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.