Alison Clark Efford, assistant professor of US immigration history, discusses her experiences teaching the history of German immigrants in Milwaukee to the public and shares her thoughts on the challenges academic historians face when engaging with public audiences.
Some historians spend considerable time regretting that members of our profession do not do more to reach out to the public. I must confess to finding the kvetching somewhat bewildering.
I look around and see many of my colleagues doing impressive history in public. We could start with the writing. To my eye, many historians write accessibly and sometime even powerfully. I think of all the blogging—here of course, but also on sites such as the New York Times. Check out the NYT Civil War blog, for example. And take a look at the books coming out of presses such as the University of North Carolina Press and Harvard University Press these days. You might be surprised by the work that scholars are doing to communicate to a wider audience.
I am perfectly content with the fact that we history professors also write densely footnoted tomes that sit on library shelves for years. Eventually, someone usually comes along to popularize an historian’s insight. I value the tome and appreciate the popularizer. The public depends on both for access to high-quality history. I have a personal stake in the historical profession—I love my job. Even if I did not, however, I would still want to live in a society where some people engaged in seriously researching history without thinking about book sales.