“Without the permission of any gatekeeper”: Openness Theory, Public History, & Changing Practices

Hello again everyone! It was wonderful to skim through project drafts today. I am heartened that we are all making good progress and adapting to challenging circumstances. I was especially impressed by the breadth of research that we are engaged in, and I look forward to the continued evolution of our work.

On the topic of our projects–some digital, some paper-based–I am finding that this week’s readings have immense potential to influence the work we are doing, for the better! Many of our projects are inherently against the grain of traditional academic practice; this week, we will explore the intersection of–and disconnect between–the traditional academy and digital venues for scholarship. In addition, we will confront & deconstruct gatekeeping through the lens of public history. Finally, a concerted effort is being made to turn openness theory into practice & funding–we will dive deeper into Ithaka S+R’s plan to inject digital venues into traditional and non-traditional historical spaces.

Here are the readings that we will be discussing:

  • Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web”
  • Conard’s review of Historians in Public
  • Rutner & Schonfeld (with Ithaka S+R), “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians”

Rather than summarizing each reading individually, I find that we can glean more by thinking about them in conversation–they very much work in tandem. Openness theory, at the heart of this conversation, is burgeoned by allies of public history, who in turn are implementing digital innovations into their practice (and hopefully into their products too). Hence the name of this post: openness theory, public history, and changing practices (oh my!).

But what exactly is openness theory? Cohen thinks about openness in two ways: (1) to combat academic gatekeeping/tradition and (2) to embrace digital venues in the pursuit of academic values. Cohen points to the inherent compatibility of the academy and the digital world, as they share many of the same processes and values. For example, born-digital blogs & articles often undergo an extensive, iterative publication process. This is no different than making several drafts of a book chapter. In addition, both the academy and the digital world value recursive review, in which previously published materials can be improved, added to, expanded upon; again, much of what digital scholars and traditional scholars do is rooted in iterative practice. Why then, has the traditional academic community not fully accepted digital openness? Where we see a disconnect is in the venues–the academy maintains an exclusionary stance toward what venues are deemed “quality,” while supporters of openness are far more inclusive. Openness allows us to embrace the value that digital spaces possess for doing history. There is also tension in this space between gatekeeping and collaborating; in short, should there be a shared authority between author and audience? See below a visualization of these dynamics (apologies for the small font):


Consider the evolution of Nate Silver’s work: he went from geolocating and reviewing Mexican restaurants in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, to combining his statistical analysis skillset with political polling on FiveThirtyEight, to partnering with the New York Times after his many successes. Indeed, we could liken his iterative process–from The Burrito Bracket to FiveThirtyEight–to the process of drafting a book. Each section, from the introduction to the various chapters and the conclusion, builds toward a complete whole. Nate Silver took a non-traditional path, challenging the academy and its conservatism even as scholars likened his work to a hobby; rather than education, his work was “information…almost a recreational activity.” Some even called his digital venues “potentially dangerous.” Those who critiqued Silver’s digital platforms failed to see their mistake–they failed to see that his work was just as valuable and developed with the same process in mind as the work they created in the academy.

Combating this gatekeeping and embracing various spaces for interpreting history are some of the hallmarks of public history. At the end of his article, Cohen crafts what might be called a mission statement for all public historians: openness can lead to “a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research and communication that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past.”

In her review of Historians in Public, Conard argues that Cohen’s notion of a “shadow academic system” is perhaps more mainstream than he suspected. The foundation of public history includes embracing openness and bridging the gap between traditional and progressive ways of doing history. In practice, this means doing history across multiple mediums, embracing interdisciplinary approaches, and collaborating with a variety of stakeholders. We are introduced to the core audiences of public history: government/public entities that look to history to shape public policy, the everyday public that embraces popular history, and classroom pupils. We also learn that academic and public historians share a propensity to leverage popular media–films, radio, books, etc.–to interpret history/create affect. Finally, Conard criticizes the book for failing to address the public history contributions of private cultural institutions, businesses, and non-academic historians (NPS historians, for example); and yet, she also sees Historians in Public as an excellent resource toward understanding how to bridge the apparent disconnect between academic and public historians.

History meme – Ed Methods

If we can agree that openness theory and public history go hand-in-hand, and that both might be leveraged to sway traditional scholars toward more progressive thinking, how do we translate all of this into changing practice? In “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians,” Rutner & Schonfeld begin to provide something of a roadmap for supporting and funding openness theory in practical settings. They distinguish first between research methods and research practice in history–the former has, in their assessment, remained largely unchanged while the later has changed over time alongside the growing ubiquity of digital resources.

Central to their study: interviews with professionals in both academic and public history settings, as well as those who support the work of historians–teachers, librarians, archivists, preservationists, digital media professionals, humanities donors, research/citation software designers, and the like. Based upon these interviews, they make setting-specific recommendations so as to burgeon changing research practice & openness in the field:

In short, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” argues for a multifaceted approach–encompassing public history practitioners, digital historians, academics, software designers that supports historical work, and donors–to bring openness to the mainstream of practice in the field. And, most importantly, it recalls Cohen’s work, making a compelling case for introducing openness to the products & publications of history. Digital venues should be utilized not only to do history, support historical work, and support iterative projects; indeed, it is time for digital venues to subvert academic tradition and provide open access to the published work of history.

With these readings in mind, I want to come back to our projects. In my opinion, every single one of us is currently embracing openness. We are all utilizing a blog to discuss scholarship, and we are practicing digital history through our projects. My questions to you are many, so apologies in advance (and feel free to tackle only one): is it necessarily our responsibility, as young emerging historians, to subvert academic tradition? How should we go about challenging our role models/older colleagues in the field (many of them much more experienced, and some pretty gatekeeper-y) to embrace openness theory? Is it in our best interest to move the field away from exclusively print-based monographs (ex: should we have the option to create a digital resource in place of a thesis/dissertation)? What makes our projects, many of them digital resources, any different than, say, a paper (aren’t we conducting the same iterative process)? What does it say about public history as a field when the acceptable forms of academic publication (largely print articles, books, monographs, etc.) doesn’t match up with the way we practice (digital venues aplenty)?

Thank you for taking the time to read through this, and I wish you all the best. Talk to everyone soon!

10 Replies to ““Without the permission of any gatekeeper”: Openness Theory, Public History, & Changing Practices”

  1. Hi Jack, thank you for this great post! I enjoyed reading Dan Cohen’s and seeing how it connected with the message ingrained in his earlier work with Roy Rosenzweig. The arguments posed by Cohen and Rutner & Schonfeld in their respective works coincide with Jo Guldi & David Armitage’s, The History Manifesto. All three emphasize the critical importance of digital tools to advance scholarly work. Cohen’s argument that “the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge, and meritocracy,” is supported by Rutner & Schonfeld and Guldi & David Armitage as mention potential influence of digital tools, such as Google Ngrams, as a methodology in historical research.

    To answer your first question, I think in some ways it is our responsibility to challenge the state of the field, as many of our predecessors did when they first entered. Framing it through the idea of relevancy is one avenue that we as emerging historians can pursue to subvert academic tradition.

  2. Jack,

    Great questions!! You really made me think about the accessibility/openness of academia and history, which actually raised more questions for me than answers. In particular, I’ve been wrestling with the idea of digital history being more transparent/accessible for non-academics… but it also raises questions about affordability/education. In some ways, is a monograph or book not cheaper/more understandable than a web database that requires good internet connection, a laptop/desktop computer, and a knowledge of using digital resources? Those things seem to be larger barriers that a book… but I’m not sure. It took an entire semester for me to really understand how to properly utilize these digital sources. I suppose that we ourselves are now ingrained in the field, and it is sometimes difficult to see outside of the academic perspective. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

  3. Hi Jack, thanks for another great post! I really enjoyed these readings, and they seemed to bring us full circle from the very first things we discussed in this course.

    To answer some of your questions, I thought I’d talk a bit about how I see openness theory at work on my own digital project, and how it might not be possible if I were writing a traditional scholarly monograph. As you’ll learn from reading my project draft post, I am struggling with how to convey to my audience that the map I created might perpetuate a false narrative based on my methodology. Trevor counseled me to be open about this on the website that hosts my map; basically, it’s best for me to embrace the imperfections and, importantly, to seek community input to make my project better. These two things — admitting failure and asking for community help — would be unlikely to impossible in a scholarly monograph, and I see both working to improve the openness of my project and the historical content I created.

    I’m not sure if this is unique to digital projects, or if it’s because digital history is a newer field and thus historians are more willing to be flexible with gatekeeping standards. For example, a historian writing a monograph MAY be willing to admit fault (though I’ve never seen this done), but it would be nearly impossible for them to ask for and gain community feedback. This is yet another way that digital history seems particularly in line with openness theory and public history!

  4. Hi Jack, thank you for yet another great post (with great GIF choices)! I appreciated your ability to join the readings in conversation and relate them back to our trajectory within this course, culminating in our final projects.

    To answer a few of your questions, I start with an anecdote:

    Not SO very long ago, when I graduated from college and was applying to MA programs, I wrote a personal statement about the utility of being a gatekeeper protecting history and deciding how best it can be accessed for the general public. I CRINGE even writing this now, because the ethos of the gatekeeper is not one I wish to espouse on the web and certainly does not align with my current ethos or practice as a historian. I think I, like other students of history of my generation, were responding to the 2008 recession and, for fear of not having a job, clinging to expertise and exclusivity as our collective life-preserver. We–at least, certainly myself and others I spoke with–thought by being able to clearly differentiate our expertise from the broader public, there would always be a need for us in the job market. Thankfully, by the end of the first semester of my MA, I wrote a paper called, “From a Gatekeeper to a Node,” about how I actually believed historians should be a point of intersection–where different historical information or personal experiences can be interpreted and then sent back out to the public (or, other nodes)–difficult to explain here but let’s just say, I no longer wanted to be a gatekeeper and realized why I SHOULD’NT have ever hoped to be.

    All of this is to say, the transformation can happen, and while is may look like subversion, I think it’s part of an iterative process of new generations bringing new methods and platforms into the academy. It feels glacial–indeed, entire generations often have to retire before real change occurs–but I think the little changes happen each time a new scholar shows their professor a new platform for sharing their research, or each time a historian firmly rooted in ivory-tower practice connects with the lived experience of someone outside of it. I’m under no illusions that these one-offs are what transforms the discipline, but they are little cracks in the windshield that will, at a point, give way to a whole new practice.

    Finally, I have thought A LOT about this question of the monograph vs. the digital resource as I prepare to write my own dissertation. I hesitate to anticipate the academy abandoning the current model wholesale entirely any time soon (because i’m *jaded*)–though I believe it would expand possibilities and create greater accessibility/equity in both practice and reception. BUT i have seen evidence of certain universities making a push for this exact thing. George Mason’s Dept. of History and Art History is one example. Many have moved to create a hybrid in which a shorter paper is accompanied by a digital project, but there are many whom argue that this requires double the work for the candidate. So while it remains to be seen how quickly these transitions take place, I rest somewhat assured that they are already underway and that this new generation of historians–your generation!–is making BIG headways.

  5. Hi Jack thanks for the great post. Reading you post and the comments above have had me really thinking about the questions you asked. I think everyone would agree that gatekeeping history and scholarship is a serious problem, but I also think that the general progress of time and the growing field of digital history are contributing to more openness. I do think it is partly our responsibility to make sure that we practice openness as we conduct our work, bu I also think that it is in our best interest to do so. Finding new and innovative methods and engaging with others on your work can be a very valuable tool for improving your research.

    Should we move away from exclusively print-based scholarship? Probably. It seems strange even typing this to think of all of the papers I’ve written for different courses adn tothink that there may have been other, just as valuable methods of conveying that information. But the more ways people have to engage with history, I think, the more the field improves and connects

  6. Thank you for this super engaging post! As someone outside the field of history, public or otherwise, it seems as though moving towards more digital projects and resources is inevitable. It’s strange to me that there is so much resistance given how much more convenient, user friendly, and accessible born-digital projects are. Especially in public history, digital resources would appear to be very helpful in reaching the goal of disseminating work to benefit a more general audience. FiveThirtyEight.com, for example allows people to access crucial information about our government and politics so that the general public can make informed decisions in elections. In this day and age, it would be irresponsible to keep people from accessing this information and being informed voters. To say this platform is “dangerous” just because it’s different or non-traditional assumes that traditional news outlets are always reliable or always unbiased, which is clearly not true. In fact, having someone provide information and interpretation outside of the confines of traditional news media (which is now owned by very few mega corporations that insist upon certain points of view) is better for keeping people informed and critical. I believe the same would be true for history; you need to have many voices so people aren’t only seeing the same perspectives over and over again. This makes digital history even more important and necessary moving forward. People from outside the field are already doing this, so it only makes sense for the field to embrace a digital direction as well.

  7. Jack, Great to see the connections you’re drawing out between the nature of the digital scholarship work that many of our classmates are doing and the various readings from this week on the future of scholarly communication. I like having this week as a last content focused week as it is a great place to turn back on a lot of our assumptions about what it means to produce academic work and scholarship and see how there are really foundational possibilities for reinventing the forms and functions of scholarship in this increasingly networked and digital space. I think that is particularly important for a field like public history that has a longstanding tradition of experimenting with new media as means of communicating history to broader audiences.

    Great summary of the work and arguments that Cohen is opening up in Ivory Tower and the Open Web. One of the things I think is particularly interesting about this piece is that Cohen wrote this and shared it as a draft of part of a book he was developing that he ended up not finishing. So in a more traditional approach to academic writing we just wouldn’t see this piece at all. Instead, despite the book not coming to be we end up with this nicely argued piece of scholarship which is published and available for us to engage with years later. Beyond that, the essay has a ton of rich and engaged comments from a range of other scholars on it. I think it’s really powerful to see the ways that this essay itself exemplifies many of the arguments that are being made in it.

    On the Ithaka report, I really appreciate the way that this work draws out all the ways that the historical research process is changing and developing end to end. In this vein, we get some context on scholarly communication not just as an end product, but also as an understanding of the changing nature of the full process of producing historical research and all the different stakeholders involved in that process. This nicely connects between things like digitization of collections and use and citation of collections.

    Super interested to continue following along with all the thoughts folks are sharing on this post about the connections between the work on our projects and the questions about openness that these readings raise!

  8. Jack, this post was great! The concept of openness theory is so important, especially because most of us are working towards becoming Public Historians and believe in the concept of accessibility and shared authority. You posed a lot of really great questions but I think I’ll tackle your first one, I believe that is the duty of younger generations in all fields to question and if necessary change the status quo. These first two semesters of graduate school have shown us how important it is to connect with the public, but with the current academic system that is a difficult task. However, we live in this era where connection is something that technology can permit, but academia’s rejection of this technology is preventing it from being legitimized as real scholarship which is not only unfair but detrimental to the development of scholarship. So we should develop ways to change the status quo of academia so that it can be pushed forward.

  9. I honestly had to check and see if Trevor wrote this post, it felt like a fully developed online lecture (have you thought about online teaching?!) Anyway, I have always believed that the more drafts of something seen by the most amount of eyes is more credible than something written once and immediately published. I think anyone can an authority on a topic, even without formal academic training; to me the value comes from the time and effort put into a project. If someone from a disenfranchised community without any formal education wrote and developed a historical project on their experiences that went through many stages of editing to finally be published online is often more valuable than some academic spending one week writing about the same community. I hope that more people challenge the academy through new digital methodologies. I don’t know when, if ever the academy will stop gate-keeping, but I think we are quickly progressing to a future when it will be impossible to ignore digital work.

  10. Thanks for this post, Jack! When thinking about whether it’s in our best interest to move away from print-based theses and dissertations, I wonder why the form has been so consistent. I know that in the field of Public Health dissertations have and are shifted to being three papers instead of one long monograph because publishing papers helps PhDs get a job. I wonder what prompted that shift there and why those bigger patterns haven’t caused a shift in history. That said, I totally think there should be digital theses and dissertations! I wonder how much the average dissertation is read. It seems like the chance of stumbling on a digital final project is much higher than stumbling on a monograph.

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