Documenting the Un-documented: On the Rewards of Public History in Public Universities

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 2:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
John Mckiernan-Gonzalez, University of Texas at Austin
In Austin, we have been honoring the Day of the Fallen since 2010. On February 23rd, construction workers and their many communities gather at the steps of the Texas Capital, publicly mourn workplace related deaths in Texas, and reflect on the many causes shaping dangerous working  conditions in Texas. The Day of the Fallen is one of the largest gatherings in Austin and is dwarfed only by the free concerts held for South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. Ironically, the capital building itself memorializes the invisibility of unfree labor, as convicts provided much of the labor that went into the building of the capital.

As publicly minded historians working with Latino communities and in public universities, we are often called upon to document the undocumented, to produce a paper trail for communities whose lives have been papered over by the march of history.  However, to belabor the documented/undocumented metaphor, this process of rendering histories visible enshrines the observers and obscures the relationships connecting public universities to Latino communities. Moreover, the discussion enshrines the university hierarchies that enshrine what gets to be considered "proper" public history.

My presentation will reflect on my involvement in various efforts to trouble the visible/invisible documented/undocumented framework regarding the integration of Latino communities into shared American historical narratives. The first is a short discussion of the challenge collaborative research poses to the ways we reward and evaluate academic labor. The second involves the volatility of attempts to informally credential the involvement of people outside our highly credentialed work universe. The third lies in the importance of men and women who live and work across the cultural boundaries separating Latinos from public university. And, finally, a discussion of the unstated formal dimensions of what looks like history.