Broadening participation in the Academic Conference

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History is more than a university-based field of study.  A quick glimpse at the current best-sellers in Canadian history on demonstrates that most Canadians are reading history written by non-academic historians; journalists, professional writers and public servants top the list.  History produced in universities competes, but also often compliments, that produced for tracing family roots, building community, influencing public policy, or entertaining a reader.  The different uses for, and perspectives within, the field of history can create a mine-field of interpretations and understandings of the past.  Bringing these diverse perspectives together helps to foster a richer understanding and broaden public engagement with the past.

In her paper at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Margaret Conrad addressed the tensions that often arise over how different groups interpret the past.  Using the controversy over the Canadian War Museum’s depiction of the World War II allied bombing of Germany, Conrad suggests that processes need to be created where all of the stakeholders in a historical project can debate controversial historical ideas with the aim of mutual resolution.

Although Conrad’s paper is focused on historical controversies that occur in public spaces, her suggestion of bringing diverse perspectives together in genuine dialogue points one way toward a more rigorous discussion of Canada’s past by helping to create partnerships between historians, the communities that they study, and the general public.

Increasingly academic conferences are transforming into spaces that draw together participants from outside of the ivory tower.  Building on models that are well-established in fields like labour history (check out the Informing Public Policy conference that took place during September in New Brunswick), academic historians are meeting with activists, bureaucrats, local history groups and other specialists to discuss pressing historiographical issues and expand public awareness.

The city of Cambridge’s local history symposium, History on the Grand, is a good example.  Started by Karen Dearlove, the conference brought together academic historians, archivists, history and heritage groups, local government, and the general public to share research, discuss the city’s past, and foster broader historical consciousness.  Beyond paper presentations, the event involved poster displays and walking tours. There were many positive outcomes; the conference built bridges between people researching Cambridge’s past and local government, raised the profile of the local archives and spawned another conference on industry and the environment.

There are a number of conferences that follow a similar model coming up in 2010.  Decolonizing the Spirit: Rebuilding the Community and Reclaiming our Histories focuses on community building and the reclaiming of personal and community histories as a tool of decolonization.  Making the Media Public: Global Crises and Local Opportunities brings academics, journalists, activists and public organizations together to discuss how media has been shaped in the past and how it can be reshaped in the future.  The keynote speakers for Under Western Skies: Climate, Culture, and Change in Western North America illustrate the type of participation its organizers desire; activist Maud Barlow, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, and historian Richard White will all be addressing conference participants.

In 1998 Roy Rozenweig and David Thelan found that 2/5th of the people they surveyed loved learning history but that most chose to shape their own histories rather than embrace the work of professional historians.   From this they conclude that the possibilities for collaboration between professional and non-professional historians could be mutually beneficial to both parties.  Conferences are excellent tools for fostering diverse relationships and discussions that help to reinforce the collaborative and active nature of historical practice.

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One thought on “Broadening participation in the Academic Conference

  1. Dagomar Degroot

    This is a really interesting post, especially for me as I’m helping to run York’s conference this year. We’ve been trying to define how inclusive or exclusive our conference is meant to be: is this a graduate conference, in other words, designed to help young professionals interact, or is this a conference for anyone interested in history? Relatively “closed,” ivory tower conferences benefit from, among other things, the mingling of those who speak the same academic discourse with roughly shared experiences, allowing for easier networking. However, history as a discipline and, beyond that, histories as constellations of ideas obviously benefit from many different perspectives. Professional historians also benefit from the questions posed by those with different backgrounds, and vice-versa.

    Increasingly we have trended towards opening our conference to a broader selection of participants, apparently reflecting, as you write, a broader shift in historical conferences. This year we’ll have papers from undergraduates, from students in other disciplines, and even some from those outside of academia altogether.

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