Doing History in Public

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.

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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.

Those of us writing the tomes venture out of the classroom too. My own venturing has included leading tours for Doors Open Milwaukee, an event that opens buildings around the city to the public and includes walking tours and lectures. Marquette University historians Steven Avella and Thomas Jablonsky have also participated.

My own objective with Doors Open has been to disabuse visitors of the idea that German Milwaukeeans were a persecuted minority. Although prohibition and WWI did eventually intrude from outside, these developments did little to diminish the immigrants’ overall influence. I focus on the political, economic, and religious differences within the German-speaking community. I see lessons in the workings of power and identity in urban spaces.

It is easy to feel defensive. I worry that my interests bore the people who sign up for the Doors Open tour. I sense that some people only want to hear humorous or curious factoids. Although German immigrants seem to have gone out of their way to provide plenty of both, and I love to recount them, they were never the point of my doctoral training.

Perhaps the debates that surround public history stem from historians’ fear that other people do not value the pursuits to which we commit our lives. Defensiveness generates resistance, and resistance provokes kvetching.

The tension between academic and popular history remains, and I propose that maybe it should, but I believe it can be an exciting and productive one. The people who attend Doors Open seem to get something from the experience, and I always learn tidbits of local history that illuminate the significance of the past to the city today.

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