“William Penn was not a terrorist.”

So the title of this post comes from a half-joking suggestion about an alternative title for “From Conquest to Identity: New Jersey and the Middle Colonies in the Seventeenth Century,” the McNeil Center’s recent conference held in Trenton, NJ. Imagine my surprise when, as I headed toward the opening reception, I came upon the row of news vans out front of the venue, reporters stationed in the blustery winds. I knew the conference was open to the public, but this still struck me as a bit extreme.

Sure enough. It turned out the newsies were really there because the museum hosting the reception is next to the state capital, and Chris Christie released his report exonerating himself on Thursday. The number of newsies was even bigger on Friday, when he held a press conference; our academic conference probably couldn’t have outdrawn him even with an alternate title.

So the reporters weren’t there for the historians, but there were (relatively speaking) a ton of non-academics with a love of New Jersey history–museum folks, historical/professional archaeologists, spouses, a Treasury Department worker vacationing in Trenton to attend, a few locals who were just interested, etc., which gave it a different vast and character than the usual–Dan Richter noted, “I just love bringing the civilians and historians together!”

The conference kicked off Thursday night with a keynote by Mark Dilonno, a columnist and reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger who as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on Hurricane Sandy. That was probably the first reminder that this conference was host to a range of audience members and geared at least a bit to appeal to a wider public, but as a former aspiring journalist, I was also struck by some of the similarities across the two professions (a friend tells me I have “a nose for dying fields”). As both fields professionalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they positioned themselves as objective observers drawing conclusions from facts, a stance that both have reevaluated in more recent decades. Both face diminishing audiences–academic historians tend to write nuanced works for a limited audience on specialized subjects that don’t always have wide appeal, though Americans continue to like and read history (often with a clear ideological position on familiar/sensational topics), while great journalists seem to get drowned out by television news and yelling heads arguing. It also seems to me that diminished audience has contributed to the erosion of each profession’s standing within the larger institutional structure that hosts it–history/the humanities generally within a higher education setting that increasingly seems to prioritize professional programs and science/technology, journalism within an entertainment/publishing industry governed by profit considerations rather than a sense of community responsibility, growth rather than sustainability. It’s not that these apparently contradictory elements can’t coexist, but that they’re set up in opposition to each other, a sort of false dichotomy that makes these sectors into rivals by assuming they serve the same purposes but with different levels of efficiency/effectiveness.

And Friday we had papers and discussions from historians, political scientists, literary scholars, and scholars of material culture. Papers were pre-circulated, so formal comments were brief, and audience participation and discussions were lively. And there was a good crowd. Despite the purported focus on New Jersey, most papers centered on Pennsylvania or New York, though always brushing against the edges of New Jersey (like William Penn’s earlier experiences as one of a number of proprietors in NJ, Swedes and Finns moving into remote areas of New Jersey to escape the English in New York, Indian migrations, etc.). I’ve already shared a bit about my paper, “Creating Histories and Recovering Autonomy in the Hudson Valley,” so I won’t reprise that discussion except to say that Stony Brook Univeristy’s Andrew Newman provided some thoughtful commentary that should help me shape a larger project, and other participants had encouraging words as I think about these issues and revise this paper.

If I had doubts that the majority of the crowd was not academic historians, they were mostly erased in the break before our concluding roundtable, during which 2/3 of the audience disappeared. I won’t try to summarize this final session, but since I’ve been ruminating about various publics and about fields with decreasing visibility, and I’m posting to a blog established as part of the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative, it does seem appropriate to note that in this roundtable session, the University of New Hampshire’s Cynthia Van Zandt called for digital history projects that would make academic work more visible and accessible to a wider public–including the folks who had disappeared during the preceding break.

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