Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Attendee

Like I mentioned before, I want to write about last weekend's symposium at Stones River National Battlefield from a few different perspectives: one as attendee, one as a historian, and one as an interpreter. There will be some overlap in my discussion, but I am trying to assess the event thoroughly (and before I forget about it!). I think it is especially important to consider these sorts of events as they are happening. We still have two and a half years of utilizing that "150th" ring when announcing anniversary dates and events of the American Civil War! We also have room to improve! The symposium at Stones River National Battlefield is co-hosted by the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation (as well as the Heritage Center of Murfreesboro). This symposium was the seventh semi-annual event; each event has a different theme surrounding the Battle of Stones River.

As an attendee, I could not have been happier with the clearly well-planned and executed event. My basic "needs" were all met. The $20 registration fee included hors d'euorvers on Friday evening, a quality selection of danish, fruit, and coffee on Saturday morning, and a boxed lunch in the afternoon. The places where the event was held were comfortable (a historic church in downtown Murfreesboro and at a heated tent at the battlefield). Staff hosting the event were friendly and welcoming. I knew they had all been working long hours but they did not show it. Hosting an event for the public should meet basic needs so that attendees 1) don't have to worry and can focus on the content of the event, 2) attendees will want to return to the site or to other events, and 3) attendees feel valued.

I especially appreciate everything keeping to the scheduled times. The first evening program was delayed slightly, otherwise all programs, talks, breaks, etc., stayed within the timeframes established. This demonstrated quality planning and respect for attendees' times. It may have had something to do with Nashville Public Television being present the first night and C-SPAN being present the second day, but I will take it. Built into the schedule was time for breaks, engagements (Q&A sessions and book signings), and traveling between sites. Again, quality planning showed respect for attendees.

Superintendent Hazelwood's introductions infused
the symposium with a positive mood
(Stones River National Battlefield)
The new superintendent, Gayle Hazelwood, cast a particularly positive mood on the events with her various introductions. Her introductions set the audiences at ease, making a symposium not feel so stuffy and serious. I think easing the audience at the front end of the events helped the group receive the presented content better than if it was introduced as an entirely serious event. Every speaker did an outstanding job at presenting their material. I will admit: that part made me nervous. I dislike lectures (there, I said it). So while I was excited about the event itself, I dreaded the talking parts (especially talks from the wordy and often boring historian-types... I should know, I am one of them). I was pleasantly surprised! They presented interesting arguments, incorporated some humor, and kept the attention of the audience. I talked to several people throughout the program who expressed their appreciation for the presenters and content.

I can babble on about all of the positive, but if I want to be entirely honest, I will admit that the event had room for improvement. I found the content interesting and engaging, but I was also particularly familiar with the battle. When a speaker said a name of a commander, I knew of the commander. Several attendees admitted to being from out-of-state and just "here to learn more." I wonder how the the content was received by those who were not as familiar with the battle history? The introductory speaker on Friday night, Larry Daniels, recently published a new history on Stones River (and by "recently" I mean "it isn't officially available until November." I only bought my book last weekend, so I don't know everything he argues. I am familiar with one major fact changing: Daniels argues that the Union had nearly 10,000 more soldiers present than originally thought. Previous understandings weighted the Union forces and Confederate forces about equal; this research changes much about how the battle could be understood from a tactical, strategic, and military history understanding. For some visitors, however, this may be the first time they even were aware of the armies' strengths, so the news didn't really change much of their understanding of the battle.

I was also disappointed that the "scholarly" speakers focused on the Confederacy. I knew one would be presenting on Jefferson Davis's approach to the Western Theater, but the other ended up presenting a more human examination of Confederate General Braxton Bragg. While both presented interesting ideas and challenged some scholarship, very little ended up being discussed about the Union army, decisions, or participants. One presentation by a park ranger and local professor discussed the impact of the battle and the war on the local population. That was interesting and well done, but still left out discussion of the victorious army during the battle. The final speaking presentation by Dwight Pitcaithley focused on meaning and remembrances of the Civil War (a quality way to end the lectures, in my opinion). I made a comment about it to some of my former co-workers and one of the maintenance guys piped in, "Well, you live in the South, Elizabeth, what did you expect?" Good question. What did I expect?

They left a heckofalot of room for me
to play with my "title." Goofing off also
helped other attendees feel comfortable
enough to approach me. 
As aforementioned, I expected the lecture parts to be incredibly boring, in part because of the name of the event: symposium. What is a symposium, anyway? How many average citizens can identify the meaning of that word, much less want to go to one? I am glad the lectures were well-presented, even if I am slightly disappointed in the content. I think it would have been valuable for some more directed engagement with the audience. Many attendees had questions or wanted to talk out the ideas (I should know... word got out that I used to work at the battlefield and since I was not in uniform, I seemed like an approachable individual for attendees to come and talk to me during breaks. I didn't really get "breaks" like everybody else. The approachability factor may have been influenced by how I chose to identify myself on my nametag- it proved a valuable conversation starter as I clearly did consider myself a stuffy individual). Break-out sessions or more time for Q&A sessions could have helped. It would also prove helpful as a means to assess what content the attendees were truly walking away with.

Musicians discussed the origins of songs before playing
the songs during the symposium.
(Stones River National Battlefield)
Even with limited opportunities for directed engagements, the event's programs included opportunities for different types of engagements other than lectures. Music and a presentation of Andrew Johnson by a costumed interpreter provided attendees with different ways to experience or understand some of the history. The musicians and the costumed interpreter were professionals and added an extra dimension to the event.

As an attendee with a special interest in Civil War, especially the Civil War in the Western Theater, I found the event engaging and thought-provoking. I don't know how I would have appreciated the content if I did not have as much interest in the historical side of things. I know the music and the costumed performance might have caught my attention (as it did for several visitors to the battlefield that afternoon who were invited to come and listen). The symposium proved an excellent experience for me, attendee by choice. My next question will be "how do we provoke interest in more people to choose to attend these types of events?" What value is an amazing event if few attend?


  1. From the perspective of an archaeologically-minded person and an avid museum buff, I would have been interested in seeing a special, symposium-only, exhibition of a few historical items that aren't regularly displayed in the museum, perhaps by loan from a companion institution. These types of special exhibits have been used by historians in the museum field for years to build interest and engagement.

    Nice write-up. :)

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