisive concepts” bills. The panelists agreed that if medievalists wish to campaign to see their subject included in a standard curriculum, they must also publish items that K–12 teachers can use.
Cultural issues, too, pose substantial challenges to teaching medieval studies in the South. Several participants expressed bemused frustration that they were unable to interest their evangelical Protestant students in medieval Christianity—even with standard medieval course topics like the Crusades—because, to such students, “Catholics aren’t Christians.” But they identified race and the use of the Middle Ages in grounding Lost Cause ideology as the largest challenges they confront in the classroom. After all, they noted, medieval studies is an overwhelmingly white field, reflecting the idea that the Middle Ages are the origin of White history. A continuous and “active insistence on the complex reality of the Middle Ages” is necessary to combat this idea. In this regard, panelists returned several times to how white students had tried to relate medieval iterations of slavery to that which was practiced in the Americas and diminish the severity. To this, they suggested several different kinds of answers, but all came with the same warning: Black students are listening to your answer too.
Teaming Up for History
This year, the AHA Council’s Research Division sponsored a series of sessions on historians’ collaborative work, tackling topics from how digital collaboration has revolutionized research to the challenges related to institutional and disciplinary recognition of that scholarship. One roundtable, “Beyond Collaboration,” took place at both the New Orleans meeting, where it was moderated by Sarah Jones Weicksel (AHA), and AHA22 Online, where it was chaired by Research Division vice president Ben Vinson III (Case Western Univ.) This roundtable brought together historians who work in publications, museums, and digital history to highlight the experiences, benefits, and challenges of working collaboratively.
Laura Ansley (AHA and Nursing Clio) and Courtney Thompson (Mississippi State Univ.) discussed the collaboration between Nursing Clio and Archival Kismet. Archival Kismet is a term Thompson uses to describe the process of the historian being led by their sources. In 2020, Thompson created the Archival Kismet online conference as a “space for the celebration and exploration of the weird, the off-beat, the strange finds in archives, broadly defined, that we aren’t sure what to do with or that don’t fit into our current research projects or even our broader research identity.” The first conference was a great success, with 50 presenters sharing short, informal presentations and attracting widespread engagement from the audience. Founded in 2012 to tie historical scholarship to the present day, the open access, peer-reviewed blog Nursing Clio was an ideal publication in which to feature the work of Archival Kismet’s contributors. After connecting on Twitter about the possibility of collaboration, Thompson, Ansley, and the Nursing Clio editorial staff selected four conference participants to publish essays on their archival finds, ranging from letters written in 1910 by patients at the “Pennsylvania School for Feeble Minded Children” to the dehydrated whale meat that fed British troops in South Asia in 1944. This collaboration is ongoing, with essays currently being edited from the second conference.
Archival Kismet is a term used to describe the process of the historian being led by their sources.
Ellen R. Feingold (National Museum of American History) and Leigh A. Gardner (London School of Economics) shared their experience collaborating on “Money, Exchange, and Authority in Africa,” a project that aims to enhance public access to primary sources and increase the dissemination of historical research. Gardner first approached Feingold, curator of the National Numismatic Collection, to inquire about having objects photographed to support her research project on Liberia’s economic and financial history. But this simple research request evolved into a project piloting a new way for academics and museum curators to work together on digitization. Feingold explained that museums typically digitize materials with the hope that those images will become the subject of new research. But in this case, research questions shaped the digitization process, and the pair created new digital collections with records and supplementary materials based on current scholarship. They then used those digital collections to produce teaching resources for K–12 classrooms to promote their wider use. This initial collaboration has expanded to collections related to South Africa and includes new funding and new partners.
Kristina Poznan (Univ. of Maryland) and Daryle Williams (Univ. of California, Riverside) discussed (at AHA22 Online and in New Orleans, respectively) Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, the vast collaborative project of Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU), in partnership with the MSU Department of History, the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and scholars at multiple institutions. They also discussed a planned joint issue between the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation. At Enslaved.org, more than 20 historians, software developers, and research assistants are working to discover, connect, and visualize more than 600,000 people records and five million data points tied to individuals who were enslaved, owned slaves, were connected to the slave trade, and worked for emancipation. The project’s success relies not only on a wide-range of skill sets, Williams emphasized, but also on a shared sense of ethics “around inclusive and reparative scholarship about historical slavery and responsible stewardship of historical data about enslaved people in digital spaces,” which they have codified on their website.
In the discussion, panelists explored logistical challenges of collaborative work, such as securing financial support, managing large teams located at different institutions, and getting buy-in from departments and institutions. They highlighted how disparity in resources and support across institutions limit historians’ ability to pursue collaborative projects or to gain new skill sets to support such collaboration. They also offered examples of potential solutions, such as using the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab platform, participating in the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture’s OI Coffeehouse, or taking advantage of a digital history drop-in session, like the one hosted by Anelise Shrout, Steven Mintz, and John Rosinbum at AHA22 Online or the upcoming “Ask a Digital Historian: Lightning Consults” online event hosted by the AHA Digital History Working Group.
It is essential, the roundtable emphasized, that historians continue to work both to improve access to resources and to recognize and reward collaborative work as one of many forms of historical scholarship. Such partnerships not only are personally rewarding but, as these projects show, help historical scholars find new applications for their research, new audiences, and new opportunities.
On to Philadelphia
The 136th annual meeting will be held January 5–8, 2023, in Philadelphia. As year three of the COVID-19 pandemic begins, the AHA is committed to designing online programming that will complement the AHA annual meeting and increase accessibility for historians across the country and the world. We look forward to convening in Philadelphia, but we also look forward to launching new online programming which will build on what we have learned during AHA22 Online. We hope you will join us next year.
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