History, Historians, and “the Current Moment”
I recently had the privilege of participating in a conversation about “the current moment” in social science research. Over the last few months, historians consulted about issues emerging from “the current moment” have generally been asked about Confederate monuments and, by extension, other public memorials—in my case, extending to statues of Columbus and Washington, and even church bells that Americans removed from the Philippines in 1901.
It’s a heady moment for historians. The AHA is encouraging interest in the contemporary valences of history by creating an online bibliography of member historians’ publications and appearances in popular media, all relating to the ongoing debates about monuments, commemoration, and naming. That list has drawn considerable attention (more than 7,000 page views as of this writing) and perhaps provides a model for future disciplinary advocacy.
Therein lies the challenge. How do we keep the fires burning? How do we maintain a reputation for shedding light rather than blowing smoke? The National History Center’s Congressional Briefings program, for example, operates on the principle that without historical context, conversations about public policy are akin to navigation without instruments—in the dark. Our community’s aspirations reach beyond observing history’s relevance to asserting its ubiquity: everything has a history, and that history should contribute to thoughtful discourse on just about any topic.
This assumption—that historians should have a voice in public culture and in public policy—anchors multiple aspects of the AHA’s agenda. Behind the Tuning initiative lies the imperative that we articulate to audiences of parents and employers what our undergraduate majors learn and can do. Tuning presumes that we can communicate the essence of what historians do and why we do it. Our Career Diversity for Historians initiative rests on the proposition that the PhD degree in history can prepare recipients for a variety of career paths. The corollary, of course, is that by including in our community of historians colleagues who are not professors, we can widen our audience and influence. PhD historians already sit at policy tables, in national and state legislatures, in business, and in nonprofits. These historians are engaged with “the current moment,” and we should not forget that they are indeed historians.
The AHA’s work in various contexts reminds us that our members can communicate effectively to various audiences: through contextualizing August’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; through the dramatic success of Tuning on 120 campuses; and through Career Diversity’s widening circle of our colleagues already beyond the professoriate. We do not need interlocutors; we do not need translators.
The conditions that allow for our most effective intervention in public dialogue are not the same across all contexts. The imperative of context begins with purpose. The AHA’s mission to promote history, historical work, and historical thinking perhaps even compels us to expand our discipline’s footprint in public culture and, by extension, into policy discourse: inside the Washington Beltway, “at the table” in nonprofit and private-sector boardrooms, in grassroots activism, and beyond.
“And beyond” points to the central question, and problem: have historians and our colleagues in other disciplines made our task more difficult by failing to parse the concept of “public”? The very notion of the public intellectual, and the challenge of helping scholars learn to communicate to this public most effectively, assume that “the public” is a unified if not a singular thing. “History for the public” may call to mind the films of Ken Burns, for example, and there are historians who might shudder at an ambiguous association between academic and popular history. But “the public” may also be a prospective history major’s parents, who might shudder at the association of a history major with unemployment. Scholarly interaction with people who are not professional historians or students of history does not require an identity as a public historian or a public intellectual.
Our colleagues who identify as public historians have thought deeply about issues relating to audiences and publics. But all of us who envision a broader audience for a much wider swath of historians are likely to find that our task is easier if we define it modestly and precisely. Tuning’s success rests in part on the development of its discipline core—not a set of “content musts” for history teachers but an array of reference points that participating departments can customize. They might weigh faculty priorities and inclinations, for example, or institutional culture, or the characteristics of the students they serve. Moreover, the language of the discipline core can vary; the audience might be prospective majors, parents, majors’ potential employers, or all of these.
Similarly, the National History Center finds success in its Congressional Briefings program. This comes about less by identifying historians who “speak to the public” than by recruiting historians who can communicate to a specific public with idiosyncratic work practices and an affinity for particular rhetorical styles.
Our colleagues in the social sciences remind us that learning to communicate our insights to audiences beyond our community of scholars is difficult due in part to a gap in scholarship itself. We apparently don’t have a good way of evaluating how well we transmit our expertise beyond traditional circles; there is very little research on the impact of social science or humanities communication. (Such research apparently does exist for some sciences.) Without this knowledge, how can we assess the impact of what we do in our ambition to have an impact?
The analogue to the world we understand better—the classroom and the campus—is striking, given the drive toward assessment in higher education. The AHA has encouraged college and university faculty to engage the potential of assessment to improve our educational practice rather than react to it defensively. We might consider a similar approach to evaluate our effectiveness in educating publics beyond the campus.
This does not necessarily imply an embrace of some publicly oriented version of the infamous Research Excellence Framework in the United Kingdom, or tools, such as Academic Analytics, that establish metrics and procedures for assessing the impact of scholarship. Perhaps our colleagues in the social sciences will be able to create appropriate metrics and methods for public impact. This could shed light on what works and what doesn’t when historians seek to exercise influence beyond our institutions and research communities. But we can probably start by worrying less about what it takes to become a “public intellectual” and more about adapting our insights to targeted—even if narrow—audiences.
We might actually find that we can be most effective close to home. For example, the AHA has recommended that communities making decisions about Confederate monuments consult with a professional historian. Some universities have found that their professional authority is greater in their local communities than on the national level, where higher education and expertise have encountered increased skepticism, if not dismissal. Historians can identify specific issues that have particular policy implications that depend on historical knowledge. At various times and in various places, these might include the use of medieval symbols in contemporary discourses about race, the implications of “indigeneity” as an idea, or any other concept with contemporary implications. We can write crisp op-eds on the dangers of facile historical analogy, preferably with an example from the policy arena, in virtually any time or place that might resonate with a particular audience. When called on to comment, we might explain why journalists who think this or that event is a “watershed” should avoid assumptions about what will happen next, given what we know about agency and contingency. And in some cases, historians can lend our authority to the good work done by journalists who have integrated historical context in their reporting.
Historians know lots of things that matter in the current moment. Find your niche. Identify an audience.
James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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