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. Continue reading
The next issue of The American Historical Review, out in April, will contain an exchange concerning the History Manifesto; it is already available on the American Historical Association website. To my surprise (and I am grateful to Brodie Waddell for noticing this), one of the footnotes cites my review of the Manifesto on this blog from October last year. That review is my most popular post to date, no doubt helped by links to it appearing on the Manifesto website, and David Armitage’s webpage about the book. Even so, when I started this blog I never thought it would be mentioned in a serious historical journal dating back to 1895, which has the highest ‘impact factor’ of any journal in the field, according to Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports. Nor did I foresee that it would lead to my name being immortalised in print (which is still more permanent than online content) next to the word ‘historywomble’. Though that should perhaps have been more predictable.
I’ve been thinking about history ‘engagement’ recently. Partly this is because of our Cambridge PhDcasts – our fourth episode, featuring Alice Blackhurst talking about luxury in a digital age, is out today – and our reflections on producing the first season. What worked, what didn’t, what should we try next time? It’s also because last week Katy Barrett and I had lunch and a fascinating talk with Helen Weinstein, who works for the BBC and www.historyworks.tv. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the event Helen organised yesterday on ‘The Future of the Past at the BBC’ but it provoked some very interesting conversation on twitter – there is a storify here.
Really, I am still thinking, and I only have one point to make here. Well, two connected points. The first is that I think we need to see engagement, and its perplexing corollary ‘impact’, not as an adjunct to ‘traditional’ academic activity but as a single scale which ranges from the kind of mass media produced by the BBC to the kind of personal-contact teaching performed in schools, colleges, and universities. The second is that it seems to me that at the moment this scale is mainly being measured quantitatively, and we need to rescue the qualitative side.