The disconnect between historians and the public

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites authors to guest-blog. This week’s featured blogger is Joel F. Harrington, author of The Changing Face of Violence.

In describing the most striking differences between J.H. Hexter’s 1954 “A Historian and His Day” and my own experience of the profession in 2013, I’ve written about the rising publication demands at research universities and elsewhere, the subsequent decline of on-campus interactions, and a variety of transformations wrought by the revolution in information technology.

As a historian, I’m aware that most people in any society tend to experience large-scale changes in negative terms. And there have certainly been some losses, especially in the teaching arena. But we historians have opportunities that our predecessors would never had dared imagine.

This blog and the overall forum provided by Symposium and other high-quality sites are the most obvious examples. To them we can add much greater accessibility to publications of all sorts, through both technological and business improvements, similarly wide distribution of historical video and audio programming, and a great number of other opportunities for academic historians to speak to a broader public.

Why, then, do so many historians feel such a deep disconnect with the general public? We certainly can’t blame this on lack of popular interest, especially given the phenomenal success of both historical fiction and history books written by journalists and other non-academics. The same could be send of historically-themed movies, although in this instance anachronistic dialogue seems to be a given.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars. Because of the nature of the modern university, academic historians are caught between two conflicting demands: higher publication expectations (too often measured in quantitative terms) and an academic publishing industry in crisis.

Like their trade counterparts, academic presses face a variety of financial challenges brought on largely by the Internet. Large houses (Cambridge, Oxford, Chicago) have responded by publishing a lot of books at ever-escalating prices (even with frequent subsidies from the universities of their authors). Smaller presses—those that have survived—publish fewer books, but still at uncompetitive prices.

You might think that these constraints would encourage books aimed at broader audiences, but in fact the opposite has occurred. Look at the catalog of any academic press and estimate how many potential readers are out there for each title you encounter (even if it didn’t cost two to three times as much as a trade counterpart).

Much of this situation is due to nature of academic status and promotion. Rising scholars write books that they believe peer reviewers in their respective field will judge worth of tenure. This narrow, intended audience is reinforced by the book-approval process of academic presses, likewise based on peer reviews.

Trade presses, by contrast, promise a much broader audience, but likewise expect a more inclusive approach. The good news is that universities and history departments no longer universally frown upon “popular” works—as long as the scholarly quality is strong. The bad news is that this is an extremely competitive market, and most academic historians either can’t risk writing a potentially “unscholarly” book, or they lack the ability (after so many years of specialized reading and writing). Those of us past the tenure threshold naturally have more flexibility here, but not as much as you may think, given that all aspects of our professional career are subject to the same criteria for measuring scholarly accomplishment.

That said, I think the current flux in publishing and other mass media has created a unique moment of opportunity for academic historians to climb down from the ivory tower. Universities are notoriously conservative institutions on procedural matters such as faculty promotion, but they are also vulnerable to the same pride of individuals when it comes to highly visible faculty publications.

Even more promising, I sense among many of my historian colleagues at Vanderbilt and elsewhere a genuine desire to be part of a larger conversation in our country. Beyond frustration at small reading publics, I believe that a real commitment to meaningful civic engagement is out there. The only question is how long it will take our teaching institutions to recognize and reward such interactions with the broader world.

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