AskHistorians and the Art of the Reddit Conference

AskHistorians, a popular public history community on Reddit, is planning an academic conference for September.

July 15, 2020
 
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What would make a mother proud of her child in the Middle Ages?

Such was one of the first questions Cait Stevenson, a medieval historian, answered on the AskHistorians subreddit in 2015. ("We can infer from that that a good mother was supposed to take pride in raising moral, Christian children who were good at their labors," she wrote in her answer.)

The AskHistorians community, which lives on Reddit, is a special place on the internet. Reddit users can ask questions about history, and subject matter experts answer in lengthy but readable replies, often citing their sources or research. While there is room for disagreement, the site is heavily moderated. The subreddit currently has 2.3 million unique visitors per month, along with a podcast and a Twitter presence.

The questions users ask on the site are sometimes repetitive ("People want to know a lot about Hitler," one moderator points out), but they often approach the discipline of history in unconventional ways.

I am a governor of a village at the height of Genghis Khan's empire. What should I expect to happen after I submit peacefully to Mongol rule?

When did horses become a "thing for girls"?

"The questions we get tend to come at [history] from a personalized perspective -- 'What was it like to be me in history?'" said Stevenson, who is now a site moderator. "This is actually a different way of thinking about history and approaching it that I absolutely love."

This September the AskHistorians community has planned a digital conference, which is likely the first academic conference to be held over Reddit. In one day, the community crowdsourced the entire $3,000 goal for the conference.

Organizers said they were galvanized to hold the event when they saw nearly all academic conferences going online or being canceled altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's not necessarily the case that traditional academic institutions are well placed to engage in this kind of digital event building," said Fraser Raeburn, a lecturer in modern European history at the University of Edinburgh and another site moderator. "This is not only something we could do, but something that we really had a big advantage in doing."

Adapting an in-person conference to digital can require a lot of infrastructure and onboarding, but the subreddit is already established with a large base of users.

"The only thing worse than sitting in a seminar room listening to three papers you actually don't want to hear is listening to three papers you don't want to hear over Zoom," Stevenson said. "We're going to be a digital conference from the ground up. That is something that hasn't had time to happen yet and we want to be the leaders in what it looks like."

The conference topic is "Business as Unusual: Histories of Rupture, Chaos, Revolution and Change."

The conference will take the form of multiple sessions over a period of days. Each prerecorded video session will consist of speakers giving 10-minute talks on their conference papers, followed by a discussion among the three panelists guided by the moderator. During the days of the conference, the session videos will be posted to the subreddit at designated times. Each thread that's created under a video will take the form of a question-and-answer session, with panelists available at certain times to answer questions in the thread.

Panelists don't necessarily need to be practicing academic historians. On the day-to-day site, the only qualification to answer a question is the ability to write a good answer.

The organizing team is working with Touché Digital Events for the conference and is looking at using the virtual space Remo, which allows users to move among small group conversations, for the social and networking aspects of the conference.

A Public History Project

Conducting the event over Reddit means it is free to attend and participate, and international borders and physical spaces won't be quite the barriers they can be at in-person conferences. The result of the conference, organizers said, will hopefully be a public history project in the vein of the site, one that offers historical engagement to both academics and the public.

"I think one of the big flaws with public history, at least in the way it's often practiced, is that it doesn't go to where people are, necessarily. It goes to where history has always tended toward -- it goes to museums, it goes to galleries, it goes to public lectures at universities. And that's fine, but you're getting the same people," Raeburn said. "What Reddit allows historians to do is talk to an actual public. This is outreach that is not defined by what we want to do; it's defined by what people want to know."

For Lisa Baer-Tsarfati, a site moderator and fourth-year Ph.D. student at the University of Guelph studying Scottish history, the site allows historians to not only teach the rote facts of history, but to model the skills that studying history requires, like critical thinking.

"Having the ability to carefully evaluate information in order to judge its merits and form opinions based on fact and evidence is itself an important skill that people should have and is itself the best defense out there for any kind of intellectual indoctrination," she said. "As historians we spend our professional lives sifting through information, analyzing that information for its strengths and weaknesses, and this puts us in a really unique place to be able to model these tools for other people."

With misinformation at new heights globally, those critical thinking skills are of utmost importance, Baer-Tsarfati said.

"Questioning the past and engaging with it in a clear and critical manner helps us better understand what's happening in the present, and public history removes the critical engagement from within the walls of the ivory tower, from graduate seminars and written scholarship that's often hidden away behind academic paywalls, and it introduces it to an audience that might not otherwise have access."

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