Let’s Start a Book Club.

Who hasn’t been in a book club? I’ve been in several over several decades. Book clubs come in many varieties, but I have a particular flavor and purpose in mind here.

There is broad agreement that researchers and the institutions that support them would do well to increase public outreach. From the de-funding of public higher education to the skepticism of media and expertise generally, it seems clear that the more we share with all of our communities about the work we do, the better.

stack of books

There are several different approaches to outreach. Translation of research and scholarship for general audiences is one mode of outreach, and one with a long lineage. Scientific American is a classic example. Founded in the nineteenth century, the magazine began publishing monthly in the early twentieth century and after World War II relaunched specifically as popular science. I’ve heard more than one lament from my scientist Dad about how detailed and expert the articles are now (post Nature’s acquisition in 2008), and whether successfully or not, the aim remains the same: to bring scientific discovery to mass audiences. Another approach is simply making more research and scholarship publicly available; one aim of open access is to empower citizens through knowledge. Both of these types of outreach emphasize sharing information and doing so through publication (now mostly digital).

And this outreach is surely important and can be highly effective. A couple of months ago Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Press announced they would be the first university press to partner with two curated news sites, The Conversation, and Made by History of the Washington Post. Both aim to bring scholarly expertise into the public arena through lively writing and engaging, topical subject matter. Johns Hopkins history professor Martha Jones, for example, has recently written for Made by History and other outlets, including a profile in the New York Times, about the 150thanniversary of the 14thamendment, the crisis of citizenship, and her new book, Birthright Citizens:  A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. For JHU Press, this partnership has meant an avenue to support scholars in public discussion, but also helping their own authors to play a role there. In late June, for example, Nicholas Tampio, author of a JHU Press book about the Common Core, wrote for The Conversation about the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor.

As David Crotty noted in a post here on the Kitchen about outreach efforts, the innovative “Out of the Box” series from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine is both distinctive and effective (I especially like the video where neuroscientist Mollie Meffert explains RNA with puzzle pieces) — what he called “outreach done right.” What Meffert and the other scientists featured on that series are doing, and what David notes such public figures as Neil De Grasse Tyson are also doing so well, is to “translate complex scientific concepts into understandable and entertaining stories.” That’s a version of what Jones and Tampio are doing, too; they are harnessing their research specialty for issues of contemporary concern.

The numbers suggest the potential impact of this work. YouTube shows thousands (though not 10s of thousands) of views for the Science Out of the Box series. Made by History is publishing often multiple pieces a day, though it’s harder to discern reader numbers from comment threads.

While we know from any number of analyses that the erosion of confidence in authority and expertise is having an impact and we can see how many different approaches there are to addressing this, we also know from the social science on actual (what the kids call “IRL”) versus virtual interaction that there are significant benefits to gathering together in the communities where we live and work and raise kids and care for our elders. Put these things together and you can imagine the opportunities that colleges and universities and research centers are identifying in community outreach.

Two years ago I started a reading group for local retirees. It originated in a course for William & Mary’s organization for lifelong learners, the Christopher Wren Association. Like many of these organizations across the country, many of them now affiliated with the Osher Foundation, the Wren classes cover a wide range of disciplines and topics. There are Osher Foundation lifelong learning institutes all over the country (a healthy number associated with Cal State campuses)

Students in these courses profiled in the New York Times described an enthusiasm for learning about subjects they’d always wanted to know more about.

The classes my colleagues at the Omohundro Institute and I have offered were in early American history, and each met several times for a couple of hours. For about 35 folks, we provided a look into how early American history has been transformed in the last decades; one year we focused on digital technology, and last year on the broader geographical frame for this period that takes early America across North America and the Atlantic World. This is all lecture and Q&A format, but we didn’t pull any punches. We delivered material from the fresh research we sponsor in our conferences and publish in our journal and books.

The response was so enthusiastic that we started the reading group for those who wanted to read more historical scholarship. We read 2 or 3 books a semester, and the group ranges from a dozen to 15, mostly retired professionals. The group is energized and energetic. We mostly read books that have little to no “trade” marketing.

The goal is a third mode of outreach. Not translation of research, or access to research per se, but rather the exposure to the scholarly process. Of course we are reading history, but we are reading it in part to see how research becomes scholarship.

One of the things that was striking in the Wren classes was how much interest there is in the scholarly process. We spent quite a bit of time, for example, on peer review. Seriously.

In the reading group we focus specifically on what kinds of source material the author is drawing on and how they are analyzing it to craft their narrative and argument. I started distributing discussion questions and a source packet for each session, so we could review and discuss some of these materials undergirding the scholars’ arguments. This isn’t meant to burden the discussions, or to make the group any more like a graduate seminar but rather to make the process of historical research and analysis more transparent. This practice started with our discussion of Erica Dunbar’s Never Caught: the Washingtons Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge(2017). Reading George Washington’s correspondence as he directs the movement of enslaved people between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon in order to avoid the Pennsylvania manumission laws is powerful; it’s powerfully explicated in Dunbar’s book describing the life of one of these individuals, Ona Judge, who ran away and managed to elude the Washingtons’ aggressive efforts to re-capture her.

The most challenging book we’ve read is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past:  Power and the Production of History (1995). Trouillot, a Haitian historian and anthropologist, wrote about the Haitian Revolution and about the archives of text and material culture that document its course as the first slave-led rebellion that established a new nation in the western world. The book asks some of the most fundamental questions about knowledge — what is knowable, and why, and in what context. Although the history of Haiti (Saint Domingue under French colonial rule) and the Haitian Revolution are now the subjects of an expansive scholarly literature, Trouillot was among an early group of scholars who questioned its long-standing erasure. What’s tough about the book is what makes it so powerful — and what made it so rewarding in this reading group context. The Haitian Revolution isn’t a research specialty for me, so I drew on the work of subject experts to create the source packet (EARS – Trouillot) ranging from some of Thomas Jefferson’s statements to Haiti’s founding documents.

History feels particularly urgent to me to share with a wider public, but not only the historical developments and themes. If we believe that it’s vital to free government to put more tools of critical inquiry into the hands of our fellow citizens, then finding a way to share expertise and its process is a contribution we can make. I want a wider public to understand the process of historical analysis, how we locate and develop (and privilege certain types of) sources, and how those are explored to help us understand the past in new ways. The process of inquiry at the heart of all disciplines and fields is, in short, as important as the information.

This little book club is small scale. As is, it engages a specific group of Williamsburg, Virginia-area retirees. Beyond the retirees, we are looking to other ways we can get into the community, and welcome the community to us. I’d love to hear about ways that all of you are engaging your communities in the practice as well as the outcomes of research.  Do you have book clubs, too?

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History, Brown University. She is a historian with a research specialty in family, gender and politics in eighteenth-century British America and has experience in non-profit humanities publishing.


3 Thoughts on "Engaging the Public in Scholarship: A Case for Small Scale"

My problem with public dissemination is that lay readers are not often trained to consume intricate methods that might involve some deception or p-hacking. There is an unavoidable bias in most findings when you begin to wonder why that researcher decided to study that particular topic in the first place.

Clarifying two things here! (Yes, it’s like I’m using the comments section as a footnote for the post–bc I love footnotes… but that’s a different post.)

1. I was using a couple of JHU-related examples of outreach in part because of David’s excellent highlight to Science out of the Box. But there are so many terrific examples of outreach work within my discipline and humanities generally. One is Black Perspectives, the AAIHS blog (https://www.aaihs.org/black-perspectives/) which I wrote about on TSK last year and is essential reading. Another is New Books Network (http://newbooksnetwork.com) which does an amazing job of profiling 100 –yes, 100– new books every month. Check out their podcast!

2. The Omohundro Institute does larger scale outreach work, too. But I wanted to highlight what I think is important about small scale, in hopes others might have thoughts about that.

Good to see the Conversation gets a mention and is in this partnership with JHUP. Just in case readers are not aware the Conversation was born in Australia and has ‘editions’ now in Australia, UK and US. It relies on donations so if you are a reader please give generously to this very important source of researcher based news and opinion.

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