Academics and Advocacy: Where should Public Historians draw the line? Enhancing Edit


Historically, historians are the producers of knowledge. Historians apprehend facts and events and arrange them so they illustrate the development of a group of people, or a progression of events as they exist on a temporal trajectory. Writing with a sense of coevalness is arguably not a goal of the historian even though other social scientists believe that it is the moral responsibility of knowledge producers to be advocates for the down-trodden.1 Some more “traditional,” empiricist, and positivist historians would argue that writing with coevalness would be antithetical to all historical practices because history ought to be objective, and a historian who is coeval is not objective.2 Therefore, the question emerges: does becoming too involved with one’s subject render the researcher incapable of producing good historical knowledge? If an individual writing an academic paper identifies too closely with the individuals she is studying, then how is she supposed to write an objective history of those people? Won’t she be swayed by their shared agenda?

A Case Study:

University of the Streets is a non-profit community organization in the East Village neighborhood of New York, NY. The organization’s top priority has always been to revitalize and invigorate the immediate community. For example, in the 1970s the organization held technical training classes in carpentry, plumbing and electrical work for high school drop-outs and ex-convicts living in the neighborhood.3 They held a “prep” school designed to help local, underserved teenagers pass high school. UTOS also had an in-house Dojo who taught Karate, and professional, resident artists who mentored artistically inclined youth. Satruday night jazz jam sessions continue to this day to foster the culture of music in the East Village. UOTS also rents out their small theater on the second floor (called the Muhammad Salahuddeen Memorial Jazz Theater after the man who served as Executive Director from 1967-2007) to underground rock bands, starving playwrights, and other indie-type artists.

I first became interested in UOTS when I moved into the neighborhood in July of 2010. When asked to complete a project on Greenwich Village history, I immediately thought of UOTS because I had so many questions. What is this place? How did it come about? Who has played jazz there in the past? Who plays there now? I contacted the Executive Director and she seemed very excited about the whole idea. She said that she had already begun organizing her files to preserve the history of the organization.

When I arrived at University of the Streets that first afternoon, the Executive Director gave me some files to look through. I left that evening feeling welcomed. She had received me into her home, and offered me coffee, tea, and some Spanish take-out. However, I realized that our relationship was still tenuous, and that I ought to do everything in my power to make her trust me. During another appointment I interviewed her for 40 minutes about UOTS. I tried my best to build up my rapport with her during our interview. She respectfully and thoroughly answered all of my questions, but I could tell that she was still guarded.

Our breakthrough came when I was going through documents and photographs in UOTS’s theater. The Executive Director approached me and began to chit chat. We quickly discovered that we both grew up in towns in central Wisconsin that are about thirty miles from each other. She then began to open up about her personal history, a gesture by which I was incredibly moved. I was happy that she finally felt she could trust me. We spent the next twenty minutes bonding over things we missed from our Wisconsin lives (the fall colors and the snow). Then she excused herself and came back with two apples in hand, and offered them to me. “Did you ever go apple-picking or plum-picking when you lived in Wisconsin? That’s what I miss most, picking apples and plums at my parent’s house.” I accepted her olive-branch of sorts, and told her that I go apple and pear-picking at my grandparents’ house every fall when I go back home. I can’t really remember how the conversation ended, but I left soon thereafter feeling relieved that she trusted me.

That night I went straight to the library to upload the photos from my camera to my disk drive. While doing an intense Google search I discovered an article published by The Brooklyn Vegan, a professional and well-read news and pop culture blog. The headline read, “musicians call for boycott of University of the Streets, owner’s son allegedly punched drummer.”4 The story was that a member of the performing band Talibam! had been punched in the face by the UOTS’ owner’s son after refusing to pay UOTS the $50 for the cost of their performance. This particular blog post is followed by a tail of 151 vitriolic comments, many which expressed something similar to an anonymous commenter who posted at 2:47 a.m. on September 9, 2011: “The owner [and] her thug son sound like real losers.”5 Other comments are more extreme.

On the UOTS Facebook page the “Statement of Events of September 7, 2011”6 asserted that the remission of fifty dollars is clearly outlined in the band-organization agreement in the case that no audience shows up to watch the concert. The Executive Director states that the band was informed before they began that there was not going to be any audience, and that if they decided not to play, they wouldn’t owe anything, yet they decided to play a full set anyways. Following the concert the page says the band became “increasing belligerent and disrespectful” and eventually taunted the son about his physical appearance, and then “invaded the Executive Director’s personal space…while gesticulating and physically suggesting harm while screaming “Go f… yourself.”” At this point, perhaps in defense of his mother, the son “raised his hand to protect the Executive Director and in the melee the band-member’s face connected with the attendees hand.”7

In my opinion, one could speculate that fifty dollars could have been an essential part of the week’s revenue for UOTS which has a history of struggling financially. Additionally, according to the UOTS Facebook page, The Executive Director was physically threatened. Many individuals would probably react physically to someone threatening to injure a 61-year-old woman to whom that individual is particularly emotionally tied. Furthermore, the Executive Director expresses deep shame for the events that transpired. In an article in The East Village Local she is quoted saying, “I’m sorry that the Muhammad Salahuddeen Memorial Jazz Theatre, my late husband’s legacy was [and] is disgraced by the continuing hateful behavior.”8

Because I bonded with the Executive Director on a personal level, all of the negative media attention made me incredibly angry and made me want nothing more than to craft the most cheerleader-ly, positive, and supportive online web exhibit about University of the Streets. I find that I have become incredibly biased. Furthermore, in light of the depiction of the recent scandal around UOTS, I also find myself wanting to be even more of a cheerleader for UOTS and its mission. I also find myself in a kind of position where I could potentially help the cause. But is crafting history for the sake of advocacy good history? It’s probably not if it deliberately withholds information that reflects negatively on the subject and alternatively only presents its glowing and exemplary side. Could I possibly write a history that only describes the situation at UOTS (good and bad), and therefore be an advocate by bringing awareness to the situation? I could, but some historians would argue that histories that describe events and do not try to explain events are two-dimensional—these histories lack richness and texture. Analysis that has come to be the rock on which history is founded, and a paper lacking this element falls flat.

Anthropologist George E. Marcus states that deep involvement with one’s subjects often leads to “circumstantial commitment.”9 He sites New York University anthropologist Emily Martin’s work on the social understanding of the immune system where she discusses HIV and AIDS at great length. During her “fieldwork” she was an AIDS volunteer, a medical student and a corporate trainee.10 Marcus concludes that such involvement “generates a definite sense of doing more than just ethnography, and it is this quality that provides a sense of being an activist.”11,12 Is my work therefore advocacy because of the nature of its subject? Martin’s work is frequently sited in other academic conversations, and so clearly individuals take her work seriously despite her advocate-like relationship with her subject.


1. My involvement with UOTS transcends a strictly research-subject type relationship to the point where I have become emotionally involved with the life of UOTS and its Executive Director. My work could be inhibited by this relationship if I choose to craft a biased, cheerleader-ly type narrative about UOTS.

2. Moreover, as long as I take care to illuminate all aspects and facets of UOTS’s history (good, bad and ugly) I will produce historical knowledge of gravity.

3. My work about UOTS will lean towards the side of advocacy because of the nature of my relationship with UOTS, and

4. my work will also be considered advocacy because I will illuminate its history and thus amplify its voice in an environment where the volume of UOTS’s voice and its ability to affect change is increasingly shrinking.

5. Also, if anyone reads or goes through my online exhibit about University of the Streets, it could “renegotiate” the identity of University of the Streets from an institution that beats up its patrons to a more well-respected and dedicated community organization. Marcus would argue, therefore, that it would be considered advocacy.
By choosing to do work such as this, I realize I have chosen to be an activist of sorts—even if I am not on the front-lines of a protest rally, or shouting messages from a soapbox using a blow-horn. Moreover, being an activist does not diminish the quality of the work one is producing as long as one takes care to be honest and thorough in the presentation of the knowledge. A close relationship with a subject may inhibit an historian from producing quality historical knowledge if she does not take care to include all the complicated nuances of the subject. However, one's role as an historian ought not to exclude a person from building meaningful relationships with the people he or she is writing about in a public history endeavor.

1. Benjamin, Walter. The Concept of History. Accessed 18 October 2011.
2. Collingwood. Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
3. “Building Maintenance Training Program.” Salahuddeen (Saadia) Personal Papers. Accessed 18 October 2011.
4. “musicians call for boycott of University of the Streets, owner’s son allegedly punched drummer.” The Brooklyn Vegan. September 9, 2011. Accessed 18 October 2011.
5. Ibid.
6. University of the Streets. September 14, 2011. Accessed 18 September 2011.
7. Ibid.
8. Brown
9. Marcus, George E. “Ethnography in/of the World System: the emergence of multi-sited ethnography in Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol 24 (1995), 112.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid 112-3
12. Many of these conversations regarding activism, connectivity to one’s subject and producing knowledge are lead by Anthropologists. However, it must be noted many historians are engaging in these conversations as well, and the conflicts that are present to the anthropologist are also of concern for many professionals in the social scientists who engage with other persons. Whether that group be sociologists, historians, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists – whomever – all people dealing with other people ought to be actively engaged in considerations of their craft and it’s authority.

-Author: Chelsea Trembly
-Editor: Megan Findling

The assignment was for a 1,000 word essay but the original ( was almost 4,000. So the main changes I made were in cutting down the essay to its current 1,850 words. Additionally I attempted to keep the audience in mind in this online essay because many of the viewers might not be academics. Thinking of these online readers, many of the academic references to historical and anthropological theory seemed slightly out of place. I also endeavored to make the sentences shorter and more concise in order to make the essay more easily readable.

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