U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How — And For Whom — We Write

March 17. 1947: The Second-to-Last Time an Historian
Appeared on the Cover of Time**

Claire Potter of the blog Tenured Radical recently put up a very thoughtful post responding to AHA President Bill Cronon’s column in last month’s Perspectives on History.*  Both are worth reading.

Among other issues, Potter and Cronon both address what makes good historical writing good.  And both Cronon and Potter put a very heavy emphasis on the need to keep historical writing accessible to non-historians and even non-academics.  Here’s Potter:

Sometimes scholars are not even accessible to each other, much less colleagues in related fields.  Conceptual categories that we take for granted but are obscure to non-professionals; overly-specialized or theoretical language, and “failing to notice the absence of those who don’t feel welcome” in an intellectually exclusive coterie are all weaknesses of practice that can emerge from qualities that are otherwise praiseworthy.
The result can be that despite popular enthusiasm for history, and the genuine desire of other historians to connect with our work, we run the risk of turning people off instead of tuning them in.

Without in any way diminishing the importance of this sentiment, I want to note how commonplace it is. Although in practice we might often honor it in the breach, the idea that historical writing ought to be broadly accessible is, I think, a core professional value held by most academic historians in the U.S. today.

Academic historians believe in broadly accessible historical writing for many of the reasons that Cronon lays out in his essay, which is entitled “Professional Boredom.”  Citing, among other things, the History Channel, he notes that “no other academic discipline has done a better job of retaining a large public audience.”   Moreover, Cronon adds that there are “essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present.”  If we become too specialized or too boring, or even if we define professional history too narrowly, “the risks,” writes Cronon, “could not be more clear.”

I’m as much as a believer in broadly accessible history as Cronon or Potter.  And, lord knows, I’m not in favor of boring history (though I think we can all think of great works of history that are boring).  But the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.

Public interest in academic history is limited to a very small number of historians, generally writing on a small number of topics.  And most popular works of history are written by authors who are not academic historians. The current New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller List contains four works of history (broadly understood) among the top fifteen books, none of them written by an academic historian: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson at #7, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dougard at #8, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at #10, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at #13. No works by academic historians appear further down the list, either.

And most of us know from experience that, even if our books get noticed outside academic circles, most sell relatively few copies and find relatively small audiences.  If you’ve ever tried pitching an idea for a historical monograph to a non-academic press or a literary agent, you get an even stronger sense of how different the popular market for history is from the academic one.

Anyone who watches the History Channel with any regularity knows that the kind of content they specialize in is very different from the work that academic historians do.

In this regard, it’s interesting to compare the academic discipline of history to such disciplines as English and philosophy.  There’s actually huge popular interest in cultural criticism and philosophy, as the existence of E! (the cable network and website) and the voluminous “philosophy” section in any bookstore attest.  But academic English scholars and academic philosophers understand themselves as doing something fundamentally different from, respectively, E! and the Deepak Chopra-heavy “philosophy” section of most bookstores.  Academic historians, on the other hand, tend to see a variation of our own craft when we look at the History Channel or the New York Times Best Seller List.

And yet, this myth of the accessibility of academic history is, in many ways, a very productive one.  As I’ve already said, I value readability. And though few academic historians are writing books for audiences much beyond our subdisciplines, let alone beyond the academy, the notion that one should write as if one were addressing a literate, general audience helps historians counteract the tendency of academic discourses to get ever more abstruse and hermetic.  At least when I was in graduate school, many other disciplines seemed on occasion to put a positive value on their own abstruseness, presenting it as a sign of technical sophistication (e.g. philosophy and economics) or even their explicit opposition to negative values that they associated with readable texts (e.g. the literary disciplines).

But while I certainly want academic history to continue valuing clear, non-technical prose, I also think we should try to have a more realistic sense of who we reach and how we reach them. The myth of accessible academic history has its costs as well as its benefits.

To begin with, the myth of accessibility can devalue some of what academic historians do uniquely well.  We produce knowledge about the past regardless of whether there is a mass market for the knowledge we produce.  And since I don’t believe that the mass market does a good job of determining what’s worth knowing, I think we ought to moderate our polemics against specialization.  Many good ideas–even ideas that eventually have a profound impact on broad, public conversations–start in abstruse corners of academic work. Think, for example, of Kuhn and the idea of a “paradigm shift.”

Secondly, if we are going to take seriously our role as interlocutors in larger, public debates, we shouldn’t count on traditional academic publications to do so.  Academic historians frequently bemoan the fact that our nation’s public conversations about history often leave much to be desired.  Clearer writing in our academic monographs, however valuable it is in and of itself, is not going to change this situation.


* I almost called Potter’s post “very smart”; those who’ve read it will understand why I didn’t!

** This conclusion based on a cursory online search of Time magazine covers; do not reproduce this thought in an academic work.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As a non historian can I say something in favor of the historians? There are professional history books that seem to have been carefully written to repeal the outsiders, but I think a lot of the reluctance of lay people to read serious history simply reflects their intellectual sloth. In my experience Americans just aren’t willing to read adult books. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in the higher frebus to understand and appreciate Eric Foner or C. Vann Woodward or Steve Pincus but you do have to be willing to spend the time and energy to follow a complicated story and grasp a nuanced argument.

  2. Thanks, Jim. As I said, I do think many historians embody an almost ethical commitment to readability and that this is a very good thing. But I don’t think our ability to communicate with a broad, non-academic audience is dependent on the way we write our scholarly monographs. I think historians can–and should–take part in public debates, but must of us are unlikely to do so by way of our scholarly books. And though I hope we continue to strive to write in ways that intelligent, general audiences might understand, if we try too hard to alter our scholarship with an eye on talking to a broad, general audience, we are unlikely either to improve our scholarship or to better reach that broad audience.

  3. I tend to agree with Jim Harrison but I would say that it may not be due to sloth but time. For myself, I have more time to read now that I’m retired. I don’t spend 10 to 12 hours working come home and pickup a book that is going to require a lot of attention. For instance I would compare 2 books, Kearns-Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and Livingston’s “Against Thrift”. “Team of Rivals” (TOR) is a straight thematic history with an always popular subject Abraham Lincoln. “Against Thrift” (AT) is an interdisciplinary polemic that draws on economic, cultural, social, and historical subjects to support a thesis. TOR is very well written, an easy read and a fascinating topic but does not challenge the canon of Lincoln lore and it follows a familiar scrip. AT also is well written and a slower read but more stimulating because it challenges one to think about one’s bias/presumptions (as well as the author’s). It’s about new ideas and different ways of thinking it is both retrospective and introspective and I continue to think about it but it requires more attention than TOR and when you’re tired….

  4. “Myth of accessibility.” Nice.

    It’s one thing to want to be challenged, as a professional and as a general reader, but even professional historians tire of histories loaded with special terminology—jargon, as it were. So there is some value in keeping an eye on what Ben called the “literate general audience.” Writing for that audience will also keep your peers, other professionals, in the orbit of your work. At the very least, keeping that mythical reader in mind will save some of our work from total obscurity. – TL

  5. I am curious what we are talking when we criticize the use of jargon. Is this an inferential criticism of cultural studies “jargon” or some other abstract historical concept or term that does more to obfuscate than to clarify? Just curious since so many seem to see this as the main obstacle to readability or connecting to a broader audience.

  6. Apologies if this posts twice…error message!

    I am wondering what your thoughts are about the way academic historians are trained to write? When I was in graduate school the word “audience” was never mentioned. In fact to discuss a “broad audience” of readers often raised the odd eyebrow. I always wondered just who I was writing for beyond my instructors, the 5 people on my dissertation committee and the handful of people who might look at my work. When I graduated I really had to rethink my writing and the kinds of writing I wanted to do. Academic writing is vital and needs to be valued but so do other kinds of writing. In my own case I have become very interested in local history and find that there is a voracious appetite for local history where I live (Maine). I see all sorts of opportunities to write about local topics and as I write I am thinking about audience. I also find that writing a blog is a great way to think through not just research and subject matter but length, paragraph structure, basic argument, evidence etc.

    Katherine O’Flaherty

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