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  • Engaging with Nießer and Tomann's Engaged History
  • Steven Lubar (bio)

Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language," written after his 1878 visit to Germany, poked fun at, among other things, the way that the language used compound words. Twain proudly showed off some terrifying compound words of his own, but he also acknowledged the power of the technique: "They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject."1

Tomann and Nießer walk us through a garden of Geschichts-compounds. They redeem the language's Compoundnounfacility by showing us the ways that contemporary German historians have thought through the various kinds of public history, its purposes, and its politics. Paying attention to language, the essay insists, is important. Historywords, like history, have histories and politics. Geschichtswissenschaft differs from Geschichtsdidaktik, Geschichtskulture from Geschichts-bewusstsein and applied history from public history, in ways that are harder to express in English.

English lacks not only those expressive compounds, but also, perhaps, the German language's attention to naming. We don't make these distinctions as much as we might. Public historians writing in English have for the most part been happy to call their work simply public history. (Applied history, an early term, has mostly disappeared.) This has its advantages: it allows us to find a happy home in a big tent, uniting most public historians in the National Council for Public History and in the pages of The Public Historian.

But American public historians also worry about the distinctions Tomann and Nießer raise, and examining our language similarly might be useful. We make our distinctions not by compounding nouns, but by debating prepositions. Is public history for, by, about, among, concerning, or with the public? Or, looking at the other side, is academic history despite, above, without, or beyond the public? [End Page 33]

This debate over prepositions, over the relationship of the public and the historian in public history, is familiar to anyone who teaches the subject. Our introductory seminars are focused on the complex nature of the relationship of public historians with the public. In the early years, many public historians assumed that their field was about history for the public; public historians were translators of academic history for a larger audience. More recently, public historians have insisted on the possibilities of history connected to the public through all those other prepositions. This makes for a much more useful and more interesting history.

It also makes for lively classroom discussions. A few years ago I put this question of relationship front and center in my Introduction to Public Humanities course at Brown. (Public humanities includes public history, but also other forms of publicly engaged scholarship. Perhaps there's a compound word for it in German?) The syllabus was divided into three sections: Us, Them, and You, and our focus was on the relationships between the participants in public humanities work, or between practitioners, subjects, and audiences. "Us" addressed just who was included as members of the public: How did communities define themselves? Who determined that, and how? (Think of the 1960s joke: The Lone Ranger saying, we're in trouble, and Tonto replying: What do you mean, we, white man?2) Readings in this section included Stephanie Yuhl's A Golden Haze of Memory and Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World.3 "Them" addressed "the other," the ways in which public humanities addressed outsiders and counterpublics and the ways that those groups represented themselves. For this section we read James Clifford on contact zones and Sally Price on the Musée du quai Branly, and considered Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's "Couple in the Cage."4 Finally, "You" addressed the students in the class as emerging professionals, with readings from Andrea Witcomb, Claire Bishop, and others.5

In recent years, the relationships of public historians and their publics has become increasingly complex, in some ways parallel to the German example. More recent versions of my "Introduction" course therefore focus less on the distinctions between groups and more on the overlaps. Readings from Habermas [End Page 34] and Michael Warner provide more theoretical depth on the topic of "the public."6...


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