On January 4th I journeyed to the heart of historical studies in the United States–the American Historical Association’s convention, this year conveniently located in Chicago. Only a miserable 13 hours by train from Rochester. The train on the way out was too hot; the one on the way back was cold, but that’s much more bearable. One day, after I pen that NYT best-seller, I’m going to fly everywhere, or at least get a cabin if I’m traveling by train. Still young enough to spend a night in a coach seat, but not by much. Maybe I should follow my friend Jay’s systematic approach to train travel, which involves coming prepared with ear plugs, a sleeping mask, and an inflatable neck-pillow.

Anyway, I really don’t have too much to report from the AHA this year–not like last year, when I was giving updates every other day.  There weren’t too many medieval sessions, and the one that I would have attended, the one moderated by Paul Kennedy, was at the wrong hotel (in contrast to last year in Boston, the hotels weren’t connected, so there was a considerable amount of walking involved if one wanted to shift locations).  Same for military sessions, though I did attend the SMH’s Marshall Lecture–a fascinating address by Andrew Bacevich on writing the history of American wars in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Other than that, I went to a few Digital Humanities panels, picked up some tips on blogging, podcasts, and current cutting-edge DH historical projects, and saw some of my friends from the West Point Summer Seminar and a few friends from Cornell, whom I was very pleasantly surprised to run into.

Bacevich’s basic premise is that we need a healthy dose of historical revisionism to our interpretation of American conflicts in the “long” 20th century, which is currently based on belief that “war works”–thus World War II is a straightforward narrative, and is currently the basis for a series of parables, very Churchill-esque, if you will.   Ongoing events, Bacevich argued, require a revision of the overall narrative, not least because “for history to serve more than an ornamental function, it must speak to the present” (well put, though I have my own way of putting that into action that I’ll discuss later). In effect, he argued, there are two different stories in the 20th century. The “short” 20th century is from 1914 to 1989, and is the story of “freedom besieged but ultimately triumphant.” That’s the one we all know.  The OTHER is the “long” 20th century, from 1914 to the present, and is the story of who will dominate the region popularly known as the Middle East.  That is ongoing, and does not offer the same kind of moral certainties that the war against Nazi Germany did (though, as he pointed out, there were plenty of moral problems with the conduct and outcome of the Second World War, starting with the near-complete lack of concern for European Jews, and continuing to ethnic cleansing after the war…).  Ultimately, Bacevich argued that we need to “kick down the door of the memory palace” and provide the country with a “usable” past; what we have now “is worse than dead, it’s causing self-inflicted wounds.”  On the whole, a very thought-provoking talk, and worth pondering…

Digital Humanities are an interesting phenomenon, I have to say.  The possibilities for research are virtually (no pun intended) endless. Pedagogically, I’m not quite as convinced–something that sets me apart from true Digital Humanists, I suppose.  I look at digital media as more tools in the tool box; they are not ends in themselves, as some advocates seem to be saying.  And in particular, I find digital media to be less useful in the classroom than do many apostles of DH, especially when it comes to assisting my students think, argue, and write analytically.  I’ll leave it at that for now… One major talking point I did pick up at the sessions was that, although we like to be knowledgeable in all areas of our research, unfortunately we’re going to have to accept the fact that we need people who know design and development. We can’t be intellectual autarkists. That being said, I’m still intent on mastering that side of DH projects. It was encouraging to hear about the National Endowment for the Humanities’ resources for Digital Humanities projects, and I got to see demonstrations of some fascinating projects, which I’ll probably discuss in subsequent posts…

Oh, and I did make it to the Chicago Art Institute, which was as good as advertised. I wish they’d had more of their armor on display, but at least there are plans to remedy the situation.  The situation of the museum was interesting–two halves connected by an overpass section that has rail lines beneath.  Must have been challenging to create a structure that would effectively meet the preservation standards required of the collection.

Well, it’s on to the new–and last–semester now. Life’s going to be pretty busy in the upcoming months: finishing the dissertation, giving papers at NEMLA, Fordham, and Kalamazoo, continuing to edge closer to that black belt, getting a couple of those articles out, friends’ wedding, etc., etc.  Busy = good in my opinion. Time to get it all done…

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