Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jonathan Zimmerman on Historians and Their Publics

Jonathan Zimmerman
I just received my copy of the most recent The American Historian, a new American history magazine published by the Organization of American Historians.  There are a lot of great articles in this episode and I just might blog on a few of them in the immediate future.  But for now, I want to call your attention to Jonathan Zimmerman's article "Historians and Their Publics."

Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is best known for writing op-ed pieces that connect history to current events.  (His book Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and Memory is also really good).  I greatly admire Zimmerman's attempts to bring history to public audiences.

In his The American Historian article Zimmerman makes some great points about why it is necessary and beneficial for historians to write for the public.  He argues that this kind of writing not only informs the public, but also has the potential of making us better historians.  Here are a few of Zimmerman's ideas:

  • Graduate students need to learn to write for the public as a means of survival.  Academic jobs in history departments are drying up.
  • Everyone who writes an M.A. or Ph.D thesis should be required to produce "a piece of work about their projects for public audiences."  Zimmerman suggests op-ed pieces, a blog posts, TED talks, and videos.
  • Writing for the public allows historians to "distill and clarify" the "central intellectual claims" of their scholarship.
  • Every graduate student of history should get training in how to teach.  Graduate students need to connect with a growing scholarship in the history of teaching and learning.
  • History teachers must be generalists.  As a result, they should feel comfortable writing op-eds and blog posts on topics that they have never researched.  As Zimmerman puts it: "I'm always amused (and, I'll admit, a little appalled) when I hear a historian disparage colleagues for writing op-eds or blog posts on topics they have never researched on their own....In our classrooms, after all, we routinely teach about many matters far beyond our academic specialties.  Why should writing be any different."
  • Founders of the historical profession such as Carl Becker and Charles and Mary Beard took it for granted that historians should be public intellectuals.
Great stuff.