How do we think about our responsibility as researchers and writers to communicate the significance of our work to our professional peers, as well as to engage the public?
Last week a conversation erupted on Twitter, prompted by a keynote address at a conference on “High Stakes History” at Columbia. The event was part of Columbia’s “History in Action,” a pilot program funded by the American Historical Association-Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Career Diversity Initiative. A lot of social media focused on Jill Lepore’s keynote. A Professor at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker, and the author of an enviable corpus of thoughtful, engaging and briskly-selling books on a wide range of topics, Lepore put her hand right on the high voltage rail of a humanist’s nervous system. Who do we write for, and why do we write the way we do?
All academic disciplines struggle with how to engage the public. We worry about the role of public investment and access to research, about the public’s understanding of key concepts in the humanities and the sciences, about the applicability of our work for modern democracy. History has a unique public audience for a variety of reasons. In writing last month about the wild success of the musical Hamilton, I noted that history seems accessible, or at least like it ought to be. There is the stuff that happened in the past, and then you just write about it. Right? And people want to read about it—Barnes & Noble has the equivalent of Kellogg’s cereal aisle shelf space set aside for American history, seemingly lots of it about the founding generation and the Civil War.
Of course it’s not really that simple, and actually many readers don’t expect it to be. Open access advocates are sure there are important audiences for academic research, and at least at the journal I know best, the William and Mary Quarterly, we do have a robust non-academic readership. The question is what constitutes purposely “writing for the public,” and how that differs significantly from the writing academics do for one another — and which might also be of interest to the public. For historians this often boils down to “narrative” versus “argument.” “People care about stories, not arguments,” was one tweeted paraphrase of Lepore’s talk. Storytelling is one of the oldest human forms of communication. It is not a simple thing to tell a story well and with meaning. One of the masters of the genre (and Lepore’s teacher), John Demos, teaches a course on narrative history that pushes students to think about form and expression as well as evidence and argument. These debates about narrative versus argument have been happening for eons; I imagine Thucydides saying “look, guys, narrative is the only way to write history of the Peloponnesian War.”
The question ought not be, however, one versus the other. Academic writing is expository. For academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. Academic research is the accumulation of new information by many different means. The significance of this information is articulated through evidence-based argument, the heart of historical disciplinary practice. Argument doesn’t preclude narrative — a very fine writer can craft a narrative that conveys a variety of important arguments, but pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.
Why not? Don’t professional historians appreciate a good story? Every historian I know loves a good story. Academic writing, however, is the formulation of research into new knowledge. That might be in the form of genuinely new information, or it might be an importantly fresh perspective or interpretation. Using new methods and tools as well as the regular revelation of new materials means that historians are generating new knowledge at a rapid clip.
So how do we know what’s new? A fundamental responsibility of academic writing is to explain the relationship of new scholarship to its forebears. Knowledge doesn’t accrete in a linear or progressive fashion, of course, but explaining how research and interpretation is related to the literature that’s come before it is fundamental to our evaluation of the work. After all, historians have been writing about the American Revolution since shortly after the American Revolution. As a professional historian, how would I know whether the next book I see on either an oft-studied topic or an entirely fresh subject is important to read and digest, to inform or incorporate into my own research perspective or plans, and to integrate into my teaching? I just watched an exchange between an experienced former journal editor and a manuscript reviewer who asked “if I think I’ve seen something like this argument before but I can’t quite place it, what should I do?” And of course the former editor encouraged the reviewer to try to address that issue as fully as possible, noting that expert peer reviewers play a key role in signaling to editors how a submission relates to the existing scholarship. In other words, historians are particularly attuned to the history of history.
Historians can and do play a vital role in the public humanities. As journalists and media critics, and in podcasts, blogs, and more traditional outlets — including books — historians are and need to be voices for perspective. There are vital reasons not just why but how we write for one another, too.