We took a different turn in the workshop today, getting away from demonstrations of digital tools, and having a long conversation about the nature of reaching beyond the walls of our institutions, be they museums or universities, to make our work more accessible to a broader audience. The most worrisome aspect of this issue to me is the nature of authority that is the foundation of academic life. There is a strong bias against projects that communicate with “the public” as being easy, backsliding, faux “scholarship” that really doesn’t deserve the name. “Real” scholarship advances the field and is by nature of interest to a small group of specialists–at least, that is what we are taught in grad school, and that is the kind of work that is rewarded by promotion and tenure committees. The sad thing is, of course, that by putting so much emphasis on specialist work, academics have built up walls between themselves and the public, to whom we are increasingly irrelevant (except, maybe, for a few telegenic Ph.D.s in economics and Middle East poli-sci who are valuable for talking points on evening news programs). We talked a lot today about how we might reach out to different constituencies, but the nagging thought in the back of my mind persisted: what if they just don’t want to talk to us, let alone hear what we have to say?
I am fortunate to work in a field (architectural history) that is generally appealing to “the general public”–my subject is often on their television sets, and is part of their family vacations. So it should be easier for me and my peers to help to bridge that gap, to help reverse the destructive and prevalent idea that the humanities have little place in contemporary life. But before, or as, academics try to swim across the moat (hoping there is a receptive audience on the other side) it is essential that the infrastructure of academic life–committee chairs, deans, provosts, boards of trustees–adjust the rewards system, and make it safe to do work that is accessible. This does not mean, by any means, that it is simpler work; in fact nurturing historical thinking among 20-somethings is (in my experience) loads harder than writing an article from primary sources that will be read by a few dozen scholars in my narrow field. Although this also shifts greater responsibility back to those committees to judge scholarly contributions (they can’t just count pages published in journals any more), it is the right thing to do, and, realistically, it is the only sustainable thing to do, lest we all research ourselves and our institutions out of existence.