Public History, Academic History…where is the divide?

“So, you’re going to be a teacher, right?” – everyone who talks to me about my B.A.

When you decide to take that step and go for a graduate degree, people like to ask about it. I think most of us have some pre-made visions of what the History grad, the Bio grad, the Psych grad, and the Law grad look like. But it’s not so easy for people to envision the future of someone who gets a Master’s degree in Public History. Every person who has heard the news of my next big chapter in life has asked me to define the term “Public History.”

As it turns out, public historians themselves have been grappling with the term for years. For our first week of classes in the course “Public History: Theory, History and Practice,” we were asked to read several articles written over the past 30 years about this issue. After my head stopped swimming, I found some aspects of this ongoing debate which I found particularly interesting. Not all of them were discussed at length in class today, and so I offer some thoughts here.

Almost all of the articles discussed public history and academic history in terms of opposites; in “us versus them” language. Public history was almost always defined as “not academic history.” (Just like us Canadians are popularly defined as being “not American.”) Even at our History Graduate Orientation last Thursday, I noticed that people had a hard time navigating the academic history/public history divide. When we went around the room and introduced ourselves, we immediately identified with either “regular” (read: academic) History or Public (read: “strange”) History. Although we all got along, there was a part of me that wondered if we were starting off on the wrong foot. There’s nothing really irregular about Public History, is there? What really is the difference between a public historian and an academic historian?

Rebecca Conard, in her address “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection” (2003), argues that public history is distinguished by our practices, not our environment. Regardless of where we work, public historians need to think about shared authority, ethical problems, and entrepreneurship more than their academic colleagues. I also noticed an emphasis on practice in Keith Jenkins’ “But ‘the past’ is not history…” (2003). He finds that it is only the historian’s discursive practice – the genre in which he or she communicates – that is historical, since the skills we like to think of as unique to our discipline (critical thinking, source checking, analysing evidence) are not so. Thinking about these two articles in particular, I think it makes sense to say that the discipline of history is based on neither what one studies, nor where one works, but how one conducts research and especially how findings are communicated. Likewise, public history is distinguished from other kinds of history based not on what or where but how – particularly on the “communication” how.

Does all this “what, where, how” business just boil down to having a different audience to consider? I haven’t quite decided. The author of the historical novel or the director of the historical film is trying to reach the same public as the public historian…does that mean they are public historians too? I hesitate to say so, even though some of my most memorable history lessons came from my fantasy books and my PS3.

Like every good historian, I am going to end this train of thought by making my initial questions even more difficult to definitively answer. I have to wonder: is it possible to be both an academic and a public historian? I spoke earlier of an academic history/public history divide, but is this divide real and irreconcilable? I think especially of the Canadian labour historian Craig Heron. He is a well-respected professor at York University who has written several monographs and many more influential articles; he was also President of the Canadian Historical Association from 2007 to 2009. He has simultaneously been actively involved with the Ontario Worker’s Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton. He has directed exhibits and made contributions to them, including an original board game. He has worked with the Ontario Heritage Foundation and the Toronto Labour History Walking Tours. He is a contributor on the Active History website. Even in his “academic” work he is always looking to make “real-world” impact. His writing style, especially in the book Booze: A Distilled History, is accessible and humorous enough for both academics and non-academics to easily enjoy. Although he’s my best example, he’s certainly not the only academic historian who undermines the idea of an academic history/public history divide.

So what is the future of this “public historian”? All I know is that I want to make people excited about history. I am taking the M.A. in Public History because I want to be a historian who engages with the public, regardless of where I work or what platform I use to do so.


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