On my long list of life goals is to "bridge the gap between the armchair and academic historians." I haven't pursued this goal as ardently as perhaps I might, but I hope that my two blogs and public speaking engagements go a small way across the bridge. So, it was with great interest that I read Nicholas Kristof's recent op-ed "Professors, We Need You!" published in the New York Times on 15 February 2014.
In this piece, Kristof calls for greater public engagement on the part of academics, particularly those in political science. He decries the lack of activity of academics in social media and laments the "turgid prose" of their journal articles. The reason for this inactivity, he argues, is the publish or perish system. Being popular and understandable is death to promotion.
One of the fields which is an exception, according to Kristof, is history. Since this is my field, I agree. There are excellent writers among the followers of Clio (of course, there are others that just aren't). In my experience, however, those that are most successful address issues that the public is already interested in, namely topics like Civil Rights, Presidents, the American Revolution and World War II. Additionally, their research topics have or lend themselves to a strong narrative say a famous individual or significant battle. Historians that write elegant and engaging accounts of lesser known topics, Tang Dynasty China for example, may find that their books languish on the shelves unread.
Visit Nick Kristoff's Twitter and Facebook pages to find rejoinders, ripostes, and replies to his column. To find historians on Twitter search for #twitterstorians or visit Historians Who Tweet from History News Network or Historians on Twitter from Active History. Also visit the National History Center whose aim is to make history an essential component of public discussions of current events.
In the meantime, remember that "historians are great." Nick Kristof said so and he's a smart man.