Peer review in a world of professional practice

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One of the reasons for creating History@Work (and its predecessor, “Off the Wall“) was to contribute to discussion about peer review in public history–where it happens, what gets reviewed, how professional public historians might locate their critiques in dialogue with critical commentary outside the field, and whether traditional scholarly peer review can capture and respond to the increasingly wide range of projects and products that come under the heading of “public history”–everything from apps to tweets. In this Q&A post, History@Work co-editors Adina Langer and Cathy Stanton discuss some of the issues and possibilities that have emerged from History@Work’s first year of publication.

Ecole des Beaux-Arts Atelier, late 1800s

Ecole des Beaux-Arts Atelier, photograph late 1800s, public domain


There are some big questions that seem to keep coming up in the conversations happening around this, and one of them has to do with the fact that the personal and institutional separation on which conventional peer review is based is very hard to maintain once you get into the relatively small world of professional public history, particularly when you go beyond the usual reviews of scholarly books or big-name museum exhibits and web projects.  People are often unwilling to critique their peers really rigorously in public, for a whole range of reasons that, as an anthropologist, I can’t help trying to analyze!  It seems to me that one reason may be fear of offending someone in an agency or institution you might want to work for someday.  Another may be uneasiness about “letting the side down” – everyone is scrambling for funding and legitimacy, and poking holes in someone else’s project may feel like opening our own work to scrutiny that could undermine its political, institutional, or financial support.  Are there others, and are there ways we might get around them?


I think that the bulk of these concerns have to do with the “public” nature of public history. By going out in the world, whether on our own or as part of an organization, we remove the legacy of protection that comes with the traditional “ivory tower” package (which I know is fraught with its own deceptive restraints ranging from seniority to relative publishing prestige). Aspiring consultants and public history professionals assert “academic freedom” at their own risk. We must be diplomatic in tone and focus, or we really do risk alienating our tenuous community of advocacy and support. I agree that there’s a sense that we’re “all in this together,” but, at the same time, I think that communities benefit from a healthy spirit of self-critique. I think that we would all benefit from acceptance of this as part of the profession across the board.

Of course, this is easier said than done. A lot of public history institutions take cohesiveness of mission and appreciation of funding to the core. And that includes an expectation, whether implicit or explicit, that employees (and possibly even potential employees) serve as representatives of the organization in everything they do. Before I was an independent consultant, I ran into some trouble navigating the waters of professional identity. I got a little bit over-enthusiastic about the public history community on Twitter and tweeted about what I was doing in my day-to-day work for my employer. My supervisor warned me that, because I maintained a personal professional identity with my Twitter account, such tweets could be misconstrued as me taking personal credit for work done entirely in the guise of my professional position at my employer.  Very subtle stuff.

So I think the question we’re all struggling with is how to maximize our freedom to exercise our critical muscles within a disciplinary continuum which runs from academia through something like corporate culture to client-service independence. The soft tools (diplomatic tone, praise along with critique) are skills that can be learned by individuals, but are there harder tools we can attempt to enforce as a discipline in order to protect our professional peers?


I’m wondering about “modeling” rather than “enforcing,” and thinking of possible models for a style of critique that’s both rigorous and collegial.  One that I particularly like is the atelier or studio style of giving and receiving feedback, which is something that I’ve thought should be possible to approximate in a digital public history setting.  Artists, architects, and landscape architects are used to using this format, in which everybody puts their stuff up on the wall and then lets loose with honest (sometimes brutally honest) critiques.  Maybe there’s a teacher or senior critic present, but my sense is that it’s mostly peer review in a fairly pure form.  This is also how engineers and designers of all kinds tend to work.

I may be idealizing this a bit since I have very limited personal experience of it!  But it strikes me that the overall work situation is quite similar to what public historians do:  it’s a bunch of individuals working more or less on their own in some ways, but also in close proximity and frequently in collaboration with others.  There’s a very product-oriented and often hands-on quality to a lot of what public historians do that seems suited to the atelier approach.

So I wonder whether part of the problem is that public historians have been modeling ourselves after academics when in fact a lot of what we do is much more like engineers, architects, or designers!  There are probably lots of professional status anxieties lurking beneath the answer to that, but if we just sidestepped that for a moment, it’s kind of fun to think about how we might use digital spaces to convene open and collegial critique groups who would suggest ways to strengthen one another’s work.


Perhaps we could invite individuals or organizations to offer their materials up for review. If the material is portable into a digital format, reviewers could come from anywhere in the digital universe and post critical commentary. The original presenter could then craft a follow-up response based on their understanding of the commentary, highlighting challenges they experienced in the creation of their piece and elements they will likely try to adjust in the future.

I am also interested in a regional model for more place-based content (exhibits, tours, programs). I’ve enjoyed the regional round-ups published in The Public Historian after conferences. Perhaps we could aim to feature a different part of the country (or world!) every month.

It seems to me that some of the tradition of academic review comes from an inability to communicate instantly. First a book must be published (or an exhibit must debut), then a reviewer must have time to read it (or view it), and then their review must be published months later. By narrowing the chronological margins of the conversation, we invite more timely dialogue. Of course, we want to maintain the thoughtful and well-informed aspects of academic review, but we can probably do without the insulation afforded the reviewer by the distance of time.


Grouping things in various ways (by region, by thematic collections of projects–for example, a group of National Register nominations or cell-phone apps, etc.) might go a long way toward overcoming professional reluctance to be too publicly critical of colleagues’ and potential employers’ work.

Okay, that was the easy part!  It strikes me that the big challenge here is essentially the same one that faces all professional organizing tasks, particularly those that take place over geographic distances–developing shared agendas, recruiting busy people, maintaining communication, and all that jazz.  I think our experience with this blog over the past year has shown us some of the possibilities, but also how much work it takes to do this kind of shared commissioning, reviewing, and editing. In other words, broadening the range of what we review or changing the venue to a digital one doesn’t necessarily help us with the big personnel and management challenges that face all scholarly or professional publications!

We’re interested in hearing what our readers think on this one. Are there other pitfalls and possibilities that you see in either our existing forms of peer review or the emerging models facilitated by digital communication?

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