Over at Public History Commons, Charlotte Mires writes about the limitations of her first book–Independence Hall in American Memory.
With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations.
Ironically enough for a book dealing with public history, it was going to be difficult for the public to gain access to the work. Part of this was simply the price of the hardcover book, which started at $34.95 but escalated over time to $47.50. And ironically enough for a book about a structure, the architecture of the monograph itself presented challenges for some readers. While my introduction delved into scholarly literature and proposed a model for understanding the role of buildings in constructing public memory, readers or onsite interpreters looking for good stories needed to jump ahead to find them. Even the best stories appeared briefly in the book, while the very rich documents behind them remained stored away in my files.
Yes, yes yes! Mires has put into words something I have been thinking about for a long time. My first monograph, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (also published with the University of Pennsylvania Press) is filled with stories and even some narrative, but some non-academic readers have complained about the academic jargon and theory in a few parts of the book. While the book has had a cross-over appeal (due mostly to my non-academic talks), I often wonder if I should have just written the book for the general history buff so I could really play with the narrative and bring Fithian’s diaries to life. But in the end, I know I made the right decision. I needed this book to establish myself as an early American historian. I coined phrases such “cosmopolitan rootedness” and “rural Enlightenment” that were important to my ongoing respectability as a scholar.
The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in paperback about a year after the original hardback was published, so I was able to pitch a much more affordable book ($18.96 today at Amazon!) to public audiences, but after this experience I wondered, and still wonder, if I want to write another university press monograph that no one is going to read because of price. I am not opposed to publishing again with a university press, but I wonder if price point can be part of a contract negotiation. (Has anyone negotiated this way?).
Though the hardback version of Independence Hall in American Memory may still be overpriced, the new paperback version is not ($22.46 today at Amazon!). And Mires has thought of some creative ways to reach those who were not exposed to the book when it was released in hardback in 2002. Along these lines, she has created a companion website for the book complete with teaching guides, documents, more illustrations, and additional content. What a great idea.
Here is a taste of Mires’s post:
Fast-forward to 2014. Independence Hall in American Memory is finally available in paperback with a companion website (http://independencehall-americanmemory.com) to make the work more accessible for teachers, interpreters, and the public. Websites are of course much easier to build today than they were at the time when my book was first published. I had help from Stephanie Brown at the University of Pennsylvania Press, who created the WordPress website, and then I populated it with all those things that I wished had been more accessible all along. First I consulted with two of the ranger interpreters at Independence National Historical Park, Renee Albertoli and Bill Caughlan, to ask what they would most like to see. From them came the suggestions for highlighting the fugitive slave hearings that took place in Independence Hall in the 1850s, for providing information about protests and demonstrations in and around the building, and for a timeline for ready reference. Along with this valuable advice, Christian Higgins and Andrea Ashby at the park’s Library and Archives offered their partnership in helping to locate and provide illustrations.
I wrote two teaching guides for publication on the website–one specifically for public history teaching and professional development and the other for US history courses. Similar to the teaching companions often available with textbooks, these include chapter summaries, discussion questions, and active-learning activities for classes or staff development workshops. The website also has allowed me to extend beyond the original content of the book. For example, it hosts a step-by-step case study of the President’s House site in Philadelphia, which after the book’s publication became a matter of controversy related to the presence of slavery in George Washington’s household. Throughout the website are links to documents, many of them transcribed from my research files.
The site is and will remain a work in progress, especially in the documents section (and I welcome suggestions as to what would be most useful). But I am confident enough in this approach that I am beginning to do the same with the companion site for my more recent book, Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations. It’s an indication of the changing nature of publishing that this book had a website from the start (http://capital-of-the-world.com), built in WordPress by Jodi Narde at NYU Press and then turned over to me for management. It began as a blog, which I kept up for about the first year after publication, but it is now evolving into a site with teaching guides and documents. (If you’d like to see if your hometown was in the running to become the Capital of the World in 1945-46, also check out the surprising list of contenders.) Like the Independence Hall site, I hope this will add public value to the work, in this case to spur conversation about place-making and intersections of local and global identities.
Perhaps websites such as these are one approach to building bridges between the expectations of the academy and our commitments as public historians. I welcome suggestions for ways to continue to make this work useful to teaching, training, and practice in public history.
“Writing Books for Public Audiences”
By now many of you may have read Sarah Kendzior’s piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s new Vitae website entitled “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing.” She echoes what is these days a fairly common lament about scholarly publishing and academic careerism. Here is a taste:
In January 2014, creative-writing professor Cathy Day published a rundown of her publications since 2011: 300 pages of a novel, 100 pages of non-fiction, seven essays, two short stories, and 200 blog posts. The blog posts, dedicated to the craft of writing, attracted the most attention, garnering over 160,000 pageviews. Day’s last post was particularly popular: It announced the end of her blog.
“Here’s the thing: this work hasn’t counted much for me as an academic,” she wrote. “Every time I post to this blog, I’m taking time away from my fiction and nonfiction, from work that ‘counts’ for me—both institutionally and personally. Even now, as I write this, I’m not working on my novel and other projects.”
Today, a creative-writing professor is expected to produce more publications than a science professor of 50 years ago. But in other ways, little has changed. Though digital platforms enable scholars to share their ideas with the public, their desire to do so is often held against them. Academics are pressured to produce an ever greater amount of work for an inherently limited audience.
In order to maintain her professional viability, Day stopped work that she and the public found meaningful—work that directly relates to her role as a teacher—in order to have time to produce work that “counts” to a small number of academics. To “count” is not to spread knowledge, as Day did, or develop new ideas, as Higgs did. To “count” is to preserve your professional viability by shoring up disciplinary norms. In most fields, it means to publish behind a paywall, removed from the public eye—and from broader influence and relevance. To “count” is to conform.
Publishing and labor are two of academia’s most contentious issues, and they are usually debated separately. But when the rate of contingency hires and publications rise together—with the assumption that the latter is a means to avoid the former—they need to be taken as a broader problem: the self-defeating mechanization of scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to sacrifice integrity and ingenuity to careerism that does not reward them with a career.
As most of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are aware, I have been a strong advocate of historians writing for a general public. But I also realize that not all historians are called to this kind of public work. We need academic publishing (whether it continues to be done in traditional print form or move online is another matter). Dissertation writers and monograph authors offer us carefully researched and detailed studies that provide the building blocks for larger synthetic works that have a better potential of reaching public audiences, influencing school textbooks, and informing public debate.