Just Do It: Academic Historians and the General Public

There has been some chatter recently on academic historians’ blogs about how Americans view history and historians as well as the academic historian’s role as public intellectual and educator.  I’d love to share with you one of the online essays that started this all, but (how delightfully ironic) it is behind a paywall, limiting its exposure to dues-paying members of the American Historical Association.  Several responses are more readily available: I direct you here and here (which follows here, so you can get some idea of the content of the original remarks).

Note: By academic historians I mean people who have advanced degrees and teach or seek to teach at post-secondary institutions of education or similar institutions.

I’m going to cut to the chase here: I’ve become very impatient with these sorts of discussions, which, in case you haven’t noticed, are academic historians talking to other academic historians about why academic historians don’t have a broader audience.  The answer is simple: because their own academic colleagues don’t value that work.  Many if not most academic historians tend to mock those historians who have an audience, even as they show a little envy and jealousy in doing so.  Write a book for a broad audience, appear a few times on television (and maybe not just C-SPAN), make yourself available to the press, speak in public, and, yes, blog–these are activities that the majority of the academic profession simply doesn’t value, whether as a profession or within departments.  Administrators value some of this activity, because they are aware of issues of public profile.  For example: I’ve learned that on February 20, Parade magazine will say something about the new Civil War volume Stephen Sears, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and I coedited for Library of America.  You can’t buy that sort of attention.  Yet I can just see mentioning it in my annual performance report (oh, I will, because I have a sense of humor), because I know what reaction will follow.

To me, what’s even more amusing about this debate is that I’m well aware of the folks who write about the Civil War who divide people into amateurs and professionals or who ridicule professional/academic historians, complain about the existence of an exclusive club of degree-bearing types, and so on, as well as those who decry the implication of “everyone their own historian” at a time when it’s easier than ever to publish and get yourself out there.  Note to these folks: many of my fellow academics decry what I do as pandering and less worthwhile precisely because I have an audience, while some of the bigger names I know are familiar to you as talking heads (with names you would easily recognize) advise me to toss the academy aside altogether and write, write, write.

Academic historians have no one but themselves to blame if they don’t have an audience.  They do not value or reward efforts to reach that audience (you can see some of that argument here).  My own view is that when it comes to evaluating a work of history, it’s the quality of the work that counts, not the status of the author.  I’ve said that before, and I’ve said it for years.  I’ve even thrown it in the faces of my colleagues.  Case in point: I have a colleague who teaches non-American intellectual history.  That colleague once told me that the reason I published so much was because I had so many outlets and a far greater audience for my work.  True, I said.  People actually wanted to read what I wrote.  Did that fact in itself say anything about the quality of what I wrote?  Did he have any complaints about that (especially as I moved to early tenure)?  After all, I added, I could write a book that would not sell if I wanted to, as if lack of sales and audience was somehow a testament of the quality of my work.  Would that satisfy him?

He failed to respond.

At that time I was considering revising my master’s thesis on Henry Adams for publication.  I decided to do so, largely because I thought it would make a good book and a contribution to scholarship.  However, I also knew that it would not enjoy significant sales.  I would offer the book as my primary publication when I went up for full professor: given the department’s rules, that was the publication expectation (I held back The Reconstruction Presidents until the following year).  So I used a revised (and published) version of my master’s thesis to gain promotion.  That would be bad enough … but, in fact, C-SPAN then used me not once but twice to talk about Henry Adams, once while sitting in the stone library at the Adams house in Quincy.  In short, even when I looked to write on something less well known, I found an audience, attracted attention, and appeared twice on television.  I apologize … NOT.

The point remains: if academic historians don’t have a public audience, they have only themselves to blame.  Besides, there are enough academic historians who do reach out in various ways.  Have they been overlooked?  I’m thinking not just of authors and bloggers, but of The History Guys radio show, for example, or of people who’ve found other ways to interact (hello, Keith Harris!).  If academic historians want a broader public, I suggest that instead of complaining and discussing and pondering that they simply go out and interact with it and to call on the profession to value that interaction.  Just do it.

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8 thoughts on “Just Do It: Academic Historians and the General Public

  1. Didn’t historians make the same complaint about Samuel Eliot Morrison? Good heavens, he sailed a ship around the Caribbean to research exactly where Columbus had gone. And then he put on a steel pot and sailed with the Navy to research World War II while it was happening! You are in good company!

  2. Thanks very much for your kind mention of my posts. I think you’re substantially right on this.

    I do wonder, though, whether you don’t think the academic opponents of “popular” history have a point: that academic history is not just about telling compelling historical narratives, but making arguments that inform our understanding of the past. I’m chagrined to admit that I haven’t read your books, but I’m confident (based on what I’ve heard from others) that they tackle serious historical questions while also being a joy to read. Still, not all popular history books written by academics are like this. Should narratives without substantive arguments or new evidence be treated in the same way as argument-based scholarship, do you think?

    • Thanks for being one of those people who have moved this discussion along.

      One can always craft what I like to call an interpretive narrative of whatever one is writing about. In that narrative, one can weave all sorts of information and insights to promote a higher and more thoughtful level of historical literacy and critical thinking. For example, at Gettysburg, the Union line on July 3 was deployed in part over a farm rented by a black farmer who had fled the area because he was afraid of what might happen if he fell into the Confederates’ clutches. Telling the story of that farmer and his family brings in issues sometimes left out in the sorts of flatter narratives we may come across, including the endless retelling of the same story.

      What we are not taught to do as a rule is to tell the story well and tell a story worth telling, the kind of story that makes people think and reflect and learn something they didn’t know. And that’s just for starters …

      Not every academic historian will follow the same mold. Each of us does some part of what we do collectively, but some prefer service, others administration, some teaching, others writing, and so on. Some prefer a more social science approach while others lean towards a humanities approach. And then there are those who try to bring some of these traits together and who do not define themselves as either/or. But we need to encourage our colleagues who are willing to engage the public even as we make sure that they do it well, and not simply because of the flattery or the rewards involved. Being “popular” in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s how we go about it and what we do that should be of interest to all.

  3. Hi Brooks,

    Great subject! Can I get your thoughts on “academic presses” and thier role? Let’s face it, for the most part they are not widely distributed and can at times be quite pricey. Sure, they can be ordered pretty easily online but if the reader doesn’t know about the book he can’t order it. For academics looking to advance their careers publishing with a mainstream publisher is not usually the best option. I know that statement pretty well proves your point but can the academic publishers help promote authors more?

    • Well, online commerce has really changed the terms of the game for university presses. Once it was the hope of adoption by book clubs, followed by the advent of Borders, that expanded distribution opportunities. At the same time, however, university presses receive far less than they used to in terms of subsidies, so much so that they must consider balancing their list with books whose sales will balance the cost of publishing other books.

      The main value of university presses remains the vetting role played by scholars who referee these manuscripts. That process is not flawless, and, frankly, it’s undervalued when done well by the profession (editors soon figure out who does a good job). However, one often sees the difference in quality when one compares books that have been refereed with those that have not been refereed. When it comes to trade houses, authors, not publishers, often address this process, depending on the helpfulness of friends.

      Can academic presses help in promoting authors? Only to a limited extent. Trade publishers are often better at this. However, as Ted Savas has said, authors remain the primary promoters of their work. I’d argue that the internet offers authors new opportunities to engage in that sort of promotion.

      Finally, there are university presses and there are university presses. There’s a pecking order depending on topic. I’ve had very good relationships with several university presses, but the story of the Adams manuscript/book is instructive. Originally I submitted it the the University of Wisconsin Press, because Paul Boyer, a scholar I greatly respect, asked me to do so. The reviews were fine … but Wisconsin said it could not make enough money on the book. That amused me. The University of South Carolina Press just beat another press to publish the book. On the whole I was pleased with the result … but then USC Press had a change in management, and the new crew really had no interest in promoting the book. Thus, when the book was featured on C-SPAN, USC Press had so badly fumbled the book (it’s difficult to find in the press’s promotional material) that it couldn’t take advantage of an opportunity rarely afforded one of its titles. Given that I haven’t seen a royalty check in years, I assume the book is not promoted at all, and the only way for most people to learn about it is to run into it online.

      Sometimes university presses do a great job promoting a book: the University of North Carolina Press did so with Joan Waugh’s book on Grant. Other times, the promotion is not so good. I think it’s up to authors to remedy that now that they have more tools to do so.

  4. So if I hear you correctly, it is a combination of “peer pressure” (colleagues not seeing the value in reaching a broad “popular” audience) and “sour grapes” (complainers envious of academics who do reach the general public) that perpetuates the debate. It seems like the tension between these two (wanting to be popular but not wanting to be ridiculed) pins academics in their place. As an aspiring academic who has started his own blog mostly for fun and enjoys interacting with the general public through tours and such, I have to say that I find it a nice balance to what I do in the classroom. I have at times been challenged more by a public audience with a passion for the subject than by one sitting in a classroom who really have no interest.

    • Well, many historians deplore their lack of influence as public intellectuals and decry historical illiteracy in public discussion but seem unable to see that their unwillingness to reach out to the public might be part of the problem. And that’s just for starters. To combine those positions with condescension for those scholars who do have a public presence suggests something more about the true nature of the problem.

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