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“History Can Be So ________ (adjective)!”

11 Apr

by Mary Rizzo, Rutgers University – Newark
PhD, UMinn American Studies

Remember Mad Libs?

Often found in the cheap activity books that were intended to keep kids from bothering their parents during long drives in the age before iPads and handheld gaming devices, it was a game where one person asked another for words from various parts of speech to fill in the blanks of a story. (The current MadLibs home page, which opens in a new window, provides a bit of MadLibs history, and points to apps now built for iPad.) After all the blanks were filled, the questioner would then read the now-completed story back to the respondent. A lot of the time it was boring, but sometimes the contradictions and juxtapositions were actually funny. It rewarded absurdity, hyperbole and, let’s be honest, foul language, so it seemed perfect for a pop-up activity for public historians at the 2015 NCPH conference as part of the working group, “Free, Separate, Uncertain: Can Public History Play?” organized by Abigail Perkiss and me.

But after having written Mad Libs with colleagues of mine (Lisa Junkin Lopez, Jen Moses, and Michelle McClellan) for the 2015 National Council on Public History conference, I’m convinced that the game can be a tool for critical reflection and commentary on the field of public history itself. For me, it was also catharsis, a way to thumb my nose at the institutional structures that, sometimes, feel more like restrictions.

The inspiration for our Mad Libs project was Mark Sample’s blog post, “Notes Towards a Deformed Humanities.” Smartly (as always!), he argues that the digital offers us new opportunities to defamiliarize texts. While the methods are new, the concept is straight out of the playbook of the poetic Russian formalists or the playful, anti-capitalist Situationists, who both wanted to make people stop zombie walking through the world. Sample, for example, wrote a program that replaced all the nouns in the online book Hacking the Academy with the noun that appeared seven entries later in the dictionary. “Hacking the academy” became, in every instance in the book, “hacking the accident,” an absurd statement but also one that is kind of right on. As he writes this is “a deformation that is a departure, leading us somewhere new entirely.” If by deforming the humanities, we start by screwing around with our texts, than Mad Libs definitely fits.


I wrote a Mad Lib about working at a nonprofit organization, while Michelle wrote about being a public historian at a university. Jen’s was about being a museum professional and Lisa’s took on how public history defines itself. Our hope was that by representing these subdisciplines of public history, we could say something that would resonate with all of the 800+ public historians at the conference. You can check out our storify of all our playful activities and session here and decide for yourself.

Writing Mad Libs as a reflective process

To create my story of being a program officer presenting at a meeting of a museum board, I thought about my own professional career and the stories that other public historians had told me. Unlike some of my co-writers, I left fewer blanks and used them mainly for descriptors. By doing so, I shaped the story into a satire of nonprofit boards, picturing them as out-of-touch, fearful, and roadblocks to progress. Is that fair? Nope, but it is also true of some boards (many? Probably many).

Adding in the blanks meant that I also had to consider the person who would be filling those in sight unseen. I edited and rewrote a few times until I thought that the blanks and suggestions would give the respondent enough freedom to make it interesting, but enough structure to end up with a fairly coherent story.

On some level, it didn’t actually matter what happened when someone played the Mad Lib—for me, the process itself was cathartic. As public historians, we often work in institutions that require us to tamp down our individuality so we can become representatives of their mission. At times, that means we have to speak with a voice that’s not our own—or, perhaps more accurately, adapt our vocabulary to that of the institution, which can feel like talking in platitudes. I actually lol’ed when I saw how Jen’s story of working in a museum ended: “History can be so _______ (adjective)!” the perfect example of boosterist, edutainment speak.

Public historians aren’t the only alienated professionals, of course. We share a great deal with teachers, writers, artists, and many others. By writing a story that required the involvement of another public historian—one who may have felt some of the ways that I described—I was able to take those experiences, reflect on them, control them, and then share them with a peer. And maybe deform public history, just a little bit.

Tips on Writing a Mad Lib

  • Keep it short. People taking the Mad Lib seemed to run out of steam about halfway through a page.
  • Don’t ask to fill in too many blanks. Thinking up words on the spot is kind of hard, actually. Don’t exhaust people.
  • Change it up. Don’t just ask for parts of speech. Our Mad Libs asked for names of wars, time periods, kinds of occupations. Branch out.

Mary Rizzo is Associate Director of Digital and Public Humanities Initiatives in the American Studies program, and Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in History at Rutgers University-Newark. Working for the last decade in public history and the public humanities, she is now translating those skills into a university environment through teaching, community-based projects, and digital humanities activities. Her book – Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle, 1945-2000 – was published in 2015.

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