I read several pieces online yesterday, and saw a few Twitter conversations, and they all went into the same pot in my mind and stewed together. Like all stews, they’re better the next day, so I thought I’d put a few words down.
The things that I read and thought about were Jonathan Wilson’s piece What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?, L.D. Burnett’s short post on the advice we receive on writing, and (3) here:
(3) Greatest obstacle to relevance is an attitude that historians shouldn't have to do much "hard work" to become relevant.
— Will Thomas (@GWilliamThomas) June 3, 2016
It struck me that all three had something to say about how and why historians communicate with various publics. Burnett talks about the way writing as a craft is framed, and the plague of style guides, which led us to a conversation about authorial voice that really made me think about the scholarly voice – and scholarly voices – that are given space not only in the academy but in the wider world.* Thomas and Wilson’s comments, in turn, made me realize how utilitarian our talk of “relevance” often is, and how that is connected to the question of voice(s). I think the crux of Wilson’s argument – the part that really helped these thoughts crystallize – can be found in this passage.
First, as the arts of citizenship, the liberal arts may be the arts of politics (whether broadly or narrowly defined). That is, we may undertake liberal scholarship to persuade, to warn, to channel or impede power, or to define a community….Alternatively, therefore, some branches of the liberal arts may be understood more critically as the “humanities” in a newer sense: they are the arts of flourishing (or surviving) as a human person rather than the arts of citizenship per se.
I would argue that all historians have to do hard work to be relevant, but I’d also argue that utilitarian relevance – which seems more in line with Wilson’s first concept – is much easier to communicate in our society than the humanistic relevance of the second. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my friends in foreign policy and history of science in the 20th century find it easier to place articles in public outlets than my friends who are medievalists. Articulating and defending the value of work on 6th century history seems harder not because what people in the 6th century did is irrelevant to us, but because its relevance falls in this more humanistic sphere.
While I’m not sure I count as an Early Americanist, they’re the group with which I most often identify because “19th century proper” doesn’t ever seem to be a category. [Seriously, my dissertation dates are 1820-1890, presenting and publishing is sometimes a bit hard.] As Wilson notes, they’re a group that gets looked to for this first kind of contribution – helping us understand “the arts of citizenship” and the country’s founding myths. They’re also the scholars most likely, as Wilson point out, to be able to publish “trade books that people will want to buy.” Walk into any bookstore right now and look at the Father’s Day setup. Anything you see on that table, I guarantee you, falls much more into Wilson’s first category than his second, which just reinforces that that first category is the history that is relevant. It speaks to citizenship and therefore by definition or practice circumscribes the boundaries of historical relevance; it means we get individual citizens and then groups – “women,” “slaves,” “Indians.”
But if we include Wilson’s second conception of history’s contribution to the liberal arts – the arts of flourishing and merely surviving – we expand the definition of what is relevant, and therefore expand our own obligation to make that argument. I’m pretty sure that the arts of surviving and flourishing are actually still things many of us are concerned with, but to make the argument that we should care about those arts requires swimming against the social/political/economic currents of our society. Making the argument that thinking about how people lived, loved, and just got by in the past is one that all supporters of relevance should be thinking about.
Or to put it another way, if you write about a topic that you think you could one day easily see on the Father’s Day table at Barnes & Noble, think about whether the definition of relevance that would allow your book to appear there would exclude the work of many of your peers. If yes, and if you think that’s a problem, maybe we need to work on not just making an argument that history is relevant, but also making Wilson’s (harder? braver? bolder? riskier?) argument about how history is relevant.
*Strunk & White would not approve of this sentence’s structure.