Should Academic Historians Engage the General Public?

Update: Check out Brooks Simpson’s post on the subject.  As far as I am concerned, nothing more needs to be said.

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.

20 comments… add one
  • Woodrowfan Apr 24, 2009 @ 10:09

    FYI, I’ve written a few magazine articles (OK, more than a dozen) on a particular historical topic for a popular audience. I’ve been advised NOT to put them on my CV. Because they are on a “popular” subject and written for a popular hobby magazine they would make me look frivolous to a search committee. They’re a “hobby” and nothing more..

    Granted, they’re on a topic less serious than the Civil War, but they’re still an interesting (IMHO) social history.

  • Paul Reber Apr 23, 2009 @ 8:31


    You may recall that I was part of that panel with Dana at the SCWH conference and made a similar observation about academic historians and the public. As an early American historian, however, I come at this from a different perspective. Aside from the work of David McCullough and Daid Hackett Fischer and perhaps a few others, there are very few early American historians that seem to even being trying to write for a popular audience. Before I attended this conference I had not paid much attention to the Civil War historiographical debates since grad school, but I was struck by how accessible they are. Anyone who has a passing undertstanding of the literature could probably be engaged right away. I couldn’t even tell you what the major debates are in early American history, and I read the stuff all the time. At the Civil War history conference Peter Carmichael helped organize for us here at Stratford Hall this past January, the majority of the audience were non-academics. It is hard to imagine an early American history conference attracting that kind of audience. So sure, Dana is right, it would be good to reach out more to a non-academic audience. But compared to other fields, Civil War historians are way ahead of the game.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 23, 2009 @ 7:41

    Thanks, Ken. Have a good day. And thank you for all of the work you have done, and continue to do, to engage and educate the public. It has not gone unnoticed by this reader. Sherree

  • Ken Noe Apr 23, 2009 @ 7:12

    Sheree: No harm done or personal criticism intended, I assure you. –Ken

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 23, 2009 @ 6:21


    I understand. I didn’t mean to bring you into the discussion. I just like what you said. I thought it was insightful. I did not know that this was an ongoing debate. I will just roll on back down the hill now. Sherree

  • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2009 @ 6:11


    As always, I appreciate you taking the time to add your voice to this discussion. I know it’s frustrating and part of an endless Online loop, and unlikely to alter the positions of many who need to believe certain things about academics as a means to reinforce their broader cultural outlook.

  • Ken Noe Apr 23, 2009 @ 5:31

    Frankly, Sheree, I had fully intended to stay clear of this discussion, as I’ve grown frustrated with and weary of the topic. Year after year this issue flares up online all over again, and I always end up feeling like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill in Hades. No matter what a lot of us do to reach out beyond the university,(1) that rock rolls back down the virtual hill again. Once on “Civil Warriors” I wondered, what else do I have to do, donate a kidney? Would it even matter? I begin to think it wouldn’t. To some folks in the blogosphere, based on a recent perusal anyway, the straw man of the socialist, jargon-spouting snob-professor disdaining the grubby masses is far more useful, profitable, and comforting than actual reality. Which is to say, Sherree, I think the debate does begin to grow a tad one-sided after all.

    (1) . My “resume” or “c.v.” is online here if anyone wants to look at my record of outreach. It doesn’t include my recent trips to Seattle and the Chicago suburbs. I thought a few of Eric’s readers might like a footnote, though. 😉 But seriously, the big reason that academics often don’t publish in venues like CWT is simply that we need footnoted, peer-reviewed articles for tenure and promotion. With all that at stake, where would you publish first?

  • Adam Arenson Apr 23, 2009 @ 4:55

    I think bridging the gap between academic and popular understandings is so important in Civil War history because it is so possible, where in other fields academic interests and public enthusiasm are even further apart.

    As scholars, we can choose topics that have more or less popular interest. In my work, I’ve tried to bring scholarly approaches to popular topics. My current undergraduate course, “Civil War Battlefields,” focus on the setting that garners the most public attention. But then we’ve read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, Jim Week’s book on memory and commerce at Gettysburg, and Kirk Savage’s classic look at the iconography of Civil War statuary, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. I’m guiding my students to consider how the scholarly concerns about the Civil War — the mechanics of slavery’s end, the nature of American racism and memory, etc. — can be traced on that same ground.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 23, 2009 @ 2:06


    I am trying to situate myself for a comment. I guess I fall into the category of the huddled “masses”, lol.

    Seriously, building on Brooks’ comment, academics are damned if they interact with the public and damned if they don’t. He is right. The “public” is also damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, at times, too. I think that Ken Noe got it right in a comment to an earlier post on your blog on this subject. (I am not speaking for Ken, of course. As far as I know, Ken doesn’t agree with a thing I say. This is just my interpretation of what he said in the quote that I will include.) Members of the academic community and members of the public at large can learn from one another. It is a two way street. This cannot happen as long as labels are attached, or misguided preconceptions held, however–ie “PC, “liberal elite”, whatever, when it comes to academics; or, the huddled masses, mythology induced zombie Neanderthal throwbacks, whatever, when it comes to the general public. (I am intentionally exaggerating for effect. Smiley face here)

    Ken says it better. Here is the quote:

    “But it’s not all one-sided. I know quite a few academics who hold a great deal of disdain toward ‘buffs’ as well as people like me who ‘pander’ to them by ‘popularizing’ history. A couple of my colleagues remain appalled that I ‘abandoned’ social history for a battle. Ultimately, I still agree with McPherson: academics and non-academics are both responsible for the bifurcated nature of Civil War, both have a lot to offer each other, and it’s time we do so.”

    Again, I am not presuming to speak for Ken, and hope that he does not mind that I included the quote. I just agree with what I perceive to be the meaning of that statement. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Michael Lynch Apr 22, 2009 @ 18:08

    I’d agree that ACW historians seem to be more conscious of the public aspects of history than their colleagues working in other areas. I suspect that historians in other fields would also take their work public if it generated as much interest as the ACW does.


  • rhapsodyinbooks Apr 22, 2009 @ 16:42

    Do academics get out among the re-enactors? Or, another way of asking the question is, what kind of people come to academic presentations? One thing I’m sure everyone has noticed with the internet is that now we can isolate ourselves more and more from information with which we do not agree or even, of which we are not aware. There are many people out there who grew up on the mythology, but realistically, is there any way for them to get other information? Also, I *think* that ideas like “manipulation of the visual landscape” require a bit of previous academic exposure. So I guess what I’m saying is, is an affirmative answer to your question realistic?

  • Eric Wittenberg Apr 22, 2009 @ 15:43

    Unfortunately, the thread of comments took off on a tangent as a consequence of the off-handed remark I made about Dana’s magazines. I regret that, as I agree that it misses the point.

    Most of the academic historians that I know–Brooks, Ken Noe, Mark Grimsley, Brian Dirck, Matt Pinsker, Mark Snell, Pete Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, and others–do a great job of engaging with the public. If you’ve never had the opportunity to walk a battlefield or share a lecture podium with one of them, you’re missing something. I agree with Dana that his magazines offer an opportunity to “evangelize” the Civil War, and I wish that more of the name academic historians availed themselves of that opportunity–it would only make those magazines better.

    That, I think, was Dana’s point, and it’s well-taken.


  • Dana Shoaf Apr 22, 2009 @ 15:24

    Hello all,
    Good comments! I do agree that many CW historians do an outstanding job in working with the general public. I mentioned that in my talk, but I believe the reporter had left by then. I can say for sure, however, as I’ve been involved with America’s Civil War magazine for about 10 years, and have followed Civil War Times closely for the same amount of time, that I can go back through issue after issue and not find one scholar on the table of contents. I’ve been working hard to change that for that entire time, and I think it is paying off. It’s the dominoe effect–get some scholars to contribute and others will follow.

    I am still, however, shocked by the apathy of some university presses toward my magazine. One more than once occasion, I have left messages with presses concerning my interest in publishing an excerpt of a new book and never heard back.

    Also conferences and battlefield tours are invaluable teaching tools, and certainly help reach a wider audience, but I think that information can be fleeting. Out of the attendees mind a month after the conference. The written word, I like to think, sticks a bit better, and I can think of many historians who give tours who have told me they are too busy to publish an article.

    And trust me, there are thousands of people out there harboring notions of the Civil War and its figures that were formulated in the 1960s. When we hit the 150th, I think you’ll see that as conflicts and protests arrive over how we remember the Civil War in the 21st century.

    But to those of you who venture into any form of public arena–my hat is off to you!

  • Larry Cebula Apr 22, 2009 @ 14:03

    “They want articles about battles, but Shoaf said they like social history if they aren’t aware that’s what they are reading.”

    Like folk music!

    Seriously of course we academic historians should engage the public, and most do. There may be proportionately more CW historians doing so due to public interest, but plenty of other historians have a public profile, from Jill Lepore to Richard White. In fact I think the public engagement of my discipline has increased markedly in the last decade. This is due to the Teaching American History grants, (slowly) expanding definitions of what counts for tenure, digital projects from blogs to big projects like Valley of the Shadow, and a healthy presence of history books (about half of them written by academics) on best seller lists.

    I think this is an imagined problem.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2009 @ 14:07


      That’s exactly what I meant in saying that I was just scratching the surface. Let’s throw in the OAH’s Magazine of History as well as there very active list of speakers who routinely speak in high school classrooms. You are also correct in pointing out that this is “an imagined problem.”

  • James Bartek Apr 22, 2009 @ 13:08

    I think part of the problem is one of demand. It’s not that other academics are reluctant to engage the public (though some are), it’s that no one really wants to listen. Military history and Civil War history, in particular, have ready-made audiences, as does anything having to do with Lincoln. More so, even, with the upcoming 150th. Muscovite Russia, not so much. East Asia, maybe. As long as it has something to do with Japan, kamikaze pilots, atomic bombs, or WWII in general.

    Then again, I think it’s too easy to blame “the public” (whatever that means) for their supposed lack of scholarly interest. Shoaf is certainly on to something with his comment about how people enjoy social history as long as they don’t know that’s what they’re reading. Kinda like hiding the vegetables under a mountain of cheese. I remember being at conference and listening to a grad student present a paper on the bonding of African-American soldiers in Vietnam. An audience member (a vet) took exception when the commentator referred to it as a “gender study.” The nerve! When said commentator clarified that it was, in fact, a study on the construct of masculine identity in war, well, that was ok.

  • Harry Apr 22, 2009 @ 13:04


    This is the point that I made in my comment on Eric’s post, that the commenters were missing the point of the article and of Dana’s talk. It think it fell on deaf ears (eyes), and that’s probably my fault.


    • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2009 @ 13:06


      Well, that’s a function of a blog’s comments section. Comment threads have a habit of taking on a life of their own; they are unpredictable.

  • Brooks Simpson Apr 22, 2009 @ 11:27

    Actaully, Civil War historians in the academy are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It’s as simple as that. We are the targets of reverse snobbery from some people in the non-academic wing (by no means all, but some), while our colleagues tend to look down their noses at us as popularizers playing to the masses and not doing “real” scholarship. So we are resented by a portion of the very audience that we are also accused of pandering to.

    Note … I don’t get this sort of flak from people who identify me as a political historian who does presidents and the Civil War AND Reconstruction. However, that also means that I get some grief from certain Civil War historians for not being “military” enough.

    So … you can’t please everyone, so make sure you please yourself. 🙂 (paraphrasing Ricky Nelson)

    • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2009 @ 12:57


      You make an excellent point. What is surprising is that more people don’t hold up people like you and other (referenced in the post) as a model of how to go about engaging the general public. In the end, most of the criticisms from outside the academy are a reflection of their own misconceptions and insecurities.

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