Audience, Expertise, and Professional Development: Notes from the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I trekked northward to Brandon, Manitoba to participate in a panel on public history at the Northern Great Plains History conference. The drive across the Manitoba prairie was during harvest was scenic, the panel was well-attended, and the audience and fellow historians offered some thought-provoking questions that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days.

In truth, each of these issues probably deserves its own blog post, but since I’m already a bit overstimulated this week, I’ll just set out three of the main themes that intrigued me the most. The panel itself was a round table and rather than consisting of individual papers, participants gave short introductions to their work and its key themes and the rest developed through conversation with the audience. 

1. Audience and Activism. Nikki Berg Burin framed her brief remarks around the idea of audience for work in activist, public history. Berg Burin is involved in the anti-human trafficking and anti-slavery movement and has a long simmering project designed to raise awareness and encourage activism around trafficking in North Dakota. At first, she explain, the idea was to produce a zine-like publication targeted to a wide audience through North Dakota libraries. As this idea developed, however, she began to think that a publication targeted toward groups already interested in related issues might be a more useful way to expand awareness and encourage a more nuanced and sophisticated debate surrounding these pressing issues.

This got me thinking about how the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota understands  audiences for its work. What distinguishes us from conventional academic publishing is that we do very little with academic libraries, which historically provide the largest audience for academic books and generally – at least in the fields of history and archaeology – purchase close to half of the print run of any conventional academic publication. Because we don’t market our books too academic libraries, they tend to get into the hands of individual readers, primarily as downloads, but also as individual purchases via Amazon.  

How these readers find out about Digital Press books is largely through social media and the web rather than conventional catalogues or advertising. This means that most work at our press already has a target audience both developed and made manifest in social media. This isn’t to suggest that conventional publishers don’t also leverage social media and the web to promote and disseminate their work, but rather to suggest that marketing a scholar’s book is often part of the added value associated with conventional publishing. While we all indicate in our proposals (and in some cases follow-up questionnaires) the audience for our works when dealing with conventional publishers, I’ve never encountered a meaningful conversation with a publisher concerning how the relationship between our intended audience, the arguments that we make, and the marketing strategy that we develop to get our book to readers.

This isn’t to say that a press like the Digital Press always gets this right, but Nikki Berg Burin’s remarks this weekend emphasized to me that collaborative publishing models might allow us to develop in more meaningful ways how we understand the relationship between the books that we publish and the audiences that we want to reach and activate.

2. Expertise. During the conversation this past week, we were asked how we asserted our expertise as public facing scholars when dealing with an audience who has become increasingly skeptical of (if not hostile to) the value of expertise and experts in contemporary political and social life.

I have lots of ideas (some good and some not so great) about this, but I suspect that most skepticism toward expertise is part of the long tail of anti-intellectualism in American life and this, in turn, is a product of our own peculiar view of democracy and our growing awareness the the academic-military-industrial complex has been allowed to function unchecked for most of the preceding century with seemingly disastrous results. Those of us in the humanities have also become aware of how claims of expertise (thanks, Foucault, Said, and others!) have served to reinforce social divisions in our society, advance colonial agendas, and to assert political power.

Our scholarship often takes aim at the previous generation of experts in the name of liberation while compromising our own claims to a similar status. Our practical experience as academics, however, constantly shows how our eagerness to defend our status as experts runs belies the superficial character of our own knowledge. Many of us recognize that expertise is less tied to a particular skills, sensitivities, erudition, and accomplishments and more bound up in performative gestures informed as much by gender, race, status, position, and other social and institutional constructs as any measurable degree of academic or professional attainment.

To be blunt: It’s much easier for a white male at Harvard to be an expert than for an African American female from an HBCU. This has nothing to do with our abilities or accomplishments and everything to do with race and gender.

In fact, a good bit of the professionalization process in graduate school revolves around teaching our students how to act like experts. This means showing them how to write the “I got the goods” footnote, reinforcing the methodological, historiographical, and practical foundations of a common disciplinary knowledge, demonstrating the professional reciprocity that supports mutual recognition of academic authority (game recognizing game), and explaining to them that giving a talk at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as a graduate student with braids may seem awesome, but undermines your cause.

These very same processes, of course, also produce – seemingly by design – the feeling of “impostor syndrome” that wrack most faculty throughout their careers. Indeed, feeling like an impostor is often seen as a crisis of confidence to be mitigated or a “syndrome” that must be treated or suppressed. I tend to see it as the festering of a persistent awareness that academic expertise is not what it seems. The presence of impostors among us is a reminder: expertise is not the unproblematic and even virtuous product of our training and the meritocracy, but a crass assertion of power. The more virtuous among us hope that our assertion of expertise will produce a better world, but for most of us, it also leaves behind the nagging sense that while we were speaking, we weren’t listening, understanding, or collaborating.

We’re left to wonder whether there really is a baby in the bath water. 

3. Professional Recognition and Public Humanities. We had a few questions about how various departments (and our fields in general) recognized our work as public facing scholars. This seemingly anticipated a much tweeted about article from this weekend’s Chronicle of Higher Education that worried that many pre-tenure faculty were not being advised to follow a professional path that leads to tenure. In the context of this article and conversations in our panel, this means writing peer-reviewed, specialist publication for an academic audience rather than outreach and other less conventional practices. 

Considering the theme of the panel, it was easy to juxtapose specialist knowledge produced through academic literature which gains purchase among professionals against public facing work which has a wider audience and ideally more social impact. This juxtaposition, as I’ve framed it here, is a bit lazy and unfair, of course, because most of us hope that our scholarly work can find a wider audience in some way and see outreach beyond academia as really the only criteria by which our work can and should be measured. At the same time, many departments have become dependent on acceptance of original, peer-reviewed scholarship at top-tier journals and presses as a reliable proxy for academic quality and significance. These publication, in turn, become the basis for tenure and promotion decisions.

In contrast, public history and public scholarship tends to exist a more murky space. Critics fret that public facing scholarship sometimes lack peer review. In some cases, useful public  scholarship eschews originality for more accessible synthetic statements. There’s a persistent suspicion that prolific public facing scholars often have distinctive skills that range from understanding the vagaries of public taste to the ability to write in an appealing and accessible way and even personal patronage networks that open-submission and peer-reviewed seek to ignore.

While these concerns are legitimate, they seem to be more on the surface these days because academia is changing. I’d argue that austerity has put particular pressure on the humanities to assert our value to a wider, public audience by reaching out to our communities and looking beyond our disciplinary and professional borders. At the same time, we’re being squeezed in what increasing feels like zero sum game out our institutions. We are expected not only to compete with our colleagues on a level playing field but also to compete across our institutions for access to resources and support. This exposes us to two pressures. On the one hand, public facing scholarship is a remarkably diverse and ranges from personal blogs to popular publications with massive circulations. In contrast to how most universities understand academic scholarship, it is very difficult to understand the impact and quality of public scholarship because these publications often lack both the imprimatur of peer review as well as the kind of quantitative impact factors that institutions are increasingly using to evaluate faculty performance across disciplines. In short, scholars who work in public humanities often are at a disadvantage on their campuses with those who invest in traditional scholarship because the metrics used to understand academic productivity tend to simplify academic output.  

This creates a curious and not entirely innocent paradox, as we’re being pushed to do more public facing scholarship and to justify our place on campus, our institutions are doubling down on practices that at best ignore and at worst devalue such work in the competition for increasingly scarce institutional resources. The practices of assessing impact factors, valuing peer review, and creating quantitative models for mapping productivity across campus are celebrated as efforts to level the playing field, to reinforce the meritocracy, and to protect public investment against deadwood faculty and programs who coast along protected by tenure. At the same time, these systems are profoundly biased against the kind of outward facing work that disciplines and professional organizations have encouraged us to value and pursue. 

This is a catch-22. If we pursue public facing work more vigorously, we might attract the appreciation of our communities and our professional organizations, but we also move outside of the system designed to measure and evaluation productivity. If we double down on professional and scholarly work that will be rewarded at our institutions, we often find ourselves writing specialized work for narrow professional audiences that gets criticized by the wider public and indulgent, irrelevant, navel-gazing. This, in turn, reinforced a view of the humanities as a luxury that should not be supported on the public dime.  

There is no simple solution for this outside large-scale disciplinary and institutional change. This is hard, slow work filled with the risk of unintentional consequences, but as the humanities enter a period of existential crisis, it certainly seems worth pursuing. 

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