One of the reasons for creating History@Work (and its predecessor, “Off the Wall“) was to contribute to discussion about peer review in public history–where it happens, what gets reviewed, how professional public historians might locate their critiques in dialogue with critical commentary outside the field, and whether traditional scholarly peer review can capture and respond to the increasingly wide range of projects and products that come under the heading of “public history”–everything from apps to tweets. In this Q&A post, History@Work co-editors Adina Langer and Cathy Stanton discuss some of the issues and possibilities that have emerged from History@Work’s first year of publication.
Ecole des Beaux-Arts Atelier, photograph late 1800s, public domain
There are some big questions that seem to keep coming up in the conversations happening around this, and one of them has to do with the fact that the personal and institutional separation on which conventional peer review is based is very hard to maintain once you get into the relatively small world of professional public history, particularly when you go beyond the usual reviews of scholarly books or big-name museum exhibits and web projects. People are often unwilling to critique their peers really rigorously in public, for a whole range of reasons that, as an anthropologist, I can’t help trying to analyze! It seems to me that one reason may be fear of offending someone in an agency or institution you might want to work for someday. Another may be uneasiness about “letting the side down” – everyone is scrambling for funding and legitimacy, and poking holes in someone else’s project may feel like opening our own work to scrutiny that could undermine its political, institutional, or financial support. Are there others, and are there ways we might get around them?
I think that the bulk of these concerns have to do with the “public” nature of public history. By going out in the world, whether on our own or as part of an organization, we remove the legacy of protection that comes with the traditional “ivory tower” package (which I know is fraught with its own deceptive restraints ranging from seniority to relative publishing prestige). Aspiring consultants and public history professionals assert “academic freedom” at their own risk. We must be diplomatic in tone and focus, or we really do risk alienating our tenuous community of advocacy and support. I agree that there’s a sense that we’re “all in this together,” but, at the same time, I think that communities benefit from a healthy spirit of self-critique. I think that we would all benefit from acceptance of this as part of the profession across the board. Continue reading