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the public sphere (GSA 2004) Date: 20 October 2004 Report: German Studies Association, 28th Annual Conference, Washington, D. C., October 2004 Session #89: "Making it real: intellectual exchange, virtual space, and the public sphere," GSA Roundtable Moderator: Konrad Jarausch, University of North Carolina/Zentrum fuer Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam Paul Steege, Villanova University Andrew Bergerson, University of Missouri, Kansas City Harold Marcuse, University of California, Santa Barbara Dirk Schumann, German Historical Institute This conference report is different than most because it is itself part of an on-going experiment to alter the nature of public discourse about the past. It reports on a roundtable that revisited longstanding questions of the public role of historians: how academics can more effectively engage a wider public sphere in critical reflection about the past. At stake in this question were not simply the roles of market forces and culture industries in adulterating the past: falsifying it out of hand, "dumbing it down" for mass consumption, "sexing it up" to attract mass audiences, or simply creating an atmosphere that makes it challenging for a critical public intellectual to thrive. Rather, the panelists explored the possibilities for engagement beyond the ivory tower in spite of those circumstances. Panelists raised questions about the potential contributions of such media as online discussion networks, websites, conferences, and museums. The discussion that followed was lively, challenging these proposals in terms of their pragmatics, ethics, and intellectual legitimacy. By summarizing these debates, this conference report seeks not to "conclude" them but to evoke responses from the members of H-German in an on-going discussion about the critical issues to our profession and discipline. As the moderator, Konrad Jarausch introduced the issues by recognizing that historians have had mixed relations with the wider public sphere (interest and appreciation as well as hostility and criticism), but that this roundtable represented an opportunity for self-reflection. He argued that we face multiple audiences: Germans and North Americans (with very different attitudes about the centrality of the past in contemporary politics), colleagues and students (whom we train), academics and a general public (with varying degrees of special interests and educational backgrounds). For each, he argued, we need different goals: advancing scholarship among colleagues requires debating truth in a limited public sphere, but engaging in memory politics over identities (for instance, with "witnesses") raises less familiar challenges given its largely emotional component and requires a different language and strategies for dissemination. We have a large arsenal of methods at our disposal, he insisted. The question is simply: in which of these do we wish to make ourselves proficient? We are comfortable with and will continue to publish monographs, articles, textbooks and the like, he argued, but we are now faced with public media (like interviews, newspaper articles, exhibitions, and films) as well as online media (as devices for both teaching and publication) that have laws of their own. If he believed that we do need to have a larger public presence, he warned of considerable pitfalls. Focusing on his service to us as an editor of H-German, Paul Steege described how the current editorial board does not see H-German simply as a "virtual" sideline to our scholarship but as part and parcel of intellectual public discussion about the German past more generally. Educated in an era in which email had already become standard and H-German already served as a preferred medium for job searches, he recalled, somewhat romantically, the "glory days" of that medium when it served as a vehicle for extensive, spontaneous, public debate by academic historians: in 1995 around the issue of postmodernism, and in 1996 around Hitler’s Willing Executioners, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Today, in contrast, there are few spontaneous debates on H-German. Even when prompted—for instance, as part of fora of solicited comments: "Hitler: the Rise of Evil" in May-June 2003, WWII Bombing in the Fall of 2003, or the Rosenstrasse protests in the summer of 2004—he was saddened by the fact that responses are now more rare (perhaps because historians are so overwhelmed by email) and so carefully articulated that they are more like published articles rather than online discussions (perhaps because of the very success of H-German as a medium for online publication). In an effort to craft spaces in which such engagement can effectively take place, the current H-German editors have been working hard to expand the nexus between real and virtual public spheres. They see H- German as a way to reach a variety of different publics: academic historians, public historians, independent scholars, historians in training. Yet they trouble over the fact that multiple users have multiple intentions and that these many kinds of historians are unable (or unwilling) to engage in spontaneous, serious discussion online. They see it as their task to find manageable ways to make H-German more useful and more relevant to its users. To that end, they published our comments online before this roundtable in the hope, once again, of inspiring online debate about these issues. I (Drew Bergerson) changed my comments even before the roundtable in response to what I read from the other three panelists, in the hopes of modeling the kind of dynamic discussion, and learning, that is made possible by coordinating online-virtual media with traditional conferences. That was my first argument. I still see an important role for classic panels at conferences where each scholar presents scholarship in "lecture" format, but I also see a place for roundtables, workshops, and the like which afford more audience participation. Germans call this engagement (Begegnung). Particularly when coordinated with online dissemination, it can extend well beyond the scope of the relatively few people who attend these academic conferences. Here, I agreed with ethnographers, oral historians, and self- styled "postmodernists" who have been arguing to demystify the culture of professional expertise in which historians claim sole authority over the past, in part through the myth of individual authorship. There are many models already in use for shifting the focus of our interaction from the defense of ideas "owned" by individual academic egos to an open, constructive, self-critical discussion of ideas: team teaching in interdisciplinary combinations, pre-circulating brief thought pieces, "gagging" authors temporarily, as well as group efforts as collaborative essays. Most of them do not preclude publishing finished products later under individual names; but most of them do involve taking risks in the public sphere. My second point was that virtual media can make these discussions both easier (by providing a way to exchange ideas informally prior to that "finished" product, particularly when coordinated with face-to-face encounters at conferences and workshops), as well as available to a mass public. Harold Marcuse was also convinced of the importance of the web as a medium for engagement with a wider public. He noted the strong interest in historical websites, not only among a new generation of web-savvy undergraduates but also among those members of the global public who have access to the web. Indeed, he noted that some producers of historical documentaries use web sources to get their ideas and information. Yet he regretted the fact that professional historians by and large abandon this critical source of public information to often untrained or uninformed amateurs. The creation of websites is not recognized as part of our obligations as professional historians (for instance in tenure and promotion), yet it is relatively easy to learn how to set up a website, he insisted, with a learning curve of no more difficulty than learning to word process (which many of us successfully mastered later in life). And because of the way that search engines work, even a relatively simple website can attract attention away from websites conveying more myth than fact, a phenomenon that is particularly common in the case of modern German history, where self-proclaimed revisionists and deniers abound [see the conferences panel on "Self-Delusion in Germany" at the same GSA]. Even easier than creating our own sites is to assess books on Amazon and historical films on the Internet Movie Database imdb.com. Marcuse also described his experience with publishing student research projects on-line. (A hyperlinked thesis paper of his remarks is available at www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/present/.) In his remarks from his perspective as both an academic historian and Deputy Director of the German Historical Institute in Washington D. C., Dirk Schumann agreed with Harold in two ways: that there is a tremendous popular interest in history in spite of falling budgets and job losses, and that academic historians should not abandon this audience to journalists and other public intellectuals. He noted the large number of exhibitions in national and regional museums, the large audiences for historical films (e. g., "Das Wunder von Bern" in 2003), the growth of interest in aspects of German history beyond the Third Reich, and even the benefits of having professionally trained historians in leading positions at newspapers. Still, he troubled over the problem of how historians are to produce a nuanced discourse that can also reach a broad audience. First, he called on us to tailor our narratives, venues, and language to at least three different audiences (colleagues, an educated elite, and a general public) and to participate more actively in the "visualization" of history, by which he meant the production of historical documentaries, movies, image archives, exhibitions, and the like. He then described the lecture series in Spring 2004 at the GHI cosponsored with the Goethe Institute on "History in film— Film in History" as an example, though he admitted that it is not really a model because of the particularities of the D. C. audience. Second, he called for a reduction in the number of highly specialized journals, conferences, and books, which would enable us to be read more widely. In both recommendations, however, he recognized that existing market conditions, doctoral programs, and tenure and promotion guidelines place precisely the opposite pressures on academics: to ignore "public history" and produce more "scholarship". The audience responded to us with diverse, strongly held convictions. On the one hand, discussion focused on what Helmut Scherer called "the self- organization of the sciences [read broadly as: Wissenschaft] as social organizations." From the "outsider" perspective of cultural studies, Jeffrey Peck argued that historians need to rethink their sacred notions of professional authority and the historical monography. Jarausch recognized that "historical journalists" help translate scholarship to a wider audience and are therefore in many cases better known than academic historians (e. g., Guido Knopp); but if we abandon our privileged position as professionally trained historians, he wondered, why should anyone listen to our narratives over others? Jonathan Sperber agreed. Undergraduate students do not like it when their professors give up their claim to speak authoritatively and objectively about the past: politics do not belong in the lecture hall. Karen Hagemann disagreed about the place of politics in history but reminded us of just how difficult it is to speak out in a critical voice when one is not yet tenured. A sharp voice of dissent, Scherer argued that the web has been overestimated in its impact: only people who are interested in a particular topic search the web for information on it. By contrast, film, television, and newspapers reach a truly modern-mass audience. On the other hand, we discussed the role that academic historians play in the wider public sphere. From his perspective as a freelance historian in Poland, Joachim Neander concurred that Holocaust education is very much web- driven these days, and yet there is considerable work to be done simply in correcting errors, even on the websites of established institutions. With reference to sources, Sperber insisted that there is no universal set of sources; all historians tailor their sources to their interests. Yet the problem for most of his undergraduates at the University of Missouri is that they do not read German. By contrast, Heide Fehrenbach challenged the fetishization of the document, though she worried that most of us are not trained as public historians. Jarausch reminded us that we need to teach students to critique sources found on the web. David Imhoof suggested that we vet the work of our students by trained historians in a sort of peer- review for the web. The problem of false information is not new to the historical profession, he reminded us; the new technology just makes it easier to disseminate those falsehoods. Annette Timm gave an example: in December 1999 she responded to a posting on H-German about Lebensborn and, even though she is not a specialist on it, her message became the top result for that keyword on google [in Oct. 2004 that H-German discussion is the 15th result]. As far as Hagemann was concerned, historical information is already on the web (accurate or not), so it is our responsibility to help students navigate this new medium (and to set up our own websites to correct those errors). Skye Arndt-Briggs concurred; and yet it is hard for her, in her work digitizing the Defa Film Library, to get academic historians to encapsulate their ideas in the form of short film reviews for a general educated public. Noting that Germanists had just held a very similar panel, Peck called for more interdisciplinary collaboration at the GSA: too many panels still limit themselves to a particular academic epistemology, or are at most multidisciplinary in scope, rather than focusing on phenomena that are interdisciplinary in "real" life. Arndt-Briggs made a similar call for multivocality: formal digitization projects (with content for teaching) are helpful for some purposes, informal spontaneous discussion for others. This reviewer would have to agree. Some audiences are modern, divided in terms of elite and mass cultures. Some are postmodern: spontaneous, temporary, and conditioned by a highly individualized set of interests. Each in our own ways, professional historians of Germany can participate in all of them. For a complete listing of all sessions at the 2004 German Studies Association Conference, please visit <http://www.g-s-a.org>.