Building an interdisciplinary discipline
27 April 2016 – Jason Steinhauer
When I put the words “history” and “communication” together nearly two years ago, I never imagined it would elicit as much discussion and controversy as it has. Some have asked whether history communication is just public history—or an extension of public history. Others have suggested it is what all historians do already. It is also what some journalists do. And documentary filmmakers. In fact, history communication as I envision it intersects all of these disciplines and more, but is bounded by none of them. Bringing this expertise under one umbrella has been part of the agenda.
Recent interdisciplinary conversations have challenged our assumptions about what history communication is and how it needs to move forward. A March 2016 summit at the University of Massachusetts Amherst laid these questions on the table before academic historians, public historians, journalists, and filmmakers. Moreover, panels at the National Council on Public History conference in April 2015 and March 2016 and at the American Historical Association conference in January 2016 have offered opportunities to learn from historians about existing initiatives and gain feedback from students about what they wish to do with their careers. I also learned a lot from students and faculty at Wayne State University during my visit there in February. All have been instrumental in fleshing out what history communication in the twenty-first century is and could be.
My original intention was to help solve a particular challenge, namely the disconnect between the vast amounts of historical scholarship produced within the academy and cultural institutions such as mine, and non-experts. Bridging this gap was—and remains—paramount among my motivations for history communicators, though there are others.
There are numerous barriers to accessing new historical scholarship, among them pricey journal subscriptions, articles behind pay walls, jargon, and lack of attention from the popular press. Museums, national parks, libraries, historic sites, films, and classrooms are some of the venues where non-experts encounter historical scholarship but increasingly they also encounter it on Wikipedia and in Google Doodles, in books by media personalities, in popular movies and theater, including Lincoln and Hamilton: An American Musical, and on social media platforms, such as Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube. New modes continue to emerge.
We do not uniformly prepare our history students to work in all these arenas. Not all masters and PhD students learn to design or write for the Web. Not all receive media training or are pushed to experiment with storytelling through theater and film. Not all practice using creative tools to disseminate scholarship or learn how to exploit social media.
Not all students wish to learn these things. But in my anecdotal canvassing of masters students and PhD candidates, there is wide interest in being introduced to these concepts and a wide discrepancy on how much–if any–of this is currently covered in existing programs. So while some historians may, indeed, be doing these things in a number of professional settings, cultivating such a well-rounded literacy in the next generation under the term that we call history communication is the near-term objective.
The time is ripe to innovate, to unify these practices under the umbrella of history communication, and to enhance it with best practices from history, journalism, communications, advocacy, business, and the Web. That is where we are headed, with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Purdue University as the willing co-pilots. Soon students at these universities will be able to take an undergraduate or graduate course titled “History Communication” in which they might:
- Take an academic journal article and turn it into a blog post, infographic, series of social media posts, or YouTube video series
- Learn to pitch journalists on a new historical work or a new history project
- Put together a fundraising proposal for a history-related project to a foundation that does not specialize in history
- Learn to brief a federal, state, or local policymaker
- Learn how to apply marketing techniques to communications about history
- Extend existing public history museum practices (such as writing label texts and designing tours and educational programming) into the digital realm and other non-traditional venues
- Become more conversant with the tools and ideas of the digital humanities, including coding, web design, and computer science
- Learn to craft a compelling historical narrative using audio and visual storytelling
- Learn to speak on camera and to the media, and to be a “history pundit”
- Integrate theater and improvisational skills into history
- Ruminate on how to be an ethical historian in today’s communications landscape
Such a course could easily be nestled within existing history or public history frameworks—or even general coursework requirements within a PhD track.
My sense in talking to students is that many would be eager for such a course—and that it would be valuable to their careers. As UMass and Purdue develop these courses, we will continue to gather insights from those doing this work on how to integrate existing expertise. We will also draw on the expertise of journalists and those working in communications, marketing, theater, film, and business to make this a truly interdisciplinary offering. We have heard that there is great interest from other schools in adopting our pilot and expanding upon it. Eventually we hope there will be history communication courses nationwide.
The formation of this new field continues to be informed by discussions within the field and beyond. I encourage you to get involved by joining the conversation on Twitter at #histcomm–and check back to [email protected] (and other sites) for more pieces by participants in March’s history communication summit at UMass. Nearly two years since I first introduced the idea, and after nearly a year of public conversation, the first significant deliverable is in sight. Coming soon in 2017: a new course in history communication!
~ Jason Steinhauer is a public historian at the Library of Congress and creator of the term and concept “history communicators.” For 2016 he is also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.