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“Selling” History to Others

Two issues, somewhat related, came across my computer screen recently that gave me reason to think about the state of openness among historians, and academics in general.  The first was the AHA’s statement on scholarly journal publishing.  The second was a post over at Inside Higher Ed about whether or not one should blog.  It also included an interesting aside about the ethics of live-tweeting and live-blogging academic conferences.  I don’t feel fully comfortable offering any thoughts about the AHA’s statement, particularly because I am late to the open access topic, and don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the issue.  But taken together, these two posts lead me to ask what I think is an important question:

Are historians (and perhaps other people in the humanities) doing an adequate job selling the importance of their work to the wider public?

Speaking solely from my own experience, I don’t believe I do enough to articulate the importance of my dissertation research beyond the discussion I’m having with a small group of scholars who focus on similar topics.  I’ve gotten better over time, but I still get plenty of blank faces and “that’s nice” responses when someone asks me what I’m working on.  I think part of it is a learning process, in that the more comfortable you become with a research project the better you can explain its impact.  But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if there are cultural factors at play.  I wonder if there is pressure to carefully guard a research topic, or a tendency to emphasize jargon and complex methodologies.  A biologist can easily explain why their research matters if it focuses on curing cancer, but oftentimes a humanities project can come across as esoteric to those just glancing at the title.  Maybe tensions over access to journals and the spreading of ideas over social media are part of this issue.

It’s somewhat presumptuous, most likely, for a grad student to talk about what professionals should do.  But I can’t help but voice some thoughts on this issue.  I think that we can do a better job relating our work to those outside the field.  I believe part of the negative stereotype placed on academics stems from an inability to relate their work.  When I was teaching the U.S. survey course last year, I stressed to my students that history matters.  When covering such an expansive amount of material, it’s easy to take a step back and look at the big picture.  But now that I’m knee deep in dissertation research, I sometimes focus on the small, tedious points rather than looking at that larger idea.  It’s hard to talk about it’s significance when you are so deeply focused on specific parts of the project.

My work matters to me.  That’s why I chose the topic I did.  And I think it matters in a larger sense, with bigger implications than I sometimes realize.  The question is whether or not I can relate this to other people and to show this significance in my work.  I want my work to reach as wide an audience as I can.  The question is how do I do that.  And moreover, instead of worrying about offering 140-character snippets of a conference talk, shouldn’t we be trying to relate our work to what others are doing?  History matters.  But sometimes I wonder if we’re doing enough to show just how important it really is.

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