Why Historians Should Write Books Ordinary People Want to Read
Ask any administrator or professor in the humanities what use their field is, and the amount of equivocation and soul-searching you'll receive in response will clue you into a little secret: this is a time of crisis for practitioners of the humanities. Thanks to university budget cuts and conservative attacks on their fields, humanities scholars are increasingly forced to defend something many of them have in past taken for granted: the importance of their research to the modern experience. Though conservative activists have attacked most strongly those fields that represent the political left -- race and gender studies, peace studies, and other such interdisciplinary programs -- the fields that have proven hardest to defend are older, more traditional ones: disciplines such as anthropology, English, and increasingly history. Once considered indispensable parts of a well-rounded education, along with now-rarely-taught disciplines such as Latin and rhetoric, these fields have increasingly found themselves labeled as irrelevant and pointless.
Much of this is our own fault, as the president of the American Historical Association, Gabrielle Spiegel, courageously acknowledged in a January 2008 essay in Perspectives,"The Case for History and the Humanities." "...Those of us in historically oriented humanistic disciplines have not been very clever about the ways in which we argue for the importance and centrality of our fields of inquiry," Spiegel admitted. "In defending the practice of history, or the humanities more generally, academics who have dedicated their lives to such study tend to rely on old shibboleths about the importance of understanding history, art, languages, and so on, and understanding what it means to be 'human.' ... But as the term"shibboleth" implies, we are often, I think, simply talking to each other. As a consequence, arguments for the importance of history and the humanities are losing their purchase; they tend to rely upon a sense of the intrinsic importance of comprehending the achievements of the past in a world undergoing rapid and far-reaching change."
Spiegel went on to justify the importance of history on the grounds that it provides an understanding and appreciation of difference that is critical in our global and rapidly-changing world. "American society and government has never needed the kind of historical, linguistic, ethical, and cultural instruction offered by the humanities more crucially than at the present time," she wrote. "The exercise of power without a sense of ethical responsibility is dangerous; the exercise of power without historical knowledge is a prescription for disaster."
While I admire Spiegel for her noble effort to justify her field for the modern age, her argument ignores the fact that newer disciplines, such as cultural studies, ethnic studies, and various other interdisciplinary fields, achieve the goals of historical and cultural competency much better than does straight-up history. While historians have struggled to adapt to the demands of a transnational and transcultural approach, the newer fields founded on this approach face no such obstacles. Thus, if one's primary goal is to "de-other" other peoples and cultures, history is far from the first line of defense.
The trouble with all this hand-wringing among historians is that it is unnecessary. These concerns are understandable in other fields, such as English or anthropology; most Americans don't devour literary criticism or seek out information on the intricacies of the Yanomami. But the amazing thing about history is just how many people want to read about it. Step into any Barnes & Noble and you'll find shelves full of glossy, high-priced history books on a wide variety of subjects. Those volumes aren't there just to fill space; popular presses literally sell millions of copies of history and history-related books each year. While these books do tend to cluster around certain subjects -- predominantly American history, political and military history, biography, and the Founding Fathers -- there's no denying that many lay Americans find history a stimulating and important subject worth spending their hard-earned dollars on.
The honest truth is that all those folks who puzzle over the "justification" for historical studies are simply thinking too hard. Sports handicappers and fashion designers don't need to justify their professions; they're important because people want what they're selling. Similarly, there's no need for us to come up with rambling defenses of history as a profession when people are lining up at the nearest bookstore to lay down good money for historians' renditions of the past.
What we need to justify, instead, is why the historical profession as a whole has contemptuously spurned the lifeline that popular history represents. Those with influence over the profession -- hiring committees, tenure panels, and scholarly organizations like the AHA -- generally take a dim view of those who write for popular presses, whether they be amateur or professional historians. This extends to ephemera such as op-eds and blog posts as well. Not too long ago, a well-reputed historian explained to me in great detail the ways in which the academic deck is stacked against historians who choose to write for the public. The short version is that the monetary perks of tenure, promotion, and grants far outweigh the amount of money most popular historians can earn in royalties and speaking engagements. As a direct consequence, the number of academic historians who write for popular presses, or for a lay audience at all, is alarmingly few. It's tempting to blame the big chain bookstores for not selling what professional historians have to offer, but for once it's not the fault of big business; academic historians are simply not writing what the public wants to read.
At this point, many readers will begin wondering if this isn't all simply a consequence of academic freedom. After all, aren't historians supposed to be able to write on any subject that interests them? Certainly, any individual historian should be able to choose his or her topic without outside interference -- but the fact is that there have always been scholarly norms within the academic community that pressure scholars to conform to whatever the "hot" new trend happens to be. During the first half of the twentieth century, political historians dominated the academic community, issuing forth a steady stream of books on political and economic policy, elections, international relations, and biographies of famous men (and the occasional woman). After the New Left revolution of the 1960's, the historical community switched its focus to social history, resulting in endless books on peasants, Marxist-influenced social class theory, and the "history of everyday life." Around the late 1980's, cultural history began to predominate, leading to the current crop of books influenced by literary, cultural, and postmodern theory. Today the focus seems to be shifting again, to transnational and global history -- and believe me, as a current graduate student, I can tell you that the pressure to include transnational components in my publications is exceedingly high.
The problem is that, although the historical profession has changed its focus repeatedly since the 1950's, the general public has not followed suit. Following the tastes of lay readers, the Barnes & Noble shelves still display the sort of fare they did fifty years ago: books on political history and biographies (most bookstores have a separate biography section because of the high demand for this subgenre). In the 1950's, however, these books were authored by towering scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward. Thanks to today's scholarly apathy toward political history and biography, the authors of books on these subjects form a curious constellation of amateur historians, political figures, journalists, aging professors emeriti trained before the 1960's, and a few lonely academic historians, most of whom are frowned upon by their departments.
This alarming bifurcation of scholarly and popular history has serious consequences. Popular books written by non-scholarly historians tend, unsurprisingly, to be weaker specimens than were their scholarly counterparts fifty years ago; they are often poorly sourced and lack the sort of overarching arguments about history that make scholarly books valuable. On the other side of the coin, academic historians are urged to write books that are esoteric and that do not conform with what the general public wants to read. They're faced with a truly bizarre situation: write a book that only two hundred people buy, and you're lauded as a serious, mature scholar; write an op-ed for two million readers and you're derided as a popularizer.
The historian Carl Becker, a noted Columbia University scholar who was active during the first four decades of the twentieth century, understood the dangers of this specialist approach to history all too well. In a little-quoted passage from his 1931 AHA Presidential Address,"Everyman His Own Historian," Becker warned his colleagues that they ignored popular historical tastes to their peril. Because Becker's words still have resonance today, I've reproduced the passage here in its entirety.
Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the"new history" that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old. It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind. The appropriate trick for any age is not a malicious invention designed to take anyone in, but an unconscious and necessary effort on the part of 'society' to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do. We, historians by profession, share in this necessary effort. But we do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us—compelling us, in an age of political revolution, to see that history is past politics, in an age of social stress and conflict to search for the economic interpretation. If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman's mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.As this passage shows, Becker recognized that overspecialization was the true peril of the historical profession. Whatever their area of focus, historians generally agree that we have much to teach ordinary citizens about thinking historically, learning from past historical events, and incorporating general historical knowledge into their worldview. When lay readers stop consuming the history we write, our ability as a profession to influence them in any way is eliminated. Those who decry Americans' lack of historical knowledge fail to realize that we historians are largely to blame for not seriously trying to improve that knowledge. If a historian writes a book and no one reads it, does it really matter? Becker believed it did not, and I agree with him.
But history has not stopped doing work in the world; the sales at Barnes & Noble confirm that beyond a doubt. It's just that the academic community has disengaged itself from that work. We have forgotten that the way to reach out to the general public is not to lecture them on what they should be interested in, but to cater to what they are already interested in. That doesn't mean any topic should be off the table, but there are ways to frame historical arguments that engage the general public rather than simply specialized scholars. A historian who wants to make a point about the complexity of American race relations in the 1960's, for instance, could write a book about critical theory as exemplified by black literary journals, or she could write a joint biography of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou -- one that just happens to contain a large amount of material about the milieu in which they lived and worked. The content of a historical monograph need not suffer simply because its author chooses to make it interesting to a general audience.
No individual historian's work should be censored by these dictates; instead, it is the culture of the academy that needs to change. In a field motivated by a desire to learn from the past, we should do so in relation to our own specialty. We should reclaim that aspect of 1950's academic culture that rewarded scholars, not penalized them, for engaging effectively with the general public through published works. We should encourage historians to aggressively colonize and then conquer the popular historical market by producing well-researched, well-argued books on popular subjects. We should reward historians for publishing ephemera and for engaging in online conversation with lay readers. We should discourage specialization, narrowness, and jargon in published work. Though the task may be daunting, the potential payoff is great -- when scholarly history again does work in the world, who will question its intrinsic worth?
comments powered by Disqus
Tony Luke Chanute - 8/17/2008
A great article and well worth thinking about. It also made me recall why I decided to study history in the first place. I was inspired as a teenager by books written by Walter Lord, Barbara Tuchman, and Byron Farwell. They made history interesting and fascinating and excited my imagination. None of them, however, was a "historian." Walter Lord was an ad agency executive, Barbara Tuchman a journalist, and Byron Farwell a middle-manager with Chrysler. One of the best histories I've read of late is Rick Atkinson's, Day of Battle. He's not a historian either, he's a journalist for the Washington Post. All of these individuals share a common trait--a passion for history and the ability to write well. Passion comes from within but, do we teach our students to write well? Do we recognize those with good writing skills? Do we work to make sure our writing is accessible?
Richard Clay Reynolds - 8/6/2008
There is little to disagree with in Mr. Young's finely argued article on the necessity of historians to reach out beyond the academy to advance the appeal of historical analysis and revelation to a broader and more general public. The alarming observation he makes, though, is about the increasing entrenchment of academic historians in their specializations.
As an academic associate dean, I not long ago approached one of our American historians to ask her to "step up" and take on a general American history survey class, since the scheduled instructor had to have surgery and left the course without a professor for the upcoming term. As her principal academic field(s) were the history of American labor and Women in America--courses she routinely taught on the graduate level--I mistakenly assumed that a general sophomore survey of post Civil War American history would be a finger exercise for her. I was wrong. She explained to me that she didn't know a thing about American history, generally, except insofar as it connected to the labor movement or the women's movement in the same period. She said she would be at a total loss to talk about Reconstruction, Agrarian Reform, the question of the Gold Standard, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the advent of World War I, etc., from any standpoint except Labor and Women's rights. Nonplussed (and not a little skeptical), I then asked another colleague whose specialization was in post-World War I America to take on the chore, and I got much the same answer. "I don't know a thing about anything that happened before 1917," he said with some pride.
Of course, both of these people could have been lying in hopes of avoiding one of those "mega-sections" where the workload is onerous. But after subsequent conversations on the matter, I determined not, especially when they volunteered to teach other large sections without complaint.
This is anecdotal, and as evidence, therefore, isn't worth much, but I do think it speaks to the heart of the problem Mr. Young addresses. As a professional book critic who often reviews what are generally termed "popular histories" for major review publications, I am well aware that there is an eager public audience for history out there; if it's even moderately well written, it's impact can be profound.
At the same time, however, I find that in my own seminars, my casual allusions and references to historical events and persons elicit blank looks more often than not. Significant events of the past are not part of the mental cyclopedia of most of my graduate students, even those who are taking their degrees in history. Most would be hard put to state correctly major dates such as the span of years of the American Revolution or Civil War, have no idea when, exactly, the Great Depression began, have only the vaguest notion of when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed or when Custer's Last Stand took place. They have never heard of Warren G. Harding or Chester A. Arthur, no nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis or Dien Ben Phu, and they're completely unable to talk with any confidence about the Gadsen Purchase, the Volstead Act, the Whiskey Rebellion, or the Pullman Strike. They've no idea about Wobblies, Reds, or Parlor Pinks, about the "hawks and doves" of the sixties, think we built the Panama Canal in a year or two, and couldn't name the thirteen colonies on a bet.
Maybe, as some of them aver, such knowledge isn't important. They have the internet (and Wikipedia) at their fingertips, after all. Maybe they don't need to know about even such comparatively recent events as Watts, Watergate, and Three-Mile Island, Iran/Contra or our brief adventure in Granada. Maybe they only need to know what they need to know to pass their exams and then shave off some portion of some sliver or some fraction of some historical era to study. Perhaps that's all anyone needs to know.
"History," Henry Ford is supposed to have said, famously, "is bunk." Maybe he was right. Certainly, it's "funk," and "funk" is where any insructor will be if he or she thinks that a fundamental knowledge of the past should be a cornerstone of higher education.
Maarja Krusten - 8/6/2008
I agree, especially when one looks at what commonly is called the civil rights era, the way people reacted in 1965 after Selma, and so forth. Not what you would expect in some other countries at the time. You make an excellent point that it is by facing up to things rather than shying away from them that we look most mature as a people and good as a nation.
Virginia Harris - 8/4/2008
If you are interested in the many exciting and surprising twists and turns that played into women winning the vote, I hope you will check out "The Privilege of Voting."
Follow the lives of eight well-known women from 1912 to 1920, and discover the sexy, shocking truth of HOW the suffragettes won the vote in America and England.
Presented in a unique, sequential, interwoven short-story e-mail format called Coffeebreak Readers that makes history exciting, easy and fun!
Features two of the most beautiful and outspoken suffragettes -- Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, along with Edith Wharton, Isadora Duncan, Alice Roosevelt and two stunning presidential mistresses.
There are weddings and funerals, babies in peril, damsels in distress, war, peace, broken hearts and lots of hot affairs on the way to the ballot box.
The best part is it's ALL true!
Each action-packed e-mail episode takes about 10 minutes to read, so they are perfect to enjoy on coffeebreaks, or anytime.
You can subscribe to receive free twice-weekly e-mails at: http://www.CoffeebreakReaders.com/tpovpage.html
Jeremy Young - 8/4/2008
Good point, Jonathan, though you're correct that it's a frustrating point for me.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2008
I think this is where the emphasis on transnational history -- frustrating though it is to the uni-cultural training of most Americanists -- actually shines: it is not in isolation that the United States is a great success, but in comparison. "Warts and all" may be unpleasant at first, but if you look at, to extend the metaphor, the warts of most other societies in the world over the last two or three centuries, US history becomes much more heartening. It is precisely the way we deal with and overcome -- at least try to -- our "warts" which makes the US so thoroughly exceptional.
Jeremy Young - 8/2/2008
Thanks! I appreciate it.
Maarja Krusten - 8/2/2008
Good answer, Jeremy. I think these things have to be addressed in a balanced fashion. To imply that the public cannot stand to look at some of the warts is to make the American people seem much more fragile than I believe them to be. But over emphasizing the warts crowds out acknowledgment of the positive accomplishments of the past. I think you struck just the right note, in your essay and in your reply.
Jeremy Young - 8/2/2008
Mr. Hughes, you raise interesting points, and I have a rather complex response to them. I differ from many of my progressive colleagues in accepting your premise of American exceptionalism. I do believe that the United States is a great country and the product of a great experiment that has changed the world for the better. However, I believe that, as such, its greatness is self-evident, and that a fair, "warts-and-all" portrayal of America's history will reveal its greatness in spite of its many dark moments.
Now, there's a difference between "warts-and-all" history and history that overemphasizes the warts. I'm inclined to think that today's history does overemphasize America's injustices, but at the same time I believe that history in the first half of the twentieth century ignored the warts to the detriment of a fair and honest picture of America's record. I believe that we should talk about America's racial injustices, about our genocide against the Native American peoples, about the perniciousness of our military-industrial complex. (On the other hand, I think we've had entirely too much glowing history about Robert E. Lee, who was on the wrong side of the greatest battle over racial injustice in America's history -- but that's another matter entirely.) I think we should also talk about the far-reaching wisdom of the Founders, about the greatness and uniqueness of American reform and peace movements, and about the other things that make us a great country in spite of our many errors.
Finally, I believe that all of this can be profitably discussed on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, just as it can at scholarly conferences. The American people are intelligent enough to want to know the whole story about our country, the bad, but also the good.
Maarja Krusten - 8/2/2008
Meant to write bottom-up in the couple of places I used the term, rather than bottoms, of course. As usual, just failed to read over what I wrote before hitting submit.
Maarja Krusten - 8/2/2008
I generally agree with Jeremy Young’s point, which is that historians need not disdain popular history. Mr. Hughes, you mention that historians have focused on the wrong subjects, among which you name the proletariat and the blacks. Do you mean in school textbooks? Or in the books one finds in bookstores?
You believe that the public does not want to read the output of “professional historians” and has turned instead to works by amateurs. Judging by what sells, there is some truth to that although the underlying reasons seem unclear, at least to me.
You also say of the U.S. that “when its history is written without emphasizing the warts it will be more truthful and more accurate than when it does.”
I think historians and readers need to consider both a top down and a bottoms up view of history. That can come from professional historians, from memoirs by participants, and from amateur historians. Take World War II, for example. That a member of the public is interested in reading the bottoms up perspective of Easy Company as told so effectively by Stephen Ambrose (whom I knew) in _Band of Brothers_ does not preclude also reading the view from the top presented in Dwight Eisenhower’s _Crusade in Europe_ or Winston Churchill’s history of The Second World War. Of course, narratives evolve over time. Consider the difference between reading early accounts, which draw more on memoirs and public information, and later accounts, which draw more heavily on archival resources that became available over time.
Or take Lyndon B. Johnson. Look at the number of books available about his time period! So much to choose from, and all available at my local Barnes and Noble or Borders or Olsson’s: from Robert Caro’s multi-volume and ongoing biography (which has yet to cover the Presidency but has chronicled vividly his earlier career) to books that center on the Vietnam War or the civil rights era. Or both, as does the third volume of Taylor Branch’s series (_At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968_). That is not to say that professional or amateur historians are the only sources of insights into the civil rights era. I’ve read and would recommend theology professor Charles Marsh’s _God’s Long Summer_ as well as Gene Roberts’s _The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation_.
As to your point about leaving out the warts, I have a question. (By the way, how did you happen to have a conversation with Yousuf Karsh, the famous portrait photographer? I’d love to hear more about the context.) I happen to specialize in studying Presidents. I neither demonize nor glorify any of them. Nor do I look at them through a strong partisan lens. In the second half of the twentieth century, two Presidents, one a Republican, one a Democrat, faced the prospect of impeachment. One resigned before he was impeached, the other actually was impeached but was able to beat the charges and remain in office. Both had enough popular support to be elected by voters to two terms but ran into trouble in their second terms in office. If you applied your rule about how to present U.S. history (don’t emphasize the warts) equally to both, how would you write about the two terms of RN and WJC?
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/2/2008
I certainly did not say I would restrict material in history books. On the contrary, I would like to see more diversity, too. How about a little Robert E. Lee to go with Frederick Douglass? I've been told Lee has been totally dropped from K-12.
The great portrait photographer Karsh told me he always tried to make his subjects look a little bit better than they actually did. That was his school, what he liked to do, also what his customers wanted, and it worked for him. He said other portrait photographers sometimes came from a "warts and all" school.
I don't believe the United States is just another country, but instead is a noble country, and a glorious experiment which has greatly improved the world. Thus, when its history is written without emphasizing the warts it will be more truthful and more accurate than when it does. Unfortunately, most of what we've had from professional historians for many years has been from the warts school. Sometimes I have to wonder if they even see the big picture any more. That is my lament, and I hope you share it to some degree.
Jeremy Young - 8/1/2008
Mr. Hughes, you're merging my very targeted critique of the historical profession with the only superficially similar conservative critique of the academy, and I can't follow you there. First of all, I don't believe I've ever identified my own work, either here or at my own blog. For intellectual property reasons, it's not something I generally talk about online. Second, while I'll admit I'm most comfortable working with the type of political history that flourished during the 1950's and before, I'm glad to live in an age of social and cultural history; it stretches and challenges me in ways that those more comfortable with the "new" history rarely experience.
I also don't believe you have to drop topics like race and gender in order to reach the general public. A biography of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglass would be all about race, but portrayed in a way that the public is more prepared to identify with. I don't think the way to change the lamentable sameness of the profession, which you note, is to restrict the topics it's allowed to cover; I think it's best to expand those topics. There are many ways to appeal to a popular audience; a few writers like Foucault have even managed to sell millions of copies of their books to ordinary people while writing about esoteric cultural theory. I'm not sure I could define what it is about Foucault's work that makes it so interesting to a general audience, but as long as people like him are getting results, I'm not going to complain.
Jeremy Young - 8/1/2008
Great question! That's difficult for me because there's two ways of writing for a "popular" audience. One is to actually write for a trade publisher; the other is just to write readable, interesting books. People like H. W. Brands and James McPherson do the first, while folks like Michael Kazin and Gary Gerstle do the second. Then there are folks like David Blight who do both. I highly recommend all these authors, but keep in mind that as a pre-exams grad student I haven't yet read exhaustively in my field, so all I can offer you is a sampling.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/1/2008
Becker is very much on the mark when he talks about "the new history which rises in every age to supplant the old."
For my money, the trouble with contemporary writing by historians is that their "new history" puts emphasis on the wrong things, namely the proletariat, the Indians, the black people, etc., while the public wants to read about the previous type of "history." Look at your own work or outlines, for instance, and you will see they are ALL centered on the march of leftist politics, or race, or feminism, or some combination of those things. That is PC history for this age.
And there is a sameness about this work of our professional historians which has tried the patience of the public and driven a majority of readers (who do not need a grade in a course) into the work of amateurs--which is flourishing, as you note.
It is a mistake to say the public has lost interest in history. It is just that most Americans know enough about American history, anyway, to believe it is more accurate, very glorious, and best seen through rose-colored glasses instead of pink ones.
C Good - 8/1/2008
I wondered if you or other readers could suggest some good examples of academic history that is written for a popular audience. The book I most often recommend when people ask me what to read in early American history is Joanne Freeman's Affairs of Honor. Other ideas?
Jeremy Young - 7/29/2008
I appreciate that you think so -- but I do clearly say, "No individual historian's work should be censored by these dictates; instead, it is the culture of the academy that needs to change."
Bob Elder - 7/29/2008
the question is what commercial success means. It has come to mean "bad scholarship," but as Mr. Young points out, it once meant "good writing."
John R. Maass - 7/29/2008
I think your article comes acxross that way.
Jeremy Young - 7/29/2008
Thanks for your comment, and for the correction about Cornell -- I've made the change in the posts on Becker at my blog (I can't make direct changes the the essay here).
As for the rest of your comment, I'm not suggesting that we all follow the lead of your friends and colonize the popular historical market -- though I do suggest that the profession as a whole take an interest in doing so. For many individual historians, simply de-jargon-ifying their prose would be more than enough to render their books appealing to a general (if small) audience -- and more than enough to satisfy me.
Jeremy Young - 7/29/2008
I haven't gone through the publishing process yet, but I have to say that I'm not certain the presses are at fault here. Many academic presses go out of their way to publish books that sell only a few hundred copies. That can't be healthy for the press, and I treat it as a sign of respect for the profession that it's done at all. Instead, I think the fault lies with the senior faculty -- the tenure and promotion committees -- and the academic culture itself. Until we reward those in our ranks who have sought and achieved commercial success, we can't have much to say to the presses.
Jeremy Young - 7/29/2008
I'm not saying academics should be measured by commercial success -- I'm saying academics should strive to achieve commercial success. I'm not going as far in that direction as the position you ascribe to me.
Maarja Krusten - 7/28/2008
Good point. It does require some effort to pitch an article or book so as to hold the interest of a large number of readers. In addition to accessible language, a clearly laid out narrative, and strong story arcs, you have to have hooks to entice people to keep scrolling or turning the page.
Once readers click on an article or pick up a book, you want them to keep reading. That takes some thought about what will appeal to people, how the reader might look at things (not just how they appear to the writer) and how laymen relate to subjects.
It isn't just a matter to knowing the facts, you have to make the story vivid enough to hold readers. I think you sometimes have to give readers a strong sense of what it is like to "go back in time." If the narrative feels too cold and remote, they won't keep reading.
I once asked someone who was struggling to communicate orally with a group but was using too much jargon, "Is this the way you talk about such issues at home? Or over lunch with a good friend? Probably not. Try pitching it the same way you would with them, you might hold the group's interest better."
It isn't always easy but I do agree with Jeremy that trying to hit the right notes definitely is worth doing!
John R. Maass - 7/28/2008
Some valid points here, but the overall crux of the piece seems to say that academic work should be measured by commercial success. That would not be good!
vaughn davis bornet - 7/28/2008
This is a spirited plea on a subject of great interest to those on the way up.
My first reaction was to point the finger at those who accept or reject our historical writing. One must write for THEM, unfortunately!
It takes so LONG to be published. It takes so much effort. It is not cheap. And one comes to have so little faith in those who, behind the scenes and responsible to nobody we know, endorse or veto what we have done with so much blood, sweat, and tears. (Present HNN company excluded, of course....)
Maybe the next World will be better.... Meanwhile, graceful simplicity in our prose (whatever the arcane nature of the subjects we choose),writing for the reader--not ourselves, and listening to people will be of some service.
I tried to read EVERYTHING to my wife, out loud, before final release. It is an amazing tool.
Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon
Caroline Hill - 7/28/2008
A small correction: Carl Becker taught at Cornell, not Columbia.
Other than that, a fine essay. But. . . I have two scholarly friends who have made an explicit decision (as senior people, long tenured) to write for popular audiences from now on. Both have agents. Both have gotten involved in writing projects desired by trade publishing companies that are on (shall we say) the periphery of their knowledge, though not entirely out of the realm of their expertise. Both have found writing to the expectations of this market to be unexpectedly difficult and time-consuming. It is not as easy as simply writing clear and accessible prose. Chapters and books have to have (simplified?) narratives and story arcs, among other things. Certainly the goal laid out here is enticing, I just offer a word of caution.
Jeremy Young - 7/28/2008
Thank you for the wonderful compliment -- it means a lot coming from someone I respect as much as you. It is a goal of mine to keep even my scholarly work as jargon-free as possible, even if that becomes challenging as I tackle my dissertation. I hope I can keep living up to your praise.
Maarja Krusten - 7/27/2008
Jeremy, one reason I actually think you may succeed in ways that matter most is that as an historian is that you write in accessible language. You don't use language to show off or to build a barrier between you and a wide audience. Nor do you seem to be heavily vested in putting down readers who do not agree with you. What you exhibit signals confidence to readers such as me. It points to a bright future for you -- or should.
Consider Joan Mann and her paper on "IT Education's Failure to Deliver Successful Information Systems: Now is the Time to Address the IT-User Gap." Dr. Mann noted the use of jargon to demonstrate who is more competent.
She wrote that “it is not unusual to see two technical people meeting for the first time participating in a swift competition over jargon to see who is more technically competent (for a description of this dynamic in university Computer Science programs, see the work-in-progress (Margolis and Miller, n.d.). They label this pecking order: the "I know more about computers than you do" hierarchy).
This behavior sends several messages:
• Your status comes from being able to 'out-jargon' those you meet
• You need to be obsessive about learning new jargon so that you won't lose face
• Never admit to not knowing something.”
However, Dr. Mann noted that “this behavior is the exact opposite of what it takes to make an end-user comfortable.”
I remember a scholar once posted on HNN about an article or a comment by another scholar that he barely could follow what the other was arguing. Retreating behind arcane vocabulary terms seems counterproductive. Fortunately, you do not hide behind jargon and you seem willing to tackle tough questions such as the one in your essay! Way to go!
Jeremy Young - 7/27/2008
I'm not convinced of that, actually. I don't plan to be someone who writes ephemera and popular history and ignores scholarship. I'm a scholar first and foremost, and my dissertation will look like any other scholar's -- I just think we should make our scholarship interesting to ordinary people.
Ryan L Lanham - 7/27/2008
While I can't agree with you more, if you advance this, your career will be over--welcome to the academic paradox.
- Kissinger Memo from 1972: Make the North Vietnamese think Nixon and I are crazy
- How Much U.S. History Do Americans Actually Know? Less Than You Think.
- Ice cream cone named after Adolf Hitler on sale in India sparks anger in Germany
- Isis Palmyra demolition has begun with ancient God Lion statue destroyed
- NYT hosts debate including Eric Foner: How Americans should remember Reconstruction
- William Leuchtenburg says historians and the media have been too hard on Obama
- Hugh Ambrose, historian who helped develop WWII Museum, dead at 48
- Historian discounts claim that Churchill and other British PM's were gay
- Nick Bunker Wins $50,000 2015 George Washington Book Prize