These days, academics are encouraged to appeal to big audiences. We are told that we must have ‘impact’ (teaching 2.2 million university students doesn’t seem to count, oddly enough – but let’s leave that for another time). Just over a fortnight ago I had my first proper taste of this when I got involved in a collective letter published in History Today, whose readership and twitter followers represent a much bigger audience than I am likely to reach through my academic writing and teaching.
The piece was a response to an article in History Today by Professor David Abulafia on behalf of Historians for Britain. I won’t repeat the substance here, but our letter began as a conversation on twitter amongst people who disagreed with the original article, and became an exchange of emails about the best way to respond. Seven of us (two of whom also produced their own individual responses: 1, 2) then started writing the text, or rather different sections, which I put together into a draft. We sent it out to the original email list, and they sent it out further; some people responded with suggestions or criticisms, others just signed up. I don’t remember how many corrected versions we went through, but there were quite a few.
I wasn’t aware of any tactics or targets for the signatories – as far as I know people simply sent it around their own circles. In that sense the piece was a fairly unplanned (or quite quickly planned) affair, and doesn’t represent a specific organisation or unified group. That probably makes it quite a different experience to other approaches to ‘impact’. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something composed and corrected by so many people, and the original group are very grateful to those who took the time to respond in detail. The circulation and sign-up happened over the weekend, and on Monday morning we sent it to History Today, who published it online with impressive speed – especially when compared with the academic norm of peer review and so on.
The two main aims, at least as I saw it, were to express disagreement with the original article and to promote further debate, and I think we have done both, even if that debate has gone in directions we didn’t anticipate – but so much the better. Most of the immediate responses were on twitter, many with the hashtag #foginchannel, but there have been commentaries, on the original HfB article and/or our letter, by Lucy Inglis in History Today, Alex Drace-Francis in the London Review of Books, Markus Daechsel at History Workshop, in blogs (including History Matters [1, 2, 3], Historian on the Edge and Historians for History, the last being another coordinated response to HfB), in a Guardian editorial and in Times Higher Ed. Some of them have focused less on subject matter and more on how historians should get into public discussions, with quite a range of opinions. I responded to some of the twitter comments and appreciated the chance to carry on the discussion. It’s tricky to balance between being too defensive on the one hand and aloof or disengaged on the other, but I hope we (and the signatories who also joined in the discussion) managed this, or at least that we’ve been reasonable.
In hindsight, perhaps we should have opened the piece with definitions and disclaimers – definitions because terms that seemed clear enough when writing have been criticized; disclaimers because we have been accused of saying things we didn’t actually say. Our excuse, though it may not be a very good one, is that we had to say everything we wanted to say in only 800 words. That, too, is a novel challenge for someone used to thinking about articles and chapters. We resisted the temptation to make any collectively-authored clarifications on certain points, mainly because we might then have to clarify the clarifications, and that could go on forever. I certainly didn’t expect to see so many different interpretations of our text: but that’s what historians spend a lot of time doing, so I probably should have been prepared for it. This has been the best lesson of the whole process. You simply can’t assume that your meaning will come across as clearly as it appears to you. The next time I am involved in anything like this, I will certainly bear that in mind.
Is ‘going public’ something early career scholars should do? I would say yes, although of course there are various ways of doing it and I’ve only tried one. I’m glad I didn’t try it alone, either: I enjoy working collaboratively anyway and, unless you are talking about a topic close to your own research, I think it is both easier and more rewarding to share the load. I know that our piece was considerably improved through collective writing, and by the comments and suggestions everybody sent in, and had to appeal to a sufficiently broad range of opinions to attract the signatories it did. On the other hand, I would add that you can’t expect to satisfy everyone; whether you should try to do so is another matter, and rather depends on what you see as the purpose of debate. I would love to hear anyone else’s advice or thoughts about this.