In the past few weeks, I’ve added a couple more online writing outlets to my list of things to do. I’ve started contributing to Teaching United States History, which I’m really excited about. I’ve also started something else, with my friend Chris: The Daily Context. It is a group blog, aimed at non-academic readers, providing introductory historical context to what’s happening in the news. Each post is 1000 words max, preferably shorter, and includes a primary source and links to further reading. This is meant to be rapid response history, so no long editorial process. If you could give a good solid answer to a student who asked a question about the topic in class, that’s all we’re looking for. We are using Facebook a lot, and inviting our academic friends to both write for us and share our posts with their friends and family.
Why do this? You’d be right to point out that there are lots of other ways to communicate this information to the public. Why don’t I pitch a piece for a newspaper? Why don’t I write for an existing blog? Why don’t I tweetstorm?
I could, I suppose. Those are all great things to do, and I’m glad lots of historians are doing them. But the reason why I want to do this, and why I’d love to have more of my colleagues join, is that I don’t think a lot of what we’re doing right now is very accessible to a non-academic audience, both because of the forms we use and the approach we take to writing.
To put it more bluntly, lots of what we’re writing is for people like us. I love the conversations we have in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse but ultimately, very little of that is reaching the people I grew up with.
Because here’s the thing – I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be here. I’m from a working class family in rural Connecticut. I was in no way the poorest of the poor, and I had the advantage of growing up white, in New England, with an okay school system and a small-but-friendly library. But most of the people I went to high school with – the 99 people from a six-town district I graduated with – didn’t go to college, let alone finish it. We grew up in a small, isolated part of the state where rich people from the city came to hide away. “Cultured” people drifted through our lives, and we patiently listened to their complaints about the poor selection of fish in the grocery store and helped them find the train station at the end of the weekend. I knew those people, but I was never going to be of those people.
I left that place, went to a liberal arts college, then went to graduate school, and like everyone else in academia who came from a background like mine, I’ve been faking it ever since. Laughing and nodding like I’ve read that person or could share a similarly amusing travel anecdote, blushing furiously every time I said something that revealed I didn’t speak the cultural language of everyone around me. Every one of those moments sticks in my memory. “Fake it till you make it” is bunk, as is the idea that you can talk about this openly and bear no repercussions. But maybe I can come clean here. To everyone who’s ever asked me this question: no, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker. And you could probably tell.
The thing is, when I go home, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be there anymore either. I so deeply respect the people I grew up with and the work they do and the lives they live, but they’re uncomfortable with me. I want to share what I do with them, but can’t find a way to do it.
Ultimately, that’s why I’m trying this. Because the people I grew up with are not reading our tweetstorms, and they’re not reading our academic blogs, and they’re not reading our pieces in The Atlantic and The Washington Post. And maybe they don’t want to read The Daily Context either. Maybe they do. Either way, I need to try. I want to be able to write a piece in The Atlantic, and I want to write my book, but if I truly believe that the study of history can enrich people’s lives – and I do – I need to be able to write this too.
I need to know that who I am now can write for who I was then.