The process of writing and now reading in the “open review” phase of Subjecting History has been fabulous. The comments on my essayhave already pushed me to think harder and deeper.
Even more interesting though has been the response by some people, including Mark Tebeau’s kindly worded but basically wholesale rejectionthat Subjecting History involves “the public.” I “know” Mark from twitter and I’m pretty thick skinned about criticism, so I started tweeting away last night hoping to talk more about his reservations. [storified here] Kristen Nawrotzki, co editor of the fabulous Writing History in the Digital Age, which is also born digital, as well as open review, chimed in as well. That born digital is a huge distinction. Subjecting History is digital at the point of publication of drafts, which is quite different and as Mark notes, forestalled public interaction at a critical moment in the production of historical knowledge.
Another problem though is the term “public.” In feminist discourse, public is the opposite of private, but in public history, public is an entirely other thing. Putting a volume like Subjecting History on the web makes it public but that doesn’t mean necessarily that publics will engage. In fact, so far on my chapter, all the critiques have been from one public, other academics. In that sense I’m having an open peer review, which is of course quite different than our experience of sending off a manuscript and months later receiving anonymous comments, but which is not the same thing as having non-academic publics involved. Nor is it the same as having publics whose history is at stake, in this case at the very minimum Chinese Americans in San Francisco, involved.
There is of course also the process of doing history with the public, which Mark does and Subjecting History most clearly does not. As Mark noted, the whole process of Subjecting History tilts the power balance towards the authors. I asked him what sorts of processes he saw that could correct and he offered three.
1) don’t respond, allow critiques to stand; 2) invite external comment; 3) change work, with clear lineage to comments
I found #1 fascinating since the whole point to me of putting my writing out in public is to engage in conversation. However I clearly see his point that authors “responding” can forestall additional commenting, and lapse into a sort of defensiveness. This is the model we are accustomed to in academic publishing. Reviewer comments come back. We revise and reply, sometimes explaining why the critique is invalid. Mark’s idea though is that the comments/critique should live independently of the manuscript. Because I write about activist artists who engaged in public history I have some models for this. For example, Suzanne Lacy solicited written responses from participants and published as part of the documentation of virtually all her performance work. The responses were published verbatim and without any response.
Soliciting external comment outside academia seems to me to be the greatest challenge. Everything form the format of Subjecting History, flat pages of endless text, to the subjects itself, fairly complex often historiographical arguments, works against any non-academic public getting involved. Again returning to the subjects of my own work, feminist activist process is to involve any public at the very beginning, not at the mid to end point as we are doing in Subjecting History. We’ve produced a volume by and for historians, which is fine, but that means the public interested is likely going to be other academics. Some of the chapters are by historians who work with(in) existing communities. I will be fascinated to see if any members of those “publics” participate in the comments. I wrote a largely historiographical essay and invited all the authors, one academic, three not to comment, but so far they have not. I’m still struggling to figure out how to reach out to broader publics, perhaps the users of the present day Cameron house.