On academic ambivalence towards public history

I was prompted to write this post by a storm that blew up on Twitter a few days ago. In case you missed it, here is a short summary: A Guardian interview with Rebecca Rideal about her new book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire gave the impression that Rideal claimed some historiographical novelty for her approach; some academic historians on Twitter commented that it did not appear particularly novel. The ensuing (and often bad-tempered) discussion took in a wide range of issues from the propriety of senior academics using Twitter to criticise a PhD student’s work, to news values in the reporting of research, to the question of whether the title ‘historian’ should be accorded to someone without a doctorate.

The issue that struck me most, however, was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics. As someone who works in academia but who also does (and teaches about doing) public history, I am interested in understanding why this happens and how we might deal with it. I should say that my observations here are not based solely on the Twitter row, which I have no desire to re-open, but on many conversations over the twelve years since I began my PhD.

First, I am not surprised that academics in the humanities feel defensive. (I think this is often not understood by outsiders, who think our salaries and relative professional autonomy are actually a pretty good deal.) Our work is subsidised by taxpayers: the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) had government funding of £103 million in 2015-16. But both within and outside universities, we have to fight hard to justify that level of spending and to make the case for humanities research more broadly. The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast had to apologise earlier this year after suggesting sixth-century history wasn’t relevant to 21-year-olds. In Australia, the Treasurer (Finance Minister) recently suggested academic projects seeking public funding should have to pass a ‘pub test’, implying many are too obscure.

But of course it’s often this ‘obscure’, publicly-funded research that is later synthesised into more popular histories for wider consumption. Very few academics object to that, but I often hear complaints that work is insufficiently credited, which I think are understandable against the constant demands to justify our work. TV rarely credits at all, except for major consultancy roles or book adaptations; trade books credit in acknowledgements or endnotes but often not (for reasons of style) in the main text. Moreover, both TV and trade publishing rely on presenter/author ‘brand’ to pull in an audience: you are reading or watching Smith’s latest because it’s Smith, not because of the topic. That model does not lend itself to emphasising research as a collaborative process. Instead, a TV programme becomes the sole presenter’s exciting quest to uncover secrets of the past, while the Amazon algorithm tells you that as you bought Smith’s last book, you might like to buy her next one.

Moreover, in my experience, these workings of public history are not well understood, even by academics who value engagement with wide audiences. This is a problem because increasingly we (academics) have to supervise doctoral students who may want to consider these career options (and given how niche they are we can’t rely on the Careers Service here). We have to think about how our students might combine academic work and public historical practice. Thanks to the provision of Collaborative Doctoral Awards we’ve got better at doing this with museums and galleries, but the world of commercial history is still very alien to most. I don’t have all the answers, but we should have a discussion about what would be helpful, involving supervisors, students and former students.

We should also think about ‘gatekeeping’ and how we talk about professionalism and authority. Again, the question of money – and public money – is pertinent to some of the anxieties I detect in academia. If one doesn’t need a PhD to be a historian, and can do history quite well without one, ought taxpayers really to be funding so many humanities PhDs? After all, the majority of History PhDs will not go on to an academic job. Personally I think it is possible to be a historian without a professional qualification, but I also think the PhD is worth having, and that it is more difficult to be a good historian without that apprenticeship. I could not have written the books I have without the time my (publicly funded) doctoral and postdoctoral research gave me to explore archives and think and talk about history. But I doubt that’s very obvious to the average person who buys them in a bookshop. We should talk more about how to communicate the value of the PhD – which in turn would help those PhDs who go on to work outside academia in a world that often doesn’t understand the point of the qualification.

Finally, I think academics who are unhappy about aspects of public historical discourse should discuss whether there are things that might be done to tackle the problems. A couple of years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a scientist about this. He and his colleagues were frustrated that TV’s go-to expert in their field was someone with a poor reputation among his peers on ethical issues. They got together and worked with a media officer to promote alternative voices, and now the coverage, in their view, is much improved, the one problematic individual no longer dominates and overall their field has a better relationship with the media. Could historians do likewise? We should at least talk about it.




10 thoughts on “On academic ambivalence towards public history

  1. Hi Catherine,

    As a postgraduate student with an equal interest in academia and public history, I’ve found your response to last week’s Twitter fallout a really interest read. It’s great to see an argument with reason!

    I’ve always considered many academics to be too dismissive of public history and unappreciative of the methods that one has to go to make themselves a public figure (particularly personal branding and as you say the ‘new’/’wow’ shock factor’.) But, I’ve also never considered why historians may be so defensive, so that was particularly interesting to read.

    Totally agree that there are things we can do to tackle the issues and hopefully that is something that will change with time. I think ‘traditional’ academic relationships and research are already changing due to social media, what was once private, is becoming much more public. We now share the intricate steps of our study and research through blog posts, tweets and even instagram, not just the end result. This will only continue to grow and eventually I think a vast majority of history will become a lot more public for those who look for it. Then perhaps we will begin to bridge the expertise of ‘public history’ and academia.

    Blimey, I hope that all made a bit of sense!



  2. I found this really interesting to read. I missed the twitter row, but some of what you say resonates with me, even though I’m a lit person rather than a historian (and something I notice is that, to most people, that lit training is invisible and I must be a historian because I work on the past – something that I am aware may not endear me to actual historians!).

    I think there’s a wider issue, which Rideal brings up in her interview, of writing style. I fairly often get comments about my own writing style when I’m blogging, to the effect that it isn’t very scholarly. It’s not, obviously, and that’s the point. But it’s taken me a very long time to develop a comfortable academic writing style, and when I started writing for a wider audience, I had to work hard to make my writing fun to read. That’s a hard skill, and we don’t generally teach it, so we don’t seem to value it very much. Maybe if we were more explicit about the value of good writing, we’d be less inclined to think that popularising is ‘easy’ or unoriginal?


  3. Fascinating and true in other fields. I have top wine qualifications but still find that TV personalities with often little knowledge are given greater weight and pay – just because they are personalities. Is this part of the wider anti-expert attitude prevalent today? Making knowledge public is very different to being a public personality talking about a subject. Social media is great and those of us who use it to show our knowledge benefit from mutual support, discussion and acknowledgement of each other. Aggressive public criticism does no good for anyone – it does not boost confidence, debate or reputation.


  4. The scientist example is useful. A factor that seems key in my field–one closely related to hot current events–is that non-experts are more likely to give the answers that newspeople want. The go-to talking head historians on questions related to this field are not people doing serious research or with serious training in it. They are confident-sounding dudes willing to spout simplistic stories that jibe neatly with public assumptions and discourses. Plus the gender thing.


  5. Thanks for this post, Catherine. Lots of sensible things here, and preferable to the Twitter debate, which I thought suffered from some serious problems in tone…

    A question from ignorance: is ‘novelty’ a necessity in public history?

    In this tension between 1. academics who feel slighted by too little acknowledgement of influences and historiography, and 2. other historians (many of whom are also academics of course) who think many academics do not understand the pressures of public history, it seemed a lot comes down to claims for originality.


    1. Thanks Will! I think much public history (at least the more commercial sort) demands both novelty and familiarity. Familiarity in topic – so that readers/viewers know a little of what they can expect – but novelty so that they feel they’re getting something new. Hence with my trade books you get Henry VIII in one title and Medici in another but in both cases there is a novel angle that can be featured in media coverage. Of course very rarely is that novel angle new to everyone: it’s quite likely that specialists will know about it. But the point is it needs to be new to a decent chunk of the wider public.

      Liked by 1 person

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