Being Boring: A Public Historian’s Dilemma

*Originally published on my old blog, Muse Blues, on Feb. 19, 2014


“Be more boring, Callison!”

This may be my favorite piece of criticism that I have ever received from a professor. My writing style, he said, was engaging, entertaining and fluid, with a journalistic flair that he greatly enjoyed. But at my university, the History department requires a more academic tone in postgraduate work. This is completely understandable; after all, I’m playing with the big kids now. But why are “academic” and “entertaining” mutually exclusive?

Despite being technically a member of the academic community because of my fancy-shmancy degree, I like to think of myself as a bit of a rebel. I never suck up to my professors (mostly because I don’t know how), and I have difficulty distancing my personal voice from the subject I’m writing on. Public History in itself is a bit of a rebellious discipline, as it calls into question the very necessity of ‘experts’ in the historical field. With all the information you could possibly want freely available on the internet or in public libraries and archives, the role of trained historians really should be the effective interpretation of all that material. And yet, we are expected to remove our unique voices from the conversation, the voices that really should be trusted because, well, this is what we do.

You could chock it all up to a question of credibility. Not the credibility of the historian — the credibility of the history. If the historian is doing more than simply documenting facts, the factuality of the history can be called into question. An historian’s well-being depends entirely on whether or not people buy what they’re selling. Too many opinions might rouse suspicion that history is not, in fact, fact. People might figure out that we are essentially attempting to prove the unprovable, to piece together a past that has come and gone with limited documentation. They might realize that “facts” can be — and have been — interpreted in infinite ways. And we can’t have that, now can we?

Every historian has their opinions, of course, we’re not made of stone! And we are encouraged to express those opinions in our work, but only in the most subtle ways, disguised under layers of academic language. “Look how many words I know!” It’s meant, more than anything, to make the reader feel special if they understand your argument without consulting a dictionary. It’s meant to isolate and deny access to the non-academic community, to keep history inside its crumbling ivory tower. My fear is that if we don’t teach historians to effectively speak to a wider audience, the public will rely solely on the massive amounts of scattered information (and misinformation) that is uncurated, uninterpreted, and basically ineffective when taken out of context. We can’t leave the entertaining bits of history entirely up to Stephen Spielberg, or even worse, Quentin Tarantino.

This all may seem like a bitter rant in response to being told to amp up my academic game, but I promise you, it’s not. I will happily “be more boring” when it comes time to turn in my next essay, to tone down my voice and give a more indepth analysis. Whatever can make me a better writer is welcome advice. But the reason I’m studying Public History and not simply History is because the audience is what I find important. What’s the point of preserving the past for future generations if they don’t give a hoot about it? We need both sides to work together, those who uncover our extraordinary past and those who examine its relevance to society. I would like to see more historians who consider their audience more carefully, encouraging the dissemination of history to the masses and not just to other historians. People have lost interest in history because it bores them to death. It’s time to engage.