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Historians! Come On Down

June 9, 2008, 1:58 pm

When I saw the headline for this story in today’s New York Times (“Now Professors Get Their Star Rankings Too”), I immediately assumed it was another article about the Radical’s least favorite marketing tool disguised as a consumer advocate for students. But no: it was about the Social Science Research Network, a site that can be joined for free and where research — refereed and self-published — is distributed. According to author Noam Cohen, SSRN has been around since 1994, and the downloadable documents “include pensees, abstracts, informal arguments, rough drafts and working papers, up to the finished products you might find in academic journals.” There is also a page that lists the site’s top authors, although the owners say that producing stars is not one of their main objectives. Yet rankings there are, and we bloggers do particularly well, shamelessly self-promoting individuals as we tend to be, since we helpfully provide links to our work whenever possible.

But where are the historians at SSRN?

Although one might legitimately dispute whether history is a social science (I prefer to think of it as an interdisciplinary field rather than a discipline myself), history is not represented on the site’s index as a searchable network, although historians may be hiding in some of the other categories. English and American literature, Classics and Philosophy are represented, however, and they are not social sciences at all.

So what’s the deal history colleagues? It’s rare that we find ourselves to be outpaced by Philosophy and Classics in the creation of audiences — and by our friends in English Departments too! Despite the claims of conservative pundits that literary scholars are rotting the academy from inside out while the rest of us stand helplessly by and watch, they have a harder time getting published, finding full-time employment, and being taken as seriously as they should be as public intellectuals than virtually any other category of scholar (except perhaps philosophers and classicists — new translation of the Iliad, anyone?)

Other than the fact that these three fields are under siege and have nothing to lose (as well as everything to gain) by trying to reach a mass audience, my favorite theory as to why we historians have fallen behind in seeking out a broader readership is that historians have a particularly vexed relationship to the popular. On the one hand, the masses as well as the classes often pursue history as a leisure activity and a hobby, which makes it possible for a few historians to distribute their work far more broadly than other scholars can. David McCullough, Jill Lepore, and Jonathan Spence, for example, reach a national market with their scholarship, in part because educated readers love history and in part because they are great writers with an eye for a story that needs to be told. On the other hand, how many times, dear history colleagues, have you seen a group of otherwise sensible people turn up their noses at the information that a forthcoming scholarly work will appear under the imprint of a quality commercial publisher that most authors — nay, those with the upturned noses — would kill to have a contract, much less a check and marketing plan, from? Vile commerce is perceived by us as inherently suspect, and we ensure scholarly virtue through a refereeing process that controls distribution of work, delays projects for years and ensures that the manuscript will only speak to a narrow audience. An insistence that the only good work has been heavily vetted through our current refereeing practices may be a mistake, much as soliciting the criticisms of others does contribute to producing good work (although it doesn’t always, I’m afraid, as cases where flawed research has slipped through to publication or to a prize demonstrates.) In its current form, it may be a fetish that is doing us more harm than good, and may be something that our professional associations need to review to take advantage of an atmosphere of intellectual vigor offered by electronic and other forms of mass publication.

Crossposted at Cliopatria

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