Public History and the University: Opportunities and Challenges

This is the text of a talk I’m giving on Thursday, November 1st at York University. I was asked by the conference organizers to discuss my thoughts on public history and the university, in no more than eight minutes.

This was tough. But here is what I came up with. Note that I’m speaking to a fairly general audience:

What has been my experience of doing public history in a university environment? I can say, in a nutshell, that it’s been a very rewarding experience both professionally and personally. I want to spend a few minutes to give you a sense of how I got into this, what my experiences were, and why I think that blogging can and needs to be considered a central component of a university-based historian who wants to engage the public.

To give you some background:

With Jim Clifford, Tom Peace, Christine McLaughlin, and Jay Young, I helped co-found ActiveHistory.ca way back in 2009, well over three years ago. The idea that we settled on was to emulate History and Policy, a British website that successfully gets historians to provide in-depth expert commentary in long-form treatments of ongoing policy issues. So we launched the website, started sending out e-mails to professors, confident that expert analyses would start flowing in.

 

.

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. [note to the internet: when I give this in person, I'll be pausing for effect - the papers, well, didn't start flowing in. Indeed, they didn't come at all.]

The response was pretty underwhelming, and to be honest, frustrating. At the time. The biggest obstacle then, as it is today, is that public history is not always “recognized work.” Consider this slide from the Canadian Historical Association’s advice booklet to starting historians:

Peer-reviewed articles and books are the currency of research performance, and the foundational building blocks for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Things may be beginning to change: at the University of Waterloo, my digital work can count for tenure and merit raises, as long as its impact, significance, and quality can be somehow documented (which means I now have to keep saving metrics, mentions around the web, and so forth). But in general, our currency is peer-reviewed, conventional work.

So what could we do? How could we, as university-based historians, get our peers to engage with the web?

We had an idea. The web could deliver quality, informed work, but we simply didn’t know how to deliver on it. We did have a few takers for papers eventually, and it’s now grown to become fairly successful. We have papers from historians including Larry Glassford, Steven High, Stu Henderson, Matt Hayday, Alan MacEachern, Jason Ellis, Geoff Reaume, Peter Baskerville, Lyle Dick, Adele Perry – and we’re still looking for more. These have been well received, widely read, and hopefully have helped our site gain legitimacy.

But the papers did not become the focus.

It was blogging, and social media, that really helped us achieve our mission.

We still don’t have as many established university-based professors blogging as we’d like, although Sean Kheraj, Jeffers Lennox, and Andrew Nurse are regular contributors. Our stable of contributors has grown up with the site though, moving from almost entirely grad students, to a mix of grad students, postdocs, and even a few profs. And I think blogging works well with the university cycle. Why?

They’re short. 600, 800, even a thousand words, on a topic you’re interested in. You can write that in a few minutes. This short-form, short-timeline writing has brought with it new cultural challenges for university-based historians. We’ve had to move past the idea that a blog post equals an academic article, and that’s been a big challenge of university settings. Frankly, academic articles are long. And they’re long because they need an apparatus, they need terms defined, and they use very precise technical language. Nobody’s going to read that if you put it in a post.

We do run into problems occasionally, when a blog post gets attacked by an academic for not mentioning x, y, and z. You can’t do everything in a blog post, and you shouldn’t try to.

But now you’re putting ideas up on the web. Those little ideas, your thoughts on the news, take on an interesting little story, instead of just langquishing in your head and dying, they can now be out there. Maybe you’re helping somebody, maybe you’re creating a resource. It could be out there – forever. Here, I want to single out a post that’s preserved on the Internet Archive forever, by somebody who’s now in York University’s PhD program!

 

People will read it. You’re publicly engaged.

And once we built up a repository of information, suddenly the page views went up! Random google searches bring people to us – those blog posts accumulating over three years of live time. Our numbers grew, until we hit a peak of around 13,000 individual, distinct visitors, with about 35,000 page hits. That’s per month. That’s more than just academic historians in Canada (there are only about 1,000, according to CAUT – I checked!).

It can be tough striking the right tone, staying responsible, reaching a public, etc. Sometimes blog posts go flat, sometimes they soar; sometimes they strike a chord, other times they just fizzle and die. But that’s life, and that’s the cost of having a production schedule.

And how does the university respond? How does a blog work in the university context? Well it can. Blogging is both service to the community, part of the job description of a university-based professor, and it’s also in some cases original research. We can recognize this through collective peer review, through the PressForward system of journals coming out of George Mason University, which aggregates blog-based scholarship and gives selected ones an editor’s imprimatur, and so forth.

 

Universities need to do more. Graduate students especially need a web presence. I’m not going to mince words here. A website, a blog, an evidence of engagement, some energy, etc. is increasingly important, and it should be both trained in graduate school, inculcated in graduate school, and recognized in graduate school! Now this will ratchet up the pressure on junior scholars – they need to already write, publish, research, teach, etc., and now they need to do social media. But that’s the sinew, the communication method of our time.

Universities need to recognize this work, they need to support it, they need to emphasize it. And they need to do it without putting more pressure on graduate students, job candidates, or sessionals.  We make them read hundreds of books, learn languages, and so forth: there must be room to rejig.

Public engagement will benefit the academy, it will benefit academics, it will benefit everybody.

 

 

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