Digital Media and the Future of the Historical Profession

Digital MediaIt’s August and I’ve somehow found myself with 7, straight weeks at home. It’s the first time I’ve been home for a full month this year. (Hence why this blog has been a bit of a ghost town.) Since January, I’ve been on a type of “history podcast tour.” Historians & history lovers have become fascinated with Ben Franklin’s World and its success, and they want to know more about the show, how I produce it, and the role podcasts and other digital media will play in the future of historical scholarship. As such, I’ve spoken at a lot of conferences and sat for interviews for podcasts, blogs, and radio.

I’ve participated in a lot of conversations about podcasting, historical scholarship, and the historical profession over the last 7 months. It’s been a lot of fun and these experiences have revealed several key questions people have about these topics:

1. What is the role of podcasts and other digital media in the future of historical scholarship?

2. What has the impact of Ben Franklin’s World been on furthering historians’ ideas about history?

3. How are you making a living podcasting/what are you doing with your career?

I’ve heard these questions enough that a couple of blog posts with answers seem like a good idea. In this post, I’ll answer the first two questions. In a second post, I’ll answer “how are you making a living/what are you doing with your career?”


What is the role of podcasts and other digital media in the future of historical scholarship?

When most historians ask this question, what they really want to know is: do podcasts and digital media compete with traditional books and articles?

My answer: No.

Digital media such as podcasts, blog posts, and digital videos complement traditional history books and articles. They also complement museum exhibits and historic sites.

The 21st-century is a mobile age. We live on our smartphones and time has become our most valuable resource because our ability to connect to the internet and with people anytime, anywhere has drastically multiplied the demands on our time. This doesn’t mean that people dislike reading books or visiting museums. It means they have less time (or feel like they have less time) to devote to those activities. As a result, they want to know that they are going to enjoy something and benefit from an experience before they invest time and money into having an experience.

This is where digital media complements traditional books, articles, and exhibits. High-quality, well-researched, and well-produced scholarship is still very important and the need for it is not diminishing. However, this scholarship suffers from a discoverability problem.

For example, Barnes & Noble doesn’t stock books from most academic publishers. They sell end cap and prime sales space to big, for-profit publishers with deep pockets. What books are those big publishers putting into those visible spaces? Usually those by “Fox News Historians” and journalists with large platforms. This means that many high-quality, fascinating history books by top-notch scholars go unstocked by bookstores and unnoticed by people who would be very interested in them, if they knew they existed.

Digital media such as blog posts, podcasts, and video create awareness. They allow potential readers to know that there are great history books and articles available and where they can find them. Digital media also provides easy and convenient ways for potential readers to get a feel for the author, the history they are conveying, and the quality and depth of the historian's research before they invest time and energy into finding a particular book, or article, and reading it.

I’ve found podcasts to be the best digital media for creating broad awareness because it’s presently the perfect digital media for our mobile age. You can listen to podcasts whenever and wherever you want to, which makes them appealing and fun fillers of commuting/exercise/dog walking/cooking/cleaning/waiting time. Plus the intimacy of the medium allows listeners to feel like they have a bond with their favorite hosts and guests.

This is why listeners repeatedly tell me that I’m costing them a fortune. They buy the history books and visit the historic sites they hear about on Ben Franklin's World because they get a great preview of what they will see, learn, and of the personalities and processes of the historians who authored the books or exhibits.

My prediction for the future: Colleges and universities will create and add digital media programs to both undergraduate and graduate curriculums in academic and public history specialties. Departments will find this profitable in the sense that faculty and student-produced media will create awareness about their programs and the work of their faculty and students and in the sense that these programs will teach students tangible, technical communications skills that companies (and corporatized colleges and universities) desire.


What has the impact of Ben Franklin’s World been on furthering historians’ ideas about history?

Statistical Measurement: Downloads have risen from 288 in October 2014 to an average of almost 69,000 per month in 2016. In a survey I conducted in late 2015, 41 percent of the Ben Franklin's World audience reported that they had purchased a book or visited a historic site as a result of the show.

Objective Measurement: I receive e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages from listeners on a daily basis that contain questions about history, topics for future shows, and that both thank me for introducing them to a book or exhibit of great interest to them and curse me because they now spend too much money on history books. Similarly, listeners reach out to show guests too. Listeners ask guests further questions about their work and attend guest talks.


Parting Thoughts

Historians should embrace rather than fear digital media. Digital media is, and will, play a big role in keeping traditional historical scholarship alive and well and in reversing the downward trend in major and course enrollment numbers. Plus, digital media offers historians new ways to practice historical scholarship. More options breed creativity and innovation, which every profession needs if it wants to stay healthy and relevant.


How to Publish Articles in an Academic Journal

Last week, I attended a talk given by Chris Grasso and Karin Wulf about how to publish articles in academic journal. Grasso and Wulf serve respectively as the Editor and Book Review Editor for The William and Mary Quarterly. Their helpful presentation really shed light on what goes on behind the scenes at a peer-reviewed journal. In this post I will recap Grasso's advice for submitting a scholarly journal article. I will reserve Wulf's pointers for book reviews for my next post. Grasso outlined the general procedure for publishing in a scholarly journal and specified when the process at the WMQ differed from other journals. In general, the author submits an article to a journal. The journal editor then reads the submission and considers whether or not their journal would publish on the proposed topic. If the editor believes that the proffered topic could be a good fit for their journal they arrange to send the submission on to the next round: peer review. Editors ask scholars with expertise in the tendered subject matter to review the piece. The number of reviewers depends on the journal. The WMQ uses 3-5 referees and asks them to complete their review within 6-8 weeks. Grasso mentioned that all referees take their job seriously and spend hours looking over and commenting on a piece; journals do not pay referees for their time. With that said, he mentioned that some scholars can be severe critics, but if authors can take the criticism, they will find that they can use even the harshest feedback to their advantage as they revise and resubmit their work. Once the editor receives feedback from all the referees, they decide whether or not to publish the article, reject it, or offer the author the opportunity to revise and resubmit. Grasso stressed that referees do not "cast a vote" as to whether or not an article should be published, that decision lies solely with the editor. Editors base their decision on whether or not they agree with the referees' feedback.

Before giving the article and his decision back to the author, Grasso reads and distills the referees' feedback so he can tell the author exactly what they need to revise in order to publish in the WMQ. He feels that this guidance is important, especially as the WMQ allows authors to revise and resubmit only once. Grasso mentioned that The William and Mary Quarterly receives about 100 submissions a year, that 50-75 percent of the submissions move on to the peer review process, and of those he publishes about 12 percent. Of course, this last number depends on how many authors revise and resubmit their pieces to the journal. Grasso aims to keep the initial review process to 3 months, but it can take up to 4 or 5 months. Once accepted, The William and Mary Quarterly moves fast and authors can expect to see their work in print within about 6 months.

Grasso also provided useful advice for submitting scholarly articles. First, authors need to read and conform to the submission guidelines for their chosen journal. Second, if authors receive a revise and resubmit decision and remain unclear about what they need to revise for publication, they should email the editor and ask for clarification. Grasso warned that asking for clarification does not mean that authors should ask editors to review their revision plan; most editors have too much to do to read revision proposals.