The “Usable” Past: Historians, Op-eds & Public Perceptions of History

How do historians communicate history?  Today, historians have more ways and platforms to communicate than ever before—podcasts, social media, blogs, etc.  Additionally, in recent years, historians have been increasingly in demand to bring history into dialogue with contemporary events in the form of op-eds.  Historians use op-eds to raise awareness around largely overlooked events in the past or to connect current political events to their historical roots.  In our current 24-hour news cycle, it is crucial to understand the context of the news and information we are consuming.  News media outlets including CNN, USA Today, and the New York Times routinely publish op-eds authored by historians. The Smithsonian Magazine, TIME, and several history blogs—Society of U.S. Intellectual History Blog and the Age of Revolution Blog, to name a few—also feature posts written by historians.  One of the most compelling op-ed sections, however, is the Washington Post‘s Made By History blog. 

The blog’s name, Made By History, was inspired by an MLK quote: “Instead of making History, we are made by history.”

Made By History is a political history blog section of the Washington Post.  The blog was launched in 2017 by Brian Rosenwald, historian at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nicole Hemmer, professor and writer at the University of Virginia.  The co-editors-in-chief are joined by co-editor Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University.  Made By History features a wide range of historical content and subjects including current political events, historical origins of policy, and the problems with history education.  Titles range from “The historical roots of the security failure at the Capitol” to “What the 1798 Sedition Act got right—and what it means today” to “Ethnic studies can’t make up for whitewashed history in classrooms.” 

Description of the Made By History blog on AHA Today.

I am proposing an in-depth analysis of the Made By History section of the Post.  I am thinking that the best way to approach this would be to choose a timeframe of articles to analyze—considering who the authoring historians are, how they use the past to contextualize the present, and using comments to gauge how the public engages with the articles and historical information.  It will be important to keep in mind that the audience is targeted—Washington Post subscribers and readers who are most likely politically left-leaning and news conscious.  It is also interesting to mention the interdisciplinary nature of op-ed writing—working across the disciplines of history, politics, journalism, and, of course, digital humanities.  Additionally, the method and structure of writing op-eds is a widely different approach to communicating history than the more long-winded and scholarly style we may be used to—the Made By History posts are 600-1000 words on average.

Example of this week’s feed.

Writing op-eds provides historians with an opportunity to engage with the public in an unconventional and meaningful way.  The widely read and respected platform—The Washington Post—allows historians to present and share quality history that reaches people.  The blog’s mission, using historical analysis to contextualize the present, sheds light on why history and historians matter, and how the past is usable and relevant.  Made By History draws a line from the past to the present, stimulates historical reflection and consciousness, encourages readers to connect with history, and reflects the prescience of the past. I am excited to think about how this new way of engaging with the public impacts public perceptions of history and public political memory.

Description of the Made By History blog on AHA Today.

3 Replies to “The “Usable” Past: Historians, Op-eds & Public Perceptions of History”

  1. Hi Rebecca! I think that your project proposal sounds really interesting. Although I’ve generally read op-eds, I had not thought of it as another medium that historians use to connect with public audiences. The Made By History blog sounds like a great resource! Another angle that you could consider (in addition to timeframe of the articles) could be seeing if there are any patterns as historians use the past to frame the present. I wonder if there are any moments in history or stories in history that are referred to more frequently? Or it could be interesting to see how several op-eds approach a particular current event. It will be really interesting to see what you find if you choose this project and start digging into the source material!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Mia! I think your idea of dissecting how several op-eds approach a particular current event is a really good idea that I might use. I think it is going to be difficult to nail down one specific event, but I think that is the best way to approach this!

  2. Rebecca this is a really great idea. It’s interesting to see this kind of a continual stream of writing shared out by a major newspaper as part of it’s digital only offerings.

    I think your idea about doing close analysis of some of the material from the site is a great way to approach it. Given that this is a somewhat unique offering, I think it would also be great to think about reaching out to some of the main people involved in the project. Both the historians and potentially some of the people at the Post involved in it, to see if they might answer questions to you about it. It would be great to see if they could tell you a bit directly about what their goals are for the series and the extent to which they think it has or has not been successful. Related to that, I imagine you can likely find some info from the folks involved in it where they are sharing out about the goals of the project and that would be great to use to round out the story. I think you could likely situate this kind of story in historical literature that comes out from things like “Historians in Public” https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo3641730.html

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