by Jane Shulman
Concordias 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
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. Theres
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
DesRoches attended last years 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 days 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 historians 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
Oral history is not a representation of the past its
the memory of survivors who have been asked to recount their experiences,
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 years conference
made for broad and dynamic discussions.
Its a big draw at a conference when you cross those kinds
of borders, Martens said. It was a real coup.