On October 18th, 2018, I presented a talk as part of “(Re)Active Public History,” a Twitter Mini-Con put on by the National Council on Public History. Here’s the abstract I submitted for the conference (which you can also find here):
A cartoon dog sits with a cup of coffee in a room that is engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” he says to no one in particular. These images, which originally appeared in K.C. Green’s webcomic Gunshow in 2013, have become a kind of shorthand for the mood in America after the 2016 election, an example of the ways that memes are increasingly relied upon by social media users to document their experiences in uncertain times. Social media encourages and profits from our impulses to document our present moods with image macros, reaction GIFs, screenshots, and other multimodal forms of expression. Memes have been remediated as protest signs at various marches, and it is increasingly common to see memes in political campaigns and in the Tweets of sitting senators. In July 2017, President Trump infamously circulated a meme in which he attacks a professional wrestler whose head has been digitally replaced by the CNN logo, an act of online speech that was interpreted by many as an endorsement of violent reprisals against journalists.
Memes, in other words, are an undeniable part of contemporary American culture. This presentation will consider the roles memes have played in defining and subverting American political discourse in The Age of Trump. More generally, it considers where, how, and why public historians might read, historicize, preserve, and make memes about the American experience.
Earlier this month I taught a two-week course titled “Leadership and Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News and Big Data” for the Brown Leadership Institute. My first teaching job (way back in 2003!) was with a summer reading enrichment program for K-12 students, so it was fun to pick up teaching high school students again fifteen years (!) later. I wanted to reflect on some of the things I learned from this experience, since I know that some folks on Twitter seemed interested in the class. I’m not sharing the syllabus here because it has lots of “Leadership Institute” stuff in it that ties it pretty explicitly to the programs particular aims and pedagogical contexts. That being said, here are three major areas of inquiry for the course that I provided to parents, relatives, students, and my Leadership Institute colleagues at our session’s closing remarks:
The history of media and the long history of Fake News: We started with an overview of “pre-digital” media and data contexts by inventorying and describing popular forms of media and the material conditions informing their use and reception. A major component of this work involved collaborating with and talking to local archivists: specifically, Heather Cole at the John Hay Library and María Victoria Fernández at the John Carter Brown Library. Heather was gracious enough to show students a wide assemblage of archival materials relevant to the course’s investments in propaganda, activism, and small and large sites of circulation. Together we looked at copies of The Black Panther newspaper and Marvel’s Black Panther comic book, LGBTQAI zines, anti-slavery almanacs, and early attempts to falsely attribute work to William Shakespeare (documents that came with what they claimed were literal locks of hair from The Bard’s head!). María introduced us to the various challenges that the JCB faces in digitizing and disseminating its materials online, attempts to connect primary texts held by elite institutions to highly-trafficked, networked, and more accessible resources like Wikipedia, and ongoing efforts to consider the roles digital tools and their users might play in efforts to decolonize archival spaces.
We also discussed various attempts to misrepresent, falsify, deceive, or otherwise manipulate audiences in these pre-digital spaces (like the Shakespeare example), but to be honest we didn’t do as much of this as I’d originally planned (we discussed them in digital contexts). I’m halfway through Kevin Young’s Bunk and I think that book and other resources might give me some ideas if I revisit this topic.
In his remarks at an interfaith prayer service in Boston on April 18th, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama noted more than once to his audience that “Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.” In the hours, days, and weeks following the events of April 15th, 2013, many people used social media to document how “at home” they feel or once felt in Boston.
I’m interested in ideas of home and digital spaces in the context of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Our Marathon, a community project hosted by Northeastern University, is a crowdsourced digital archive of close to ten thousand stories, photos, and social media about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I started working on it as a graduate student research assistant in May of 2013, became Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker, now at Bryn Mawr) in the fall of that year, and I continue to work on it as we preserve our digital assets and make them more accessible in the short and long-term via Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.
I’m particularly interested in discussing Our Marathon and what it might tell us about home and digital regionalism, home and digital archives, and home and digital public humanities.