Publication Date

December 16, 2020

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Post Type

From the Executive Director's Desk


  • United States


Public History


In 1846, the United States Congress established the Smithsonian Institution, dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” using both the bequest and the language from British scientist James Smithson’s will. Higher education differs from the Smithsonian, which combines cutting-edge research with a network of museums staffed in part by scholars and freely accessible to the public. And yet we might wonder why so many academic historians and colleagues in other disciplines remain unable or unwilling to recognize (at least institutionally) the equivalence of the dual mandates that guide one of our nation’s most revered research institutions: increase and diffusion.

The nub of the issue lies in the term “diffusion,” which implies considerable breadth of dissemination. In most history departments, “scholarship” has traditionally encompassed books, journal articles and book chapters, and papers at conferences. The weight and significance of these vary considerably by institution. The most valued coin of the realm remains not just the book, but—especially for early and mid-career scholars—a particular kind of book known only in academia and scholarly publishing as a “monograph.” This approach to publication might be considered dissemination in the narrowest sense, but it is hardly “diffusion.”

Moreover, there are all kinds of books that don’t count, or at least usually don’t count for much in academia: textbooks, official histories, anthologies (except for one’s own essential essay within that anthology), translations, reference books, and much other serious historical work not deemed “creating new knowledge.” History departments are not the only parties to make this fine distinction: the American Historical Review has drawn similar boundaries in its review policies.

Some books count, but not for everyone, usually depending on career stage but also on institutional context. Although it is largely a myth that publishing with a commercial versus a university press matters (as long as there has been peer review), make sure to include the historiography. It is risky, for example, for a tenure or promotion file to rest on experimental scholarship, such as Theodore Rosengarten’s classic All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, or on work that resembles the brilliant synthetic scholarship of Richard Hofstadter. Wait until later; synthesis awaits seniority.

Beyond conventional publication, various other modes of historical work elicit appreciation or applause but are too often dismissed as mere popularization, and hence a distraction from “real scholarship.” These endeavors include but are not limited to op-eds, blog posts, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, public lectures, congressional testimony, oral history projects, expert witness testimony, media appearances, and podcasts. Some of these could lie within the blurry boundaries that encompass public history, and hence worthy enhancements to a CV, but inadequate as central qualifications for promotion without also the requisite standard monograph and traditional scholarly articles.

The nub of the issue lies in the term “diffusion,” which implies considerable breadth of dissemination.

The AHA, in collaboration with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council for Public History, has already approved a report recommending full academic recognition of “publicly engaged and collaborative scholarship,” but within a separate frame as public history, rather than on the same plane as more traditional modes of creating and disseminating useful knowledge. I am thinking in this column more along the lines of the AHA’s guide to considering digital scholarship in professional evaluation and the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. In each of these cases, the Association has promoted broadening our notions of what constitutes legitimate and valuable scholarship. Indeed, the considerable efforts of the AHA and the Modern Language Association to legitimate digital scholarship suggests that it’s easier to convince some of our colleagues to value new methods than to validate work many historians have been doing for a long time.

For many of our colleagues, the obstacles to further expanding these boundaries lie in defining and evaluating quality. This is not unreasonable; metrics are indeed essential to evaluation. Some op-eds could not have been written without the author’s training as a historian; others fall into the category of informed punditry or commentary whose content and method bears little relationship to historical method or expertise. Some might be historical and qualify as scholarship but are poorly executed. Still, there is no reason such work cannot be peer reviewed after publication as part of a promotion process. This principle would extend to any format that creates a product, whether written or preserved in other media. A history department can readily adapt its standards of quality and quantity to any mode of diffusing knowledge, just as we have different criteria for evaluating books, articles, and digital scholarship.

This change won’t be easy, given the wide range of media through which historians can now share what we’ve learned from primary and secondary sources, and from the historical thinking skills that guide our interaction with a wider variety of sources than were available to our predecessors. What will we gain in return for all that effort and for the willingness to show that we can, in fact, change?

Where we speak and publish shapes our public footprint.

First (though not necessarily foremost): we increase our chances of surviving, even prospering, in an environment of declining resources. Like scholars in other disciplines, historians depend on public support, whether as employees of public institutions, recipients of federal research funds, or faculty at private institutions that allocate resources according to enrollments and majors. If legislatures, public officials, governing boards, and students don’t learn from us why history and historical thinking are essential elements of education and public culture, those resources will not be forthcoming. Evidence-based narrative and argument are cardinal aspects of our professional tool kit. We can and should make these arguments as historians, invoking our methodologies and the particular contributions they allow us to make. If this work is to be done well, our colleagues who shoulder it should be given appropriate professional credit. To deny the value of such work as scholarship is to consign it to second-class status within our community and leave it to others less steeped in our values and epistemologies to do in our stead.

We will also increase our influence on public policy. If we believe that historical thinking and knowledge should inform public policy, then we need to make our work accessible to policymakers and influencers. That means writing briefing papers and op-eds, testifying before Congress, and expanding our media presence across a wide range of platforms, even in the most local venues. Where we speak and publish—far more than whether our scholarly journals charge for subscriptions—shapes our public footprint.

In addition to diversifying our audience, we will diversify ourselves. As we broaden the terrain of our work, we correspondingly widen the appeal of our discipline to individuals interested in history but also committed to influence beyond the academy, whether from within the professoriate or beyond. As we widen the aperture of professional success by legitimating multiple modes of scholarship, we diversify the criteria for predicting which applicants for graduate admission are likely to succeed. And, in step, we reconsider how to prepare graduate students for the many ways of being historians.

Finally, we will be better historians. A multimodal discipline is not merely a space where scholars work along different pathways. Instead, just as multimodal transportation policies emphasize the links between different ways of getting from place to place, historians can benefit from interaction among scholarly practices in different publication venues. The challenge is to shift from a hierarchy of publication practice to an emphasis on creativity and quality regardless of how scholars choose to make their work public. With additional options for publication, we can bring new imagination to what we do, as well as how we do it.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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