(part three of four)
As a scholar, Dr. Caroline Janney has explored a strong interest in Civil War memory. During our conversation with her this week, she’s also talked about the deep connection to place she feels as a historian. In today’s portion of her interview with ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski, she talks more about the importance of memory and place, and how she brings those topics into her classroom at Purdue University.
Chris Mackowski: As you’ve written about the subject of memory, from the first paper you did about tracing your steps through the cemetery, what is it you’ve found about memory particularly that’s been so compelling to you as a way to look at Civil War history?
Caroline Janney: In large part, what I try to convey to my students is that the way the memory, and not just war memory, but all memory, serves the present and not the past. We celebrate, commemorate, or forget things for personal and political reasons. It’s something that we do both consciously and unconsciously and is something we manipulate and take for granted at times. Memory shapes our everyday existence in ways that we aren’t even conscious of. It shapes our identities for good or bad. The myths we tell ourselves as individuals and groups, and as a nation, are instrumental in how we define ourselves. And in many ways, it’s about power and politics.
CM: When your students come to class at the beginning of the semester, does that challenge some of the expectations that they have?
CJ: I have a course just on Civil War memory. I teach a course on the Civil War where we cover the coming of the war, the fighting, and the conclusion—Reconstruction. But, during the spring semester, I teach a course on Civil War memory, and we spend a couple weeks, somewhat on a theoretical and philosophical level, examining what memory is. But then we grind down into looking at the first efforts of the war generation to commemorate the war through cemeteries, Memorial Day, through poetry, et cetera. For today’s class, I taught Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge.”
So we go all the way through to the present looking at the ways that, through the generations, northerners and southerners, Confederates and Unionists, blacks and whites, men and women all have tried to come to terms with the Civil War. It’s a process—an unfolding if you will. We peel back the layers as we progress from the 1860s, through the early 20th century, to the present.
CM: What would your assessment be of college-age students today? I hear at roundtables things like, “We need to get more young people interested in history.” Do you think there are enough young people interested in history?
CJ: It has been my experience that they certainly are interested in history. A lot of my students have a thirst and a desire to understand the complex, contradictory past, whether that’s U.S. history or world history. I think that every generation laments that not enough people are studying history. The Civil War generation certainly did, so I think that’s something that each generation will say, but in my experience that isn’t really the case.
CM: I like your phrase “complex, contradictory past.” How much of a challenge is it in this soundbite, social media world to discuss the complicated past?
CJ: Sometimes I think that’s what my students find refreshing. When you explain to them that it can’t be explained in a tweet, it doesn’t fit in a box with a headline, that people are inherently contradictory and messy, and at times ugly—but it’s also at times wondrous. I find more and more that they’re receptive to that and they like the untidiness of it all. Somehow, that rings true to them, despite what we might think about the younger generation.
CM: If you look at society as a whole, do you see that same sort of willingness to engage in the complicated past?
CJ: I don’t know. I’m not a social commentator, I’m a historian: I look to the past. I guess I’m not cynical enough to say that that’s the case. I think we do often live in a media world that is driven by soundbites, but when people have the time and/or inclination to address the complexities, I think they’re willing to, or I at least like to hope they are.
CM: One of the things I think you’ve been especially successful at is being one of those historians who has found an effective way to reach out to the general public or audiences beyond the academy. How does that public history component fit into your role as a historian?
CJ: Part of it is just how I see history. It’s who I am. My first job was as a guide at Luray Caverns. I loved being able to share with visitors how the caverns were created and why they’re there. I had a lot of history in my guided tours.
Being able to talk and teach, not just to students in the classroom, but to the general public, is just a passion that I have. I think it comes from my experience working with the caverns, working with the National Park Service for 10 years, and having wonderful role models in the field who were exceptional at engaging the public. I truly enjoy it. I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to do all of the things I love to do. I get to research, write, and teach, not just college students, but also an interested general public.
CM: Where’d you do your NPS gig?
CJ: I worked at Shenandoah for about 10 years in college and grad school. My official title was Historian/Archivist. I was fortunate to work with a man named Reed Engle who came to Shenandoah to create the archives there and make them accessible to the public and revise the very outdated and offensive exhibits.
Getting to do research on the creation of the park and the new exhibits [at the Big Meadows Visitor Center] was a very formative period for me. I had no idea I was going to grad school; I had no idea I was going to become a professor. I just loved history—and this was a summer job that allowed me to engage it. But all of those experiences were leading me down a certain path that I didn’t quite see at the time.
Tomorrow, Chris wraps up his conversation with Dr. Janney by talking more about her efforts to bring history out of the classroom to the general public.