Today, The Junto is happy to present the first episode of “The JuntoCast,” our new monthly podcast featuring Juntoists discussing issues related to early American history, academia, pedagogy, and public history. As we embark on this venture, the first few episodes will be experimental as we try to find the best method for recording a podcast with 3 or 4 participants literally thousands of miles apart. The podcast will appear once per calendar month and the length of the podcast will likely vary anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes. As always, any feedback will be greatly appreciated, including suggesting future topics to be covered.
In our first episode, the indomitable Ken Owen hosts a wide-ranging discussion with Michael D. Hattem and Roy Rogers on academic historians’ relationship with popular history, including what lies behind the appeal of the most popular works of history, the role of popular history in the classroom, and how academic historians can reach a broader audience beyond the friendly confines of academia.
You can click here to listen to the mp3 in a new window or right-click to download and save for later. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.
Nice. Keep them coming!
I think Roy’s classification of popular history is good, but Michael had an interesting thought about the publisher that I would like to talk more about here. Favoring synthesis over analysis and choosing a compelling narrative “hook” over a long history is a perfect way to classify the type of history, but distribution and saleability are also key factors in what makes a book reach a wider audience. As simple as it sounds, having things like engaging pictures and bold coloring on the cover make a book pop off the shelf or stick out in long Amazon-style online lists. Academic publishers without the budget of Norton or Penguin would have a much more difficult time in developing and printing a good-looking book. For example it is rare to see a book as good looking as Richard White’s Railroaded coming from an academic publisher (even Harvard is in this boat). Historians and scholars focus on the name of the author, the reputation of the publisher, or if we are in public and we want people to know how smart we are, the complexity of the subtitle.
A typical reader passing through the history section, however, may not look at these things. Historians are used to looking for these markers because it is, quite simply, our job. They mean something to us because we have had years of guided training in our chosen field, and we have become so engrossed in our chosen historiography that if we encounter anything broader or off-topic we tend to move on. Yet someone who does not do this for a living and therefore does not have these same limiting preferences choose a book because it is, put simply, interesting to them. For example if a person wanted to read about the United States’ founding era after a ten hour workday, which would they choose; a book titled 1776 or one titled The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776?
I would guess for most people it would be the former. It is not the complexity of the book that is the issue, because anyone who has read 1776 knows there is a tremendous amount of contemporary activity evident in McCullough’s writing. Topic relateability, though, is a factor because lets face it, an analysis of a war for most people is exciting on a level that an analysis of an image of King George over an 18th century Philadelphia tavern door is not. It makes sense that people are more interested in the violence of war and “big P” politics in 1776 rather than local public pronouncements of fealty to the British Crown in The King’s Three Faces.
So I certainly agree with the three podcasters here in almost every respect, but expanding on Michael’s statement I think saleability of a book is a big factor both in shelf presentation and topic relateability. Historians have trained themselves to be blind to attractive cover art, as many of the books we read are from a library and thus are encased in those boring primary-colored covers where only the name of the author and the title are visible (if that). Historians also favor specificity where a general audience does not because that is our job. We have to find those nitty gritty details that reflect on broader trends not only to make a name for ourselves in academic circles, but also to truly understand the past in all of its infinate complexity. In the end I think that we (or those who consider themselves professional academics) have as difficult a time valuing popular histories as a general audience has in valuing work more specific.
As an aspiring research historian who currently works in public history, what an interesting cast!
John, thank you for your excellent comment and, especially, thanks for taking the time to listen. We are very glad that you found it interesting. I think you’re right that titles (and even design) are a function of the profession’s broader orientation toward specificity and specialty over generality and narrativity. It is the unceasing conundrum of the profession and a paradox for those historians who are more public-minded about the role of the historian in contemporary society. The conundrum is that, while a book like 1776 piques the interest of general readers, a book like The King’s Three Faces makes a genuine contribution to our understanding of the period that goes beyond a chronology of heroic events. As a junior historian, I find myself hopeful that as my career progresses I will be able to do both, i.e., reach the public and make significant contributions to the historiographic and academic discourse. Writing for the blog and doing the podcast, for me, are one way of trying to do both, as it is for many of us here, I suppose, especially those who also write for other non-academic outlets like Tom Cutterham and Eric Herschthal. Thanks again for listening!
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Enjoyed the pocast very much. Unfortunately what young scholars are asked to do to advance isn’t terribly consistent with reaching a broader audience. By the time that they become tenured, the ability to reach a broader audience has likely been stymied by years of dense footnotes, academic speak, regressional tables, etc. Hopefully universities will understand their broader roles to community beyond the current student body and a small group of alums who contribute large sums and encourage young scholars (by rewarding them in terms of tenure and other decisions) to engage more broadly.
Along these lines, I expect ALL of the Junto members to be teaching a MOOC in the next few years. Coursera still doesn’t have any offerings in American history. This is the ground floor and online learning isn’t a fad.