Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Having Fun with History

I have taken quite the hiatus from blogging, but that is because I was running the academic gauntlet and getting some of the final hurdles of my academic career out of the way. I finished up the Professional Residency Colloquium where we presented the work products from our residency (mine with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development), how this fed into our dissertations, and how all of our work up to this point has shaped us as professionals. In true gauntlet form, I survived, but came out feeling a bit bruised after class.

The more positive note was defending my professional portfolio and my dissertation proposal to my doctoral committee. Where the class was supposed to be a practice/dry run of this event, the actual defense was much more enjoyable than the classroom experience. We basically had a conversation. I talked through some of my work products, discussed how my actual work with heritage tourism on a state level was reshaping how I thought of history and community development, and also my thoughts on adaptive reuse.

The discussion was incredibly helpful. I felt like I was genuinely treated like a colleague and they were all providing insightful feedback about my work, where it could head, and some challenges that I needed to consider. In part it helps that I've selected quality people for my committee. But I also can't help but think that i set the tone with how I approached my committee for the defense.

Rather than this being a stiffly formal affair, complete with Powerpoint (don't get me wrong, Powerpoint has its place and can be very helpful if people use it appropriately). But given a choice, I would much rather have a conversation than participate in a rigid structure. I did not want to lecture to my committee or then do the more traditional question and answer format where I literally defend my positions in a debate style (we did this for my orals, and I see the place of it there and I can do that type of thing if the situation calls for it).

I came armed with food (all of my defenses or qualifying exams, even for my MA, have involved me bringing food of some sort for the committee) and wearing a new tshirt that I hoped would set the tone:

The shirt is from BustedTees and it commemorates an early computer game that I loved to play in elementary school called The Oregon Trail. We had one computer for several classrooms and it was a big deal to be able to get computer time. We would play the computer, usually this game, in teams of two or three. I think that games like this helped me engage me in a creative way as a child and instilled an interest in history. It was also a lot of fun (you got to shoot bears and try to navigate a river) and we thought that it was hilarious to leave behind silly inscriptions on tombstones for "fallen" classmates. The most common way to die in the game was from dysentery and this still sticks out in my mind and of anyone who sees my tshirt and remembers that game.

I told my committee that I was wearing this shirt in honor of the long legacy of American road trips and the perils therein. We all got a good laugh out of it. And while I wanted to set a tone of friendliness and levity, I was also trying to evoke a very personal connection to history through my nostalgia for this game. I have a number of shirts from Vintage Roadside (supporters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) and while some of them fit in with my love of history and my sense of humor (I wear my Slick Chick Drive-In shirt at least once a week), none of them spoke to my personal experience of history (they commemorate a roadside heritage that I love but was not around to directly experience myself).

But the Oregon Trail shirt also played into one of my larger points about how I see history: history can be fun. There are topics that call for contemplation and respect, I'll grant you that. But history doesn't have to be boring or overly serious. I think that it is possible for history to be fun without being the dreaded "edutainment" that scholars look down their nose at. I'm holding to the idea that I can be passionate about history while also bringing my quirky sense of humor to many of the subjects that I deal with. And I think that certainly has a place in the world of heritage tourism. History can have integrity while also being exciting and fun.

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