Am I reaching out?

I’ve just read this piece in the Guardian. It talks about the need for academics to engage with people outside academia, to reach out to the wider public. So it got me thinking again about what I do in this blog.

Blogging is not mentioned (I don’t know if it’s even occurred to any of the academics interviewed*), but one of my goals here has been to create a space to talk about what I do to a wider audience than just other academic historians. Am I succeeding? I’ve had, it needs to be said, less time recently to write posts about my own research interests, although you can easily find (what I consider to be) the best stuff via the ‘Favourite Posts’ section in the sidebar. And it’s not part of the blog, but I’m particularly proud of this section of the main website, and I hope to do more like it at some point in the not too distant future. If I do, you’ll hear all about it here.

Anyway, I’d like it very much if you the readers – especially people who don’t usually comment, perhaps – could leave a few lines telling me a little bit about yourselves and what you do get out of reading this blog. You don’t need to identify yourselves (pseudonyms will be just fine), but if you could say a bit about whether you’re an academic/student (and if so, which discipline), or you do something else altogether (if so, did you ever study history at university/college?); what sort of interests in history you have; what you like best here. Perhaps you just come for entertainment; that’s fine (in fact, it’s great). But it’d interest (and gratify) me a lot to know if you feel that somewhere along the line you’ve learnt something new too, and even in an entertaining way.

(And if you feel too shy to do this online, you could send me an email to

* At least one of them would probably be sniffy about what goes on here anyway, since his idea of engaging with the public seems to revolve primarily around confrontation: ‘fighting your corner’ and ‘rebutting argument’. I like my dialogues, on the whole, to be in a gentler mode. (I’m more interested in being a scholar who finds new ways to communicate my scholarship than in being a ‘public intellectual’ who loudly debates current affairs, I suppose.)

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9 Responses to Am I reaching out?

  1. Claire says:

    That’s a really interesting question. I’d like to know what people say too so when I start history blogging again I can do a better job. Can you do some interviews with other historians?

  2. Laura says:

    I love your blog. Even though I don’t study the Renaissance anymore, I still like keeping up with it and this is the easiest way for me to do so. I think what you do here is engaging and easily understood by the general. I don’t know if I count as the general public but I am not a historian. You have so many resources here and I almost always learn something. I especially like when you post about court cases. I find those fascinating.

  3. Chris Williams says:

    The problem with all this new-fangled ‘reaching out’ schtick is that it doesn’t count for the RAE, nor does it boost student numbers and thus lead to more cash from HEFCE (or its other UK equivalents). Thus it has little impact on the bottom line.

    Thus as far as I’m concerned, academic blogging can be justified best as a research networking tool, aimed primarily at other academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it’s a consequence of the way that UK academics are rewarded.

    In a related development, there’s very little incentive for historians to involve themselves with museums and archives, either. This is Not A Good Thing either, but on the other hand, I have a mortgage to pay and a permanent contract to land, so…

  4. Sharon says:

    Quite so (I’ve been thinking about the RAE too, you know), but that’s another conversation with a different set of people. I’m not forgetting about my own needs to get a permanent job. The blog is very very unlikely to get mentioned in job apps; the main website will, but not extensively. I know precisely how important they would be to the bureaucrats: zero. This is more like a hobby (but I’ve always been the sort of person who takes hobbies seriously), and I have no intention of trying to justify it to them.

    What I’d like to find out by asking these questions is just who I am currently networking with here and in what ways. I think there are both academics and non-academics reading and participating, and I don’t think that talking to one community has to exclude the other. But I’d like to know a little bit about how different people experience the different things I do in this space.

  5. rob says:

    I have to say I find the suggestion in the article that because the media is dominated by arts graduates we have some kind of agenda-setting dominance in that field. Plenty of Comp Lit graduates become office managers, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean Stationer X is going to evolve a Barthesian approach to paperclip distribution.

    Chris: interesting you should say that about museums. Last year I met a Professor at the Humboldt U in Berlin, who said that they’d been doing cooperative and critical work with the Jewish Museum, actually getting input in aspects of the curation. I went back a year later and have to say, everything looked pretty much the same, but it struck me as an interesting idea.

    Sharon: I think you’re gentleness, in answer to your question, is actually one of the things I value most about EMN. I like the fact that, on any random day, somebody who’d never visited before could start reading and not feel like they were excluded from some blogospherical in-discussion or academics’ club. You seem to have put a lot of effort into keeping it this way, not letting your politics or personal life get the better of you in a way that I’d find very difficult. This is not to say that you stay bland: I think the best thing EMN does is open up a lot of potential areas of investigation and thematic questions that Joe Public might not associate with history, either as an academic discipline OR a TV and popular biography affair. Sometimes EMN feels like a community, but never like a clique. Whether this qualifies as “reaching out” is a big question, but you’re certainly not shutting people out.

    Oh, and I’d never seen the women’s lives bit until today.. and it’s fantastic!

  6. rob says:

    “in that field” = “in that field a bit preposterous.”

  7. Claire says:

    On the research networking idea: problem is that a lot of academics won’t touch blogs because they’re worried about their reputations. Plus putting material online is a risky strategy because it still doesn’t count as a publication. I know you know that. I’m just putting off getting back to work. :(

  8. Melinama says:

    I’m a musician but the older I get the more I want to stick my nose in history. I love your blog.

  9. Sharon says:

    Thanks for all your thoughts (I wasn’t fishing for compliments, I swear). Of course, quite apart from this one, I don’t have to look far through my comment threads to know that I get a pretty interesting range of people coming by.

    Claire, the issue of reputation strikes me as a good one after reading a few excessively stupid statements by blogging academic historians recently. (No names. But one of them is not very far away from me, I’m afraid.) This tends to happen, it seems, in the context of making generalisations about current situations that one doesn’t know much about (especially by more senior academics who don’t have to worry about the job market and all that stuff); but when it reflects badly on the commentator’s basic critical/reasoning faculties, it doesn’t exactly raise confidence in the quality of their academic research, does it?… Which is another of the reasons that I’d rather avoid pontificating about things I don’t know much about, and share what I do know about instead. (And putting up original sources and extracts and poetry and all the rest of it, which I have huge fun with – so, yes, I’ll try to bring you some more court cases before too long!)

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