Translating academic research into something that is accessible, interesting and other 95% of the populations will read is a challenge. The space restrictions of op-eds and magazine features forces you to be concise in a way journal articles do not. It goes against all the instincts of years of undergraduate and graduate work to whittle the complexities of the past into 600 words while still making it pithy and engaging. Part of this project is filled by public history, but that field can only take the message so far. This is why regular historians – the ones in the ivory tower – need to get over the stigma attached to making their work accessible and actively seek out the popular audience.
Public history tries to do make history accessible but its project is restricted to the formats, institutions, and spaces designated acceptable for public mass consumption of the past. Writing a 500 word panel for a museum – or a 250 word commemorative plaque – and designing a school or public program are exercises in educating the public on history. The opinion of the historian doesn’t matter so much as conveying the information deemed most important by the contracting institution or organization. On top of this, the portion of the population that goes to historic sites and museums or stops to read the commemorative plaques is small – and often university educated to begin with. Yet, public history is an important project and this work needs to be recognized and supported in spite of the slow recognition in Canada of the value in training people in the specific skill set required to education the public in this way. Where the public history approach falls short is in engaging the vast majority of the population who do not visit the traditional spaces of historical education.
This is where writing for a popular audience becomes important and luckily there are historians who recognize the potential this arena offers for engaging in debate as well as educating the public. Today I spent the day at a NiCHE sponsored workshop for new scholars on Writing for a Popular Audience at the University of British Columbia. Part of the interest in breaking into this market is the opportunity to make a little money on the side, it also offers the antidote to the complaint “no one reads history.” By making what we do accessible through popular media, academics break down the wall constructed around them and can demystify what goes on in academia. We can show that the past has relevance in the present with a level of expertise in a subject that journalists cannot touch because historians spend years on a topic – journalists are lucky to get a few days in many cases. A feature in a magazine can target a specific audience already interested in your work, while the op-ed page can bring history into the present. And then there is blogging…
Historians are passionate about their areas of research. Too often are overly modest about the interest the public will have in what they do and stay in the safety of academia where only other historians will critique their work. But what is the point of all the researching and writing and editing if not to bring something new to the table. And what bigger table than the one that resides outside the ivory tower.
For my part, there are a couple carry-over topics from before the existential crisis that, due to the changing of the seasons, are about to become timely. With the information from the NiCHE workshop I think it is time, after years of giving tours to the public, to put something in print and attempt my first temporary escape from the ivory tower.