By Ian Isherwood ’00, ‘Digital Historian’
I feel a little strange writing a reflective blog since I helped staff CWI 2014. Obviously, I am happy that conference went well, that our attendees and speakers were happy, and I am very proud of my co-workers for pulling off another great event. But it seems propagandist to point these things out. So I am just going to give a few observations, for whatever they’re worth.
The program was really well structured. There was a superb blend of topics/lectures that gave something for everyone. More importantly, the program emphasized what has been a running theme of the sesquicentennial: this is not your grandfather’s Civil War. Traditional military history certainly has its place and is extremely relevant and interesting, but the CWI blended military history with other fields, to make for a more comprehensive ‘war and society’ approach.
I think this type of approach is important because it forces us to think in more meaningful ways about violence. It also lends itself to questions about our own perceptions of the past and present. People want the past to be relevant – I hear this all the time – and one way to make history meaningful is to constantly reevaluate what we think we know. This sometimes leads to conflicts, but informed debate is the cornerstone of knowledge.
Some will say that this is flighty nonsense or revisionism, but those folks don’t really bother me much. All history worth its own ink is essentially revisionist. The historian’s job is to research, reevaluate, and reinterpret the past in ways that make sense for new generations. That’s our mission whether people like it or not.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most about the conference was that the ‘new generation’ is fundamentally hungry for Civil War manna in buffet form. They want gender studies, museum studies, cultural studies, literary studies, allthestudies . . . what intrigues this generation is not the comfort of old stories, but the discomfort found in new interpretations. They want #dropthemic moments from historians that challenge what they think they know.
And instead of thoughtful chin-stroking there was tweeting. One third of me hates this (the part of me that wishes history was still written with steel pens in smoky dens), one third of me likes it (because of the snark), and one third of me is terrible at using my iPad. Beyond my hang-ups, the point remains that all around the ballroom there were folks on their electronic devices asking thoughtful questions and retweeting zingers. I don’t know what to make of this really – my life is about the past and not the future – so we’ll see, #twitterstorians, in a few years what’s up.
To sum, I walked away from CWI 2014 positive about the future of history because of the subject’s big-tented-ness. One thing is for certain – there is a ton of interesting work being done on the Civil War Era. As we enter the last year of the sesquicentennial, this is a good thing for the future.