History Communication

How to Bridge Academic and Public History

BridgingDo you consider yourself an academic or a public historian? How do you bridge public and academic history?

I get asked these questions quite often. People ask via e-mail messages and when we meet in-person at seminars and conferences.

In this post, you will discover how I work in both the academic and public history disciplines.

Two Disciplines, One Historian

The simple answer to how I work in both academic and public history: I am a historian.

Intellectually, I am an interdisciplinary historian. I trained as an academic because I wanted to better understand how historians produce historical knowledge and learn how I could participate in this process.

I also have a bit of training as a public historian. I worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger for the Boston National Historical Park for five years (2001-2005). In this role, I witnessed the “David McCullough Phenomenon”: The ability to generate interest in and create advocates for history through the effective communication of history.

The challenge of trying to adapt the "McCullough Phenomenon" for scholarly history fascinates me.

My interest in the entire process of history, from knowledge creation through knowledge dissemination, means I must work in both historical disciplines. I would be dissatisfied intellectually if I had to choose between parts of the process.


4 Ways I Navigate the Worlds of Academic and Public History

1. Network. I network a lot. I attend seminars and conferences about both academic and public history. I engage fellow #Twitterstorians on Twitter, and I network through e-mail; never underestimate the power of a thoughtful reply.

Of all the networking techniques I engage in, attending seminars and conferences is the most powerful way to cultivate relationships with colleagues because interactions happen face-to-face. Additionally, seminars and conferences offer fantastic opportunities to stay abreast of new historical research and interpretive techniques.

The best way to become a part of the academic and public history communities is to know what is going on within the disciplines and to interact with your peers.


2. Participation. I participate in the processes of both history disciplines.

As an academic historian, I produce scholarship and participate in peer review. I research historical questions, analyze and interpret evidence, and I write up my findings for academic journals and (hopefully soon) book publication. I also present my work at conferences.

As a public historian, I interpret scholarly history for non-specialist or public audiences. I distill both important historical research and the historical process and convey it in blog posts, newspaper and magazine articles, and through podcast episodes. I also volunteer at public history organizations when time permits.


3. Education. I try to keep up with scholarship and happenings in both academic and public history.

At present, I subscribe to 6 different journals: The William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of the Early American Republic, Early American Studies, The Public Historian, Journal of American History, and American Historical Review.

Honestly, I lack the time to read all of these journals, but at the very least I read the table of contents for each issue and skim articles that look intriguing or helpful.

Although I am behind in reading journal articles, I am fairly up-to-date with the book historiography for early America. The interview-driven format of Ben Franklin's World ensures that I read at least one history book per week.

I also read a fair number of history blogs each morning by individual historians, historical organizations, and mainstream media.

Knowing the literature of your field, and what is going on within the disciplines, will help you learn about and become a part of the professional communities. Knowing what is going on will also help you network and participate in conversations at your next conference or seminar.


4. Combine Interests. My public history project combines my interest in academic and public history. Ben Franklin’s World is both a public and academic history communications project.

Ben Franklin's World is where I grapple and engage with the challenge of history communication. Each episode represents an attempt to answer: How can I convey history and the historical process in a way that will appeal to a public audience? I want each episode to reveal the importance of history and historians’ work.


Concluding Thoughts

I am not sure if my four techniques will work for everyone, but this is how I bridge the disciplines.

A Note of Caution: If you have the same interdisciplinary historical inclinations that I have, you may find it difficult to find a job with an institution or organization. It has been my experience that both academic and public history organizations want their faculty and staff to focus on one aspect of the discipline. This is why I created my own job.

With that said, both disciplines are changing. In the future, we may see academic training include aspects of public history and public history training include aspects of academic history. It’s an exciting time to be a historian regardless of whether you prefer one side of the discipline to the other or, like me, enjoy them both.


Ben Franklin's World Partners with Omohundro Institute

Ben Franklin's World has its first sponsor and partner: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture! Together we are producing "Doing History," a 12-episode series that will answer listener questions about the work historians do and serve as an educational resource for those who teach history.

I am really excited about this series and to work with the folks at the OI.

You can read the official announcement on the Omohundro Institute website.

bfworld-oi partners

Historian  SOS

The partnership between the Omohundro Institute and Ben Franklin's World came about because I asked for help.

When I launched Ben Franklin's World in October 2014, I thought I had considered every aspect of the show: I knew how I would record the show; why I would hire a sound engineer; why I would host my audio files with Libsyn instead of Soundcloud; how long my episodes would be; why my in-show music would be Bach; why my website had to be designed to host a podcast; and why I wanted to call the show Ben Franklin's World.

What I never considered was what I would do when the show became successful:

  • How do I choose books to feature on the show when everything publishers send would appeal to my listeners?
  • What should I say to those with unrelated services or products who wanted to sponsor Ben Franklin's World or who invited the show to join their non-history podcast network?
  • And the most scary (for me) aspect of all: How do I say "no" to colleagues I can't feature on the show?

All of these scenarios came up and they began to appear in April 2015, six months after launch.


The Omohundro Institute: A Resource for Historians

At first, I handled these situations by not handling them. I sent ambiguous replies to all queries because I had no idea what to do. There was no "History Business" course in grad school and the advice my fellow podcasters gave never seemed to fit my situation.

In June, it occurred to me that I should reach out to the only historian who I had ever heard speak about the business side of the profession: Karin Wulf, Director of the Omohundro Institute.

At the time, my e-mail to Karin felt like a "Hail Mary" pass. Our interactions consisted of my asking questions at three talks she gave in Boston between 2011 and 2012. I knew her leadership position at the OI kept her busy. But, I also knew that if anyone could answer my questions it would be her or someone from her organization.

Karin answered my e-mail within a few days. She was familiar with Ben Franklin's World and eager to share her knowledge about the business side of the historical profession.

Our conversations turned into an invitation to visit the Omohundro Institute in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over two days, I exchanged questions, ideas, workflows, and processes with Institute historians and staff. Essentially, they provided me with crash course in how to operate a media business within the world of scholarly history.

My visit and talks with the OI also proved enlightening. I knew the Institute published well-researched early American history books and The William and Mary Quarterly. I also knew they offered a two-year postdoc. But, I did not know the full-scale of the resources the Institute offers early American history scholars: colloquia, non-dissertation fellowships and support, and workshops.


The Partnership

In late November, Karin inquired whether a sponsorship/partnership between the Omohundro Institute and Ben Franklin's World would be possible. The venture would allow me to make use of Institute knowledge and resources, the Institute to introduce its role in early American scholarship to my audience, and for us both to produce a valuable educational resource that will communicate what historians do and how we do it to the world.

"Doing History" with the Omohundro Institute in this way made sense. We are going to create and provide value to my audience, educators, and the profession.

I am really excited to partner with them and I can't wait to share the episodes we produce over the next twelve months.

The Doing History series launches on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. You can check it out by visiting the Ben Franklin's World website or the Doing History page on the OI website.