There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter (now helpfully collected together in one place by The Grumpy Historian) in response to a call by the president of the American Historical Association for historians to write more accessibly. This is a topic where I have a small amount of previous form, having annoyed the hell out of a well-regarded popular historian on this blog last year, and – more constructively – written on the tendency of certain historians to write in a way that seems designed to alienate non-academic audiences. My initial instincts tend to be entirely in favour of accessibility (many of my own books really were intended to reach as wide an audience as possible, even if I fail lamentably at this) – but @grumpyhistorian makes some points worth thinking about: “Academic works *may* become popular, but they have other purposes to fulfill at the same time… non-academic works are usually oriented *away* from academic audiences, which academics can’t get away with.”
Well, except that sometimes they do. On reflection, at least in a UK context, this academic/non-academic distinction seems to work only if it’s an attribute of the book and the way it’s written (in which case it runs the risk of becoming tautologous) rather than derived from the identity of the author, ‘cos otherwise it’s difficult to know what to make of any number of works by well-regarded academic ancient historians that are clearly written for a popular audience. It’s not (just) that they think they can “get away with it”, and that the prospect of substantially larger royalties outweigh any risk of reputational damage (though the money probably isn’t a negligible factor, and it would be interesting to have data on the correlation between academics acquiring a literary agent – I’ve no idea how one goes about doing this, but I know various people have done so – and academics embarking on projects intended to make them the next Peter Heather, or the Niall Ferguson of classical antiquity).
On the contrary, writing this sort of popular, accessible work is now promoted as an essential part of the academic role, something that we should all aspire to in order to demonstrate the relevance and popularity of our subject in general and the research of our own institution in particular. Such books may not count for much in the Publications section of the Research Excellence Framework, but they’re something to shout about under Impact (even if mere dissemination and popularity doesn’t count for the strict definition of Impact; at last I’ve found something positive to say about it…), and definitely something to wave in the faces of university senior management, who are generally reassured by the idea that they’ve employed people whom other people have heard of.
This isn’t likely to change any time soon; the real question is how many such ‘popular academic’ or ‘celebrity’ historians the market can bear. Looking at television, radio and the printed press, it does seem that the general public is quite happy with a pretty small number of ancient historians who are assumed to know all about every aspect of the subject, rather than a wider range of specialists – and we can also see the power of a very small number of gatekeepers, with a big say on which books get reviewed outside specialist journals, who gets to review them, who gets invited for media appearances and so forth. It’s certainly not the case that every would-be popular academic work gets reviewed anywhere that the wider public is likely to hear about it, in which case its prospects for a mass audience and big sales come down to the size of the publisher’s marketing budget. The flip side of this is that a few unashamedly academic books get plucked from obscurity now and again and featured in literary magazines if not in broadsheets, presumably just because the reviews editor liked the topic – though the risk is then that they’re criticised for being too academic and too cautious in interpreting the evidence, precisely because they weren’t written in order to appeal to a wider audience. It all feels very random from the outside; perhaps if I had more experience of popular publishing and the quality press it might make more sense…
Does this have any significance, beyond the usual sullen envy of the mediocre career academic who doesn’t get to appear on In Our Time and is delighted to get a royalty payment of fifty quid? I think it does, as another strand in the current process of transformation of higher education: celebrity academics are going to get ever more important, and become ever more powerful (or at any rate in demand). Competition between universities for students and their fees is getting fiercer; the prospect of being lectured by someone they and/or their parents and/or their teachers have heard of, even seen on the telly, may make a significant difference to their choice of university. This is, after all, the major selling point of A.C.Grayling’s New College of the Humanities; maybe it won’t prove to be enough on its own to sustain an enterprise, but it could determine the fates of some traditional universities, or at any rate some of their humanities departments.
The rise of MOOCs will simply accentuate this: if people increasingly study online, why should they follow the lectures of someone they’ve never heard of when they could follow those of a famous name? It’s never going to be just about academic celebrity, of course: the name of the university will play a part (why bother with Bristol lectures when you could enjoy a virtual Harvard?), and also the simple question of who gets there first (you don’t need more than one introductory Roman history course on a MOOC, so whoever gets that gig will get to define Roman history for thousands of students for at least the next decade). But I can still imagine a significant role in the competition between MOOCs for the number of famous names each can offer in trying to attract students – and hence competition between them for those famous names.
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen the rise of the research capitalist in many faculties, people who pull in the big grants that pay for researchers and postgrads to do the research that enables the project director to apply for further grants. Leaving aside consideration of all the problems of that set-up, the trouble for the humanities is that there simply isn’t enough research funding around to make that a sustainable option for more than a miniscule number of academics. In a world where the number of academic posts, at least in the humanities, is likely to decline substantially in the face of funding changes and new forms of course delivery, then academic celebrity of any kind – anything that means that, so to speak, the Dean of Engineering might have heard of you – starts to look like a better career move than any number of well-regarded scholarly papers or monographs.