Coffee with Roy, Roy as New Media Historian""

Contributed By Steve Brier

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“Roy as New Media Historian”
OAH, March 29, 2008

Yesterday was my birthday and something didn’t happen that I had come to rely on for the past quarter century: I didn’t receive a wonderfully witty and politically astute card from Roy wishing me a happy birthday. That kindness and attention to personal detail were the essence of our dear friend and colleague and one of the things I will sorely miss in the years to come.

I don’t think you can separate Roy and his various identities as historian, as we are trying to do here today, from the quintessential fact that he was an unusually kind and generous human being. That generosity extended to all of Roy’s connections and relationships, whether he was reading and editing, multiple times, thick manuscripts; writing untold numbers of job references and letters of recommendation for students, colleagues, and friends; or engaging in serious gossip about the historical profession and the personal quirks and idiosyncrasies of its self-involved and self-regarding practitioners.
My job today is to talk about Roy as a new media historian. But to do that I need first to establish what I see as five essential truths and political commitments that defined Roy’s entire career:

• broadening the subject of historical inquiry;
• fighting for the democratic possibilities of doing and communicating history;
• overcoming the theoretical obfuscations that marred so much scholarly writing;
• finding new ways and presentational forms to convey historical ideas to a broad public audience; and, most of all,
• working collaboratively.

Roy loved to collaborate, which was especially evident in his early and vigorous embrace of new media as a form that could reshape the way we thought and learned about the past.

Roy and I entered the wonderful world of computers together, buying matching Kaypro II computers in 1982, Roy to do academic work and my ASHP colleagues and me to write the WBA? textbook. Our early shared use of computers led us to start poking around the emerging field of computer controlled media in the late 1980s. I was down in Arlington visiting some time around 1989 and Roy and I took the Metro into DC near Union Station to visit an exhibit of computer controlled training programs that some company or museum had on display. Out of that experience emerged the idea to use new media to do a new kind of history. We’d been doing films and videos at ASHP (Roy was a valued consultant on these productions) but the computer opened new and seemingly limitless vistas for teaching and learning and for working collaboratively. Roy immediately grasped that new media, because of its complexity and technical demands, necessitated collaboration. He was thrilled at that prospect.

I guess my fondest memories of working with Roy as a new media historian go back to the origins of our first new media venture, which centered on researching and writing the considerable amount of text that introduced and framed the rich multimedia content of the Who Built America? CD-ROMs that we (meaning the American Social History Project and Roy) conceived and developed together. Much of that writing took place in Roy’s book-lined and paper-strewn office in Roy and Deborah’s Jackson St. house in Arlington. I’d move in for a week or two at a time to work closely with Roy, which consisted of being chained (metaphorically speaking) to a computer all day and well into every evening, working with the kind of intensity, focus and sheer sense of discovery that defined everything that Roy did.

I could never manage to keep up with Roy’s output or his brilliant historical insights (I don’t think any of his collaborators did), though I tried damned hard to do so. I learned pretty quickly that the best thing you could do was push yourself, work hard and then sit back and appreciate Roy’s incredible ability to work harder and produce more. Even our hard working team of a dozen or more comrades at ASHP was not enough to keep up with Roy, leading him to create and head up his own new media history operation at GMU, the Center for History and New Media. And, as I think about it, even Roy’s CHNM colleagues, who numbered more than three dozen before he died, can no doubt attest that they couldn’t keep up with Roy, either. I know I speak for all ASHPers and CHNMers when I say that to have been able to collaborate with Roy on imagining and realizing history in new media was a privilege, allowing us all to engage in a common project that helped redefine the way history was thought about and presented.
Roy’s influence will be felt for years to come in the profession and beyond. I am certain that he will be remembered not only for his staggering intellectual output, but also for the endearing friendship and support that he offered to so many people, inside the profession and far beyond it. Thanks, Roy, not only for your brilliant intellect and tireless work ethic, but much more for your extraordinary generosity of spirit and for your kind heart.