9 comments on “Audiences, Publicity, and Engaged Academics

  1. Brian Bouton says:

    As a former private school history teacher, I was amazed at depth and breadth of academic discoveries and arguments I was exposed to when attending NYU but completely ignorant of in my classroom career. I’d often feel like a spy on the inside when pushing books and articles on former colleagues I knew would appreciate some of the treasures I’d discovered.

    Secondary school children are a fantastic audience for many of the issues we grapple with and historiographical debates can be made accessible and fun by a talented history teacher. For example, kids would love to know about the Dunning School’s impact on the Reconstruction narrative and on civil rights discussions across the country. A popular opener to my U.S. history course was Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me which resulted in the students constantly questioning the textbook and appreciative of secondary and primary sources to decide for themselves, but beyond that it’s hard to find easy access to much of the excitement happening in our field.

    Of course, my access to academic articles was often limited by paywalls—$50 for a book review?? $80 for a 40-page article?—and required convincing school librarians of their utility and value. I’m sure my public school colleagues have it far worse and are limited to simplistic narratives with little rhetoric.

    • Thanks for your comments, and I think you’re exactly right. Many historians (to speak only for my own field) already do engage on a local level with K-12 teachers and students because we teach at universities that have strong education programs, as does the institution where I currently teach. In that regard we’re working with local teachers and future teachers to talk about exactly those kinds of debates, resources, and so on.

      What my suggestion would address is the more distant enterprise. Someone publishes an article in a paywalled journal primarily read by academics but which would influence how K-12 teachers approach material. How will that new knowledge reach them before it’s trickled through publication and integration into a K-12 textbook … and then the process of getting that book in their hands? We have the ability to make that connection much faster by linking the journals with organizations who could get the findings (if not the entire essay) into the hands of those who could use it.

  2. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Excellent points.Historians must disseminate their findings better–and in ways that allow them to control the message. Not all academic books could or should be read by a larger audience. But the public needs to be made aware of the major trends and the SIGNIFICANCE of historical research for understanding the past (and hence, the present). To take a case in point: Shortly after 12 YEARS A SLAVE appeared, Washington POST columnist Richard Cohen wrote a breathless column essentially saying that he never knew slavery was so bad. How was that possible, given the superb scholarship on slavery that has been published over the past four decades? Undoubtedly Cohen must have been operating in some kind of bubble. But historians have a responsibility to make their findings known to a larger audience. Another example: John Judis’s list in the NEW REPUBLIC of the books every American should read. Woefully outdated. The simple measures Adelman suggests would help address this disconnect.

    • I appreciate your comment, it’s a good reminder if nothing else that even our best efforts are for naught if no one is listening. But you’re absolutely right that it should stiffen our resolve to try.

  3. Dallett Hemphill says:

    Thanks, Joe. There are some useful ideas here. I’ll be mulling them over for *Early American Studies.* Perhaps editors and authors can collaborate to divide up the work involved in such dissemination. But frankly, given the pressure to address a wide audience to get a contract in the first place, I think it’s book publishers and authors who need to figure out better ways to inform the public of their new work. The models we currently use simply aren’t working. The presses may send flyers about or even copies of new books to major newspapers, but I don’t think anyone on the other end is reading them.

    • I agree with Dallett and Rosemarie; these are excellent suggestions. I especially like the idea of journals having their own blog, one which could serve as a significant web presence beyond the paywall of JSTOR or ProjectMUSE. As it stands now, most journals only presence outside of the databases are very static, non-engaging “home pages” on the publishers’ websites. Beyond just updates, TOCs, CFPs, and the like, a blog would be an excellent opportunity for a journal to insert itself directly into social media discussion and to create a forum (much as we have here) in which readers could engage with the journals’ articles in an informal setting. It would also go a long way toward remedying the increasingly obvious problem of pace that journals have relative to digital forms of media.

      And I think the press release ideas is really interesting as well. Of course, as Rosemarie pointed out regarding book reviews, getting the information in front of newspaper and website editors is not really the problem (though of course it could only help), the real challenge is getting them to act on it. To do that, it seems to me requires changing the way they think about historians (i.e., out-of-touch academics) and our work. In that sense, I guess each press release should not only serve as an abstract of the article but would have to stress why each individual editor’s audience needs to know about it and how they would benefit from it. Thanks for the excellent piece, Joe!

    • Thanks, Dallett. I certainly think authors bear a responsibility to engage in publicizing, not least because we have to be more self-conscious as authors to the audiences we are writing for. And though I didn’t frame it this way in the post, one of the strengths of social media, blogs, etc. is that we don’t need the “legacy” media in nearly the same way we did twenty years ago. We can reach broad audiences on our own.

      I would add that I think the discussion is related to but separate from the conversation about open access. I wholeheartedly support making our full work more accessible, but part of my point above is that most people wouldn’t read a full 40-page journal article, but would be interested in the main findings for various purposes, if they were publicly available.

  4. Carol Kennis Lopez says:

    Joseph, I agree with your comments. In fact I will go so far as to say that academic historians have a responsibility to share their research with the general public in understandable language because most, or at least many, academics receive funding through public sources. As a museum professional I and my colleagues grapple with the disconnect between the historical insights that we want to share with the public through programs and exhibits and the level of understanding about history in the general population and this goes double for primary and secondary school teachers. For example, take the Enola Gay exhibit debacle at the Smithsonian several years ago when a draft exhibit text reframing the meaning of the Enola Gay as a symbol of the beginning of the nuclear age instead of the end of WWII found its way into the hands of veterans’ organizations and the general public. Cries of “revisionism” resounded, multiple professionals lost their jobs, and the entire exhibit was scrapped. Now the Enola Gay is exhibited with only the barest identifying information and no interpretation at all. The general public and many school teachers still see history as immutable truth and view it primarily through one perspective only. In my experience minority history, especially American Indian history, as taught in public schools, is at least 40 years behind present scholarship.
    I firmly believe that many academics spend too much time speaking to each other and not enough time speaking to the general population. Two examples of scholars who do work to share current scholarship with the public, and do so in delightful ways, are Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces in Great Britain (history) and Dr. Alex DeGrassi (science). We should all strive to share our research, theories, and conclusions with the general population through teaching, publicity, and other means. Otherwise, what really is the point?

  5. […] traditional methods.  Joseph M. Adelman spoke about this in his post in March at The Junto, “Audiences, Publicity, and Engaged Academics.” While stressing that historians write articles to address a specific audience, they also […]


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