Last week, we talked about why the humanities – particularly the academic humanities, institutionally linked to universities – were important. So this week I want to explain how the academic side of history (the part that happens in research universities, a term I will define in a moment) leads to the history content that the public at large consumes.
I should note that I won’t be covering the ins-and-outs of actually doing historical research here; that’s a whole different (and much larger) project. I suspect I’ll talk about that some time in the future and I hope at some point to begin featuring the work of other historians here in the blog to give a broader sense of what the field looks like and the many methods we use to create new historical knowledge out of our sources. If you are really interested in a blow-by-blow of my own research methods and progress, I give my amici on Patreon monthly updates on my professional scholarly activities.
Instead, this post is mostly about the connection between the various parts of history. It was motivated by a tweet declaring that “no one reads, thinks about or gives a single [ahem] about dissertations” and comparing them to a particular circular activity (you may click on the link or imagine for yourself what sort of activity is meant, I am keeping this essay family friendly here…). I’m not embedding the tweet because singling out the tweet isn’t the point: this is a commonly enough expressed view: “what is the point of all of these books, articles and conferences where academics talk to each other?” And that’s what this post is going to talk about: what is the point of all of the history work that historians of various kinds do and how does that work contribute to the public?
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What Is History For?
I want to be clear at the outset concerning the priorities of these various parts. It is the tendency in all organizations that every department views itself as the most important department. Sales will tell you that they are the ‘profit center’ and thus the most important; operations will tell you that without them, there would be no sales, so they’re the most important; management tells you that they are the ‘brains’ of the organization and so on. It is just as true within a humanities discipline: each part of the discipline tends to see its role as primary. But organizations do have primary purposes.
I am going to contend that the primary purpose of the discipline of history is to foster greater historical knowledge in the public, in order that the public can use that knowledge (and the skills that come with it) to make better decisions. That doesn’t mean lots of history knowledge is equally useful to everyone; one assumes knowing the history of, say, Portugal, is rather more important for the folks at the State Department who interact with Portugal than your average taxi driver. But the goal here is for the field of history to produce both subject-matter experts (who might advise government and companies on their expertise) and also a broadly diffused base of generally available knowledge (sometimes concentrated in ‘thought leaders’) that the public can use more generally.
Now the counter-position, held by quite a few in the research side of the discipline is that historical knowledge is sublime (on the meaning of sublime in this sense, see) in and of itself and thus the discovery of new historical knowledge has intrinsic value even if that knowledge is not subsequently communicated widely. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for this view; there is nobility in discovery for discovery’s sake. Such a view would invert the field, with its public-facing elements existing only to provide funding for the real work, which would be academic research. I am quite confident that view of the field would relegate it back to the unpaid pastime occupation of the leisure class, to the detriment of the field and the public – for a field that partakes of public funds, we must remain focused on public benefit.
So I am going to chart the structure of the field – as I understand it – on the assumption that the key ‘output’ is historical knowledge and skills to the public. I should note that I am going to try to describe the field as it is, not as I wish it was.
The Engine: Academic Research
In a sense, we can view the field of history rather like a car, with an engine that generates the power, a transmission-system that communicates it, and the wheels which actually deliver that power to the road (the road in this metaphor being, at long last, the public) – except in this case, it is knowledge that is being generated, communicated and delivered. We can divide the field of history into the same three parts: the engine (academic research), the transmission (what I’ll call ‘public history,’ although I am being a touch imprecise with the term) and the wheels (public education).
The engine of the field of history is academic research: this is where the knowledge gets created. And I think it is important to begin by stressing this: knowledge is being created, not merely transmitted. One of the real mistaken views that I find many people have about the humanities in general and history in particular is that what we are engaged in is an act of pure transmission – that historians spend our days reading history textbooks really hard and teaching that knowledge.
But that’s not what we’re doing (I’m going to say ‘we’ a lot in this section because this is the part of history I consider myself to belong to). We spend our days (ideally) interacting directly with primary source material – that is the raw, unprocessed evidence of history. For most modern historians, this involves lots of archive work, plowing through records, memoirs, old news reports and so on. For very modern history, it can also involve ‘oral history’ – which is to say the rush to record down people’s memories before those memories are lost to the living. For pre-modern historians, we often have to rely not only on surviving texts, but also on archaeological or representational (read: artwork) evidence, or on texts inscribed on stone (sub-field: epigraphy) or still in the raw manuscript form (subfield: paleography) or on half-lost scraps of ancient paper (subfield: papyrology). As much as possible, we try to interact directly with the evidence without any sort of filter (we tend, for this reason, to learn the languages rather than rely on translations).
But we then have to process that raw material into conclusions that are useful to someone who hasn’t spent years plowing through our tiny subset of the evidence, which often in turn requires fancy historical tools. History is a fun discipline in part because you will find bits of almost every other discipline in it for this reason. By way of example, my own research has involved archaeology, epigraphy, metallurgy, chemistry, physics, statistics, biology and botany, agricultural science, meteorology, economics and, of course, military science (naturally in most cases this was mediated by subject experts in those fields).
So the academic historian gathers evidence, processes it using a wide range of methods (some peculiar to history, some not) and then writes down the conclusions (typically with copious notes so that the historical research could be replicated for confirmation). The end goal of this is the final written form of all of that work, the published research. I should note that the motivations which impel academic historians to produce published research aren’t quite the same as the role it fills for the entire field. For most academic historians, who work in universities, the sale of their research (book sales) are not a significant form of income (far too little to live off of), but rather their advancement within the university is contingent on their publication record: they publish to make their colleagues, who govern their tenure and promotions, happy. The university wants its faculty to publish because part of its appeal to students is the promise of learning from people who exist at the very edge of human knowledge. And more broadly, as you’d expect, many academics want to be well-regarded by their peers, and the door to that well-regard is influential research.
We can divide that research into two categories: field-to-field and field-to-public (which we will get to momentarily). Field-to-field (or ‘field-to-self’) is my term for published research aimed at other academic historians. It is this type of publication that is most often mocked as being a circular… ahem…activity, but it is actually quite important for reasons which will become clear in a moment.
Field-to-Field research is often written in a more technical manner, with much more detailed notes and with that smaller audience in mind. For books, these sorts of works are often published by university presses with fairly small print runs (often 600 or so) because the main ‘customer’ for the books are university libraries (who are purchasing for the academics at the university). Because the print runs are small, these books are often very expensive – the overhead of setting up a print run is being split over fewer copies. That bad feedback – academic works are unobtainable by regular people because they’re so expensive and they are so expensive because regular people do not buy them – is beginning to be disrupted by ebooks, but only just beginning.
Now the academic book is typically the culmination of a number of years of research and writing – as you might imagine, smaller steps are required. The two main steps are the journal article and the conference paper (and the latter’s cousin, the ‘invited talk’). Most academic disciplines have one big annual conference (for historians, that is the AHA, except for ancient historians, who often attend the SCS/AIA, which is the big annual classics conference) and then lots of smaller sub-field specific conferences (like SMH for military historians or the ICMS in medieval history, typically just called ‘Kalamazoo’ because that’s where it always is – I have no idea why my medievalist friends are so attached to that one place; they are a strange people, the medievalists. There are many other such conferences). Those conferences do a lot of things, but the key one here is the presentation of papers. Those conference papers are an opportunity for scholars, especially more junior ones, to present work in progress and get feedback on it (SCS/AIA has a reputation for the…let’s say “sharpness” of its feedback; other conferences may be a bit more collegial). Those papers are valuable not just for the presenters: for the rest of the attendees, it is a chance to get a sense of where the field is heading, what research may be upcoming, and what scholars are working in areas related to your own, with whom you might collaborate.
(As an aside, while you do generally need to be a member of these societies to present research, typically anyone may attend, though they are not free. That said, these conferences are not directed at the general public and the papers portion is regarded as a bit boring by professional historians, who mostly spend each day looking forward to the drink-and-hangout period at the end).
Peer-reviewed journal articles sit somewhere in the middle. Journal articles present finished research, unlike conference papers, but are (typically) much shorter. While most historians think and plan in terms of monograph projects (that is, big, single-topic, single-author books), that work often ‘throws off’ interesting research that doesn’t fit into the book, which is where many articles come from. It is also not uncommon to see a limited form of an argument or research appear as a journal article a few years before appearing in a fuller form as a book. As with conferences, journal articles are aimed almost completely at other professional academic historians.
(As an side, journals have come under fire a bit lately for publication standards. Journal publishing standards vary wildly within disciplines; the ‘best’ journals (typically with wide readership and solid reputations) are typically a lot more stringent with peer-review. We’ll talk about peer-review more in the future, but in a proper academic journal, an article must pass not only the editor, but the review of several peer academics, a process intended to ensure the quality of the research being published. For my own part, I would actually like to see an effort to hoax the journals in my field; I am confident they would not be taken in, but if any failed, I would want to know that too and revise my opinion of the publication accordingly.)
So why do academic historians spend so much time talking to each other? The answer is because the job of an academic historian is two-part. On the one hand, we are producing new knowledge in tiny bits, but on the other hand we are expected to be subject-matter experts on our entire subfield, when it comes to speaking to the public or teaching students. Consequently it is important for us to remain ‘up to date’ with everyone else’s research, which is why we spend so much time and effort (seriously, writing is hard) packaging our research so that it can be easily consumed by other historians (and then spend more time consuming their research). That helps in our research – because you need to know where the ‘edge’ of human knowledge is to push it outward – but also in our teaching and public outreach. This has become more important as time has gone on – as the field develops further, pushing out the bounds of knowledge requires narrower and more intensive study; the reason you don’t see the sort of grand-history-of-everything magisterial single-researcher studies that used to be done in the late 1800s and early 1900s anymore is because so much more knowledge has been produced since then that the only way to survey an entire field like that is as a compilation of all of the work that has been done.
This is also ties back to my contention last week that this is an activity – pushing the outer bounds of human historical knowledge – which simply would not happen in anything near the amount it currently does without the academy (by which I mean the sum total of universities and colleges) supporting it. Those small-run academic books are usually too expensive to buy personally or for local libraries to stock and journal subscriptions can be very expensive as well. Only universities are generally willing to devote the resources to get that kind of material, which makes historical work of this sort possible. And really, only universities provide the research time as part of their job-structure (at least, at research universities) to produce this material and still manage to afford to eat and make rent. I see no other way; book sales and crowd-funding will simply never support projects where it takes years to assemble the painstaking research for a single book. This research does not happen without history departments in universities.
And without that in-the-first-instance primary-source investigation, all of these later steps outside of traditional academia simply don’t get any material to work with. They – public historians, school teachers, enthusiasts, bloggers and YouTube video makers – are by and large dependent on academic historians to build that foundation of knowledge. Which bring us to:
The Transmission System: Public History and Historian Training
This is my term for the set of mechanisms that aim to move that knowledge generated by academic historians closer to the public. This middle layer is still made up mostly of full-time professional historians, but the tasks they are doing has changed.
Starting with publication, we get the first half of field-to-public publishing, where we find ‘general surveys’ (including textbooks, but also a lot of the things you’ll see recommended as a “good first step into <field/question/topic>”), along with companion volumes (a companion is a term for a type of academic book composed of a set of state-of-the-field essays which together give a reader a sense of the current state of research in the field; they’re fantastically useful for students and scholars trying to get their bearing in a new field) and textbooks for use at the college level.
The key thing for these books is that they are generally not presenting much original research (though there is often some!) but rather presenting a ‘state-of-the-field’ look at the field. They are an effort by academic historians to summarize and package all of the field-to-field literature in an accessible, compact form, for a variety of different audiences (for instance, the readers of companions are generally assumed to be scholars, graduate students or advanced undergraduates; textbooks may be pitched at introductory undergraduate courses; many general surveys are aimed at interested members of the public.) These works are important, because they serve as ammunition for other parts of the transmission and wheels – they are fundamentally teaching tools.
The other major part of the transmission system I want to note are public historians (who in a sense are also part of the ‘wheels,’ since they also communicate with the public). Public historians are the professional historians who work as museum curators, historical specialists at historic sites (monuments, houses, parks), and so on. They put together exhibits, craft the language for explanatory texts, preserve artifacts and communicate with the public; some public historians also do research, both field-to-field and field-to-public, although generally not to the degree or with the frequency as academic historians. The other thing that public historians often do is manage and maintain archives and museum collections – that is, the raw material of much academic research – so not only are they part of the transmission communicating history form the academic sphere to the public, they also maintain a lot of the essential infrastructure that the academic historians rely on.
And where, you may ask, do we find all of these wonderful historians? That brings us to the other major task besides research which academic historians do, which is teaching. The exact ratio of teaching to research that an academic historian does depends on the university. Universities are broadly split between research focused institutions (flagship public state schools, the Ivies, etc.) and teaching focused institutions (smaller universities, liberal arts colleges, etc.). To be clear, you can get a top-flight undergraduate education from either of these sets of universities. One day in the future we’ll go more into how they differ, but the main difference here is that a historian at a research institution is expected to do about as much teaching as research, whereas a historian at a teaching college is going to do a lot more teaching and a lot less research (though typically never quite ‘no’ research at all).
For the transmission, the group of students we want to focus on are our history majors, and even within them, a subset of history majors that intend to go on to be graduate students and professional historians. While a lot of students move through history classes in a university (history majors are rarely a simple majority of even intermediate history courses, much less introductory surveys), let’s focus on the majors for now. Like most academic disciplines, the expectation is that the field of history trains its own specialists – another reason to write all of that field-to-field research so that history professors are prepared to give upcoming historians a broad base of knowledge. Those history majors take a lot of history courses for graduation, after which they go a number of different ways. The largest chunk, around 20%, go on to education, with the largest chunk of that chunk teaching in primary and secondary education (read: K-12), but the majority of history majors go on to do jobs not directly related in history, which is not a bad thing. We’ll come back to them.
But a sliver of those history majors are going to decide to pursue advanced degrees in history (note: there are certainly history graduate students whose college degree was in a different field, but they tend to be a minority). Graduate students in history take a lot of specialized coursework in historical methods building up to doing some actual historical research (of the field-to-field sort, ideally), either to roughly the size of an article (a Master’s Thesis) or roughly the size of a monograph (a doctoral dissertation). Those graduate students then fill the ranks of the academic and public historians, along with (in theory) the top tier of K-12 teachers (you tend to see a lot more advanced degrees for history teachers in well-funded high schools, in particular).
The Wheels: Education
Finally, we get to the part of the system that interfaces with the broader public directly. Let’s start with all of the students in a history class who aren’t going to become historians (which is 90+% of them). In my flowchart, I marked the undergraduate classroom as part of the transmission system because it really is. As I’ve noted before, only a minority of people attend four-year-colleges or equivalent institutions; there is no hope of processing all of the public – or even a very big fraction of the public – through a college history classroom. That isn’t what a college history classroom is for.
Instead, the hope is that those students are going to go into careers in science, technology, business, medicine, politics and so on and they are going to take that historical knowledge with them, whether that was a major, a minor or just a class on the side. Consequently – we hope! – that knowledge and skills they have gained will be available to their organizations, making for better decision-making and leadership (as we detailed last week).
The other big group here, of course, drawing primarily from history majors and graduate students, are history teachers teaching in K-12. Teaching at the primary or secondary level demands a second set of educational skills that we academic historians don’t need to have as much of; teaching young-adults is just not the same as teaching children. I’ll probably blog a bit on the art-of-teaching from the academic angle in the future, but I want to stress here teaching at any level is a skill. It is not enough – as I see often supposed – to know your subject. If you put a teacher who knows their subject but does not know how to teach in a room with any sort of student, adult, child, whatever, they will fail to teach very much. For my part, I consider K-12 teachers to be a type of historian, specialized in education but I know that many of my peers would draw a line between history teachers and the rest of the field. While it is quite common in some fields (Classics, in particular does this, as with CAMWS) for smaller regional conferences to target a mix of academic and K-12 professionals in an effort to keep the two groups in better dialogue, it seems to me this is less common in history, which is unfortunate.
Because K-12 history teachers simply reach more of the population (effectively all of it) than any other group in the history-powertrain. Consequently, it would be fair to view K-12 teachers as the fundamental end-product of the whole edifice: academic historians do research to perfect the history that we give to K-12 teachers (in their undergraduate courses) which they then deliver, en masse directly to the public. That would be a reductive reading of the system, but not wrong per se.
Of course also at the level of direct approaches to the public is what is called public engagement or public outreach. You are, in fact, being publicly engaged right now. Public engagement – done by all of the levels of historian (but often only called out as public engagement by name when done by academic historians) – are efforts to communicate our historical knowledge to the public directly. This includes history podcasts, blogs (like this one), and articles in traditional print and online media.
There’s also a publication form of public engagement, generally called ‘pop’ history – books on history often written in an engaging, punchy style for the general public, rather than an academic or even para-academic audience. Pop history books often have a poor reputation in academic circles, but I think there is real value to this kind of publication. Unfortunately – and this isn’t the place to go into this, so I won’t elaborate – pop history will not get you tenure, which leads to neglect in the academy and consequently the big pop-history books are often not written by the best historians in their fields.
And that is the system. Academic historians train new historians at all levels, teach undergraduates (in part to create a pool of historian-trainees) and push the bounds of historical knowledge, revising old theories or breaking new ground to make sure all of the other parts of the system (including other academic historians) have the most exact and useful rendering of the past. Public historians, graduate and undergraduate teaching then work to transfer that knowledge into places like school classrooms, museums and public-facing publication which puts that improved historical knowledge in the hands of the public at large.
If it seems like my treatment of public history and K-12 teaching were a bit schematic, that is not because they are unimportant (indeed, I hope I have shown quite the opposite) but instead that because that is the part of the system I do not do, my knowledge there is thinnest about organizations and practices.
I should also note that for the sake of scope, I’ve confined myself to professional historians – folks who do this as a job, for a living. But that’s not the entire discipline! Research and public engagement sometimes does come from outside this system, particularly in the form of several very motivated and energetic enthusiast communities. There is a sad tendency for many academic historians to view these folks as beneath them; this is a mistake in my view. As someone whose work borders one such enthusiast community (the arms-and-armor enthusiasts who often go by the label HEMA, although that community is increasingly more globally minded in its approach and I think ought to drop the ‘E’ from that label and embrace the global perspective), it can be incredibly valuable to have one of these communities adjacent to you. I firmly believe that the field would do well to nurture more of these communities.
I do want to say that this system is hardly perfect; there are problems. Academic historians at research institutions in particular have a tendency to become blinkered, focusing only on their peers at other research institutions, at the expense of the rest of the field. And while in theory, new historical research would make its way directly to high school classrooms, in practice that process often badly hampered, on the one hand because many overworked K-12 educators are not given the time or incentive to stay current on the state of the field (though some do!) and on the other hand because the process of developing public school curricula is heavily politicized, often leading school districts to cling to outdated historical theories for decades after they were soundly discredited in the field proper (I should note this is not a phenomenon restricted to the United States, much less only some parts of the United States; there are history textbook fights pretty much everywhere – some European textbooks are downright startling in their treatment of world history and don’t get me started on Japanese textbooks covering 1930-1945).
At the same time, it is my distinct impression that compared to many other disciplines in the humanities history has a much better developed transmission infrastructure (it is really striking coming from Classics, which I think is very badly hampered in this regard and seems to have little interest in saving itself). And I think this is directly part of how history, as a discipline, has (so far) mostly avoided the catastrophic decline in enrollment and funding which has struck much of the rest of the humanities (although that may not hold; the Great Recession and COVID have both hammered the discipline).
This blog is my small part of that outreach, of course.
The fact is, we all somewhat intuitively understand that as the general level of history knowledge in the voting public and the policy-making apparatus declines, the quality of our decision-making and leadership declines with it (again, we discussed this last week). And so on the one hand it is very important for professional historians – yes, all of us – to be actively engaging in forms of outreach (and, as an aside, if your only form of outreach is political in nature, that’s probably not great; not that history needs to be apolitical – I don’t think it can be – but we do need to reach out to people who disagree with us politically and engage them too). And on the other hand I think it is important for the public to continue its support of the discipline, even when it doesn’t always like what the historians are telling it. After all, that’s what you (by proxy) pay us for: to tell uncomfortable historical truths, not comfortable legends.
I’ll close with Thucydides that if my work “be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (Thuc. 1.22.4). That is what we strive to do, as a body, one whole discipline working (in theory) together.