Ben Carp Responds to My Academic History Post

I have long admired the work and ongoing career of Benjamin Carp.  In case you don’t know Ben, he is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College.  He is also a prolific historian and public scholar.  Check out his books Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution and Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America.

Ben was dismayed by my recent post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing History for Public Audiences” and asked me if he could write a response.  Of course I jumped at the chance to have Ben’s byline at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am also flattered and honored that he would take my post and my work seriously enough to respond in the way he did.  For that I am thankful.

Fellow historians like Ben remind me why I love being a part of this profession.–JF

Here is his response (after the video, which Ben requested that I post with his article :-)): 

Baby Come Back: A Response to John Fea

As a fellow Mets fan, I will always feel a certain kinship with John Fea, and I have long valued his voice, his insights, and his scholarship. I agreed with much of his post, but it also filled me with dismay. I, too, cheered Karen Wulf’s post about the need for academic history and the impossibility of bending all our work toward a public audience.

I have come to some of the same conclusions as John: gratitude that I have attained a sense of calling in my job, a refusal to overvalue “prestige,” and a desire to speak to broader audiences when I can. But I have come to the opposite conclusion: a need to make sure I don’t spend all my time on public writing, and a need to keep plugging away at academic work. In a side conversation on Twitter, John and I talked about our search for a “middle ground” between academic and public history, but in his blogpost he seemed to be moving toward the edge of that ground, if not over a cliff.

Like John, I’ve also tried to write works for an academic audience and a public audience; and I’ve encountered the joys and frustrations in both. The miseries of academic publishing are well known: sniping peer reviewers, the long lag time, and the limited audience (sometimes). But public history is no picnic either: editors and filmmakers (and readers!) sometimes want something very paint-by-numbers, or conformist, or wrongheaded; the demand for gripping narrative and relatable characters can often lead historians away from more challenging topics. Sure, careerism stalks academia, but pelf and popularity contests can sometimes undermine a lot of public history. No one knows this better than John Fea, who has drawn upon his credibility as a scholar to assail the hacks who are out there misinforming the public.

People’s attention spans (in academic realms or the public) are finite. Every piece of writing must fight to be heard, and we hope it’s the good stuff that wins. For academic articles, “losing” that fight will mean fewer eyeballs or citations; for public history a “loss” will mean the same thing, except it’ll feel worse if there’s money riding on it.

But in spite all of these difficulties, I think it’s the scholar’s responsibility to try to work in both worlds if one has the capacity to do it.

So here is my prediction: John Fea won’t entirely abandon academic writing. As long as he is continuing to teach and advise students, attend conferences and participate in social media discussions, read manuscripts and review books, and write engaging history, he will feel the call to write for a scholarly audience again. Why? Because at some point his curiosity will lead him to a problem he can’t crack. And he will want to write his way out of that problem. Maybe it’ll be something that’ll take 10,000 words to answer, maybe 100,000—either way, it will become, for a time, his new passion. A blogpost will seem too short (“a three-minute record”), a trade book will seem too glib. Maybe the question and the answer will be a little too abstruse or narrow for a broader audience. But he’ll know that his fellow history-lovers are out there, and he’ll want to enter into the lists with them once again to solve that problem. Call it “the pursuit of mutual improvement.”

I can’t know this for sure, but I would guess that John Fea, like Philip Vickers Fithian, is sometimes being called abroad and sometimes feeling the tug of home; like all of us, he struggles with the tensions of reconciling the advancement of knowledge with the demands of the broader world. Unlike many of us, he has grasped the key insight that different audiences will want different things from the history we produce, and he has found ways to connect with these different audiences. This is one of the most admirable things about him. I just don’t believe him when he says that public history is the only kind he wants to do.

As long as our curiosity motivates us, there’s no easy answer to these questions. Given his talents, I think he should do both narrative and argument, both academic and popular writing, and we should all resist the urge to scorn people who aren’t following the same path, so long as they’re doing good work. One thing seems certain to me, at least: surrender isn’t the answer.