Humanities in the Public Square
How to bring history to the masses—and why it matters
Humanities scholarship in the academy has become increasingly sophisticated and complex. Recent grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities demonstrate how new approaches to race, colonialism, capitalism, and democracy have enriched the field. Scholars have also focused their attention on long-neglected parts of the globe and understudied communities. Unfortunately, though, little of this innovative scholarship has made an impact beyond the academy. And when it has—such as the recent heated debates over critical race theory—it has been widely misunderstood and misappropriated.
But at a time when duplicitous politicians and agitators, aided by pliable social media networks, are spreading misinformation and lies about elections, vaccines, and even their own résumés, the most important attributes of the humanities—critical thinking, persuasive argumentation, close reading, creative problem solving, collaborative decision making, and cultural understanding—are urgently needed. When humanities scholarship reaches the broader public, it can help counter false narratives with thoughtful and informed discourse.
In particular, the expertise of historians, who have thought carefully and systematically about the meaning of history and remembrance, can help shape the debates over and outcomes of contentious issues, such as what to do about divisive public monuments and memorials and how to grapple with the fragility of American democracy in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Historians also have much needed perspective to add to the public discourse around the global pandemic, the misinformation about the 2020 US presidential election, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and a host of other urgent societal issues. So how can historians and other humanities scholars, as specialists in their fields, do a better job of bringing their work and insights to audiences beyond the halls of academe? Here are some ideas.
In an admirable effort to engage people outside campuses, many scholars and institutions are embracing “public-facing scholarship,” a term that encompasses any attempt to communicate the significance of academic research to broad audiences. For example, the Washington Post’s new “Made by History” section, in which academic historians provide context and analyses about current events, is an effective response to the need to bring academic scholarship into the public realm.
Other initiatives are occurring within and emanating from academic institutions themselves. The University of Michigan’s Department of History, where I work, offers public engagement training for graduate students through skills workshops and alumni networking. The department also produces the podcast Reverb Effect, which distills the work of graduate students and faculty for general audiences. In addition, we are revising tenure and promotion guidelines to acknowledge the professional work faculty do to reach audiences outside the academy such as museum advising and curating, website development, and K–12 curriculum building. Another initiative, U-M HistoryLabs, brings together faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to collaborate on long-term digital humanities and multimedia projects aimed at diverse public and academic audiences.
For one U-M HistoryLab, my colleague Rita Chin and I worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop online tools for teaching the Holocaust in both K–12 and college classrooms. Graduate students wrote analytical descriptions of primary sources they selected from the museum’s collections. For example, one write-up described a zine illustrated by a Greek teenager in Thessaloniki during the German occupation, highlighting an adolescent’s attempt to make sense of the war through satirical illustrations. The students also edited, transcribed, and translated the sources for display on the museum’s Experiencing History website.
Professional organizations have also embraced the move toward public-facing scholarship. The National Endowment for the Humanities offers Public Scholars Grants to individual authors “for research, writing, travel, and other activities leading to the creation and publication of well-researched nonfiction books in the humanities written for the broad public.” I received one in 2017 for my most recent book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The 1918–1921 Pogroms in Ukraine and the Onset of the Holocaust.
Similarly, as part of its public history initiative, the American Historical Association has identified a set of five “career diversity skills”— communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy—that can aid scholars in reaching wider audiences.
When I was vice president of the Association for Jewish Studies, I worked with its then president, historian Pamela Nadell of American University, to institute a Writing Beyond the Academy workshop to train scholars to write for general audiences. The one-week intensive workshop included sessions on writing in different forms, including op-eds, narrative nonfiction, cultural criticism, and personal essays. Participants workshopped their writing and received advice on crafting book proposals for trade presses, adapting their oral presentations for TED-style talks, and speaking to the press. Seminar graduates have gone on to publish nonfiction books for popular audiences, guest essays in newspapers, and countless pieces of writing that have reached a variety of audiences. The association continues to offer the workshop in different iterations, with an in-person workshop planned for summer 2023.
I participated in the program and used the skills I learned when writing In the Midst of Civilized Europe. Although I was already comfortable writing for my fellow academics, the idea of addressing broader audiences was new to me. Through the workshop, I gained more understanding about the importance of clarity, character, and chronology. I learned to avoid imprecision and abstractions, to humanize historical personalities, and to use the passage of time to build suspense.
I also learned to engage readers by encouraging them to picture the events I was describing. In my previous academic writing, when describing a historic diplomatic meeting, I would discuss the various arguments officials advanced, the resulting debates, and the eventual conclusions. For my latest book, I added vivid sensory details: I described the architecture of the building in which the summit took place and painted a picture of the negotiating table with ashtrays and folders strewn across it. I characterized the individuals sitting around the table—how they wore their hair, where they put their hands, what expressions they made. Including these details required extensive research, for which I perused memoirs and diaries and scrutinized photographs.
I came to think of my book in terms of a movie, which can deal with complex topics and offer a distinct argument without articulating to its audience exactly what it is doing. I wanted readers to understand the multiplicity of narratives around my topic and the competing explanations without my spelling them out. I wanted readers to feel that they had come to their own conclusions rather than that I had browbeaten them into agreeing with mine.
Not every scholar will seek to engage in public-facing scholarship. For one, museum exhibitions, websites, monuments, and nonfiction trade books are often produced collaboratively with curators, editors, architects, and others. Works for broader audiences are also rarely subjected to a formal peer-review process, let alone the type of double-blind peer review many academic publications use. This could create impediments for tenure and promotion at certain academic institutions. Public engagement also inevitably takes time away from research and scholarship. Scholars can find many benefits to isolating themselves from the noise of the public square in order to think, research, and write deeply. Furthermore, we would not want the trends and fads of the day to dictate all scholarship.
However, for those willing to create more accessible history books, engaging with different public audiences can be a rewarding and enriching experience. You gain the opportunity to make a difference in immediate and important issues. Valuable work is going on in the humanities; the world can benefit from greater exposure to that knowledge.
Illustration by Jin Xia