Alexandra Lord and Michelle McClellan are historians (with Ph.Ds from top schools) who have worked in both the academy and the public history sector. Writing in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, they challenge us to break down the artificial distinction between history done in the college classroom and history done in the public. Here is a taste of their excellent piece:
In our shaky economic climate, academic departments will need to hire historians with multiple skills who can teach a range of courses. History departments will increasingly require faculty members who can explain to parents facing hefty tuition bills how and why majoring in history is a good choice. Departments will want historians who can sell a service-learning project to a dean who is determining budget allocations in a tight fiscal year.
In other words, even in an academic setting, historians need to be able to communicate the importance of history to nonspecialists, to collaborate, and to understand wider institutional goals. Participation in public history builds all of those skills.
Even as the academic job market in history has contracted, Americans remain passionate about the subject. They visit historic sites and museums, watch documentaries, read historic fiction, and investigate their own family or local histories. They visit Ellis Island, hunting for shipping records. They travel to federal historic landmarks such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, seeking insight into how and why a fire there changed history and made their working lives different from that of their great-grandmothers’. They visit a slave cabin at Evergreen Plantation and feel their breath catch as they imagine a life within its narrow confines.
Overcoming the gap between academic and public history would mean that the considerable accomplishments of enthusiastic amateurs—”popular historymakers,” in the words of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen—could be contextualized in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. While the reward structure of academe currently mitigates against the involvement of academic historians in many public-history activities, much is at stake here. Surely we would all benefit if academics brought their considerable expertise to bear on public discussions about history.
Removing the artificial wall between academic and public history is long overdue.