Writing for History Buffs

Brian Taylor

July 09, 2012

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at an event sponsored by a historic site. At the organizer's request, I submitted a brief biography of my accomplishments, listed in typical academic style.

When I checked into the hotel, the clerk handed me a copy of the program. Once ensconced in my hotel room, I eagerly read the bios of the other speakers—and felt the blood drain from my face. My co-presenters were leading practitioners of public history. None of them had a Ph.D.—a fact I had noticed somewhat smugly when I had been asked to speak—but they had written books, curated exhibits seen by tens of thousands of visitors, and been invited by foreign governments to assist in major public-history projects.

Next to their bios, my own—in which I had blithely listed fellowships, obscure prizes, and an academic monograph—looked out of touch. That night, at dinner, my co-presenters teased me about how I, a Ph.D., was obviously slumming by participating in the event. But in reality, I felt hopelessly outclassed.

I don't regret my academic training, and most days, I am glad I earned a Ph.D. It has helped my career and been instrumental in enabling me to obtain promotions. But as someone who left a tenure-track job for a position as a public historian, I often feel self-conscious about my role at the nexus of academe and public history. I still struggle with remnants of the prejudices that academic historians feel toward public historians who obtained their training through apprenticeships rather than traditional doctoral programs. And I still am often surprised by how much people—those much-maligned history buffs—love history.

Contrary to what I believed when I was teaching recalcitrant 18-year-olds, most Americans do love history. They may have hated it in the classroom (which indicates that we need to rethink how we teach history), but they love it as adults.

Many of the history buffs I meet have a sophisticated understanding of the field. They intuitively grasp the idea of context, biased sources, and the difficulties and importance of recovering the voices and experiences of underrepresented groups. I know genealogists with extraordinary research skills who have spent decades traveling to archives here and abroad to understand the past. I routinely meet community organizers who display a dazzling understanding of the specific history of their region as well as its relationship to national trends and events.

But when I discuss such encounters with my academic colleagues, I often run into a brick wall. I've watched with dismay as faculty members crinkle their noses and say somewhat patronizingly, "Well, local historians really miss the big picture, don't they?" or "Genealogical research is rather pointless, isn't it?"

I am never sure how to respond to those comments—in part, because I made similar statements 15 years ago. It has taken me years to overcome my misconceptions, ingrained in graduate school, about public history. It's certainly helped that I frequently come face to face with nonacademic historians whose research skills rival and outstrip my own. And I constantly meet people—lawyers, reporters, doctors, even lobbyists—whose love of history runs as deep as mine.

My favorite example is a couple I met—a journalist and his wife—who had visited archives across the country in an attempt to understand and contextualize a 19th-century murder, and to find a family member who had disappeared from the written record. After using blood tests, letters, newspaper accounts, and photographs, and walking the sites, and reading extensively about 19th-century life, they managed to piece together a highly plausible explanation for what had occurred. As they explained how they had reached their conclusions (which were proved by blood tests), it was clear that they had a fine understanding of 19th-century hierarchies and the nature of life on the frontier in the 1870s. I jokingly told them that they should submit their work as a dissertation. They are writing a book.

Obviously, there are, and always will be, plenty of unsophisticated readers of history and people who promote bad history in the public arena. But I have become increasingly convinced that those of us with academic training shortchange ourselves professionally when we quickly dismiss the work of genealogists, community historians, journalists, and others who do research outside of academe.

In 2004, four years after I left academe, I created a Web site called Beyond Academe to encourage historians to consider careers and opportunities both in and outside of the academy. It's been satisfying to help graduate students understand their nonacademic career options. But, as I have met more and more students who cannot find, or do not want, work in academe, I've begun to wonder if I was doing enough. Most of the graduate students with whom I meet have little to no experience in writing for the general public, which means their transition from academe will be more difficult. Additionally, most have never worked with public historians.

I wasn't sure how to begin dealing with that problem until a year ago, when I watched as a good friend who is a tenure-track professor drew on her research and began writing for a blog that dealt with the culture and history of addiction. The blog, Points, features articles written by leading scholars on the topic of addiction. Because the writing in Points is so accessible, I found myself increasingly interested in a topic I hadn't given much thought to before.

I realized that I could combine my interest in helping graduate students with my interest in bridging the gap between historians. The idea: to create an online history magazine that would feature accessible articles about all sorts of historical topics, written by academic historians, public historians, and graduate students. The result is the Ultimate History Project.

I'll confess that a part of my rationale stemmed from my own desire to read about different types of history (at heart I am a generalist). But I was also driven by the desire to offer a site where historians could get experience writing for a general audience and interact with public historians and the general public. Basically, I wanted a place where historians—Ph.D.'s and non-Ph.D.'s, academics and nonacademics—could publish and promote their work, while providing an opportunity for history lovers to read widely.

If our profession is to thrive in or outside of the academy, we need to encourage and train new scholars to write accessibly. We also need to use new media to connect with the public. Fundamentally, we must provide more opportunities for graduate students to engage with the public, and we must better reward tenure-track and tenured faculty members for seeking to reach a general audience.

Developing the new magazine has been a struggle, in large part because I have a pretty demanding day job. (Fortunately, I recognized that early on and enlisted the help of two other people.) Finding historians to write for the site is a continuing challenge—especially finding people who can write about topics that academics often ignore but that history buffs love, like the history of sports or military history.

Financing the site has presented challenges as well. Call me crazy, but I think historians should be paid for their work, especially as so many of us do not hold tenure-track jobs that provide money to support our research. On the Web site, we have had fun developing products (such as T-shirts and mugs) that promote history, and we hope that their sale, along with ads, can assist us in paying for the project. The site is a collaborative, with revenue shared among the authors.

I am not sure where this endeavor will take me, and I understand that there is a lot of competition out there for Web journals. I am also keenly aware that many academics may not like—and may, in fact, actively dislike—our short, image-laden articles (especially as we remove the footnotes from the articles, following in the tradition of History Today and BBC History, two British journals that feature articles by leading historians).

But I finally feel that I am stepping into the 21st century in terms of how I interact with people who love history. That's no small feat for a historian. And the next time I have to submit a short bio about myself for a public-history event, I am looking forward to replacing that list of obscure fellowships and prizes with a reference to the Ultimate History Project.

Alexandra M. Lord is a public historian for a government agency. In her spare time, she runs both Beyond Academe, a Web site to assist historians in leaving academe, and, since April, the Ultimate History Project, a Web site that promotes historical scholarship for a general audience.