Fireside this week! The Spring semester is now in full swing and – knock on wood – so far seems to be proceeding without too much in the way of disruption. I’m hoping to have part II of “Decline and Fall?” for you all next week but in the meantime I wanted to take a chance to talk about how I approach engaging the public with my mix of history, classics and military history.
For this week’s musing, there’s been some discussion over in ancient history twitter about public engagement, outreach or public scholarship and I thought, as someone who is doing public engagement right now with some modest success, that I might talk about how I approach it.
First off, public scholarship which makes a place for the humanities in the public square is important. As we’ve already discussed, the humanities have considerable value, but maintaining the institutions and structures which allow the study of the humanities to function requires building public support for those institutions, which in turn means building a place for the humanities in the public square so that they remain relevant to regular people. That’s, of course, part of what I aim to do here every week.
But I think the original tweet that started this conversation – while the main point is good – conflates a number of different things, some of which drive public engagement and some of which don’t:
It’s not clear to me, for instance, how co-writing as a research method makes a difference in saving the humanities one way or another. I am not against co-writing, mind you! But the number of authors on the cover of a history book is, as far as I can tell, a relatively minor factor in how well it engages the public or encourages more funding and investment in the humanities. The same actually goes for most open access research publication for reasons we’ll get to. These things are good, but I do not think they will save the humanities. Not all good things lead to all good ends. But that shotgun approach I think is often a great weakness for a lot of what gets defined as public scholarship, where academics repurpose things they were doing anyway as ‘public scholarship’ and then end up being ineffective at public scholarship.
So I am going to lay out, in no particular order, my strategy for trying to do public scholarship and engage the public effectively. I do not present this as the only way to do these things or claim to be the most effective ever (though I’d say I’ve done well enough at it), but perhaps the model can be useful.
First, talk to the public, not to each other. This is the foundation of my approach: if I am going to do public engagement, I need to engage the public. That public audience needs to be the focus of communication, not an afterthought. A lot of public engagement writing gets written with one eye on the public and the other eye on the academic reception, be it in hiring/tenure committees or just general prestige. Now part of the problem here is that many fields place a frustratingly low value on public scholarship (my own sense is that history is much better than classics in this regard); something like ACOUP, though it is more successful at actually communicating with the public than many more prestigious academic projects, has functionally zero value when it comes to most academic hiring committees (in many cases it has actively negative value). But if you want to engage the public and actually reach an audience, reaching that audience cannot be your project’s second priority (though of course your project can be your second priority) – if you approach your project that way you will get eaten alive by the YouTube amateurs who are entirely focused on their audience.
And while the YouTube amateurs are often great, if the goal here is to show that the academic humanities have value and the work of academics is necessary to support non-academics in the same field, then we can’t just get disintermediated by passionate amateurs – not the least because they often lack the expertise and training to actually do high quality scholarship. We (trained academics) have to be in the mix with them in a real way in order to prove that expertise and demonstrate the value of our training.
In this vein I also want to note that as a field if we want to do this effectively it might help not to be so quick to tut-tut people who actually succeed to some degree in this for either considering the financial side of the endeavor or actually taking active measures to gain an audience. There is a school of academic for whom both of these things are ‘grubby’ and what one should apparently do is engage the public with dry research papers as the only morally ‘pure’ method. This is a sure route to oblivion. No one is writing about history or classics or any subject in the humanities ‘for the money’ because anyone who can write that well could make far more money writing something else. The deeper problem is that this attitude demands that anyone engaged in this kind of work must either live as a monk, already have a tenure-track teaching job, or be independently wealthy. We ought not shame public engagement efforts that aim to be self-funding, in whole or in part (though we should also be clear that relatively few such efforts will actually be self-funding).
And of course building an audience goes without saying: if you want to do public engagement, you have to engage the public.
That leads into my second point which is that public scholarship is fundamentally educational in nature. That may seem really obvious but it has some important ramifications in terms of what you write and how you write.
The first is a question of presentation style: good public engagement should feel more like a (good) lecture than a conference paper. That can be tricky when writing for traditional media publications because you have a point you are trying to make and a sharp word limit in which to make it, but the idea remains the same: you are mostly aiming to build a base of knowledge for a reader with little grounding in your topic and then – in a persuasive or argumentative piece – perch an argument on top of that basis of knowledge. Looking at my own public-facing writing outside of ACOUP, I have a fairly standard structure that I start with: in the first couple of paragraphs I introduce a current issue and a historical analog which can help us think about it. Then I spent the middle of the piece (generally the largest chunk), explaining what the historical analog is, because of course most readers don’t know what the auxilia were, or who Peisistratos was or any of that. I am building the basis of historical knowledge in my reader, introducing the facts I need them to know in order for my conclusion (which is about the current issue, not the historical analog) to make sense. I assume this method works because editors keep paying me to do it.
Instead, what a lot of academics end up doing is trying to write conference papers to the public. And I understand the instinct: the conference paper in its structure and formality looks the most like a public-facing article. But the audience is totally different and so the genre is also very different: a conference paper is fundamentally a research report on a very niche topic to an audience of specialists. Conference papers tend to be oriented towards that audience, with academic in-jokes, too-clever-by-half academic titles and language written in a compressed, technical register which is exhausting for most people to read.1 That’s not a critique of the conference paper (or the related creature, the invited talk) – they have their purpose and are designed to it. But engaging the public is not that purpose. Do not write conference papers to the public.
That extends to topics as well: with vanishingly few exceptions, the public isn’t really very interested in your research, per se. That isn’t because your research is unimportant! As I’ve discussed, that research creates the foundation of knowledge which we then package and compress for the public – the public doesn’t want raw, unthreshed grain, they want bread: processed and delicious. But your research is almost certainly extremely narrow and thus interests a very narrow group of people. The public is generally looking for much broader, introductory treatments. There are exceptions: a lot of archaeologists get away with “look at the cool stuff we found!” as a public engagement strategy because the wonder of millennia old objects is captivating for many people in and of itself. But for the most part, a public audience is looking for foundational treatments of major subjects: they generally want to walk away feeling they now understand a fairly substantial issue – one large enough to be ‘seen,’ so to speak, from the great distance from which one must view any technical field they are not an expert in.
And that leads to the next point: if you want to get your public audience to eventually be interested in something they have no knowledge or connection of, you have to build your way there from things they know. That can, it turns out, be a really long effort; to take my own project, you can see pretty clearly how I use popular culture products as the bridge to what my audience knows in order to get into many topics. The nice thing about keeping at this for a few years is that now I have an audience which has a broader basis of that knowledge, which lets me cut into narrower and deeper topics (9,000 words on trace italienne fortresses or 8,500 words on the modern reception of classical ethnography). This is tricky for Classicists who often now do their work on authors who are now very obscure; in the end, I’m afraid my advice is what many would not want to hear: public outreach is often going to have to begin with the authors people have heard of (Homer, Vergil, Cicero, Caesar) and build to the ones they haven’t over what is likely going to be a generational effort to get people2 interested in whole genres of literature.3
Next, do not pretend that activism is public engagement. This is, I know, a hard pill for a lot of academics to swallow, but the medicine is necessary. Public engagement is how you build support for the field; activism is how you spend support for the field. Yet the two are often conflated; spending is not saving. Now do not misunderstand me: activism that comes from a place of scholarly expertise is valuable and important but it will not save the humanities because it spends down public support. If we want our activism to have any real meaning or impact, we have to put in the time to build the public support for our expertise first. Part of the problem I think we find ourselves in is that many academic fields have frankly spent a lot of time making activism withdrawals from the bank of public support but almost no time making engagement deposits and now the accumulated savings of centuries are spent.
This is true both for activism directed at the broader society but also for activism directed at the field itself, seeking to change its borders, methods, etc. Once again, I must stress, I do think that kind of work is valuable – I’ve hosted some of it here. There’s a sense in which all of the other content on this site – the ironworking, logistics, Lord of the Rings stuff and so on – is building up my ledger so that when I do want to make a point about the field or about contemporary events, I have that basis of expertise and frankly the forbearance of my audience to do it. The danger is that too often publications notionally aimed at communicating with the public end up focused on this sort of state-of-the-field writing and essentially fold in on themselves, preaching to an already converted audience and never reaching the broader public.
The difficulty in getting a sense of how large an audience really is can obscure this problem: no one shares their traffic data so it is hard to know if the reach of a project is meaningfully broad. This is the trap that I think Eidolon fell into, though it seems like for many classicists Eidolon is still the gold-standard for this kind of outreach project, declaring its intention at the beginning to aim for “a wider audience: not just classicists, but anybody who is intellectual engaged and has an interest in Greece and Rome.” I’m sorry, I’m going to be blunt: Eidolon failed at that. With dozens of contributing authors, an editorial board and meaningful funding support (initially via Paideia Institute), in five years Eidolon “cross[ed] over 2 million total views” and “10,000 views per week,” before closing down at the end of 2020.
For comparison, ACOUP – the audience supported single-person (with guest posts) project I run out of my home office with no institutional support – crossed 2.78 million page views last year; it averages anywhere from five to seven times Eidolon‘s reported weekly traffic at this point. This isn’t a quality-over-quantity thing either: Eidolon has more than 500 articles; ACOUP has about 160, counting firesides, gap weeks and guest posts. This also isn’t a ‘look at me, I’m amazing’ thing – this one video on the Aeneid beats my yearly view count handily (which ought to also tell you, there is an audience out there for Greek and Roman literature). Rather the point I am making is that the numbers we need to move as fields to actually reach the public are much higher than this – if 400,000 views per year is the best we can do, our fields are not long for the world.
(This seems a good place to note that if you have a public-facing history, classics or military history project you’d like to introduce to my audience, we do guest posts here at ACOUP and I’d be happy to feature your project there or in the recommendations list at the end of a fireside like this one. I very much believe in using this platform to hopefully introduce my readers to other learned material they might like.)
Eidolon ended up folding into seemingly endless debates about ‘metascholarship’4 and the shape of the field – as Michael Taylor puts it, it was “a safe space for internal discussions between Classicists” about what Classics ought to be. That’s a useful thing for the field, but the fact that Eidolon seems to often be used as a model (openly or informally) for efforts to bring classics to the public seems to me to demand a reassessment of its success and of the style of public engagement it tried to engage in because it did not actually engage very much of the public or a very broad section of that public. Telling the public they should continue to fund our departments so that we can have conversations with ourselves about what to call those departments is not going to positively engage the public.5
Finally, there is tone. Effective public engagement, like any kind of public communication, requires constructing a public-facing persona that is going to be part your authentic self and part strategic communication. I know for some academics the need to do that emotional labor (in its original meaning) is going to be distasteful, but it is an unavoidable part of actually successfully reaching the public outside of one’s own echo chamber. And frankly, this is hardly the only job that demands that sort of emotional labor (or the only part of an academic job that does!) and I do not think that the fancy letters next to my name make me any better than the Starbucks barista who has to smile to random customers even when they aren’t feeling it.6 Likewise, acting in ways you do not feel is just about the foundational skill of leadership: a good leader looks confident, even when concerned, corrects carefully in private even when angry, praises openly even when envious. Some emotional labor is not beneath me.
In terms of the tone that works, I suggest aiming for a mix of enthusiastic, sincere, cheerful and charitable, an almost Ned Flanders-esque good-natured gee-golly-gosh level of sincerity. It helps communicate enthusiasm for the material – your audience will never be more excited about your material than you seem to be – and avoids the trap of ironic detachment (if you don’t really care or only like this stuff ironically, why should they care or like it sincerely?).
Remember that the goal is to reach an audience and bring them around, at least a little bit, to seeing your subject the way you do (in particular with the excitement you do, more than with the perspective you do). No audience was ever really persuaded by condescension, which is a real risk in relentlessly negative communication. A degree of critique is fun, but if all you ever do is ‘debunk’ on increasingly more pedantic points (or use your platform for academic score-settling on technical points), it is going to be hard to keep an audience – especially because that kind of approach can easily become condescending and condescension is poison. Likewise, if you spend your time making it clear to your audience that you kind of hate them and what they believe, you aren’t going to reach them. Especially in an online context where the audience is likely to be international, there are going to be a lot of different value systems and worldviews in your audience: if you can only communicate respectfully with people who share all of your beliefs, you will struggle to engage the public which does not live in your echo chamber.
Of course I do not claim perfection when it comes to tone. I am far quicker with a sharp word than I’d like; we are all a work in progress. In any event, that is my advice – one may take it or leave it, though I’d like to think that having constructed a public scholarship project which has enough of a readership to be audience supported might make this advice worth a few cents more than nothing.
And of course underlying all of this is the structure of status and promotion in our various fields. So long as academic fields continue to value speaking to themselves more than speaking to the public, they’re going to keep getting lame, ineffective public engagement, shrinking enrollments and public support and finally end up folded into other fields and departments, to the detriment of the field and the public. If we want more public support, we have to be willing to hire for actually effective public engagement, yet in many fields a project like this is a career detriment. With values like that, nothing is going to change…except the slow change of faculty retirements going unreplaced until our departments shrivel.
On to recommendations!
A few firesides ago, I recommended Wesley Morgan’s The Hardest Place; well Wes’ book was the topic of a fascinating two-part talk, “The Texture of War in Afghanistan” over at The Horns of a Dilemma over at War on the Rocks. Part one is a book talk in which Morgan outlines his book, how he came to write it and its basic contours; it’s a good talk. Part two is a panel discussion about the book featuring a number of commentators with experience in Afghanistan and the Pech Valley, the area that Morgan focused on, which does a lot to open up and expand on the themes of the book. It’s a fantastic talk and exactly the sort of public discussion we need to be having about the failure of our efforts in Afghanistan (but largely aren’t).
In archaeology news, a fascinating analysis of a leather-scale armor found in northern-western China suggests that the armor was originally produced in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (modern day Syria and Iraq) and must have traded or traveled the vast distance to the tomb complex in Turfan, China (located in Xinjiang7). The armor dates between 786 and 543 B.C.. The find is taken by the researchers to suggest that scale armor may have diffused out from a Near Eastern invention point through the steppe and from there into China (scale armor also diffused West through the Roman Empire somewhat later). The full publication of the analysis is available here.
Also I should note, a hat tip to Pasts Imperfect for bringing this across my screen (I somehow missed it at Archaeology the first go around). The Pasts Imperfect substack is a great read for anyone interested in global antiquity – give it a subscribe!
Finally, for our book recommendation, in keeping with our discussion of late antiquity and the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, I want to recommend R. Fleming, Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2010). In the first post, I noted at several points that the experience from the fourth through the sixth century of Roman Britain was differently timed and in some ways substantially more severe than that on the continent and this led a few people to ask for more details, so it seemed fair to offer a focused treatment.
The thrust of the book fits its title: the fall and then rise of Britain after the collapse of the Roman Empire. One happy structural element here is that every chapter is date-bracketed in its title, nailing down the exact when to which it applies, which matters a lot in a book that is all about change but also features chapters focused on themes as well as specific periods. Using a mix of literary sources and quite a bit of archaeology, Fleming presents a narrative that begins in the second century with the emergence of a Roman urban culture in Britain powered by trade which was in turn motivated substantially by the Roman military presence. Importantly, the decline of that urban culture begins well before the collapse of the empire: already in the 360s it begins to falter as the declining security situation in the rest of the empire steadily denudes Britain of troops and administrators and as a result the urban centers their economic impact sustained first faded and then vanished entirely with nary an Angle or Saxon yet in sight.
From there, Fleming documents the reconstruction of Britain and this narrative is even more important than that of decline, cutting directly against the idea of the early medieval period as one of stagnation or grim darkness. Instead what follows is the establishment of new polities, the reemergence of trading communities, new towns beginning in earnest in the ninth century, steadily increasing economic activity and also increasingly flourishing religious life. Throughout, Fleming’s focus on archaeological evidence roots the discussion in the lives of actual people, often well below the elite, and how their conditions and ways of living changed over the period from the fourth century to the eleventh.
Now it should be noted that Fleming’s book is written for a general audience, which comes with both advantages and disadvantages. The main loss is that of notes: there are no foot- or endnotes here. Instead, the book comes with a selected bibliography, chapter by chapter. This is enough for the general reader to go on, but it may frustrate the reader who wants to track down specific claims or examples. Nevertheless, the great advantage of this book in this regard is that it is accessibly written for a general audience, eschewing academic jargon and written in engaging prose. Well worth a read.
- Its designed to an efficient delivery that can compress a complex, technical point into a short talk ranging anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes
- To be clear, that may just be a fairly small but devoted fandom – the internet makes building small, passionate fandoms a lot more possible. A mid-sized Reddit community excited about ancient epic poetry could do a fair bit to raise the profile of otherwise niche authors, for instance
- And you are going to need to be excited to talk about those authors, even though much of the scholarship about them is ‘old hat’ to you – it’s new to your audience and you want them to feel the wonder and excitement of ‘getting’ the Iliad for the first time. As an aside: I’ve found that ‘Achilles is a lame whiner’ doesn’t resonate as well with students as ‘Achilles has been disrespected and isn’t going to help anyone until he gets some respect.’ The readings aren’t mutually exclusive, but the latter framing lets Achilles keep some of the impressiveness that he very clearly had among ancient readers. If you don’t have respect – almost reverence – for your subject matter…why should your audience care?
- Their term, not mine
- Also, folks – ‘Classics’ is perhaps the single best feat of academic branding ever in the history of forever. I’d widen the field to justify the label long before I surrendered the label to justify the narrowness of the field, if just because the former course might allow the field to still exist.
- I once worked as a Starbucks barista, actually. And we had to smile, even when that customer came in, the one who ordered the ultra-dry cappuccino and would force you to make it over and over again until it was perfect.
- The place where the Chinese government is currently engaging in ethnic cleansing and/or genocide and no I will not let that go, genocide is bad.
130 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, January 21, 2022 (On Public Scholarship)”
Early for once so a few typos:
…where academics repurpose things they were doing anything as ‘public scholarship’
I’m afraid my advise is what many would
…seeking to change its boarders, methods, etc
borders (probably – I don’t think there are many pirates working in academia)
…scale armour also diffused West through
not sure about the capital W in this usage
Also missing close paren after footnote 7.
Hi, while I generally agree with you, there are more lessons to be learned on how to engage public from other, non-academic fields. The most important one from the entertainment industry, I believe, is that reading a book or an article, watching a video or a movie, playing a video game etc. are a two-way transaction. Authors supply the entertainment in exchange for often currency, but *always time* of each person in their audience.
And this, by the way, is one of the things I appreciate about your blog. Your posts are long, but nowhere near a book, which is where I get most of my history from. And I have an unread pile of those, because I just don’t have the time.
I do also think this is one place where the humanities need to learn from the hard sciences. Astronomy managed to get 9 billion dollars for the James Web telescope and physics got 5 billion for the LHC. Neither of these projects are going to see anything immediately useful out of them for decades, beyond satisfying academic curiosity. Whatever communication methods they are using seem to work very well.
From my experiences in chemistry communication being able to see and interact with the building blocks of the world is one of the big draws. In general figuring out how to tap into the wonder of the public is a big one.
Hubble makes pretty pictures.
Not many pretty pictures from the Large Hadron Collider, but particle accelerators still get funded.
The people and policy makers are pretty convinced that investing in fundamental physics research has tangible economic benefits later.
I’ve never heard anyone give that as a reason for funding the LHC.
Science journalists are fascinated by large machines, and “finding a new particle” is easy to explain compared to most work in physics. Also the high energy physics folks have a big enough budget that it’s relatively easy to offer a good salary to at least one PR person.
The Manhattan project enamored physics to the politicians to an *incredible* extent, and we are still operating in that shadow. That’s why stuff like the LHC and James Web Telescope gets funded.
Quite simply, more money is spent in hopes of getting the best weapons, rather than best tactics, strategy, or doctrine.
There have been several very good science communicators over the years. The one that came to mind as I read the article above is Isaac Asimov. Who was a tenured chemistry professor. Then of course there was Carl Sagan.
This “should” not be that hard- museums with substantial classical era artifacts seem quite popular to me and media retelling myths of the era are perennial successful.
One thing hard science has going for it is that it is obvious that their work is hard to communicate. On one hand, community members themselves seem to recognize this and value those who can communicate to the public. On the other, the public generally accepts that that they won’t necessarily understand any given scientists research. I think this encourages investment in outreach, frames that outreach in a way that accepts engagement being as important as understanding, and gives that outreach an audience that is OK with not understanding everything immediately.
Hard science also has the benefit of showing some pretty obvious social and economic benefits, which tends to smooth things over.
Humanities, by contrast, likely suffers from seeming overly familar/understandable. To a lay person (and I count myself as one) a scientific research paper may seems like cryptic magic full of symbols I couldn’t possibly understand on some deep truth of the universe* a Humanities research paper often reads like something I should be able to understand, but these dang academics just overly complicate everything. I think this carry’s the other way too. Scientist generally know their actual research is hard to relate to, so they get used to ground it in something common, even if it’s a bit of a lie “I’m trying to understand how different crystalline growth techniques effect the light transmission in glass like materials. It might let us make better VR headsets.”‘ My experience with Humanities academics is that they are poor at grounding their research to others (those that have spent time at think takes or in policy seem to be MUCH better.)
* It’s often more like “we tried a new algorithm got a very modest improvement on some common dataset.”
Well in the defense of the layman, a lot of humanities papers DO really use annoyingly overcomplicated verbiage (at least when I was in college).
During my ethics course (which was part of a chemistry bachelor, but it was a class shared between chemists, physicists and mathematicians) we had a lecture on public facing communication. And it was the astronomer professor who put the most weight on the need to put out public facing works. He made it into the papers with various things. For example, by examining the phase of the moon in christmas decorations and what the phase of the moon should be scientifically. He said these kinds of things are the only way you can keep convincing the general public to pay you (via taxes) to look at pretty lights in the sky.
Chemistry I think has it the easiest. There is a chemical industry, unlike physics or mathematics. This makes the pitch of “why we need chemistry” easy: It makes money. Furthermore people engage daily with the products of chemistry, like plastics, petrol fuel and batteries. Sure, there is a bunch of underlying physics to help understand chemistry, but that level of abstraction is hard to explain to people who dont know chemistry or physics. Although chemistry does also have its funding challenges. You need to often include a “valorization” chapter in a research proposal, and for more fundamental research it can be challenging to find money.
There was a fun fake paper I read which had a section like this:
As we all know, total syntheses must always be justified in some way, usually with biological studies that no chemist cares about, because “the structure looked kinda cool” is not a good enough reason to get funding. Extensive biological testing showed that 1 was slightly more active than my bath water against RGEFGDWA1-B9 raccoon ear carcinoma cells. Raccoons are really cute (Fig. 2) and the lack of treatment options for raccoon ear carcinoma represents an urgent unmet medical need.
One key benefit that astro and physics have is that notionally-civilian research projects are good cover for, or backdoors into, militarily-useful research (like sensitive IR telescopes or very powerful particle beams).
Another is that even if some bunch of researchers aren’t working on ways to blow people up right now, keeping them employed keeps them or their postdocs more available to blow people up in the future.
Thank you again for your efforts. I feel it is worth pointing out that history has always been a hobby for the independently wealthy. Either by being a wealthy gentleman or teaching them. The only exceptions I can think of are chroniclers paid to glorify a dynasty.
I’m not sure quite what you’re aiming at, but I don’t think this is a good take.
First, it seems self-contradictory to claim that history is a hobby and in the next sentence admit that there are people who are not wealthy but are professional instructors of history.
Second, even if history is a ‘hobby,’ it is one that–since the introduction of the printing press–has become far more accessible for people who are not independently wealthy. Access to primary sources is challenging without certain resources, but in today’s digital age one needn’t be a country gentleman to read popular & even scholarly books on the subject.
Third–video games are certainly a hobby, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a tremendous amount of financial support and broad cultural impact. So I wouldn’t take hobbies too lightly!
Fourth–as to “chroniclers paid to glorify a dynasty”–are your referring to the generation of primary sources or of scholarly works? If the former, well–Samuel Pepys had a day job. Bartolomeo de las Casas had taken a literal vow of poverty. Moving into secondary scholarship, The Venerable Bede was also an avowedly-possessionless monk. Sima Qian might also perhaps like a word–who became the father of Chinese history while working in disgrace and poverty, after his castration & dismissal for falling afoul of the Emperor…
If anything, it’s been science that is a hobby for the independently wealthy–the entire golden age of gentleman scientists–van Leeuwenhoek, Lavoisier… to the extent that others had gainful employment, it was usually for the state or the elite, too. Knowledge is expensive because leisure to think is expensive, but–with today’s material society more than ever before–that’s a social choice, not an inescapable fact of nature.
We are at Unmitigated Pedantry … Van Leeuwenhoek most certainly was not independently wealthy. He came from a family of working merchants, worked as a merchant himself. There are indications he was first introduced to lenses as a method to better check the quality of wool fabrics which his family traded.
Once he had the trick down (he kept his method secret) he made a business out of selling lenses and prepared samples. He was so successfull at it he became wealthy and managed to get his family into the patrician class.
And even in the case of the chroniclers, the hobby itself is still for the wealthy, even if it’s not being pursued by them.
Anyways, I feel it’s worth further pointing out that just because something has always been present doesn’t mean it’s admirable. People have always starved, but that doesn’t mean we should be apathetic to people not having food.
As a fellow “public engagement academic” with a much smaller audience, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, from the educational structure of a piece to the Flanders-esque persona.
One thing I’m curious about is how “grubby” you’ve had to get in getting your audience, if at all. Is that mostly just referring to the pop culture posts? (If other classicists look down on you for that, then that’s frankly dumb…they’re interesting topics! I do the occasional post on a Marvel movie or the like and I’ve never gotten flack about it, the only reason I don’t do more is I don’t often have a good “hook”.) Or do you do SEO of some sort, or some other grubby, algorithm-based way of getting eyeballs? I notice you haven’t been doing video or podcast content, which a few of my fellow physics bloggers have pivoted to, presumably to increase their audience, so you’re not engaged in that sort of grubbiness.
there was a significant cult following from the early ASOIAF and LOTR posts, and then a few other posts like the AC:Valhalla went viral. Don’t know if there is “proactive” SEO but this blog does show up fairly high in searches for relevant queries.
I don’t advertise, I don’t do any SEO or use any algorithms. Frankly, I’m not that technically astute.
What I meant above though is that to some of my academic colleagues, simply *having* a blog – much less, heaven forbid, monetizing it like with a Patreon – strikes them as practically unprofessional. This, I think, is the wrong way to look at things, but it is a common way.
I will say, I don’t produce podcasts, but I do make guest appearances on them from time to time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with podcasts or videos as a format, they just aren’t my strength as a creator.
And of course you missed the best window for pivoting your whole project to a Let’s Play video channel on Twitch or Youtube.
I think you do public engagement very well. Archaeology seems to be doing ok, history not so much, despite continued wide public interest. I wonder about the more specialised fields, like ancient Near Eastern languages. Thousands of tablets, few readers and an enormous amount of basic research to be done before any summary can be offered to the public.
I think cowrighting could be good, But the other party wouldn’t be academic at all. Historical fiction does fairly well in book sales, but many of such books I’ve read are a great read but full of errors that I as a lay person pick up on (often because the past is a shallow everyone thinks the same, or perhaps because there is nothing but empty wild space outside of cities). An academic co author could very well greatly improve a lot of such novels and educate the public at the same time.
When doing this you may have the opportunity for one paragraph of those long technical words, when the main character researchers something followed by the obligatory ‘and so on for pages’ as readers we know it is worth reading those closely as they foreshadow something the main character doesn’t know is important or understand yet, but if we miss it, it will be explained in a few chapters.
Of course you can write your own novel too, but established authors have an audience and a sense of what the public likes that you might not so just improving someone elses work could be better. There is opportunity, but in not sure how anyone would get into it .
Very good point. Now I want a Dan Simmons novel with academic footnotes.
It’s not exactly the same thing, but there’s a very good King Arthur series by Mary Stewart, (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day), where she reconstructs a bunch of Arthuriana into a fairly ‘grounded’ and modern story with a lot of political science analyses. It’s not academically footnoted, but each book ends with a section as to how she reconstructed the various old poems and stuff like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle into making her story.
I absolutely agree that more good historical fiction would be a pure boon to public engagement with history, and books cowritten by a fiction author and a historian would be amazing. I’d extend that to movies and TV but I fear that’s a tougher hill to climb.
Alternatively, could compile an index of key points and common misconceptions aimed at aspiring authors, as did Winchell Chung for hard scifi at http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/index.php
Thanks, Bret, for an excellent ‘how-to’ on public engagement. I’m not an academic, but I found that insight into your methods very interesting. Many academics, though they are professional thinkers, are not necessarily good about self-critique, or thinking about what actually works.
I’ve found your book recommendations very useful. I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about liberal democracies’ approach to insurgency, so I read The Hardest Place. It strikes me as a good corrective versus current US (and others) COIN ‘hearts and minds’ strategies. I studied counter-insurgency as part of my War Studies MA in 1979-80, and I’ve taken an amateur interest in it since (though never my major focus). The striking thing IMHO about the classic ‘hearts and minds’ strategy (even as updated by Patraeus) is that in many of the conflicts it’s been used it just doesn’t work. The problem is that, if you read it (looking at the US Field Manual 3-24 for example), it looks very much as if it ought to work. It’s heart (apologies!) is in the right place. The evidence though is the reverse, and this has not been taken on board by Western militaries (yet?!). Personally, I think a strategy of ‘not being there’ in many cases is preferable, and I’m coming round to the ‘liberal democracies can’t do counter-insurgency’ view. At the very least, we can’t do it on behalf of somebody else.
I also read Bryan Ward-Perkins’ “Fall of Rome…” book as a counter to the change and continuity stuff, as I think you effectively recommended. I find myself agreeing with much of his argument, though my own historical upbringing lies in the modern period, so I lack a detailed appreciation of the ancient and early medieval world (but thank you, Bret, for continuing my education in that area!). Having said that, it seems to me that Justinian the Great would hardly have started his epic re-conquest of the Western Empire in the 6th century if it had not been wrested from it in the 5th. The task Justinian set himself was not to deal with some sort of Romano-Gothic amalgamation, some slightly simplified mildly battered Western Neo-Roman Imperial federation, but to smite the barbarians and drive them out of regions rightfully parts of the real Roman Empire. If Justinian thought the west had fallen, who am I to argue? I look forward with interest to the rest of the series!
Regarding liberal democracy success at counter-insurgency, the US did do well at suppressing the Native Americans of the Great Plains, while the British did the same with the Boers of South Africa and the Chinese population of Malaysia. In the US case the success was through genocide and for the Brits it was through concentration camps.
Well the US let eurasian diseases do most of the work.
Some would say that America’s Indian reservations are a type of concentration camp.
Show me one where they can’t just leave when they want.
Justinian isnt neccessarily a disinterested party here: “I need to bring these vaguely asscoiated technically subordinate people I have had various agreements with back under my control” has less pizazz than smiting the barbarian.
The thing about Justinian is, was he dreaming of conquering the western Mediterranean basin because western Rome had fallen? Or because western Rome was divided and no longer ruled from Constantinople?
Justinian’s dream was not simply to recreate the Western Roman Empire, but rather to effectively conquer the scattered states that formerly comprised the Western Empire, integrating them back into a unified empire ruled from Constantinople.
This did not require Justinian to have some special reason to think Rome had ‘fallen’ in the normal sense of ‘fallen,’ and was ruled by some nasty bunch of barbarians who needed to have the Empire retaken from them.
It just required Justinian to be aware that the regions formerly held by Western Rome were (1) politically divided and thus vulnerable, and (2) not subject to rule or taxation from Constantinople.
The “change and continuity” theory does not deny the latter pair of points. It just asks us to rethink the former pair of points. Clearly, Justinian was right to think “North Africa and Italy are politically divided and weak and not ruled from Constantinople right now.” But that does not equate to “everything in Rome is constantly getting steadily worse because the Empire has fallen to crude ignorant barbarians.”
COIN efforts tend to founder on the twin rocks of resource allocation and chauvinism. By the Obama administration, America had spent enough money on the occupation of Iraq that we could instead have relocated every Iraqi to an American college town and given them a free four-year education; by the end of the occupation, it had cost so much that America could have funded a luxurious guaranteed-minimum-income scheme for all Iraqis too. Not that those are necessarily practical examples, but my point is that nobody even tried to come up with practical versions because there was no interest–none–in America for a project that integrated Iraq, only a vast thirst for subjugating them. COIN where the government does most of its spending in the home country and successfully bars freedom of movement between the conflict area and itself is doomed to fail.
And America has had successful COIN efforts where we didn’t do this. The recruitment and redirection of fascist remnants in Italy and Greece into anti-Communist militia and sleeper cells was accompanied by substantial spending in the field and with relaxed controls on migration between the US and those countries; additional Cold War efforts to support anti-Communist exile communities from the white countries behind the Iron Curtain continue to bear fruit, less success w/r/t black and latino exiles of course. Going back into WWII, the OSS’s support for “Mr. Ho”‘s successful battle against the Imperial Japanese colonial government in Vietnam ultimately led (with some missteps) to a stable state bordering China that was able to resist PRC imperialism and reverse PRC involvement in its other neighbors. Moving to the present, a few years ago the US paid to have most of the members of a large California prison gang transported to Central America (while preserving its communication and financial ties to the US, and while this is clearly not an intentional or organized COIN effort, the gang was able to successfully replace local governments in some regions and negotiate some political recognition just like we want our local allies in occupied countries to do.
Bryan Ward Perkins Fall of Rome strikes me coming from an English point of view. It focuses a lot on the effect on Britannia and northern France, which were impacted more than most other parts of the Empire by the fall and also relatively unimportant parts of the empire all along. The core areas of the empire – Italy, North Africa, Greece and eastern Mediterranean littoral were impacted much less. Hispanic, southern Gaul and northern Balkans somewhere in between.
“In any event, that is my advice – one may take it or leave it, though I’d like to think…” may be the most J.R.R.T phrase you’ve written on the blog.
I think while not precisely history, John McWhorter’s Lexicon Valley podcast is a perfect example of the type of public engagement you’re talking about. Though maybe it’s only possible because he’s a tenured professor and he has a skill for public speaking that few can achieve.
Ages and ages ago, when I was in college, my own classics professor described the conflict in the Iliad of Agamemnon vs Achilles as “The one you see between every overbearing mediocre boss and the undisciplined brilliant employee who wants to just get on with things at his own pace”. I don’t know how well it resonated with other people, but it’s stuck with me for quite a while.
I think thats a bit of a modern perspective, I dont think we are supposed to see Agamemnon as mediocre at all.
I’m not so sure about that. I’m somewhat conflating how you see him in in the Iliad with how you see him in a bunch of the Trojan war era set Athenian tragedies, but Agamemnon often does not get a good rap even from Classical era portrayals. And he’s certainly well behind in the personal valor and virtue behind a lot of the other kings/warlords in his coalition, especially figures like Diomedes and Ajax. Furthermore, Agamemnon’s aristeia in book 11, is somewhat underwhelming compared to the others you see in the work. It ends with him being wounded and withdrawing from the field, a worse end than anyone’s except for of course Patroclus. And it coincides with one of the worst lows of Achaean fortunes, which I don’t think is an accident. He could have been written to be a lot more impressive, and I think it’s a big part of the point that he isn’t that impressive aside from being the king of the biggest city in Greece at the time.
Achilles is a bit of a diva though.
Do not leave your bawilick in the same venue as you hold forth on your expertise. Tempting as it may be, taking about something not your expertise will look as if you are invoking your credentials, and also, you may have experts in your audience who will catch you out in perhaps very basic errors.
Even on topics where you have interests as a private citizen, take care to separate them.
I have to disagree. I myself got pulled here by the “Where Does My Main Battery Go” post in 2019, which was specifically not about Romans. Stayed for the rest, obviously, but I (for one) enjoy our host’s posts on most subjects, even (especially) where I personally disagree. I would be quite disappointed if he were to limit himself to ancient Roman history where, as I understand it, his professional focus lies.
I think there’s a middle ground here, though. Our host’s (fantastic!) posts range far beyond ancient Roman history, but they do tend to stay rooted in military history (especially ancient European/Near Eastern history), military technology, and historical material culture, with forays into the academic work thereupon and fictional worlds inspired by (ancient) history. A broad bailiwick, especially compared to an academic specialization, but a bailiwick nonetheless. I was reading Mary’s comment as referring more to, say, holding forth on modern economics and astrophysics and so on in the same historical blog (or on history in an astrophysics twitter, etc, etc).
And yet, where to draw the line?
Military technology is inexorably linked to economy and politics, as well as chemistry and physics; and from military history it’s only a step to anthropology, sociology, geography and many more. A student of history will probably have interesting views on all of these, and shouldn’t be discouraged from sharing them.
Conversely, our gracious host could surely point out that “ancient Roman history” is an unforgivably wide generalization, and his actual expertise covers a much smaller slice of time, space and society, and even then what he’s actually into is an even smaller part of that. Where does one’s “expertise” turn into “amateur interest”?
My point is that everything is connected with everything, which is exactly why I come to read this historian’s take on A Game of Thrones, the Western Front and medieval poetry, as well as on Sparta, the fall of Rome, and the modern academic study of history.
And last but not least, it’s the reader’s responsibility to filter what he’s receiving. If Bret starts preaching Flat Earth or Scientology, I for one will joyfully ignore exactly all of it, and return for more Romans. As a reader, forcing this critical task onto the author is being unfair both to the author and to the rest of his audience.
Just my 2c, ignore at will 🙂
And that has been my response–ignoring it plus, TBH, occasional snark–to Bret’s (occasional) comments on contemporary politics.
I am reminded irresistibly of Gell-Mann amnesia:
An academic who wants to engage the public seriously has to sacrifice amusement as needed. Especially since nothing restricts him to the venue.
Telling the reader to be wary is an excellent way to ensure no one trusts you and so defeating your purpose. As in, leaving it worse off than when you started
It’s always the reader’s job to be wary. Anyone telling you different wants to sell you something.
I think that holds for a captive audience, but not for a truly public and general engagement effort.
In all communication contexts there’s a continuous need to persuade your audience that you are credible. When your audience is experiencing your work in a leisure-time context, that means their experience of your work is vacillating between serious and unserious; to establish common context with the audience, you must therefor perform the same movement between seriousness and unseriousness in your presentation.
That only works. You can not be otherwise unserious when you want to be taken seriously.
Thank you for an excellent article. I am an artist (an abstract nature photographer) and I have been trying to add more writing to my work for the past year — with middling results. Looking back, I realize that I had been falling into the same traps you are warning about! Even though I was trying to engage the public, I was writing “conference papers” to other artists, overburdened with clever phrasing. I was avoiding showing my enthusiasm and excitement about my art, because I worried it made me seem naive, and wanted to be seen as more serious, with “something to say”. But probably all I did was turn off all the people who *enjoyed* learning about my excitement and wanted to share in in. You have given me some lessons to think about. Thank you!
Preach, Bret, preach! Part of the reason why I left the Masters program I was pursuing was that it was hyper focused on the dry-academic musings of research psychologists rather than, you know the actual fucking work of counselling. It drove me crazy, I hated it, and the school I was at didn’t offer a more down-to-earth program.
Academia isn’t toxic, but it is far too focused on naval-gazing.
Your post did work – it just had to go through moderation first.
Its places like ACOUP or the AskHistorians subreddit that do so much to get the public into history. People LIKE history, they just need places that know how to speak to them. So often how history is taught in school tends to burn people out on it, which is a crying shame because if you can get past that there is a universe of incredible things to learn. It just has to be made fun.
I totally agree with this, although I’d add one thing as a history teacher: let’s change the way history is taught in school so that it’s not just something to “get past” but rather a way to induct students into the universe of incredible things. Of course I know that compulsory education tints everything and I’ve had my fair share of students who just aren’t having any of it, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
Yeah if America has good social studies in K-12, they don’t even need that many social elective courses in college just to be “well rounded person” or whatever it is, especially since not everyone wants to take those and almost everyone do take K-12.
100%. My daughter (now 9th grade) doesn’t get enough history for my taste and when she does, she doesn’t like it. I’m no historian but I learned and enjoyed enough that I can try to add SOMETHING to any area she’s studying. I know why there are syllabi but–in 7th grade she marched through 70? world cultures. Is this really engaging kids in our fascinating past? Not to say this as a brag but every time she was bored I was able to add a tidbit to illuminate the dry stuff. Has to be a better way.
I feel like I just read a critique on why my profession (lawyer) also sucks at engaging the public on what we do, and on everything that we do wrong when we try. Also why so many of us have problems working day-to-day with our clients. If I simply replaced all instances of “conference paper” with “brief or memo”, you would never now that the article wasn’t originally about lawyering.
Also it feels like the law is in some places purposefully obtuse, so that people are less able to understand what the hell anything actually means.
At other times, it’s so unintentionally obtuse that even its practitioners have no idea what anything means. The Rule Against Perpetuities is an infamous example.
Given the Supreme Court has ruled that a law means what any bureaucrat says even if a reasonable person could construe it otherwise (Chevron deference), quite possible.
In the interests of unmitigated pedantry, Chevron deference only applies to administrative law that a given bureaucratic has within its purview. It would apply, for instance, to IRS notions of what the tax code means or EPA notions as to what a given environmental regulation meant. It does not apply to something like general contract law or criminal law.
Worse yet, Chevron deference only applies when the bureaucrat has satisfied the fairly rigorous requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, which among other things requires responsiveness to all public comments. The alternative to Chevron is rule by courts, rather than bureaucrats. Judges are bureaucrats with fancier offices and robes.
No, the alternative is that all laws are construed against the government. The way contracts are construed against the person who wrote them.
Sometimes, entities that can afford a $300,000,000/year legal department very much want all government statutes interpreted maximally in their favor. They may be willing to pay the aforesaid $300,000,000/year legal department to find any argument with even a tissue of plausibility in an attempt to make that happen.
It is not necessarily in the public interest for these laws to be consistently construed against the government wherever possible, to the maximum extent possible.
So either we need some way to prevent anyone from employing a $300,000,000/year legal department, or we need some way for government to avoid having its entire regulatory code effectively nullified every time someone finds a sufficiently clever loophole.
Now they just get the bureaucrats to write them in a way to penalize their competition, since they have the manpower to have people monitoring the public comments without otherwise contributing.
Better that a small company have a choice.
>Now they just get the bureaucrats to
>write them in a way to penalize their
I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m not seeing how they wouldn’t just be doing this anyway regardless of legislative deference to bureaucrats.
Making it easier to shoot down a regulation with a loophole in it does not inherently advantage smaller/weaker actors over bigger/stronger ones. Nor does it give bigger/stronger actors more inherent ability to influence the bureaucracy than they would have had anyway
An absolute misreading of the court, or simply a lie in service of an agenda. This court is hellbent on eliminating any say that a bureaucracy has over anything–or that the Congress has. Also, I loathe the use of bureaucracy as a negative. Government processes and administration in the pursuit of public good aren’t always as efficient as we might like, but may I introduce you to large corporations with enormous numbers of employees dedicated to making your life worse while maximizing profit?
What is a corporation, if not a bureaucracy specifically designed for the purpose of maximizing the bank account of its owner?
Better that than the bureaucrats’ cushy jobs.
Objection, your honor, assumes facts not in evidence, namely that government bureaucracies actually pursue the public good.
Exactly. I have literally seen bureaucrats claiming that a bad regulation was the fault of businesses for not monitoring them. It’s a professional job. They should be able to work without routine supervision. And if they can’t, their bosses should provide it.
I notice you don’t explain what Chevron deference is, just claim it’s not that.
Besides, corporations can’t create laws binding on me.
I do not think it can be said, except as a wisecrack, “bureaucracies do not pursue the public good, silly.” As a wisecrack, it has that delightful power to make you chortle; the problem is that the reflexive chortle and anti-authoritarian “yeah, that’s the way it is” aren’t a substitute for nuance or accuracy.
Abolition of bureaucracy means either the abolition of the state, or the reconstruction of the state along much more primitive and personalized lines of authority. Abolition of the state or the collapse of its functions does not, as a general rule, serve the public good.
This suggests that even if the members of a state bureaucracy are also serving themselves, in many cases they continue to serve some public good by remaining on the job… Because when they all disappear, quite a few of them turn out in hindsight to have been load-bearing.
No. We can say it of corporate bureaucrats, because corporations can go bankrupt. Not of government officials who are immune.
That is silly. Very few corporations (actually none) are dedicated to making anyone’s life with profit as a side objective. They are uniformly dedicated to making profit first and foremost,
We’re sliding quite far away from the topic at hand, but you’re confusing Chevron deference (substantial) with Skidmore deference (minimal). To get Chevron deference requires notice and comment rulemaking which can be challenged in court (and frequently is, see the endless litigation on the WOTUS rule).
Wikipedia has a basic outline of how this works that isn’t perfect, but is pretty good for folks who are interested (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_administrative_law)
I know little of law, but from what i’ve been explained, the idea of these obtuse laws is that they need to be airtight. Very obscure words are needed since that word describes more precisely what the law is targeting. And some phrases are lifted from older laws since those laws have already been put to the test. So if you take some old timey english law and just change a few words to write the new law with, then you know how it will be interpreted. While if you write a new law from scratch then you might get into trouble when it is interpreted another way.
And this thread nicely demonstrates a peril of public engagement. A seemingly innocuous example brought up by Silentsword turns into a thread about … something … in US law that as an Australian I had no frickin’ idea about, and despite numerous comments I still have no interest in. What’s an academic who wants to engage the public to do?
(Some aspects of current US society are of relevance and/or interest to foreigners, it does not follow that all of them are.)
Yep. A life-saving lesson I learned VERY early in my career: no matter how intellectually pristine, argumentatively water-tight and overall academically superb your legal opinion / contract / whatever is, if it doesn’t look good and/or is incomprehensible to your client (who, more often than not, is NOT a lawyer), it’s useless.
I would also say that, at least in private practice, being overly academic is a luxury we mostly cannot afford. I’ve had my share of clients who wandered over from my (technically superior) colleagues because their advice was practically worthless…and I do expect that I lost my share of clients for the same reason too.
Law has the problem of defining common words. The classic being “knowledge”. So, it looks readable to the lay person when the lay reading makes no sense to the trained attorney. Which makes the lay reader feel cheated and condescended by the attorney.
“Malice” is another great example, especially since “Malice” not only rarely has its common meaning in a legal usage, but also means different things depending on which specific legal usage you’re using it for. “Malice” in terms of a murder charge is different from “Malice” in the case of malicious erection and both are different from the common meaning of the word.
Wow, I’m a transmission tower joiner who watches TED talks about motivation most days and I have never heard better arguments about engaging people. Being able to output this, if nothing else, shows the value of the classics.
Anyway, thought I’d pop by to ask about Decline and Fall, even though I’m a nobody: Is there going to be a discussion of what is known about how the sociolegal systems of the Empire transformed into adopting serfdom/villeinage, or if not, could you recommend an only moderately-technical book devoted to the topic?
My blog on ancient history and military history has been active since 2013, and the response from academics has been overwhelmingly positive. Even before the pandemic, I think the ship “should academics have a web presence?” had sailed when so many US academics got twitter accounts and started posting impulsive indiscreet things things under their own photo and a link to their professional page.
Speaking of which – I saw your list of female military historians of the pre-modern you put up over on your blog and I had some additions for Rome: Kate Gilliver over at Cardiff (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/73021-gilliver-kate) and Jessica Clark at FSU (https://classics.fsu.edu/jessica-h-clark) are must-adds; both work on the Roman army with substantial contributions.
Good and important to push back on the idea that military history is an ‘all-boys’ club. It isn’t and hasn’t been for a long time!
As always, love your work here Dr. Devereaux. One thing I’d add as a history teacher (secondary education), is that public engagement can flow through history classrooms that reach millions of students every year–with admittedly varying degrees of success. But one way to make that more successful–to help the school system churn out more history-appreciating citizens–is to engage with and provide resources for history teachers.
Sometimes this can happen naturally just by writing popular-facing history in general. I’ve used your tweet-thread taking down Steven Pressfield as a good example of how historians engage with evidence vs. how your typical Youtuber does (and a warning to not overindulge YouTube as an authoritative source). I’ve used sections of your Gondor series to show students how to structure arguments and use historical examples in their writing. And of course I use tons of selections from more public-facing work like that of Fleming you’re pointing out here.
But it’s always great to have a few things more closely aligned with high school-level curricular goals. For example, one key skill I need to pass on to my IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Program) History students is the ability to evaluate the perspectives of different historians. Most textbooks designed for the course offer bite-sized paragraphs showing a smidgeon of a historians’ thoughts. It’s much harder to find substantive yet manageable (~5 pages, or a typical op-ed size) arguments from historians that directly show a polite disagreement over history. There are some published collections designed toward this (like History in Dispute from St. James Press), and sometimes you can find them if you dig hard enough (like this exchange from Pipes and Garthoff on the end of the Cold War: https://doi.org/10.2307/20047196). But if we could get many more historians engaging like this with each other on the regular over a wide variety of topics, it would be swell.
Because students love to actually interact with rigorous yet manageable history. You don’t find juicy details and compelling stories in big-house textbooks that are designed to cram information. You can find them in Tony Judt’s Postwar, and other public facing history of that type. And students simply need more resources like those of SHEG (Stanford History Education Group) that do a brief dive into primary and secondary sources on various topics. The more historians can produce that kind of stuff and make accessible, the easier history teachers can use it, and the more fervent love for history students can then adopt.
In all this, it goes without mentioning that big curricula like IBDP History or AP U.S., Euro, and World History have deep flaws (sometimes almost fatal ones–looking at you AP World, since you’re high as a kite on Jared Diamond). But those curricula are also taught in the classes taken by students who naturally have the greatest love for history and therefore the greatest opportunity to dig in and become permanently history-loving citizens. The more legit historians can engage with those curricula (in spite of their flaws) and make them more real and rigorous, the better our education system will be.
It seems like there is a useful hole for something like New Zealand’s science learning hub, very compact teaching resources for a specific subject
In a here is a 1000 word summary of say Roman armor.
What is the relation between this concept of public engagement and the older tradition of the public intellectual?
In this regard, I am especially struck by the absence of any mention of *books* — the traditional bedrock of a public intellectual I would argue — in Bret’s (admirable) advice on public engagement. I suppose no one reads books anymore.
The apparent decline of the public intellectual (even in France!) has been something I have been pondering for some time. Thoughts?
A book, especially one that needs to start with the assumption that the reader knows nothing about the subject, is a significant investment of time. People only make that investment, if it is worth it to them.
Blogs, Reddit, YouTube videos, etc., require much less of an investment, which makes them useful to get people interested enough so they do go for the book(s).
How about historical fiction books such as “Accursed Kings”? Quite a thrilling ride.
I also remember a historical fiction book about Minoan civilization, by two authors, one a writer and the other an archeologist/historian. There were two main protagonists – a Minoan warrior and and a learned, homosexual Egyptian. A Hun later joined the party and one of the few things he said was “Thinking weakens a man”. Anyway, a striking point for me was that the book made tin mines in Britain a big deal (there were wars fought over them) and explained how tin was crucial for making bronze.
It was a quite unexciting book as far as action goes and it had absolutely zero supernatural elements, but I remember the foreword saying they placed emphasis on historical accuracy.
Minoan warrior, check. Homosexual Egyptian, check. Hun? Weren’t the Huns much, much later?
Hmm, you’re right. I can’t place all the historical things I remember on a timeline. I read the book a while ago.
Anyway, what I know for sure is that some of the action took place on Crete. If only there was a search engine which lets you filter books written by 2 authors…
Maybe it was a Hittite?
I went to r/whatsthatbook but they didn’t know either.
On the topic of making things interesting for your audience, I wanted to thank you something that perhaps might seem rather minor on its face: your liberal usage of italics and bolding for emphasis. Writing my PhD thesis (in astronomy) last year nearly broke me due to the requirement for academic writing to all be the equivalent of a robotic monotone: 50,000 words with nary a hint of genuine excitement or enthusiasm (how uncouth!) to be seen anywhere. Thank you for writing your posts in what feels like* a genuine conversational style with someone who is actually interested and invested in what they say and might actually raise their voice or change their tone in a discussion; it makes reading them interesting and engaging.
*As a small-time blogger/video-maker myself I’m familiar with the public-facing persona.
A few disconnected thoughts:
1. For public engagement I really wish more historians were hired on as consultants for media productions. Having someone like Bret on staff would be really helpful for a lot of stuff, as we can see in how he analyzes LotR etc.
2. The Flanders persona can work, but a lot of the stuff (including from this blog) that REALLY go viral are “angry Flanders.” Basically take someone who really loves and respects something and have them rage with righteous fury at someone besmirching the thing you like so much. ACOP’s various posts about stuff that Game of Thrones gets wrong fall into this category, same with the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla one and those were popular.
3. For amateur historians, they can often do a surprising amount of original research in areas that don’t get a lot of attention from professional historians. For example if I wanted to learn about the social history of baseball I’d go to a professional historian, if I wanted to learn about the nuts and bolts of how baseball was played differently in different eras, the rise and falls of different teams, then I’d go to an amateur historian. You get some people who just memorize REAMS to data about their interests, it’s just not the kind of data that gets published in historical research papers. Similarly as a home brewer I have a pretty good handle on how brewing works and have read a lot about professional brewing and have heard some howling ignorance about the basics of brewing by some historians who wrote entire books about brewing since they did all the research on the social and economic aspects of brewing instead of, well, the brewing aspects of brewing.
Amateur historians were the major contributors to the wargaming community in the period 1960–1990 for the development of miniatures rules and board games of all periods. The research quality was variable, but some was out standing. Scot Bowden spent time in the Napoleonic archives in Paris researching actual French unit returns for several of Napoleon’s campaigns. The information he provided had never been published before.
Yeah the same for stuff I’m more familiar with, when it comes to nailing down a lot of very specific details about how things were done amateur historians often are the ones putting in the legwork.
> 1. For public engagement I really wish more historians were hired on as consultants for media productions. Having someone like Bret on staff would be really helpful for a lot of stuff, as we can see in how he analyzes LotR etc.
I think a problem here is that people believe what they want to believe. The myth of Sparta is amazingly persistent. There’s no obvious benefit to having historian consultants in movies. You can captivate an audience with bigger explosions and charismatic actors. People will be making memes with them for decades.
Books at least have the space to explain things thoroughly.
Right, but my son wandered into the room while I was watching S8E3 of Game of Thrones with my wife and was very confused that they’d put the trebuchets in front of the infantry. Kid had learned not to do that in first grade from playing board games with me. A lot of silly shit FEELS wrong even if you don’t have the historical knowledge to know what should be there instead.
For example I really think a lot of people making fantasy TV shows and movies just don’t know what specific sort of shit should be immediately next to walled medieval cities and neither do their audience. But the lonely city in the middle of the wilderness just feels so wrong to even the casual viewer.
Hi! I love your blog and read it every week, but since you made your tone the topic of discussion I’d like to mention one thing you do sometimes that doesn’t work for me. When you discuss a siege or a battle or similar, you often preface the discussion of logistics with a request for the audience to be patient before we get to the shooting and explosions. You really needn’t do this! Your discussions of logistics and operations are fun and cool and it honestly comes off as kind of condescending when you seem to think your audience is just tolerating them waiting for the fighting to start. I enjoy them on their own merits and I think a lot of your other readers do too! (If you think I’m wrong here, feel free to ignore me; I’m not the one of us who has successfully acquired a huge audience!)
On the subject of public engagement, I wonder–I genuinely have no idea–how blog posts and twitter compare with books in terms of either people reached or financial returns. Prof. Devereux’s work here could certainly be turned into at least two sets of books: one on “how did they do it,” similar to the “Everyday Life in . . .” sort of popular history, and one on “a historian looks at,” similar to “The Physics of Star Trek” or other works of that genre. But maybe books would be less effective in either or both of the directions cited?
I think there’s two real things here:
1. Building up an audience. The blog is good for that, especially when shit goes viral.
2. Cashing in on an audience you’ve already built up. If those books were written instead of this blog nobody much would pay attention to them (probably) but if he wrote them NOW he’d have a built in audience from blog readers and would have a certain number of sales guaranteed and much more word of mouth.
I think Prof. Devereux needs an agent.
What I need is time! Please remember: I teach a full college course load, plus my research, plus this blog.
I am, in fact, currently working on a book project – but that sort of writing is the slow and careful sort.
A book for the popular market?
That will be up to the publisher, when I get a contract (not quite at that stage yet). I’d like to have it priced for normal people, but we’ll have to see.
There’s indie, but that’s an entirely different can of worms.
I’ve been binge watching Time Team over the last few weeks. Now that was public engagement,. The show is at once interesting and somehow incredibly relaxing. It teaches you to get excited over post holes and tiny bits of pottery. Samian ware? Goody! Must have been some high status Romans around here. Somewhere. Oh look! Saxon pottery! And is that crude chunk Neolithic?
Your advice seems very good, especially for historians. With regard to Classicists working with less-known authors, the best example (though in book form!) I can think of is “The Allegory of Love”. Lewis combines his obvious love and enthusiasm for several of the authors he discusses with a well-meaning effort to extract some valuable lines and concepts from the others. And that gives him the freedom to sometimes be just a bit sarcastic, as in “the universe, which has produced the bee-orchid and the giraffe, has produced nothing stranger than Martianus Capella”.
As a long time reader and someone with academia experiences, this post resonates so much.
I’m a Chinese national working on Chinese history as a graduate student in U.S.; and public engagement in our field is simply arduous. People trying public scholarship about China in a Chinese context usually ends up being examined through political lens – interpreting historical events is a very political thing in the Chinese context – and we often need to not cross certain “red lines.” Public scholarship about China in English, of course, has less red lines. Yet it is still kind of an uphill battle, as your audiences – especially audiences from popular media and online platforms – come from an entirely different cultural context, which means a lot of “translation,” both literally and metaphorically. (For instance, explaining questions like “Are Chinese people religious?” and “Did China colonize others?” would require an entire blogpost series on its own.)
Big questions aside, I really like the argument of “write to audiences, not each other.” Jargon-spamming is one of the easiest things to drive audiences away – might be good if you want to filter out a specific group of readers, not good in every other scenario. I also found that read my writings out loud can be helpful – pure academic style writings are usually unsuited for read aloud, which adds another layer of difficulty for average audiences. They often feel the scholarly language rather strange, sometimes even condescending; while a more colloquial style of language can provide a more familiar and friendly feeling.
China definitely conquered and colonized, I’m not judging, who didn’t? China has also been partially and completely conquered by n several occasions.china has a very varied and interesting history. The western perception of Chinese civilization as monolithic and unchanging is so very wrong!
There’s also the question of what your audience is. There are some VERY different audiences of amateurs who read pop-history stuff:
1. General audience. People who just know what they learned in school.
2. Dabbler. Watches some media/plays games set in history and maybe reads some historical fiction or biographies.
3. History fan. Person who consumes a lot of history material, at least some pretty much every day but really scattershot so they know a little about all kinds of things.
4. The obsessive. The person who really dives into one specific area of research and collects vast mountains to minutiae. The stereotypical example of this is the WW II guy who knows the specs of a thousand weapon systems.
There’s a few more but those are the big ones.
The sort of tone that works well for 1-2 might be off-putting for 3-4.
Of course, many 3’s are 4’s in one or two particular areas. I might be a 4 or close in certain areas of early modern social history, but a 3 everywhere else in Western history. And maybe a 1 or 2 in non-Western history, with the caveat that one doesn’t learn much of that in school anyway.
“It’s not clear to me, for instance, how co-writing as a research method makes a difference in saving the humanities one way or another.”
I wonder if the meaning /intent was co-writing of a full historian with a layperson who’s a good writer, to get around the problem you mention as “tone”: it’s good if academics are willing to do the emotional labour, but that alone does not give the talent of writing well.
Not history, but “Science of Discworld” series has two respected professors (who are good at writing for laypeople though) partnering with educated and interested in science lay-writer Pratchett, and is readable for laypeople with an interest, thus foundation, in science, while also explaining new research and conclusions as it goes.
I would like to see people with talent in writing paired up with people who have the knowledge.
In my opinion, the disregard on “public academic” is rooted in its difficulty. My experience in teaching Environmental Chemistry to (undergraduate and graduated) students without a Science background showed me two things:
1/You can not use an important communication tool: the technical terminology (a.k.a. jargon).
2/The opposite to “complex” or “advanced” knowledge is not “simple” or “easy”, but “clear”.
So you need to go back to basic and rework all the subject, with a fresh start, in order to be able to explain it with “common” words. And you have to teach it in a way easy to understand but, also, conveying the deep substrate on where you are standing.
That said, my experience with the courses I gave to students in the Humanities field were really rewarding and made me to understand better some aspects of the subject I was teaching.
I’ve been meaning to drop this in here, but there’s a relevant XKCD for everything, including this:
“It’s easy to forget that the average person probably only knows the formulas for olivine and one or two feldspars.”
I got so annoyed reading this, that if it was up to me I would fire half the classicists and historians.
Public engagement is the main reason for those faculties existences, not a side project.
I’m doing a STEM PhD, but I can concur that especially “settled” academics do not care for such worldy matters as blogs or youtube videos, independent of the impact. When I mention that I am an elected volunteer moderator on cs.stackexchange.com, a Q&A website for (non-programming) computer science, other PhD students are usually at least somewhat impressed, while the tenure trackers and tenured are mostly concerned about the time I’m wasting that I ought to be spending on my PhD. (In fact, some of my time spend on that site does in fact train my research skills and broaden my perspective on the literature. Being a moderator does not really do much for that goal, but it is a good way to ensure to garden is tend to. I am a selfish man, but I’m certainly not above helping others to achieve my own ends)
This is also the reason I do not plan to stay in academia after obtaining my doctorate: the modern academia does not seem to care about true impact, but only about gaming certain poor metrics that supposedly measure it, or simply doing research to satisfy their intellectual curiousity and that of their colleagues. (which isn’t wrong per se, at least they contribute to society by teaching people who will not become academics, but not for me)
“Likewise, if you spend your time making it clear to your audience that you kind of hate them and what they believe, you aren’t going to reach them. Especially in an online context where the audience is likely to be international, there are going to be a lot of different value systems and worldviews in your audience: if you can only communicate respectfully with people who share all of your beliefs, you will struggle to engage the public which does not live in your echo chamber.”
Take notes, political YouTube.
> There’s a sense in which all of the other content on this site – the ironworking, logistics, Lord of the Rings stuff and so on – is building up my ledger so that when I do want to make a point about the field or about contemporary events, I have that basis of expertise and frankly the forbearance of my audience to do it.
This is a common approach, but frankly, I do not think it makes much sense if you consider the logic behind it. It’s actually much like sportsmen making it into political party lists or media personalities asked for commentary on current events: being well-known and successful in one field does not mean expertise in others, nor implies moral authority, for that matter.
Similarly, if you’ll excuse a bit of ad hominem, if you’re a historian in particular field, then your opinions in that field obviously are much better-researched and thus more valuable than those of a random layman. Similarly, they’re likely to be worth more than an average person’s on the topics next to your academic area of interest, if perhaps in need of careful consideration if they contradict what the experts in these particular fields think.
But in what comes to contemporary events, your opinions are as good as mine or the next guy’s. Take for example your thoughts on the situation in Ukraine and the “””democratic””” character of its government, given the number of oppositionary TV channels it closed in the last year alone, in peacetime; the number of oppositionary parties it banned; the sort of organizations it protected under its umbrella, like battalion Tornado or the commonly known siegheil-shouting swastika-tattoed Nazi units like regiment Azov, battalion Aidar, or Riggt Sector’s Voluntary Strike Corps; the sort of investigation it gave to the massacre of Second of May; or the media coverage it gave to that massacre or the ground attack plane run on Lugansk city administration.
It is, in short, rather doubtful that your academic expertise in Ancient Roman history lends credence to your opinions on contemporary issues compared go these, say, of a random local who at least knows Ukrainian and Russian.