Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Public Scholarship

From Puck magazine, 1912.
Benjamin Railton

In the final stages of my work on The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America (Palgrave Pivot, June 21, 2013) I found myself struggling with a challenge that I believe faces all of us who seek to produce works of public scholarship. Much of the history on which my book focuses is well known to academic historians, but is (to my mind) almost entirely unknown (if not indeed often misrepresented) within the broader American community.

For example, the first of the three main “lessons” I seek to draw from the Chinese Exclusion Act has to do with the history of legal and illegal immigration, and more exactly with the commonplace phrase “My ancestors came here legally.” Academic historians are likely to know that there were no national immigration laws prior to the 1882 Exclusion Act (or at least its immediate predecessors/starting points such as the Page Act), that prior to 1921 there remained no laws that affected any immigrants not arriving from China or related Asian nations, and that between 1921 and 1965 the quota laws were directly based on ethnic/national discrimination. Yet most Americans have no sense of that history.

So how do we public scholars bridge that gap? How do we produce work that can speak both to academics and general readers? For me, the answer lies, at least in part, in a two-pronged approach: in my Introduction I explicitly address these questions for fellow academics, arguing that we scholars need to do more to bring our shared knowledge to broader public audiences; and then my three main chapters represent case studies in that approach, that is, efforts to write about subjects currently of interest to academic historians in such a way that will also enlighten a broader audience.

As I take the next steps with the project, seeking spaces and conversations where I can share its ideas, I continue to consider these questions, and to work on finding a voice and approach that can speak to different communities. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and, of course, on the book!

Ben Railton is associate professor of English and coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) and Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893 (University of Alabama Press, 2007). He maintains the daily AmericanStudies blog (


Gabriel Loiacono said...

As an historian of social welfare, I struggle with this too: most historians know it existed; many lay readers do not. I am also writing a book with both audiences in mind, using a narrative style that lays out basic facts in an engaging way for both audiences, while fitting in bracing historiographical points as well. I think this is what one of my grad school professors, David Fischer, meant when he described what he called "fusion history," a history both analytical and narrative.

hcr said...

I also struggle with it. I have spent this week cutting five chapters of my new book into one, and I keep getting caught up in: BUT THIS STUFF IS SO IMPORTANT AND IT'S SO WELL WRITTEN, alternating with: EVEN I CAN TELL THAT I'M GOING TO BORE THE SOCKS OFF ALL MY READERS AND THEY WON'T READ ON. I think I've broken the logjam, and honestly, what did it-- I think-- was repeated breaks (I've made dozens of cookies, walked miles, done tons of laundry) in which I would ask myself: What would I want an undergraduate to remember about this material after the class is over? All of a sudden, a new narrative thread sort of just appeared, and it seems to be working.

I'm with Ben, though. Would love to hear more on this topic.

AmericanStudier said...

Thanks for these great thoughts! I look forward to both of your books, and to hearing other folks' takes as well.