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Academic Historians and The Problem of Audience: The View from Outside

I thought today’s bad moment was when I saw that Winston Groom nicely cited my book in his new book on the Vicksburg campaign, only to dismiss out of hand the evidence that the oft-told Yazoo bender story is problematic.  Oh well.  Perhaps the truth should never stand in the way of a good story.

And that, in its way, leads us to today’s topic, succinctly summed up in the following observation made by Dana Shoaf, the well-regarded editor of several Civil War magazines:  “The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience.”

Now, academic historians have many problems, collectively and individually, so I don’t think I’d single any one issue as “the” problem.   Moreover, I think it’s worth reminding folks that I reach a fairly wide audience several times a week, for thirteen weeks, and have done so year after year.  Sometimes people outside the academy forget that academic historians do more than research and write, regardless of the supposed size of our audience, and that some of those occupational responsibilities constitute occupational hazards to research and writing.  But as I’ve watched this conversation evolve in other blogs (here, here, and here), I think what we have here is a failure to communicate, and not necessarily by the academic historians.

First, some academic historians do have broad audiences.  That’s due in part to the mix of the scholar’s ability to research and present findings, the appetite of the audience(s), and the subject matter.  I believe Jim McPherson has a broad audience.  I believe Gary Gallagher does fairly well.  My own audience over the last five years has included Japan (2004 presidential debates), Turkey (2009 State Department trip … two weeks) and Israel (coming up next month), as well as two or three speaking engagements a month over the last year (usually presidential elections or Abraham Lincoln).  So I don’t exactly feel ignored.

Moreover, some of my colleagues don’t seek broad audiences.  They may seek select audiences interested in their research, or act as advisers on various matters, where their expertise is valued.  To paraphrase Henry Adams, if you want me to maximize the impact of my work, I can accomplish that by contacting five hundred especially selected people rather than five thousand randomly picked people.

So let’s frame our query a little more carefully, for we can reach many audiences in many ways.  Mr. Shoaf’s understandably talking about his own venue of choice, the “popular” magazine.  I’ve written several times for such magazines, and I hope to do so in the future (Mr. Shoaf’s even contacted me in the past about contributing, but work intervened.  Sorry, Dana–I owe you).   Toward that end, one might want to read the more developed summary of Mr. Shoaf’s paper, which he gave at a meeting in 2008.

One comment in one blog struck me with especial force:  “The point he is making here is that academics are missing out on great opportunities to reach a wider audience and so have a greater impact. ”  Again, I think this observation misses the point.  What do you think goes on in a classroom?  What do you think goes on when I participate in teachers’ workshops, including the Teaching American History grant programs?  What do you think happens when I appear on television?

Here’s an interesting proposition: while I might indeed reach a certain wider audience more frequently by publishing in Mr. Shoaf’s publications, I’d observe that those magazine serve a particular audience.  I’d even argue that the readership is a niche audience.  That’s one of my audiences.  It is by no means the only one.  I’d argue it is not my most important one in certain circumstances.

Have you all forgotten that academic historians are teachers?  Do you not understand that we have multiple audiences?  For example, I know my work is read in military circles.  Given what I have to say about military policy, civil-military relations, and the like, that’s important.  I also know there are more ways to communicate findings and have conversations, whether through speaking to groups or by participating in internet discussion groups (there’s a tale for another day).  And exactly why do you think I post on this blog?

So let’s have this conversation, but let’s be serious about it.  After all, among my colleagues, I take flak for having a broad audience (an audience they often deride as undiscriminating in taste).  At the same time, I hear rather derisive comments from some corners of the non-academic historians crowd, who say we don’t know what we’re talking about … a sort of reverse snobbery.  Yes, I know of other people in that area who welcome me as a colleague, and with whom I’ve worked, but even thay know that some of their peers behave that way.  In short, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I am derided by many of my colleagues at work for pandering to an audience which includes people who resent me.

Pair this up with the professional/non-professional debate, the academic/non-academic historians debate, and so on … sigh.  Thank goodness for Facebook.  :)  Let’s set it forth in clear, straightforward language:  Good history is good history.  Good historians go about their work in a professional manner.  Bad history is bad history, regardless of the training of the historian.  I evaluate historians by the work they do, not the degrees they hold (or do not hold).  There are many audiences for history, many appetites to be fed, and many ways to communicate with those audiences.  And, folks, “you” (whoever “you” are) aren’t the only audience I serve.

Comments (6) to “Academic Historians and The Problem of Audience: The View from Outside”

  1. Amen from a non-academic who appreciates those who are.

  2. Brooks,

    Make that two amens. I really enjoy your blog, and I thank you for the work that goes into maintaining it. The blog is full of information and of in depth analysis to which the public at large would not have access otherwise. So, thanks. Thanks very much.

  3. Like anything else in life, there are great academics that produce great reads and the converse. I admire and enjoy Prof Simpson’s writings, but must admit, I yearn in despair for Vol 2 of his Grant Bio. Will I be happy again in the next 12-24 months? Keep up the great work you do.

  4. I have a sabbatical in AY 2010-11. I think everyone’s waiting for that and what will come of it. :)

    But it is true that one of the consequences of my “popularity” in the wake of Obama’s election and the Lincoln bicentennial, topped by the trip to Turkey, is that I lost months I had set aside for writing. It’s been the perfect storm here since November.

  5. I’ve noticed it’s danged “dry” here in Phoenix …

    As opposed to the perfect “storm.”


  6. I thought the more telling passage from Groom’s book was Van Dorn’s capture of Mrs. Grant. If you only had the Yazoo bender, you might conclude that he simply hadn’t read that section of your book. With the Holly Springs incident, he freely acknowledges that he’s read your take on the story, but has chosen to ignore it in favor of a juicier storyline.