Media and the Historian

A couple weeks ago, I taught my students about scholarly vs. popular history/sources. I wanted to gauge how students perceive scholarly history in comparison to popular history. I asked students to participate digitally with Menti an online polling service and type in their answer from their laptop or phone. (As a side note, this is a great way for students who don’t feel as comfortable participating in a larger group to voice their thoughts and opinions!)

I knew students would know what scholarly history and sources were, so I started by asking them “What is scholarly history?” Here are some of their responses:

  • Well-supported
  • Authored by an academic
  • Reviewed and criticized
  • Use of primary sources
  • Written in more complex terms
  • Professional
  • A real article, that is well supported and has an argument
  • Information is drawn from factual evidence
  • Masters educated
  • Well-educated
  • Trustworthy
  • Intended for a specialized audience

For the most part, I wasn’t surprised by these answers. The responses that I italicized were the key answers I wanted the students to understand about scholarly sources and history. Scholarly articles and work do tend to use a lot more jargon, which in turn often means it is written for specialized or specific audiences. My father casually enjoys history from time to time, but I doubt he’s going to pick up and read the Canadian Historical Review for fun. On the other hand, someone such as myself would! But unlike my dad, as a grad student and Canadian historian, many of the articles are more intended for readers like myself. This isn’t to say that people like my dad couldn’t read it, they definitely should! But, they are far more likely to pick up other books that are perhaps for a broader audience.

The responses I boldened were ones that stood out to me. They weren’t necessarily surprising, as these tend to be how we come to view scholarly work. They are (supposed to be) trustworthy and real, with an argument that is well supported by a wide range of primary and secondary evidence. Those two words, trustworthy and real, just stuck out. The students who gave those two responses aren’t wrong, they are certainly characteristics of scholarly history, but does that mean that popular history isn’t trustworthy or real?

I didn’t know how many of my students would know what popular history or sources were, so I told them to guess if they were unsure. Here are their responses:

  • Often easier to understand
  • Written for a mass demographic
  • More interesting and easier to follow
  • Amateur
  • Easily accessible
  • More focus on the narrative
  • Aims for a wide readership
  • Romanticized
  • History that shaped our future
  • Sensationalized history
  • History that is widely known about

I was surprised that my students did know about popular history, which allowed us to have a far more in-depth conversation about scholarly vs. popular history. Once again the responses I italicized are what I wanted the students to take away from what popular history is. Generally speaking, popular history is often easier to read, which makes it more accessible to a wider readership and does tend to have more of a narrative focus.

The three responses that stood out to me were that some students viewed them as amateur, romanticized and as sensationalized history. To give them credit, they aren’t wrong. Some popular history works are romanticized or sensationalized history that feeds into a larger audience’s view and understanding of history. Pierre Berton’s work sprung to mind when I was putting together this tutorial. Berton is a well-respected historian, but I do find a lot of his work romanticizes and sensationalizes Canadian history (especially his work Vimy). However, Berton is no amateur, he wrote numerous books that have become beloved by many Canadians, he certainly knew what he was talking about (to some extent).

So why is popular history viewed as amateur? While scholarly history is trustworthy?

The Role of the Publican Historian

One of the more intriguing parts of public history for me was working with the public. I couldn’t picture myself being a historian and spending my days in my office writing for other historians. I know that’s a broad generalization, but writing for other historians just doesn’t give me any excitement. The idea of working alongside, with and writing for the public gives me motivation and it inspires me to worker harder. Unlike my research in my undergrad, the research I am doing now has an impact on the community. Knowing I can have such a profound impact beyond the academic world, just feels right, you know?

So that’s why I was surprised by my student’s answers, does wanting to write popular history or more accessible history make my work amateur, untrustworthy or any less scholarly? It goes back to the view that public historians themselves are often seen as second-class historians, that if you aren’t writing what academia considers ‘scholarly’ work, then you are brushed off to the side.

There is value to popular history and scholarly history can have the same shortfalls that are found in popular history. One is not inherently better than the other, just as one type of historian isn’t more valuable than another. If we are trying to break away from the idea that history is for the elite, by continuously disregarding history, sources, and fields that don’t fit into the ‘typical’ mold, we are only reinforcing the elitism of history.

Let’s be honest, every historian can look back onto a moment or event that sparked their interest in history. Maybe it was a family story or a teacher in high school, perhaps its a book, movie, television show or song? One thing for sure is, it likely wasn’t the Canadian Historical Review or a comprehensive analysis on the historiography of the upper class in Victorian England. If it was? That’s awesome, all the power to you! But for many historians, including myself, it was likely popular history. I remember watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and reading picture books about historical events (I have way too many graphic novels depicting historical events). I mean, popular history is popular for a reason. More people are able to access these works, understand them and enjoy them. There isn’t an intimidating amount of jargon that would turn the average person off from it, they are able to tell a story from start to finish that flows into an accessible narrative, and overall they are just a bit more fun to read casually than Collingwood’s.

There is scholarly value in popular historical works. It will depend on the author, but as an inspiring writer, I want my work to have scholarly value despite it leaning towards popular history! Scholarly and popular should NOT be mutually exclusive. They can work together simultaneously to reach a wider readership while still holding a valuable place in academic literature. I’d argue that both James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains and Timothy Winegard’s For King and Kanata are examples of being accessible to a wide readership while revolutionizing their respective fields and holding an immense scholarly value. The level Daschuk and Winegard have set is something I hope to achieve in my career, to be both scholarly and popular, simultaneously.

History and the Media

In the last Public History Theory class for the semester, we will be working with Professor Vance on a workshop that will help us hone our skills while working with the public. Reading about the workshop is actually what inspired this blog post. Professor Vance will be speaking with us about our role as a public figure and how we can gauge interest, write with a non-academic tone and hooking interest.

Having done television and newspaper interviews in my undergrad, I wish I had this workshop prior to those interviews! I was aware that there is a difference when I work with and speak with other academics in comparison to the general public, but I didn’t have the applicable skills to be able to use them back then. I know I want to work with educational programming at museums or heritage sites (the dream is the War Museum) and I know skills of gauging interest (and then being able to improvise if that doesn’t work), speaking accessibly, and hooking interest will help me effectively do those jobs.

I will end this blog post with an update on my thoughts about the workshop, as I am currently writing this during reading week (trying to get ahead on my work!), but I know I am going to be able to learn a lot from it.


So what do you think? Is there value to popular history? Are scholarly and popular mutually exclusive? Or are they able to work together to help us historians ‘create’ our own mainstream?

~ Kat

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