Bridging the Gaps Between “Academic” and “Public” Historians

Over at Student of the American Civil War, Al Mackey provides some thoughts regarding whether or not there is a split between academic and public historians. Another commenter remarked that a “major split” exists between the two, but I’m not sure that’s true. We’ve been discussing this issue quite a bit in my digital history class, and a lot of our discussions have challenged me to think of ways that historians of all types can do a better job of working together and engaging the public. Here is what I had to say:

I am taking a more positive view of this supposed split in academic and public history. I think the [Gettysburg] conference was notable for the number of panels that included academic and public historians. We also can’t forget that people like Anne Whisnant do work in both. I disagree that there is a “major split” between the fields and that the academics’ method of writing is the major problem. There are plenty of examples of bad writing, of course, but we have to acknowledge at some point that many topics are complex and require a great deal of explanation from all types of historians. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is complex. Civil Liberties and the differing interpretations of what was “Constitutional” during the war are complex. Reconstruction is complex. Explaining these topics in an accurate manner requires more than just “tailoring” our writings for a specific audience. Furthermore, many academics I know (including the ones I’m studying with right now) are more than happy to involve themselves in public speaking engagements and workshops, but local historical institutions (archives, museums, etc.) have failed to utilize the talents of these academics, partially because the funds are not there to bring these people in. I don’t want to underestimate the fact that some academics create self-imposed boundaries, but I think it should be stated that the self-imposed boundaries run both ways. All too often people (myself included) mistake complexity for “jargon” and use that as an excuse to dismiss a person’s argument. I struggle with a lot of Mark Neely’s writings, but the topics he covers are important and can find a place in a public history interpretation. Finding ways to incorporate complexity into the discussion is exactly what Peter Carmichael referred to when he argued that visitors should leave sites confused but curious to learn more. Getting audiences to respond to complexity is a big challenge.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the lack of accessibility to the writings of historians. Scholarly journals have digital paywalls and proxies that close access to all except a small cadre of paying customers, which is problematic since we can all acknowledge that people today receive a lot of their historical information online. Jimmy’s remarks on a “seal of approval,” etc. are interesting, although I’m not sure how we put those into practice, and I share Al’s concerns about instituting fees and the implications of attempting to take back authority and exclude certain voices. Some would also argue that the university press system would have to go if such a system were inaugurated (which may not be a bad thing).

Some academic historians, as Brooks Simpson has pointed out, have resorted to “dated characterizations” about blogging and have expressed their own concerns about the loss of authority and gatekeeping that go along with the digital realm. Those concerns create self-imposed barriers. The reality is that digital technology has the potential to integrate academic and public history in new, unprecedented ways. The work of William Thomas III at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is noteworthy. Thomas wrote a book on railroads but also created a digital component with many, many resources that tie directly to his academic book. The website is a bit clunky, but I think the graphs, maps, and other visualizations on the site complement his book quite nicely and help us understand the material in ways that a book doesn’t always convey. The site also provides resources for teachers so that they can utilize the book and website for their own classrooms. Why aren’t more academics engaging in these sorts of projects?