[Cross posted at Birmingham “On War”]
This originally started out as a reply to James Daly’s post ‘Why we write?’, however, as it grew in length I decided to post it here. Of course I have taken issue with one aspect of James’ post, however, it is an important issue that I think we, and by that I mean academics, need to engage with.
I tend to agree with most of the categories that James produced, however, I would suggest the following is a little harsh. It lacks an understanding of the context in which academics work, and the impact their work actually has:
To win yourself brownie points with other academics
And I think that’s a very important point – historians tend to write just for each other. No wonder much popular history ends up being rubbish – gifted historians tend to concentrate too much on academic journals, that only academics read. Is anything you write in a journal article really likely to change the world? Is it going to convince a 15 year old to choose a career as a historian? No, I don’t think so either. I know of more than one critically acclaimed history book that has actually sold pitifully few numbers. Whatever you write, or how important you think it is, if no-one reads it, what difference does it make?
Academics do not, as a rule write to win brownie points. I am an academic historian, albeit at the early stages of my career, and I do not write to make ‘friends’ with other academics. Indeed my work may actually ruffle some feathers. However, we do write for a specific audience. It is all to do with the issue of impact and who our market is. The impact that academic history has, is that it can, and does, have an impact on policy making in this country. This is especially true of academic military historians. One only has to look at the work of Professor Hew Strachan to see the influence that an academic historian can have. Plenty of them affect policy in one way or another. They also shape the minds of the future military leaders of this country through teaching at places such as the Joint Services Command Staff College.
The crux of the problem is the relationship between academic and public history. The core issue is what does the public want to hear from historians. The sad truth is that I have found they want to hear the same outdated historical mythology. I am of course generalising a bit, but to give you an example from my own work, and one I often use when talking about cultural memory, is of the statue of Keith Park on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and the fact that we would never see a statue of Trafford Leigh-Mallory on it would we? This is because he is the villain in the historical narrative. However, the archival evidence would suggest otherwise. Yes, he had ideas, and yes, the relationship between him and Park broke down. However, this does not mean he was a villain. However, the portrayal of him since the end of the Second World War has shaped our view of him, and any attempt to resurrect his reputation is unlikely to be well received by the public who view of him have been shaped by films such as The Battle of Britain. In addition, terms such as revisionism are dirty words, or at least that is what we are led to believe.
This of course raises the issue of how academics can influence the public view of a given person or event. I suspect we have to live in the vain hope that people eventually read our work, and that it slowly gains some degree of acceptance in the popular sphere. However, one other way is by engagement. Should academic historians attempt to engage with the public? The answer is an obvious yes. Does it happen? Yes and no, it is uneven, and from what I can tell it is depends on specialisation. From my own experience, there are some historians who prefer their academic ivory tower. However, I would suggest this is not the case with military historians. Indeed, we have seen this happen concerning First World War historians. Thanks to the work of some influential academics we have now reached a point where the simplistic ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ epitaph does not have the grasp on the public imagination that it once did, though there are still vestiges of this still around as I am sure the centenary of the outbreak of the war will prove. Nevertheless, the problem is how to get ideas across. While I have suggested, and indeed as Thomas Rid quite clearly showed over on Kings of War, that blogging is a useful form of public engagement, which is often more widely read than an academic journal, there is the issue of time. This type of activity is undertaken outside of contracted hours for a practicing academic. While this may seem short-sighted on the part of any given institution, it is the context of academic life, as it does not bring any funding in, though it may bring a degree of kudos if done well. Indeed, this post is some 1500 words longs. That could quite easily have been added to my thesis, or several academic articles, which are what is going to get me that much-vaunted job! Of course, there are other forms of engagement but they all cost time and are often not covered by the day job. In an ideal world, this would not be the case but it is. Academics could publish with more popular presses, which are cheaper and reach a much wider audience. However, again this has issues, especially for the budding young career academic. In order to get a job these days it seems that we must publish with an academic press. This means, for example, that my own work will be sent to someone like Cambridge University Press in order to have the prestige that will allow me to pursue the career I want. It is a sad state of affairs but again it is how the system works and unless there is a wholesale change in the strategic culture of universities, it is not going to change very soon. This does explain to some degree why we publish with whom we do. However, as I noted above it does hopefully feed into other works as those who are keen to engage with academics, as it is a reciprocal relationship, do so, and bring our views to a wider audience. Of course, as you become more widely known the public the opportunity to engage with more popular publishing houses does emerge and I would suggest this is a good route to pursue but it is not one for an early career scholar.
However, while the idea of engagement and writing for more popular presses etc is a good idea there are some very real stresses and strains for the academic historian. First, time available to spend on the project, for example, academics do have other work commitments such as teaching, marking and supervision. Second, the availability of research funding; this is currently very limited, and highly competitive as I can attest to. Third, language and travel barriers, which can sometimes bar access to certain archives. Fourth, deadlines; imposed by publisher or university. It appears to be the case that there is an expectation that academics produce so much work in a given cycle of the Research Excellence Framework; the research framework on which universities are graded. Linked to this is the issue of publishing articles in reputable journals etc that have impact. Finally, word limits; imposed by publisher and defined by the intended product e.g. monograph, article etc. While some of these issues can be transplanted to the budding amateur historian it is the combination of them in the academic environment that can influence how and what we publish, never mind whom we publish with.
Now as anyone who knows me will attest to I am being contentious and controversial but there is more to understand here, and I would suggest that a good academic historian tries to have an eye to both sides of what is in effect the same coin. However, as much as we must understand the context of what we write about we must also understand the context in which the work is produced. Academics must continue to produce high quality and groundbreaking research. This is how a subject evolves. However, we must also attempt to inform the public about our research in the hope that we can reshape outdated and misinformed views of the past.
I hope that answers some of James questions…and probably created a few more!