Historical Schizophrenia: Academic and Public History

Logo of the SmithsonianGenerally speaking, academic historians and public historians approach the past from two different vantage points. For historians, a productive career has traditionally revolved around producing monographs and engaging with other professional historians on the fine points of interpretation, theory, and effective arguments.  Public historians, on the other hand, do their work with a different audience in mind: they serve all sorts of folks, from professors to school children, researchers to vacationers, and history buffs to park visitors.

Yet these two worlds often overlap. Even the most isolated academics usually teach at least a minimal course load, requiring them to transition to a more popular audience. For those of us who teach at small colleges and universities, where teaching is our primary responsibility, we may more often than not feel more like public historians than pure academics. Our days are spent in class with undergraduates, many of whom are only there because of curriculum requirements, and we must find ways to make studying the past engaging while we also seek to accommodate to educational state standards, handle the piles of grading, and keep up on advising.

Sometimes, however, the public and academic worlds of history overlap in even more tangible ways – as it is increasingly for me. The history department where I teach has recently been given responsibility for an on-campus museum of local history, with myself as the primary administrator. There have been rough spots in the transition as we work on branding, a website (to be rolled out shortly), volunteers, finances, and all the other components necessary. In short, I’m spending a whole lot of energy on efforts that have little legitimacy in the world of the academy. Rather than working on a new (or rather my first) monograph, I’m wondering how school kids might be reached. Rather than heading off to yet another professional conference, I’m putting together administrative procedures, processing archival collections, and wrestling with marketing decisions.

One could argue that such pursuits are pulling me off course… that they are distracting me from the loftier pursuits of the academic life. And no doubt there is some truth to this.

Yet having a foot in both academic and public worlds also allows me to dive into some fascinating archival materials that might well result in a future monograph, or at least open up a new area of specialization. And perhaps most importantly, public history allows for new avenues of service to those around me, my institution, and the broader community. Still, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit schizophrenic as I keenly sense the competing goals of these two approaches to history, while not always knowing where my allegiance falls.

Screen capture of C-SPAN panel on "Historians and History Museums"

This is not the first time I’ve bumped into these tensions. We addressed this to some degree at the student portion of the last Conference on Faith and History meeting, for which I helped to organize the program. Its also a focus of this year’s upcoming CFH meeting at Pepperdine University, which is themed around the various “publics” with which historians engage. I was also intrigued not long ago when I noticed a televised broadcast of an AHA panel on C-SPAN aptly called “Historians and History Museums.” The panel was moderated by Stephen Aron, who has dual appointments teaching history at UCLA and directing the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry National Center. The panel discussion was fascinating and you can give it a look here.

I’d be interested to hear what others might have to say about the relationship between academic and public history and the difficulties, rewards, and professional merits of living in both worlds. Thoughts?

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