Speaking of the survey (Part 4): Perceived weaknesses of The Public Historian

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This is the fourth in a series of posts about the findings of our summer 2012 survey on the current state and possible future directions of The Public Historian journal and other NCPH media.

from Linda Shopes, member, NCPH journal advisory group:

As a member of NCPH’s task force considering the future of The Public Historian and its relationship to other NCPH media, I reviewed responses to question #4 of the Council’s recent Public History Readers Survey: What do you think are the weaknesses of The Public Historian? 211 people answered the question; their responses fall into several broad categories, summarized here.

Many respondents said the design and format of the journal were “old fashioned,” “stodgy,” ‘boring,” and otherwise “dull, dull, dull.” Especially noted was the lack of visual interest, reflecting, I suspect, the greater visual capacity and appeal of digital materials.

Similarly, many respondents expressed concerns loosely grouped around what might be termed digital matters: a lack of open access; the long production time of a paper journal and hence lack of timeliness, especially for exhibit and book reviews (“slow pace of journal production somewhat out of synch with dynamic qualities of the field”); the infrequency of publication; the “lack of dynamic content.” One comment seemed to capture the shift in the way people are accessing and reading professional/academic material as digital publishing takes hold: “I find professional journals generally both less useful and less appealing than they used to be. There’s just SO MUCH to read and it’s coming in so many different formats from so many different sources than it used to! I tend to consume articles and reviews individually more often now than within the context of an issue of a publication. And those individual articles/reports/critiques/ analyses/how-to’s may come over my Facebook feed from a colleague or an institution I follow, a listserv, a blog, an email link, or–yes–a journal article I spot as I quickly leaf through the table of contents.”

As for content, comments were all over the map and often contradictory (articles are too long, articles are too short, etc.). Many complained that articles are “dry and boring” or “positively soporific,” as one respondent put it. Several expressed dislike of the “show and tell” aspect of case studies that “don’t explore broader issues.” Others said articles were sometimes “too theoretical,” yet others that they were “undertheorized.” Perhaps the most frequent complaint was that the articles were too academic, in a way that doesn’t represent well the diversity of practices and practitioners in public history. There was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with perceived “navel-gazing” and with the journal’s failure to take more risks, be more innovative. Several also expressed concern about the lack of significant focus on public history internationally.

Surprising to me was the frequently expressed dissatisfaction with theme issues, largely on the grounds that the theme was not of interest to the reader. As one respondent wrote, “If you aren’t interested in the topic, the issue isn’t very useful.” This seems short sighted to me and perhaps expresses a larger tension between the pragmatic and more analytic approach to public history.

Book and museum reviews also came in for a fair amount of criticism. Respondents noted their uneven quality and limited range; that they were “weak and superficial,” “idiosyncratic,” and didn’t include enough context; also that they take up too many of the journal’s pages. There’s an interest in broadening the range of materials reviewed, including especially gray literature.

Paralleling comments about format and design, several criticized the writing in the journal as a: “boring academic style,” “pedestrian,” “uneven,” and “with minimal editing.”

More positively, respondents offered several suggestions (also sometime contradictory) for improving the journal. Among the most common: more on methods and practical, hands on, and experiential aspects of public history. One person put this call for specificity in context, calling for “more articles that explore how a general/specific topic is relevant for/can be translated to the public using all kinds of methods.” Interest was expressed in greater explicit interdisciplinarity, in articles that reflect collaboration between public historians and other professionals who nonetheless practice public history, and in reports from/states of different sectors of the field. Respondents also called for “more provocative conversation” and “debates and disagreements.” A few wanted greater emphasis on public policy issues and advocacy.

Finally, I note a group of comments about “how the journal doesn’t meet my interests,” that “I’m a busy professional [or graduate student] with no time to read it” (and by the way, what is the journal doing to help me get a job?). There’s something here—maybe the above comments begin to address what would better meet readers’ interests—but, as with comments about theme issues, these also seem to indicate a shortsightedness, that only work that addresses one’s immediate interests is worth reading. That’s a perspective, an attitude, a tone among public historians that NCPH might fruitfully pay attention to.

2 thoughts on “Speaking of the survey (Part 4): Perceived weaknesses of The Public Historian

  1. It does seem to me that, as historians, we should be interested in the power of the journal as a chronicle of the field over time. For that reason, topical timeliness is important, but relevance to immediate basic concerns (like job markets) that can better be dealt with in digital publications, is perhaps less so. I think it is important that we consider the role of The Public Historian in the public history field’s level of respect and prestige relative to other academic disciplines as well… But it is also very useful to mine these comments for larger desires within the profession that can/should be addressed by NCPH overall. Thank you for this analysis!

  2. As someone who took the survey and remain curious about the results, I appreciate this series and the analysis that has gone into each of the posts so far. Hopefully this can continue the conversation. Thanks.

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