ASEH 2012: Madison Wisconsin and Digital History

Early on Thursday morning environmental historians from across the United States, Canada, and Europe converged on Madison, Wisconsin for the annual ASEH meeting. Madison is not an easy, or cheap, place to get to and it seemed like everyone had a story about the round-about route they took to get to the conference. A quintet from Toronto spent 13 hours in a rented van; those from Vancouver routed through Minneapolis and Dallas; others flew into Chicago and bused it into Madison. It was worth the effort, Madison is one cool city with friendly people, heritage architecture, ongoing protests (Recall Walker), good food, and great beer. It is also full of Badgers. But enough about the city and on to the ASEH!

ASEH Phoenix was all about sustainability. From Cronon’s plenary address to the field trips and sessions and networking discussion, sustainability was the key term of the conference – fitting since a city in the middle of a desert should be thinking and acting in a sustainable way. At Madison the recurring topics were digital history and Rachel Carson.
As any environmental historian will happily tell you, the year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication. The 2002 printing of Carson’s work features the by-line “The book that launched the environmental movement” so it should be no surprise that environmental historians are interested in tracing the impact of Carson and her book as a means of commemoration. At the Jenny Price’s plenary address “Stop Saving the Planet, Already!–and Other Tips from Rachel Carson for 21st-Century Environmentalists” offered an alternative reading and lessons from Carson’s work that was the topic of many conversations the following morning. There were also a number of panels focusing on Carson with her name popping up in a number of the papers about environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the all Canadian panel on the environmental movement got in on the Silent Spring celebration with Mark McLaughlin of the University of New Brunswick presenting on the connections Carson made with New Brunswick scientists and foresters for the chapter titled “The River of Death.”
Rachel Carson is an interesting and popular subject for environmental historians.

Protesting at the State Building


What really stood out this year among the younger generations at ASEH was the perforated of social media into the proceedings. In most sessions you could find someone – usually a graduate student – with a smart phone or iPad out checking Twitter. We were not being rude I promise. We were sending out 140 character messages to all the people who couldn’t make it to the conference, or couldn’t be in two panels at once, so they could follow in real time what was happening. To filter our tweets from the herd, we used the established hashtag for environmental history, #envhist, in combination with #ASEH2012. There were about 5 people consistently tweeting with that number ballooning to double digits by the third day as word got around what was going on — which you can see in this post from Finn Arne Jorgensen.

3 Monkeys


The digital history went beyond live tweeting, with four panels devoted specifically to new forms of historical communication the electronic age has created. Sean Kheraj led a session for the graduate workshop about the value of twitter and blogging to promoting yourself and your work. The monster panel on DH brought together 8 scholars working with digital media to engage the public, communicate with collegues, promote their work, and even as the basis of their studies. The stand out projects from the panel were Jessica van Horssen’s graphic novel on Asbestos, Quebec, an excellent video portal about climate change at Climate Wisconsin, and the new site Ant, Spider, Bee for the exploring the digital environmental humanities.
One of the interesting ongoing discussions about digital history that came up is getting online contributions recognized by hiring and tenure committees. Consider the various digital media publications that NiCHE members are involved with: Jess van Horssen published a graphic novel online that is used across the country in high schools and university courses; Sean Kheraj maintains a monthly podcast called Nature’s Pasts; NiCHE produces a group blog called The Otter; the video podcast I do with Sean Kheraj called EHTV: Environmental History Television; and now an environmental history app that brings all he EH news directly to you. There are also numerous academic blogs kept by graduate students and established scholars, a number of which are linked to from the side bar of this site.
All of these projects increase the visibility of environmental history and of the scholars behind them but they are not recognized as contributions to knowledge in the same way peer-reviewed articles are. It is early in the incorporation of digital media into environmental history but this is an issue that needs to be addressed by institutions so the work of new scholars in non-traditional areas can be appreciated and its value to the individual, the institution they are affiliated with, and the field they work in can be fostered.
I am one of those new scholars who engages with the diverse outlets for knowledge networking offered by all things digital and have found it to be very rewarding. I recognize not everyone is comfortable with Twitter or willing to open themselves up to the criticisms that can come with keeping a blog or interested in doing more writing than they already do. It is the individuals prerogative to become an active contributor to the digital side of environmental history but everyone can follow it and engage with the discussions it facilitates. Download the EH app designed by Jim Clifford and Sean Kheraj if you have an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad. It brings all the #envhist news directly to you! I also encourage anyone who can’t make it to a conference or is in a place with a small environmental history population to at least follow the most active environmental historians on twitter, maybe even join yourself…

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About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Environment, Grad School, Public History, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to ASEH 2012: Madison Wisconsin and Digital History

  1. Pingback: ASEH 2012: Madison Wisconsin and Digital History | Ant, Spider, Bee

  2. Mark says:

    I think this is a really interesting piece. I like all the digital and social media stuff that comes out of ASEH – as first year PhD candidate and a new(ish) Tweeter I found the ASEH hashtag useful to follow talks etc.

    I think you’re absolutely right too re. Twitter and blogs. Although I’ve only just joined the blogging world (literally last week), I joined Twitter on 30 November last year and within a couple of weeks I was asked to do a podcast on ‘Silent Spring’ for the website Environmental History Resources http://www.eh-resources.org/ – had I not been on Twitter this prob wouldn’t have happened. Plus I am the only EH in my institution and so it is good to keep a track of new research etc in the field.

  3. Pingback: Hall of Ideas J(am) | Stillwater Historians

  4. Rob Gee says:

    Lauren,
    Great post–I too was struck by the presence of digital history in this year’s conference and while I didn’t get to see the other sessions, I was impressed that the last session, where conference attrition so often becomes visible, was indeed standing room only. I liked that the eight presentations and the Q&A that followed outlined the distinction that so many people seem to miss. Digital history can be both a set of tools and techniques for delivery–to reach wider and more demographically diverse audiences–and a set of methods and approaches to conducting more incisive historical research. And the fruits of that research can be delivered through digital media or the more conventional ones. I hear a lot of people in the wider history community criticizing the use of new technologies–especially in response to online teaching and learning, which might have been a wise inclusion in the panel (not that there was room for more). They seem to think we’re somehow encouraging our own obsolescence. We’re making teaching into something a computer can do for us. It’s not unlike the fear that the internet would destroy newspapers. It didn’t. Or the idea that tele-conferencing and social media would eliminate conferences. As you point out, our tweeting and blogging has only enriched the ASEH conference (to say nothing of extending its discussions) by extending its reach around the world, both in real time and retrospectively. I’ve always been amused by historians who purport to study change while avoiding it at all cost in their real lives. Newspapers, classrooms, conferences–they’ve all been changed, none have been destroyed!
    I’ve been thinking about connections between digital history and the session on navigating the job market. There aren’t a wealth of jobs out there, but there’s an increasing proportion of them that are seeking people to do digital history. Given that digital history can still be so many things (and I have a sneaking suspicion that many departments are hiring in that area without doing much soul searching on what they believe it to be) how do we know whether we fit into a department’s definition of a digital historian. Are you and I digital historians because we write blogs and use Twitter? Because we teach online courses? Is it weird to contact the chair of a search committee and say “so you want a digital historian–what exactly do you believe that to be?”
    The question of valuing the products, which you raise and which was debated in Madison, is an important one too–especially as these departments start hiring in this area. While I think of tenure much the way I think of social security (neat idea but unlikely I’ll ever see it), if we are going to endure some exercise where we pretend to objectively assess academic contribution these questions will need better answers than we currently have. And whoever it is that computes impact factors better get their game face on! But much as technology has broadened the reach of publications, classrooms and conferences, I expect it will broaden conversations and amplify a lot of absurdity about assessments of productivity and scholarly impact. Just have to get some historians to think about change is all! Thanks for a great read.

  5. Pingback: ASEH 2012 is over…onto Toronto 2013 — News from Somewhere

  6. Pingback: Am I a Digital Historian? | Stillwater Historians

  7. Pingback: Digital Environmental History Highlight #1: H-Environment Roundtable Reviews « Sean Kheraj, Canadian History and Environment

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