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March 29, 2001 Graduate students discuss the nuances of history and media





by Jane Shulman

Concordia’s annual History in the Making conference often breaks new ground by gathering historians from Canada and the United States to present papers on newly-emerging areas of study, and this year was no exception.

History and Media was the theme, bringing together communications, journalism and history graduate students, many of whom discussed the interdisciplinary nature of their work.

“Almost everyone is working with media to some extent in their research now,” said Melanie Martens, one of the conference organizers. “There’s so much out there, and as we document more of our research by recording it, it will be a tremendous resource for people in future,” she said.

“A conference like this shows different ways of studying history in an interdisciplinary way,” said Christian DesRoches, another conference organizer.

DesRoches attended last year’s conference, which focused on genocide studies, while he was a student at Université Laval. He was so impressed with the department and professors at Concordia that he switched schools, and is now studying with Frank Chalk. “I became involved with this conference because I was interested in expanding the bounds of history,” he said.

The conference featured filmmakers and journalists who incorporate the study of history in their work, and historians who use journalistic and communications tools to document their research.

Video changes scholarship
The day’s first keynote speaker was an example of the latter. Daniel Walkowitz, a history professor and director of the metropolitan studies program at New York University, is currently looking at the development of folk dance in American culture in the first half of the 20th century. It sounds like perfect material for a paper in a history journal, but Walkowitz decided it would be more relevant to transform his research into a documentary film.

In the paper he presented at this conference, called “Folk dance, history and videotape: Using video oral history in the post-modern era,” Walkowitz argued that the meeting of media and history presents new problems and opportunities for historians. The editing process, camera angles and the role of the narrator are all issues of concern.

Unlike an academic paper, a film may leave much of the deciphering of the material to the viewer, who may be less inclined to view a film critically than an essay. In fact, noted Walkowitz, a film viewer is often inclined to be spoon-fed the material by the narrator.

“History is not a stable backdrop to a historian’s take on things,” Walkowitz said. “In video, the risk is allowing the audience to turn off and let someone tell them what it all means.”

Walkowitz noted that using film also has some distinct advantages. Video uncovers nuances that would be missed if viewers did not see the original footage. He demonstrated his point by screening excerpts from his upcoming film about folk dance. He showed that when interviewees explained the way they danced, they did not always accurately reflect what they were actually doing.

“Oral history is not a representation of the past — it’s the memory of survivors who have been asked to recount their experiences,” said Walkowitz.

Panels cross borders
The conference featured panel discussions on a range of topics. “There were a lot of options on the line-ups. We decided to go with less obvious choices sometimes to see how people would interact,” said Martens. “I think it was a fruitful decision.”

The Dissemination of Knowledge, one of the afternoon panels, featured a paper called “Education, Printing and Renaissance Public Discourse” and another about using media in contemporary classrooms.

The wide array of material covered continued with a panel called Race, Ethnicity and the Press, where presenters discussed black media in Montreal; race, the press and the war on drugs; and news and propaganda in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

“It was really neat to have history generalists talking with people in media studies and communications about history,” Martens said. The various perspectives of the 50 participants at this year’s conference made for broad and dynamic discussions.

“It’s a big draw at a conference when you cross those kinds of borders,” Martens said. “It was a real coup.”