Last night I was reading a Chronicle of Higher Education article called “‘But Does it Count?’” that—in a nutshell—argues that public engagement needs to be treated as a thing apart from the job market /tenure/promotion trifecta: scholarship, teaching, and service. A blog like this doesn’t map cleanly onto any of these categories; does that make it irrelevant to a search committee? More importantly, should it?
I think not. To be fair, I have some skin in the game: I am actively trying to brand myself as a “public historian.” That said, very few academics are as firmly ensconced in the ivory tower as conventional wisdom suggests; most of us do something to connect and share knowledge with the world beyond the academy.
When I say I’m a public historian in the making, then, I mean that I want to go a step further. I want to write opinion pieces, I want to contribute to blogs and documentaries, I want to—should the need arise—serve as an expert witness in court cases, and I want to make history accessible and (dare I say) cool to, well, everybody. I want to write books that non-academics enjoy reading. I want to reveal the secrets of the craft, and help folks who identify as “history buffs” gain access to all that is awesome about the profession.
Right now, most graduate students are hearing that public engagement of the sort I’m interested in is a labor of love (read: labor without value). The same is true of junior faculty. Here I will quote liberally from David M. Perry’s CHE article:
Junior scholars worry about listing their blogs on their CVs lest they get condemned for spending time on something frivolous. David Leonard, an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, who also writes on occasion for The Chronicle, once heard an administrator compare public writing to playing video games. I myself have encountered plenty of questions from fellow academics about when I’ll get back to doing my “real” work. If one must be either a popularizer or a “true” scholar, no wonder many faculty members react harshly to the former.
Luckily, that isn’t the case at UC Irvine, the school from which I will be receiving my PhD in a few short years. Brave is the historian who poo poos public engagement in a department that includes, among others, Jon Wiener, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Mark LeVine! Unlike most graduate students, I’m being strongly encouraged to enter the public sphere. If anything, I may have unrealistic expectations on the other end: why WOULDN’T a search committee value my efforts to democratize knowledge?
My point here is that I am not (yet) experiencing the sort of attitudinal and structural impediments to public engagement that my like-minded peers are. That doesn’t make “going public” any less intimidating. I’m now in my fourth year at UCI, and, despite knowing from the beginning that this was the path I envisioned for myself, I am just now dipping my toe into the water. This year I joined Twitter (https://twitter.com/MyPenHistorical), and got an article published by Zόcalo Public Square. Both steps worth a pat on the back, but still, nothing close to what I imagined myself doing when I applied to graduate school.
I’ve been dipping my toe into the water for a full academic year now. Anybody who’s ever been five years old (and—important caveat here—knows how to swim) knows that you should just dive in, already. So here I am, tapping into my inner five year old. This website, and this blog, is me diving in. And when I apply for jobs a few years from now, you better believe there’s going to be a “Public Engagement” section on my CV. This blog might not get me a job, but neither will it be ignored. Not if I have anything to say about it.
What do you think? Is “going public” a good idea for a graduate student? For junior faculty? What experiences are you having?
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.