‘You Want to Write for a Popular Audience?’ – Yes, Yes I Do!
In early June, Paul Dicken (a University of New South Wales Philosopher of Science), wrote a piece about writing academically for a popular audience. He writes that academics cede the right to serve a wider audience ‘to journalists and celebrities and other nonexperts in the field.’ But why is this the case? Why are academics, in all fields, lax in allowing others to educate the public?
Dicken tackles this question head on; he argues that various factors contribute to this, chief of which is its (lack of a) relationship with tenure. Job security (or even getting a job in the first place) is not supplemented by academics’ attempts to reach out and tackle the mainstream market. No motivation is offered to write for a wide audience.
Dicken also discusses how a certain individual was deemed, by his peers, to have ‘sold out’ and ‘”only [wrote] this crap” because he was no longer capable of pursuing genuine academic research.’ Well, with attitudes like that in academia, I’m not surprised that we see a lack of work that attempts to reach a wider, public, readership. It should be encouraged – not ridiculed.
Academia must tread on a path where it ignores the perceived limitations of public history. Hitting these limitations at first glance may only appear to involve those who are already established academics. But look deeper and it is possible to see how this impacts the younger generation and the future of academic study. Very few jobs exist in which an academic can continue his or her research and make a living. Reaching out and serving the public is a way to supplement one’s earnings. This is not to say that academics choose the field for the monetary gains, this is far from the truth, but to encourage a younger generation to continue there must be at the very least the promise of a job. Just talk to a prospective academic and it will become apparent how little financial security exists.
What is the point of research if it is not to be distributed? Is that not why one studies what is unknown? I can offer personal reasons for studying history and wanting a career as a researcher of the Crusades: to learn as much of what exists as I step out to do my own research and to follow my passion. I will also be involved in bringing the study of history to a wider audience than what it currently serves.
Writing for the public is at the heart of what I hope to achieve in my career and is at the heart of why History To The Public exists.
History (I am unable to speak for other areas of academe) is on its way to address this issue. At the International Medieval Congress (IMC) in Leeds this year, there was a particular session regarding public engagement roles for a medievalist (Alicia Spencer-Hall has written about it here). Much was discussed, especially on the role of the public as being worthy of the academic’s knowledge (they are) and whether the public should be approached as needing to be educated (they should not). There is much to be done, and we are yet at infancy, but it is encouraging to see steps being taken in the right direction.
Notice how I stepped away from writing this article from a first-person point of view? I’m currently studying for my Masters of Arts in Crusader Studies and my involvement in History To The Public attests to the fact that when I am conducting academic research I will make every effort to serve the public with my findings. So the answer is yes, yes I do want to write for a popular audience.