Years ago, before the Internet opened the doors for real-time access to just about anyone anywhere in the world, the television historical documentary probably stood alone as the medium most likely to serve as the middle ground on which academic historians and an informed public might relate.
But any potential for a sustained conversation emerging from this medium quickly withered on the vine. In 1996, historian Gary Gallagher, writing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, noted reactions among academics, who protested the absence of issues falling outside the field of military history (such as the home front, religion, or gender themes) and the public, who focused on the military and picked nits over missing campaigns and the prominence of the eastern theater of war. The two groups could not see eye-to-eye.
But Gallagher really went after academics. They, he argued, were “content to speak to one another in a language that [excluded] anyone outside the university community…a sense of “we know best” [permeated] much of their commentary about Burns.” In short, scholars were put off by the public’s fondness for battles, generals, and narrative integrity. They wanted “real history” as defined by scholars. One might assume then, that these scholars returned to their studies and continued to ignore the public. Perhaps they proceeded with their dense works laden with esoteric language that no one ever read. Who knows?
Has anything changed? Well…there is certainly hope for a bright future. The advent of blogging and micro-blogging (i.e. Twitter) has extended the reach of those academics who are both ready to accept the literate public into their super-special club, and willing to embrace the tools that make it possible.
The limits of blogging are defined only by the limits of the blogger. Not all blogs are created equal. Academics who blog, and there are a number of first-rate bloggers, are successful precisely because of their openness, their consistency, their engagement with the commenting public (regardless of the comment) and of course, their historical content – often defined not by scholars…but by the public scholars seek to reach.
Twitter is perhaps the most powerful, but alas, most misunderstood and misused tool. Many historians, historical institutions, and lay people alike miss opportunities to create and maintain informed conversations on historical matters (in 140 characters or less – believe me…it’s possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse or at best using it as a virtual bulletin board. Granted, Twitter can be a number of things – a platform for self-indulgent narcissists with too much time on their hands, or, it can be a media dumping ground – harnessed by would-be marketers for free advertising. Both fail miserably to reach anyone. But with patience and attentiveness, Twitter can (and does) facilitate discourse between academic and academic, academic and the public, and the public with everyone.
In 2014, the University still is what it is (snicker…more on that later). For now, exclusivity reigns triumphant, and a significant number (but most certainly not all) of its scholars look condescendingly at a public who just doesn’t know any better…all the while creating more of the same. But as things change – and they always do – some academics are extending their reach beyond the hallowed halls of academia, breaking traditions, defying convention, coloring outside the lines, and (if you can believe it) functioning in the real world.
Which means the way we teach and learn history is changing too. And yes, I’ve long ago added my Twitter handle and blog addresses to my vita. You know…I am not kidding about this.