130 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, January 21, 2022 (On Public Scholarship)

  1. 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

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.”

      1. 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).

    3. 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.

      1. 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.

    4. 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.

  3. M. Devereaux,

    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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. And of course you missed the best window for pivoting your whole project to a Let’s Play video channel on Twitch or Youtube.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 .

      1. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.”

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

  8. “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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    1. I think thats a bit of a modern perspective, I dont think we are supposed to see Agamemnon as mediocre at all.

      1. 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.

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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).

        1. 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 🙂

          1. And that has been my response–ignoring it plus, TBH, occasional snark–to Bret’s (occasional) comments on contemporary politics.

      2. An academic who wants to engage the public seriously has to sacrifice amusement as needed. Especially since nothing restricts him to the venue.

          1. 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

          2. It’s always the reader’s job to be wary. Anyone telling you different wants to sell you something.

        1. 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.

          1. PRESENTATION.

            That only works. You can not be otherwise unserious when you want to be taken seriously.

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

          1. No, the alternative is that all laws are construed against the government. The way contracts are construed against the person who wrote them.

          2. 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.

          3. 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.

          4. >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

        3. 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?

          1. What is a corporation, if not a bureaucracy specifically designed for the purpose of maximizing the bank account of its owner?

          2. 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.

          3. 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.

          4. 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.

          5. No. We can say it of corporate bureaucrats, because corporations can go bankrupt. Not of government officials who are immune.

          6. 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,

        4. 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)

      3. 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.

      4. 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.)

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

      1. “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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

    1. 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!

  18. 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.

    1. 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.

  19. 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?

    1. 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).

  20. 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.

      1. 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…

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  23. > 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.

    1. 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.

  24. 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!)

  25. 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?

    1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

  26. 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?

  27. 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”.

  28. 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.

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

  29. “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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.”

  32. 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.

  33. 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)

  34. “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.

  35. > 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.

Leave a Reply