Both Eric Wittenberg and Harry Smeltzer have linked to a news item that covers a recent talk given by Civil War Times editor, Dana Shoaf. Harry noted that it appears that Dana’s talk is based on a presentation made at last summer’s meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians. After reading it I have to agree with Harry since I was also in the audience. Dana’s talk was first rate and very helpful for a group composed mainly of academic historians. Here is an excerpt that summarizes Dana’s main point:
That is what Shoaf argued for during his talk Monday, titled, “When Worlds Collide: The Problems of Academics and Popular Civil War Magazines.” “The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience,” Shoaf said. He said there is a need for factual, well-researched historical articles that are moderately priced and appeal to the masses. Shoaf said that in his business, people often are reluctant to read social history because they think it is boring. They want articles about battles, but Shoaf said they like social history if they aren’t aware that’s what they are reading.
I agree with the basic thrust of Dana’s argument, but if we are to judge where we are currently in bridging some of these divides between academic and popular audiences perhaps we should broaden our focus. Unfortunately, the ensuing discussion on Eric’s blog is focused on the question of whether to include footnotes as does/did North and South Magazine. Granted, it’s an interesting question, but that is not the point that Dana was making in his SCWH presentation, and, apparently in his recent talk. Dana believes that academic historians should be focused on reaching a broader audience and that his magazine provides the perfect venue. Well, who would disagree with that; in fact, he has done just that with CWT since taking on editorial responsibilities. I’ve already said that as soon as my subscription runs out with N&S I will be signing on with CWT.
Actually, it seems to me that academic Civil War historians are deeply involved in engaging the general public. Since moving to Charlottesville in 2000 a large number of academic historians have come through to give presentations, including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, James I. Robertson, William C. Davis, William Lee Miller, Michale Holt, Edward Ayers, and the list goes on and on. You can flip through any of the Civil War magazines and find countless programs/conferences and trips that are led by professional historians. Consider Shepherd College’s yearly Civil War conference as well as Gary Gallagher’s yearly 3-day tour sponsored by the University of Virginia. Again, the list goes on and on. You will notice that every state that has organized a Sesquicentennial Committee they have included professional historians on their advisory boards. Next week the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission will hold its first major event at the University of Richmond. This day-long series of panels will include some of the top academic historians in the field and is expected to attract upwards of 2,000 people from all over the country. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the ways in which Civil War historians are working to engage and educate the general public.
What seems to be lost in this discussion is the fact that no other group of academic historians outside of the Civil War is as involved in engaging the general public. It’s not even a close second.