Why I Wish More Scholars Would “Think in Public”

Why I Wish More Scholars Would “Think in Public” March 26, 2019

Last month I recommended five history podcasts to the attention of our readers (then shared several more on Twitter) and suggested that the medium was an appealing way for historians to engage with the public. In response, I received some thoughtful pushback from two fellow historians: our own John Turner and our Patheos Evangelical colleague D.G. Hart. Today I’d like to address a couple of their concerns, and then add an argument that wasn’t part of my original post — but will be at the center of a talk I’m giving this morning at Bethel with my frequent podcasting collaborator, Sam Mulberry.

First, Hart. He noted my observation that “the problem isn’t that too few historians are engaging with the public. The problem is helping a public overwhelmed with media choices find their way to the historians.” Given that challenge, Hart wasn’t sure that historians stood much of a chance of breaking through to all that large a public:

Hart, Damning Words
One thing Hart and I have in common: signing up to contribute unlikely entries to Eerdmans’ Library of Religious Biography…

Of course, it’s not fair that people with more expertise have smaller audiences. But that is the architecture of ideas in modern society. Mass media (and related Internet platforms) by nature reach mass audiences. Professors may think they have a lot to say to those same readers and listeners — and they do — but their own institutions, credentials, appointments, and professional standards do not matter for mass market purposes the way that newspapers and magazines do. It’s like thinking the dog house you built for your backyard, with quality materials and masterful design, deserves to be recognized for its quality the way people like the local Kroger supermarket (and pay no attention to its design or beauty). Chances are, the dog house builder would find the crowds that Kroger handles a bit difficult to manage (not to mention a bit upsetting to neighbors).

Indeed, what chance does our new sports history series have, up against podcasts produced by ESPN, Bill Simmons, or local talk radio stations? And it’s about to get even harder. Two days after Hart’s post, the New York Times ran a feature on Luminary, a start-up that aims to do for podcasting what Netflix and Amazon Prime have done for films and TV. With $100 million in initial funding, Luminary will launch an inexpensive subscription service in June, leaving even less room in a crowded space for professor-podcasters like me.

So Hart’s point is valid… but doesn’t dissuade me. After all, you don’t need to build a “mass audience” to reach a “larger public.” Surely he believes this; otherwise, why would he blog in the first place? I have no idea how many readers Putting the “Protest” in Protestant brings to Patheos, or how many fervently un-pietistic Reformed Christians frequent the Old Life blog. But every post Hart writes at either site has the potential to reach people who otherwise would never have the chance to sit under his teaching at Hillsdale College — and who might never spend the money to buy even one of his many books.

It’s all a matter of perspective. When Sam and I first started podcasting in 2006, we set for ourselves the rather arbitrary goal of reaching 25 students. Nothing “mass” about that. But if you visualize that target as the equivalent of filling a standard academic classroom without any of the standard academic carrots and sticks, you might start to think the effort worthwhile. Seven episodes into our newest podcast, we get a weekly listenership similar to the capacity for Bethel’s largest lecture hall. And more committed historian-podcasters like Liz Covart do far better than that; her Ben Franklin’s World was just downloaded for the five millionth time.

Same for blogging. In a single year at Bethel, I typically have about 200 students. At that rate, I’ll have taught something like 8,000 by the time my career is done — about the number of readers I have in a relatively slow month at my personal blog. And a good month at The Anxious Bench has an overall readership larger than the total number of my university’s living alumni.

Of course, the obvious retort to such comparisons is that my relationship to a blog reader or podcast listener is far less meaningful than what I have with even the least engaged, most grudging student in any of my gen ed courses at Bethel. And that gets us to John’s response:

First of all, call me old-fashioned, but I think by far the most important audience to which the vast majority of historians speak is our students. If we prepare well for our classes, engage students, teach them to think historically, and serve as mentors and advisers as they advance toward graduation, then we’re doing what the vast majority of taxpayers and parents would want. First things first.

Now, my original podcast posts did affirm (albeit inside parentheses) that teaching was “still the most important way that most of us engage with a non-specialist public.” But I can’t quibble with what I take to be John’s larger point, that historians should not become so concerned with reaching a larger (or mass) public, or with demonstrating the present-day relevance of our studies, that they lose sight of their primary callings. He concluded:

Many more historians, though, are toiling patiently to convince Americans of the importance of thinking historically and of studying the past. They do so in classrooms. Yes, many do so by blogging, tweeting, writing books, publishing op-eds. And while some historians have large audiences of followers, many make contributions in less visible ways.

True enough. Not every historian must or should produce podcasts or crank out blog posts and op-eds.

Some do have those gifts and interests. But even if they can convince themselves that the effort is worth the chance to reach dozens of listeners or hundreds of readers, they’ll likely hear another voice in their head, even more nagging than D.G. Hart’s: the one chiding them for wasting scarce time better devoted to the more serious, less public work of teaching and scholarship.

But here’s the thing:

Podcasting, blogging, and other forms of public engagement are not only extensions of my callings as a teacher and scholar. They actually help me to improve my teaching and scholarship.

I’m doing a sports history podcast to think through a new class I’ll be teaching next year. I spent one whole season of my Pietist Schoolman Podcast simply talking through the outlined chapters of our Pietist Option book, after the preceding season served as an extended sequel to my previous book on Pietism and education. Between this blog and my own, I’ve written first drafts of parts of every chapter in my forthcoming Charles Lindbergh biography. And my Anxious Bench post last week derived in equal parts from Lindbergh research and my current gen ed course on the history of World War II.

In the process, I’m not only using newfangled media to hone old-fashioned historical skills, but I’m doing something that I wish far more scholars would do: I’m thinking in public.

Chris Gehrz working in his office at Bethel University
Me in my office at Bethel, which anyone can look into from the atrium of our student commons – photo by Sam Mulberry

Historians might build on the work of a larger community, but research and writing tend to be solitary, private pursuits, done out of sight of any sized public. When that scholarly labor bears fruit, the findings are often published in such a way that only readers who possess a certain vocabulary and background knowledge can understand and appreciate its meaning. Even teaching — our most intrinsically “public” activity — is hidden from the view of all but the precious few who can afford to pay college tuition and want or need to study history in college.

I don’t believe that historians should stop publishing monographs or journal articles, or that we can cease charging the tuition that pays our salaries. But blogs, podcasts, and other digital media do make it possible for many more people to see what it is that we do.

I’ve long since taken to calling this “thinking in public.” I think the notion first occurred to me when I read Sherman Dorn describe digital history as a kind of visible “preargument”:

Presentation of historical scholarship as an argument presumes a finished product. But most time spent on historical scholarship is messy, involving rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public.

Of course, what Dorn and I have in mind terrifies many scholars. It’s like letting people you’ve never met read over rough drafts of your article or syllabus. (And perhaps leave nasty comments on them.) To think in public is to confess uncertainty in public, to reveal ignorance in public, and to make mistakes in public. That’s hard enough for anyone who’s tempted to treat expertise as the measure of their professional ability, but it’s especially worrisome for Christian scholars whose work already invites the scrutiny of suspicious constituents.

But not thinking in front of such publics is riskier. Keeping private what we do only invites misunderstanding and distrust; it just deepens the “distribution problem” separating us from the rest of the church. For the same reason that I keep the shade open and let everyone in our student commons see into my office while I’m working, I’ve long since decided to make my scholarship and teaching more transparent — however small or large a public is watching.

Updates: After I finished writing this post for Anxious Bench, I used my own blog to add another 1600 words on the importance of trust. Also, the audio of our “thinking in public” talk is now available at the Live from AC2nd network.

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