Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of South Wales. In her recent piece at Inside Higher Ed she describes what it is like to tell people that she is a historian. Here is a taste:
Yet there are many people out there, at cocktail parties, on trains and
planes, in waiting rooms, who have told me they enjoyed history in high
school and are interested to hear about what I do. These conversations
are important; yet I have friends who have encountered hostility to
academics in social settings, who just say "I’m a teacher" and avoid the
While that may be socially adroit in some situations, we have to be our
own advocates for letting the public know what people with Ph.D.s
At a time when the humanities and social sciences are often devalued —
those paying high tuition fees want to see some guaranteed "job skills"
at the end of it — we need to be better at explaining our work to people
outside academe. We have a tendency to use jargon, and even our
"elevator pitch" summaries of our work are aimed at other academics.
While being in the humanities offers many rewards, sometimes we have to
fight a rearguard action against "Who cares?" and "What’s the point?"
I was just talking about this subject recently with some Messiah College senior history majors. They were saying that whenever they tell someone (usually older) that they are studying history in college they are met with either blank looks or enthusiastic responses such as "Oh, I love history!" I have had similar experiences, though lately it seems that I have run into more people who "love history" than those who are ambivalent or hostile to the subject.
Most of these people who "love history" could never imagine studying the subject in college or allowing their children to study it. Those who "love history" see it as a hobby--something similar to fishing or coin collecting. Their "love" of the subject stops well short of thinking about how an undergraduate history major might develop skills that are useful in the marketplace or in a democratic society.
We have a lot of work to do.