2024 May 22—Developing a SUNY Historians Network

report on the first year of the suny historylab @ suny conference on instruction & technology.

The SUNY Historians Network Webinar Series in action: Drs. Montgomery Hill, Maeve Kane, and Michael Leroy Oberg explore “Multiple Methods for Haudenosaunee History,” 1 May 2024.

Presentation at SUNY CIT Conference, 22 May 2024. Rough draft of notes for talk below (please pardon any typos).

A SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant (IITG) this past academic year allowed the SUNY HistoryLab to get started in trying to address two big issues we see before us as historians who research and teach in the SUNY system. The first is an issue of fragmentation and disconnection even within one discipline within SUNY’s decentralized system itself. The second is an issue of how to better connect SUNY faculty historical knowledge and student historical inquiry to public use and value in New York State as a whole. We see these two issues—one an intra-SUNY dilemma; the other a question of how to enhance SUNY’s public service role beyond campus—as intertwined. Addressing the first became a way, at a sustainable tempo, of beginning the more ambitious project of pursuing the second.

First, when it comes to the field of historical inquiry, how might we build a more robust community of scholarship across the very decentralized SUNY system? There is value to decentralization in a state as diverse and complicated as New York, but also challenges. We have all kinds of important historical research and teaching going on not only at research centers, but also at comprehensive campuses, community colleges, and other institutions within SUNY, not only in history departments but across many fields, yet there are few effective vehicles for bringing SUNY historians together, to share and test out work, to explore potential cross campus projects or teaching possibilities or other ideas of interest. To be sure, there has been a lot of emphasis on interdisciplinary work—conversations across the disciplines, and the like. These are important. These are good. These are necessary. But what about disciplinary work that then becomes a seedbed, a launching pad, a spring board (use the metaphor you wish to use) for interdisciplinary exploration. How might we address the study of the past in particular more robustly within SUNY?

Second, how might we better share the knowledge of SUNY historical research, teaching, and scholarship with citizens of New York State, which is to say how do we better deliver the value of SUNY to the public, and how do we help to emphasize the importance of historical knowledge for public use in a country that faces enormous civic issues and problems of our very democratic existence as a polity currently? In people’s particular lives, this can become a question of activism, but as an institution, as public servants, what can we contribute as historians to stabilizing and sustaining healthy civic engagement and life so that effective change or reform can take place within an infrastructure of carework and maintenance that persists and even, maybe, thrives? After all, as SUNY employees we are public servants. Yet when it comes to history, we again have only a few scattershot (but important nonetheless) modes of bringing SUNY expertise in historical inquiry to the broader public of the state. How might we disseminate new historical knowledge, but more crucially how might we contribute to, maintain, and expand communities of historical exploration and understanding together with other experts (teachers, librarians, municipal historians, museum professionals, knowledge keepers, and everyday people curious about the past and why it matters to the present and the future)?

Within SUNY, and beyond it, the SUNY HistoryLab is an experiment that seeks to model not only for history, but also for other disciplines better ways of connecting campuses to each other and, from there, connecting SUNY to the citizens of New York State. To do so, it insists on one important additional idea: rather than pitting research against teaching, we start with the value of faculty research for teaching. Generating new historical knowledge through empirical research of all sorts, engaging in historiographical debate and dialogue, and linking that to our teaching is essential to what we do. It forms the very core of the historical enterprise. Teaching needs research. Research needs teaching. They go together to form a scholarly ecosystem. How might we maintain this endeavor more successfully, particularly when there are enormous pressures, as much political as demographic, sometimes in bad faith and cynical as well as trying to be realistic, that seek to dismantle what universities do when it comes to historical inquiry and understanding.

OK, I’m getting a bit grandiose and a soapbox is suddenly appearing below the lecturn. Apologies. Back to basics. To address the big, troubling issues of preserving, maybe even enhancing and expanding, historical inquiry in New York State as SUNY faculty and staff, we had to start small, with our own disconnections from each other.

This year, with the support of our IITG, we created a basic website for the SUNY HistoryLab (hosted on the SUNY Brockport Department of History’s Reclaim webhosting platform and developed using WordPress) and we began conversations with faculty at our home institution of SUNY Brockport, outside Rochester, as well as with historians on other campuses, institutions such as the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Public History, the SUNY Albany Institute for History and Public Engagement, and the SUNY Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History, the Office of State History at the New York State Museum (run by the wonderful Devin Lander), and the Association for Public Historians of New York State, among others. The landscape of public historical work in NYS is complex, multifaceted, with many disparate grassroots activities going on, but not always a lot of SUNY involvement. That’s ok. The goal is not to replace anything, but rather to find ways to fit in, connect, enhance, and link. There is much more fascinating work to be done to connect SUNY historical knowledge to the state beyond the work we do with students in SUNY classrooms themselves, which is already crucial, important, and full of possibilities for more cross-campus interaction. The bigger issues—problem number two that I mentioned at the start of this presentation—will take investments and leadership from the central SUNY administration to move forward in any substantive way, but we can continue to add to the wonderful range of grassroots activities in the meantime.

Could we, for instance one day effectively offer SUNY research and teaching and scholarship to secondary school teachers for use in the classroom? Maybe SUNY students could acquire digital curation skills and professional internship experience by helping to package SUNY faculty research for use in the New York State high school social studies classroom? Could we better connect the mandated municipal historian program in New York State to SUNY faculty scholarship? How might SUNY students learn new skills and contribute to their communities through more robust interaction between SUNY campuses and local municipal historians (another good reason to maintain our campuses all across the state around the goal of enhancing local community strength)? What other ways might a HistoryLab stitch the investment the state makes in SUNY faculty research, teaching, and scholarship into the very fabric of SUNY’s public value? It’s not about research versus teaching or faculty and students on campus versus history out beyond campus. It’s about the tricky, slow, funky work of developing infrastructure that provides and sustains flexible support for historical inquiry across different people and places and institutions.

Oops, I’m getting grandiose again. Before we could get there with such big ambitions in terms of issue number two—the public value of SUNY for historical inquiry and awareness in the state as a whole—we had to attend first to issue number one—the lack of connection within the very decentralized system of SUNY campuses themselves. We quickly realized that the HistoryLab needed to facilitate more interaction among SUNY historical scholars. From there we can begin to bring in our own SUNY students. And from there we can begin to work with other people and institutions in the state.

We decided that bringing SUNY historians together might best work by focusing on faculty research and scholarship, with that creating a groundwork for more discussions of pedagogy and other issues. Start with what faculty care about, what they are trained in, what they sometimes feel they never have enough time to pursue. Build from there.

We settled on the development of a pilot webinar series and we found an amazing, extraordinarily competent, capable partner in the SUNY Center for Professional Development. Former CPD member Chris Price, current members Michaela Rehm, Lynn-Ann McCoy Hinds, and Nancy Motondo, not to mention ace IITG coordinator, dean, and SUNY strategist Lisa Stephens, helped us develop a pilot series in US history modeled after the Washington History Seminar coordinated by the Wilson Center and American Historical Association as well as the Newberry Library Scholarly Seminars. You can visit the website we created or just search “SUNY Historians Network” online to keep track of the pilot series, join the mailing list, and even watch the playlist of archived videos. Piloting the webinars allowed us to figure out how we might begin, step by step, presentation by presentation, webinar by webinar, scholar by scholar, campus by campus, to create a SUNY-wide community of historical inquiry that showcases faculty research and allows for exchange and dialogue.

Next year, the SUNY Historians Network will expand to include additional historical subfields through curation by history faculty at SUNY Brockport and we hope, even without IITG funding but with continued partnership with CPD, to carry the work of the webinar series forward. Our thought is that by fostering occasional but regular connection through webinars, we can begin to set the place for further projects and events and partnerships. Our mailing list and the creation, next year, of a listserv, will allow others to find their way to collaborations across the system. With administrative support, the possibility of cross-campus courses and public history projects begins to emerge on the horizon.

We might also begin to organize roundtables for historical perspective on current issues of ongoing concern when it comes to civic engagement in the system or the state, perhaps bringing the longer deep breath of historicla inquiry to bear on the breakdown of civic discourse and community engagement we are witnessing in American society currently. How might we model a different tempo, a different space, a different mode of taking on all the suffering and survival, all the traumas and triumphs, all that history can teach us about the human past and its bearings on the human present and future? Can we try to bring a different register of public dialogue, learning, and engagement to issues of contemporary rancor? Maybe not, but it’s worth trying.

So too, we hope to bring more student involvement to the webinar series and SUNY HistoryLab’s larger goals. This year, we received an NEH Humanities Connections Grant for faculty in SUNY Brockport’s History Department to work with our media production faculty in the Department of Journalism, Broadcasting, and Public Relations (Ginny Orzel and Warren “Koz” Kozireski) on implementing “digital historytelling” pedagogy into courses (video storytelling, audio podcasts, geomapping, 3D artifact modeling, virtual reality, basic website curation). By enabling faculty to bring together the professional skills development of both historical inquiry and digital storytelling in their teaching, we think we can help students make their way in the world. Coming out of these classroom experiences, students can then pursue public history internships at the SUNY HistoryLab to begin to assist with our work in fostering more connections among SUNY campuses and piloting ways of digitally curating faculty research, teaching, and scholarship for use by secondary school teachers, librarians, and municipal historians in the state. An emphasis on the sustained work of faculty on their research and teaching connects to larger efforts to help students at SUNY and citizens beyond SUNY bring history to bear on leading more fulfilling, engaged, successful lives as both citizens and in their careers—most of all as people. All kinds of possibilities might emerge from the simple but steady work of sustaining the webinar series as a start at the SUNY HistoryLab.

Maybe. To get there will require more commitment from SUNY’s central administration (yes, I’m going to say it: perhaps a more capacious, creative way of thinking beyond just the latest AI tech craze to the ongoing public value of historical inquiry, humanities scholarship, foreign languages, social sciences, and basic faculty research in all fields?). In the meantime, there are some resources and wonderful first steps: a continued partnership with CPD and more outreach to other institutions in the state, but most of all more work building a community of scholarship around cross-campus historical inquiry within SUNY—and then beyond it. The webinar has become a promising starting point for this work of connection: faculty research to teaching and public use when it comes to historical inquiry; bridges across our decentralized campuses; and more connection between what SUNY does and the public value of our work for both the students who pay tuition and the citizens whose taxes pay our salaries. Continuing forward, we hope to assert the centrality of historical inquiry to the larger public purpose of what SUNY does and, so too, we hope our approach can serve as a model not just for historical inquiry, but for parallel work in other disciplines and fields.