Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jill Lepore and NiCHE on history in the magazines

A magazine called Humanities features an interview with the remarkable American historian/journalist Jill Lepore. She's a lively writer and, not surprisingly, makes a lively interviewee. They describe her as "a well-known scholar of early American history, a winner of the Bancroft Prize, a former NEH research fellow, and the author of numerous essays and several distinguished books. She is also a staff writer at the New Yorker and, with fellow historian Jane Kamensky, the coauthor of Blindspot, a work of historical fiction set in Revolution-era Boston."

I try to think of a Canadian-history equivalent of that.. and then I stop.

Meanwhile, the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) is sponsoring a graduate workshop on Monday, October 19, 2009 in London, Ontario which promises to teach participants "how to sell an article about their work or experiences to a popular publication." (Info on the NiCHE website). Here's their pitch:
While peer reviewed journals may make the academic world go round, it’s through magazines and newspapers that your work can make its way into homes across the country – and you might be surprised to find out how interested Canadians are in what you do. Did we mention that you also get paid, and the amount of work is probably less than you spent on your first undergrad paper?
Now they are right about the interest, and I'm much in sympathy with the aspiration, for I often lament the public muteness of our scholarly historians, and there is something sweetly appealing about NiCHE's naivete.

But there is a notion abroad in academia that the public is like undergraduates, only dumber, and we see it at work here. In my experience, however, anyone reasonably glib and wrapped in academic authority can tell young and impressionable undergraduates almost anything, whereas the public that is interested in history tends to be well-read, widely experienced, and sophisticated in its judgments. I do wonder if the people running this seminar about magazine articles that are easier than undergraduate essays know anything about the craft of magazine journalism, the magazine market these days, or even about the non-academic audience for history?

I wonder, for instance, if Jill Lepore finds her New Yorker essays easier than undergraduate essays? As she says:
To be a public historian, not a public intellectual, not a popular historian, not a pundit, but a public historian, is to be a keeper of our memory as a people. And that, if I had my druthers, and the capacity, is what I would want to be.
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