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From the Endnote column in the April 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

Public Conversations

Allen Mikaelian, April 2013

But how is one to know what will interest one's readers? That is a difficult question. Clearly it is no use to put up a man of straw, call him the Public, and then try to play down to him or up to him and his alleged and purely hypothetical opinions and tastes. ... At any rate try and please yourself, then at least one person's liking is engaged.

—John St. Loe Strachey

Hired as editor of the Cornhill in 1896, John St. Loe Strachey faced a fast-declining readership. The literary magazine was down to a circulation of 12,000 per issue, a far cry from the days when it was edited by William Thackeray and reached as many as 120,000. Seemingly resigned to accept low circulation figures, Strachey at least tried to please himself, and may have pleased a few more. In any event, he resigned after a little over a year without having had much of an impact on circulation one way or the other. But he did leave us with the above statement. Written in reference to his autobiography, but consistent with his editing style, it strikes me as an astounding (but delightful) example of editorial contempt for the "Public."

We who work on Perspectives on History and AHA social media find it all but impossible either to regard the public as a straw man or to please only ourselves, because our reading public—AHA members, nonmembers in the discipline, interested parties in other disciplines, reporters looking for a story—are always present. As creative, thoughtful people in the habit of writing and discussing, who are also plugged into social media, they let us know quickly and in many formats exactly what they think of the ideas presented in the latest issue or blog post.

When the AHA announced the Tuning project a little over a year ago, we heard from a broad public. The announcement hit a nerve with those who had strong and reasonable opinions about important topics like standardization, assessment, and the commodification of education. We received and published two thoughtful letters in Perspectives that were critical of the project. We also saw a handful of critiques on blogs we follow, and we linked to these from our own blog in an attempt to keep a conversation going. The Tuning project and the responses to it, both positive and critical, raise issues and concerns that everyone in the discipline should know something about. Much in the future of history depends on how its practitioners address these issues, so we have been determined to keep this conversation in the public eye, rather than let it fade away.

The only disappointment, from my perspective as editor, is that so much of this conversation has happened away from our publications and outlets. Most of the critical blog posts we discovered on our own, often by accident. We got the sense that these posts were not attempts to talk to us, but to the followers of those blogs alone. The result was a more fragmented conversation, when what the discipline needs is something cohesive and sustained.

A public that we could easily ignore, and a magazine that pleased only ourselves, would quickly become a tedious undertaking, for our readers
and our editors alike.

The articles in this issue by Johann Neem and Nicholas Sarantakes are exactly what we want to see. Neem responds to the Tuning project with a cautionary tale from the history of higher education, and Sarantakes reacts to the "Plan B" and "Plan C" articles offered in these pages by Anthony Grafton and James Grossman. When we receive more articles like these—thoughtfully critical of AHA projects, publications, or positions; well written; offered in the spirit of advancing the conversation—we will publish them. As editor, I'll even work to make their arguments sharper.

Much the same goes for comments and blog posts on other sites that concern things we've published. We want to link to them and promote them. They should be part of the conversation, but that can't happen if we don't know they exist.

I've long been skeptical of Twitter, but watching what Vanessa Varin, assistant editor of web and social media, is doing with the platform has made me reconsider. Her column in this issue of Perspectives details how she took a series of face-to-face conversations and carried them to the public for feedback. Now she's collecting and curating responses on the blog, in this magazine, and in Storify, giving coherence and context to the conversation's diverse threads.

What makes Twitter an ideal starting point, and why I'm becoming less skeptical of its value, is the ease with which a user can direct a response to a particular person (or to an organization, like @AHAhistorians). So while Twitter works as a microblog, with entries picked up by the Twitter user's followers, it also offers ways to invite others, who may not be followers, to join the conversation. The use of a hashtag (for example #AHAtuning) further clarifies the intended audience.

While we continue to hope for traditional "Dear Editor" letters, we recognize that many of our readers will respond on their own blogs. We hope that these bloggers will, however, send us links or tweet about their blog posts using our Twitter handle or a hashtag.

Varin's project has been remarkable to watch as an example of a broad public response to a question that could have been handled in a top-down fashion. In another time, her attempt to develop etiquette for live-tweeting might have been developed by a small body working largely in isolation and handed down to "the Public" as a set of rules and regulations. Likely, it would have been met by that public with hostility. The rule-making body may have attempted to be "responsive," but in the end would probably have pleased only itself.

The civil and engaged responses that Varin has received just go to show that even if we could detach from the public, we would only be poorer for doing so. A public that we could easily ignore, and a magazine that pleased only ourselves, would quickly become a tedious undertaking, for our readers and our editors alike.

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.