History Communicators: The next step
04 January 2016 – Jason Steinhauer
In January 2015, I introduced the idea of History Communicators on this blog. “History Communicators, like Science Communicators,” I wrote then, “will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.”
But what might it actually mean to be a History Communicator in the twenty-first century? What are the core issues at the heart of communicating history in this new information age? This is what we’ll be asking at the first-ever summit on History Communication, March 4-5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The History Communicators idea had its public launch at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in April 2015, at a panel session featuring historians Rebecca Onion, Julie Golia, Nicole Hemmer, and myself. This lively and engaging session produced a swell of interest among public and academic historians in how all of us could be–or continue to be–History Communicators. The conference spawned a hashtag (#histcomm), a LinkedIn group, and two Twitter chats. Several public historians have embraced the term and applied it to their websites and Twitter bios.
A number of historians at the NCPH conference in Nashville suggested convening a working group to discuss these ideas in depth and lay out a “blueprint” of sorts for history communication in the future. Thanks to the leadership and vision of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and in collaboration with Purdue University’s INNOVATE Undergraduate Education Fund at the College of Liberal Arts (Dean David Reingold) and the American Historical Association’s National History Center, the March summit will begin to explore these questions substantively. More than 20 invited thought leaders from history and related fields will engage in two days of discussion that we hope will build toward the creation of History Communication courses in history departments at UMass, Purdue, and hopefully beyond.
We see this project as a way both to strengthen communications training in traditional history graduate programs and to lay the foundations for innovative new curricula. Just as today you can concentrate in Science Communication at many universities worldwide, so, too, we hope that one day historians from all backgrounds will be able to pursue History Communication at universities in the US and elsewhere. Much like Science Communication programs, these History Communication programs and courses will prepare historians for roles as journalists, writers, television producers, and personalities in social media, academia, government, and museums, as well as roles and professions that do not yet exist.
As I’ve repeatedly said, “History Communicator” is not a job title; it’s an identity. Though it engages the writing of history for general audiences–something many historians already do and do well–it also encompasses other ways historical insight is conveyed today: visually, aurally, virally on the Internet, and through policymaking. The most successful use of history in those arenas is often not by professionally trained historians but by celebrities, authors, radio personalities, and storytellers. “Hardcore History” from former news broadcaster and radio host Dan Carlin is one of the most downloaded podcasts in the country. Author John Green’s US History Crash Course video series on YouTube has been viewed 15 million times. The Bowery Boys, self-described as “home-schooled historians,” have 20,000 listeners and a blog with 100,000 hits per month. Michael Beschloss, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, is the contributing history columnist for the New York Times.
My goal is to see professionally employed historians with these levels of social clout. Several laudable projects offer good models, including Backstory Radio, Past Present, and Rebecca Onion’s The Vault at Slate. But we need more, and more public and academic historians who are trained, encouraged, and financially supported to do this type of work and do it well. It is a type of training and thinking that will ultimately infuse more good historians and more good history into society, the media, and the policy-making landscapes. We as public historians are concerned with this already; the introduction of this framework into our thinking will enable us to do it even more.
Communications firms are taking notice. In October, I had the privilege to meet with the digital team from Edelman, the largest communications firm in the world. They were incredibly helpful in brainstorming ideas and evaluating today’s communications landscape. They stressed how important it is to give the communication of scholarship as much attention as we do the scholarship itself if we wish for it to have impact. It is important to think about the values that History Communicators embody, they said, and to ensure our communicators are relatable, interesting, down-to-earth, and able to tell good stories. The production quality, the effects of music and lighting, the audience we are intending to reach–all these elements should be weighted equally alongside the scholarly and intellectual considerations. The Edelman team and I continue to discuss ways to bring the expertise of their firm into the History Communication discussions, including participating in our March workshop.
In the meantime, History Communicators continues to spread and evolve. The hashtag now has thousands of tweets. I’ll be speaking about History Communication at the American Historical Association conference in Atlanta, as well as to colleges and universities in 2016. Most importantly, we remain committed to this being an open movement. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. But the momentum around the idea to date suggests that these are some of the right questions to be asking now.
The results of our March conversations will be made available on this blog and elsewhere for feedback and comment, and there will be more activities, more conversations. After March’s initial pilot gathering, we plan to convene a second workshop in summer 2016, along with other ensuing events, to build on those discussions. I hope you’ll join me in keeping the conversation going on Twitter, LinkedIn, and elsewhere. It’s an exciting time to think critically about these issues.
~ Jason Steinhauer is a public historian at the Library of Congress and creator of the term and concept “History Communicators.” For 2016, he will be a Visiting Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On January 7, 2016, he will be presenting on the History Communicators concept at the American Historical Association conference in Atlanta.