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.