Historians who get to make a living writing & researching have a fascinating job and that leads to those of us who are historians (including those who don’t work in the field, like me) having very interesting discussions. Lately, I’ve seen historians, particularly ones who work in academia, have a conversation that revolves around two distinct types of writing: writing for the public & academic writing. I wanted to share bits and pieces of this conversation, introducing readers to some neat historians in the process, and sharing my own thoughts as a young historian who doesn’t have a graduate degree but does a decent amount of public writing myself.
Historians Discuss The Importance Of Writing For The Public:
The tweet that I saw that as far as I can tell is the very beginning of this discussion (if nothing else it was reactions to this tweet that I saw that introduced me to this latest version of this conversation, which is one historians have been having for a while now) was a tweet by Josh Marshall (the editor & publisher of Talking Points Memo and the subject of the one of the best activist & historian articles I’ve ever read).
The fact that a decent number of the top “history” offerings on Amazon are written by Fox News hosts is as decent a reason as any to shut the country down.
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) February 26, 2018
This tweet was obviously made in jest, but it got genuine reactions from some historians like Juneisy Hawkins, a PhD candidate at New York University’s history department specializing in estadounidense history & a variety of fascinating food-centric topics. Her point is very valid if for no other reason than it’s important to create content that nonhistorians will be interested in & that doesn’t serve to accidentally prevent people from becoming truly interested in history & historical research.
And a reason for historians to write more history the general public will want to read, or at least to write in a language that won't make the public (and other historians) want to gouge their eyes out with a spork. And for academic presses to promote books better. Or something.
— Juneisy Hawkins (@JuneHawk20) February 26, 2018
Other historians got involved as well, including Megan Kate Nelson (author of “Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War“), James T. Downs (editor & contributor to “Connexions Histories of Race & Sex in North America“), Karen L. Cox (who wrote an immensely educational book about the Daughters Of The Confederacy, entitled: “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture“) Danielle L. McGuire (“At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance–a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power“), & other fascinating historians whose work could & should be researched by anyone who ends up enjoying this article!
Academics are criticized for not engaging "the public" and then when they do many critics diminish their contributions.
— jim downs (@jimdowns1) February 26, 2018
Indeed – and the criticism comes from all sides: the vast majority of academics dismiss public writing/popular history as lacking rigor and "selling out."
— Megan Kate Nelson (@megankatenelson) February 26, 2018
I disagree. Good writing is about discipline. Being a good writer is not a natural talent, it's about the work, the revision, and the constant effort. (At least it is for me).
— Danielle L. McGuire (@dmcguire13) February 26, 2018
These shed some light on what historians go through when deciding what they want to write & for who. As Jim noted, there is blowback for some historians in our circle of peers when we write history for the public even though many in & out of our circle want more writing for the public to be done. To some extent, this feels a bit like someone wanting the sausage to be made, without seeing how or in this case, who makes it.
That being said, it’s worth noting that what some have experienced is ultimately subjective as are perceptions of blogging/public writing, as the Twitter manager for the Urban History Association points out due to their success & the positive impact blogging/public writing had for them.
I know this doesn't really serve discussions regarding "the academy" but as a public historian I can tell you blog/public writing is critical and certainly helped me get my current gig @librarycongress; so at least parts of the profession recognize the value
— UHA (@UrbanHistoryA) February 26, 2018
One of the neater tweets I saw came from Heather C. Richardson (To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party) who very kindly decided to publicly offer to help historians looking to write for the public, saying:
Lots of noise today about academics who don't write for the public. Any American historian who wants that audience can pitch me and @rothmanistan at @werehist. We will work closely with you to help you get the hang of framing your material and we edit carefully.
— Heather C Richardson (@HC_Richardson) February 26, 2018
In my experience, other historians have always been kind and by & large helpful to each other and to myself. I as a young historian and someone who doesn’t frequently write academic material, enjoy seeing this positivity and this desire for helpful interactions between academics & the public.
What The Importance Of This For Historians?
There’s this idea that in my experience is common both within the field & outside of it that career & professional historians live in & are a part of what often feels like another world for many non-historians which is typically considered the “academic” world. This idea is particularly relevant for people interested in history communication, which many people know that I am. This idea is dangerous to the field of history and also discouraging for many future historians. It even undermines the work & value of historians who actually are academics but still engage in the outside world whether through the research process or in other ways such as finding usage for their research in practical contexts.
I think that this discussion about the importance of writing for the public is very important. It is necessary that historians write for the public & share (and actively make accessible because oftentimes our work is publicly accessible from the start, but it is written & created in such a way that understanding it can be difficult) our research, our methods, & our scholarly debates. It’s necessary for the sake of understanding what the available evidence tells us about the past and sharing that with those who aren’t also trained historians, and it’s necessary so that we can shrink the gap between historians and non-historians. If we ever want the true importance of our field to be understood & for future historians to have as many resources as possible then it’s necessary that we do this now and make it normal. It’s also necessary that we do what we can to rid ourselves of what some of us have experienced when we write to & for the public: an annoying elitism that our personal & academic critics and rivals use to devalue our work & our contributions to both public & academic discourse.
As a historian myself, I want to make sure that the public sees the value in our work. I understand and value the public opinion of history and in my own way, I am working to increase it, through my videos, my writing, & my sharing of my perceptions of the world.
What Is The Purpose Of This Post?
People outside of the field of history don’t always understand just how public we are as a group of professionals, scholars, & yes sometimes activists as well. I wanted to make this post to show people outside of my field of study that we as a scholarly community are actively having conversations & coming up with solutions to this very real problem. I’m proud of the scholars in my field who are coming up with solid approaches to tackling this and collaborating with each other to address it more substantially.
I understand why people think this is a problem and I am so excited to note that so many different voices are chiming in and engaging with both others in the field & those who aren’t who are observing the conversation and occasionally contributing themselves.
I’d love to hear your opinions on this and what you’d like to say to historians working on this! Please go & follow the people whose works & tweets I linked. I’d love for my article to have helped them out in some way and I think that given the topic we’re discussing this would be an appropriate way for them to be thanked for their opinions & tweets.