Monday, October 05, 2015

The Active History turn

After the turn to social history, the turn to critical theory, and various other observed or claimed "turns" in historical practice, is the turn to Active History upon us?

Mostly known as the name of a website and a couple of conferences, "Active History" also makes a useful label for serious historical work that goes beyond the classroom and the scholarly publication to engage with wider audiences, serve other communities, and explore other media. The term also nicely gets away from academic/non-academic, academic/public, scholarly/popular and other tired oppositions. And judging by the attendees at the Active History conference this past weekend at Huron College, London, Ont, the idea is working for a remarkably diverse group of historians.

It may be time. A half century of so of remarkable growth in numbers of professional, fulltime academic historians meant they could explore the wonders of being numerous enough (and securely enough established) to spend most of their careers, if they chose, talking with and writing for each other almost exclusively.  Now that's got old, and it seems a caucus within the academy is intrigued by the potential for working with wider communities or reaching additional audiences. Even more, the reality for vast numbers of students -- that there will be no secure academic jobs or that the campaign for them ceases to appeal -- is redefining how historically-trained young people see their career aspirations. And the success of public history programs in attracting excellent students and placing them in interesting jobs also continues to redefine the sense of what or who a historian can be.

May there always be a place for pure scholarship. And of course there have always been activist historians with wide interests and wide audiences, with political or cultural engagements. But I wonder if the young scholars who came up with the idea of Active History a few years ago will come to be seen as harbingers of a new ecology of historical practice.

Anyway, good conferences produce big thoughts, no?
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