The Past Is Present: History students and professor attend national conference

25th September 2015

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — For two days in September, IU Southeast undergraduates Joseph Simon and Lowell Simpson, along with their teacher, assistant professor Elizabeth Gritter, Ph.D., represented their department and university at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) in Louisville, Ky.

The AASLH meeting brought over 850 leading history practitioners and professionals from 48 U.S. states and Canadian provinces to Louisville for three days of presentations and workshops on topics ranging from nuts-and-bolts museum management to the ability of historical remembrance to heal community divisions. The gathering also featured tours of historical sites in the Louisville area.

The IU Southeast team worked the exhibition hall booth, where conferees gathered to talk shop and learn about new academic programs, publishers and publications, emerging research and archival technologies, and other tools of the historian’s trade.

For Simon, Simpson and Gritter, the conference was an opportunity to network with fellow historians and develop new perspectives on their field and their careers.

Besides teaching and conducting research, Dr. Gritter also directs the Institute for Local and Oral History, an IU Southeast center run by the history department. It puts on workshops on how to conduct oral history and features the research of historians in the region. The Institute also encourages and connects students with internship and volunteer opportunities at sites in the region, and offers an annual local history award to undergraduates working on papers or projects in the area of local history.

“Oral history provides a unique perspective into the past, often giving the accounts of those who are erased from the written record,” says Gritter. “It can also give us a more personal sense of how people experienced historical events from an emotional perspective.”

Gritter has conducted more than 50 oral histories, some of which she used for her book, River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954 (2014). She is currently working with IU Southeast alumna Kristina Kimmick of New Albany’s Culbertson Mansion in starting the Floyd County Bicentennial Oral History Project. In recognition of Indiana’s bicentennial next year, Gritter, Kimmick and IU Southeast students will prepare oral histories of New Albany residents to provide a “time capsule” of life in 2016 for future generations.

As Gritter notes, our area is an especially fertile field for historical research. “By straddling the South and Midwest, the Kentuckiana region is an interesting place for studying history. Students get exposure to both regions and the resources involved in both. Louisville and Southern Indiana have a number of interesting historical sites, many of which offer internships, which provide practical, on-the-ground training in the field of history.”

The Kentucky Historical Society, Locust Grove, Frazier History Museum, Filson Historical Society and the Culbertson Museum are just a few of the local organizations that worked with the AASLH to host the annual meeting. A key role was also played by Solid Light, Inc., a design firm founded and owned by IU Southeast distinguished alumna Cynthia Torp that specializes in creating innovative visitor experiences at high-profile venues such as Louisville’s WaterWorks Museum and the Fall of the Ohio Interpretive Center.

With experts from institutions ranging from the Chicago History Museum and National September 11 memorial Museum to the Betsy Ross House and the Mayo Clinic, the meeting was not only a unique networking environment, but also an illustration of the wide range of professional options open for history students. Conferees included archivists, curators, exhibition designers, genealogists, museum directors and CEOs, and more.

“The skills that history students develop — critical thinking, writing, research and communication — make history graduates well suited for other professions, including law or business,” says Gritter.

At the meeting, she discovered new internship opportunities and graduate school programs that will benefit her students, learned about new methods for information sharing and found out about upcoming conferences in her area of specialization.

Photo of IUS students at history conference.

History students Joseph Simon (l) and Lowell Simpson (r) represent IU Southeast at the AASLH annual meeting in Louisville.

For Simpson, a non-traditional junior who transferred to IU Southeast from Jefferson Community and Technical College’s honors curriculum, where he had been mentored by Professor James Baughman, the study of history is as much about today as yesterday. “We live in a world where we have so many exciting advances in methodology, technique, practice and technology,” he says. “We are not only able to understand and interpret history in a way that is unprecedented, but we are also able to document our current events in exciting ways that we can leave for our ancestors to enjoy.”

He envisions a career as a history professor, and found the conference an eye-opening experience. “Attending a conference allows students of history to get a taste of what it will be like to have a career in the history community,” he says. “Students gain valuable perspective that will assist them not only in school, but in the professional careers that lie ahead of them.”


The IU Southeast booth was made possible by the Office of Marketing and Communications and the School of Social Sciences, to maintain a high level of academic visibility for the institution. For more information on the Institute for Local and Oral History, contact Dr. Elizabeth Gritter at and check it out on Facebook and its website.

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