The Unconference Movement Grows – And Historians Are Taking the Lead

Historians in the News
tags: history

Mary Rizzo is Associate Director of Digital & Public Humanities Initiatives for History and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Her book, Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle, examines the intersection between youth stylistic rebellion and the marketing of lifestyle. In addition to her work in public history and digital humanities, she is interested in cultural representations of cities. She tweets about all of the above @rizzo_pubhist. Molly Rosner is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Rutgers Univeristy-Newark who writes on issues of childhood and national identity and works in museum education.

The Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark has been advocating for social and environmental justice since the 1970s. photo credit: Ironbound Community Corporation, Picturing Justice Exhibit.

When our planning committee began meeting in August 2014 to plan the first Telling Untold Histories unconference for the next April, we decided we would be excited to have fifty people attend. When more than ninety came out on a rainy day to discuss how we can make the history we tell in public more inclusive, we knew we had tapped a need.

That need was for a space where open, honest discussions about difficult topics among members of a community of practice could take place. The microphone was handed from one person to the next as a line formed to propose sessions on topics ranging from Archives and Activism against State-Sanctioned Violence to Engaging Immigrant Communities to Doing Public History with Disabilities. These topics grew out of the challenges experienced by staff and volunteers at public history institutions and, importantly, by people without any such affiliation who wanted to intervene in the discourse. But these discussions were also driven by what was happening in the news--the death of Michael Brown and the uprising in Ferguson, MO, and the rise of Black Lives Matter, a movement which argued that institutional racism was a life and death issue for people of color. These events led many of us to ask: what can we do? For the historians, librarians, archivists, artists, educators and community members who came to the unconference, the answer was to start with conversation.

Inside and outside of academia, unconferences – gatherings where participants collaborate to set the day’s agenda – are becoming more popular. The idea may feel uncomfortable at first to many historians, since traditional conferences – where most people listen passively to a few select people who read formal papers – has been the norm for so long. The sessions and topics for discussion are all chosen by the people present at the meeting. This helps to ensure that the sessions are as useful and engaging as possible to the people who attend. Rather than asking panelists to write papers beforehand, the unconference fosters community by asking everyone to help decide on the content of the sessions, which are facilitated discussions among peers. Unconferences do not only differ from traditional conferences in format, they seek to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries and lines of authority.

This year’s public history unconference at Rutgers University-Newark will bring together people involved in history from outside of academia who may not always feel included in traditional scholarly conferences. We have reached out to community leaders, activists, artists, K-12 educators, curators and museum professionals, community group leaders and students. We believe that including a wide variety of approaches to history help in telling stories that often go unheard, or are often actively marginalized.

Our theme is Telling Untold Stories. This theme is meant to be broad and inclusive – we are looking for approaches for uncovering untold histories, ways to teach about alternative historical narratives, how to collect and share new voices from the past, and creative ways to use untold histories to generate positive change in neighborhoods, cities and across the country. There is urgency in this goal – during the heated presidential race, when issues of immigration, employment, economic opportunity, inequality, and health are being debated on a public stage it is critical that we make space to look at what narratives shape our national rhetoric and what narratives go unheard. It is crucial that we examine the historical precedent for these discussions in a way that more people can learn from and use as a tool for contemporary activism.

In addition to sessions that will be generated on the day of the conference, there will be workshops geared towards providing participants with the tools they need for working in a variety of ways with public history. Four workshops, led by professionals who can help participants leave feeling they have gained a tangible new skill for working with untold histories, will be offered concurrently. One workshop will be about coping with copyright in public history. April Hathcock, a former lawyer and current Scholarly Communication Librarian at NYU, will lead a session on navigating the ins and outs of copyright issues that arise when working with public history material. This workshop will help people understand and determine what materials they can legally for different purposes. Another workshop will focus on the tool Historypin, which is a website that enables users to tell the history of a community by layering historical images, videos, and sound onto a map. A staff member from StoryCorps will lead an interactive workshop to provide participants with the tools and resources to highlight and celebrate the voices of their communities through interview collection, public programming, and the development of locally-focused archives and exhibitions. Finally, Erika Halstead will lead a workshop about facilitating meaningful conversations – a seemingly simple goal that can be surprisingly hard to achieve without well-crafted questions. The workshops range from the fundamentals of collecting and encouraging untold histories to working with collected histories in innovative ways both online and in community settings.

We are looking forward to an active, fun and informative day of broadening ideas about, approaches to, and methods for sharing untold histories. An attendee at last year’s unconference reported that she “left the unconference feeling inspired by the potential of having libraries partner with public historians and the other groups represented in the sessions to disseminate the great work that these groups are doing to their communities and a larger audience...The conversations that took place in every session I attended were thoughtful and engaging, and managed to be both academic and accessible. It was a great day.”  This is a place for people who work in different fields to meet each other and learn about innovative projects. It is also a space for interdisciplinary work. The goals of the unconference are both lofty and practical: We want to broaden the range of histories that get told in public; we want to make history accessible to people who currently find it disengaging; we want history to be a tool for social activism; we want to make space for more voices in historical narratives; we want to encourage people to see history in their everyday landscapes; finally, we want to include a wider variety of historical stories in public places. To learn more about Telling Untold Histories, visit our website, follow us on Twitter (@untoldhistories), or join our Facebook group.

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