Monday, June 2, 2008

Yeah, what he said

Our very own Larry Swain takes Charlotte Allen (and her "Dark Age for Medievalists") to task.

I won't add much here, except to say these few things:
  1. read Larry's take
  2. pay attention to what he says at the end about being vigilant. I'll 2nd his concern that this may well be part of a concerted effort to undermine the authority of academics and the university as a whole
  3. think about all the above in light of the rumored desire to create a "No Child Left Behind" for Higher Education
  4. I'll repeat my question here, that I posed elsewhere, when do the rest of us medievalists start writing our own descriptions of what we do in more popular publications (outside the blogosphere)?


theswain said...

Capital idea! The question would be how would we get an editor/publisher interested in publishing a piece on the Congress? And what journal should we go to?

Matthew Gabriele said...

I'd think we'd just pitch to a magazine and see what happens.

Some that might be interested: The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, Salon, Harper's, others?

Jeff said...

I'm in a funny position here, because I have only a toehold in academia, but I've done a fair amount of freelance writing, and I recently met countless medieval-history buffs during 18 months of book promotion. So, for what it's worth:

I'm not sure that a magazine piece about Kalamazoo would have the desired effect on non-scholarly readers, because its very existence would suggest that something exotic goes on out there every year--when, in fact, with its name tags, exhibition hall, awards dinners, keynote speakers, sessions of varying quality, happy hours, and atmosphere of socializing and networking, it's no different structurally from the annual, professional conventions of such varied specialists as insurance agents, pharma reps, stamp collectors, or wheelchair athletes, all of whom also seem immersed in arcana to outsiders.

Don't tell the public what you do; show them. Matt, your recent "Charlemagne and the Crusades: So What?" speech is a fine example of a talk that you should be able to adapt for a variety of occasions; it's also a clear, accessible statement about what you do as an historian and why others ought to care. Build on that. Don't worry so much about explaining insider-ish professional minutiae; instead, continue to write articles for general-interest publications that both represent your field well and implicitly defend the value of scholarly work. That way, you've made two steps toward winning over a non-scholar, and you wind up coming off as confident rather than defensive and anxious.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Jeff, thanks. That's all good stuff and, actually, more towards what I had in mind (I say after the fact...) -- talking more to a popular audience about what we do and why we do it.

So, how do we do this? I try to do general audience lecture/ discussion series here at VT (one on the crusades coming up), so that's something. But why are so few doing this? Why, for example, is the Medieval Academy website so awful? Why don't they have some sort of PR arm? Why, when I've talked to many senior scholars, do they lament this kind of outreach?

Jeff said...

My hunch is that the young, tenure-track scholars who are most enthusiastic about outreach can ill afford to spend their time on activities that don't help secure their careers. I can't fault them for that: Researching markets, crafting query letters, writing non-scholarly speeches and articles, pulling together visuals, searching for new outreach opportunities, making contacts at museums and libraries--all of that is a ton of work, most of it decidedly unsexy and often rather tedious. (Do it relentlessly for 18 months and your brain starts to turn into oatmeal.)

I'd guess, also, that outreach efforts demand a certain brand of self-promotion that tends to be at odds with the scholarly temperament. At the same time, the skills required to be a good scholar don't necessarily overlap with the skills required to be a good public ambassador for one's field.

Before medievalists begin some sort of outreach campaign, I think it would be beneficial to outline the goals of that outreach: Increased undergraduate enrollment in medieval-themed courses? New prestige in the eyes of skeptical administrators and the redefinition of outreach as university service? The pure pleasure of educating the general public? The "why" will be different for each person, but defining specific goals will help you more efficiently choose how to go about it. You ask why the MAA doesn't have a PR arm; I suspect it's because they haven't even kicked around the "why" question yet.