Yesterday’s post on the latest panic over the fictitious “epidemic” of “p.c.” on American college and university campuses got me thinking about something else I’ve been meaning to write about here on the subject of public engagement. Our students are the public we engage most frequently, so the two subjects are interrelated. Those of us who are open to and generous with our students will probably have an easier time thinking about the role that public engagement plays in our work life. Public engagement is now a component of how faculty are evaluated every year, so it’s a good thing for all of us to think about now that we’ve rounded third base of summer and are headed for home and a new semester.
I’ve alluded to this before, but because the air date approaches soon, I can tell you that I was invited to collaborate and participate on-camera in an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” which will air on TLC at 9 EDT/8 Central on Sunday, August 30. I would encourage any historian contacted by the show’s researchers to communicate with them and share your knowledge, because unlike some other shows and cable channels that traffic in historical content–cough**TheHistoryChannel**coughcough–“WhoDo” researchers and producers take pride in learning from their collaborators and encourage us to play a role in developing the most interesting stories that a celebrity subject might want to learn about.
(Who knew that my relatively arcane expertise in colonial French Canadian women’s history would be the thing that springs me from C-SPAN 3 to basic cable? But I digress. . . )
I heard from some of the people on “WhoDo” that when they contact a professional historian to see if they’re interested in collaborating on an episode on a given subject, many historians respond with “read my book first and then I’ll talk to you.”
Seriously? That’s a standard for public engagement that exactly no one will ever meet, an even nastier version of “you kids get off my lawn. And your ‘music?’ It’s just noise!”
Here’s my perspective, and I’ll grant you: maybe if I were a prominent historian of the U.S. Civil War who had published major biographies of military figures, I’d have to fend off requests from the public for engagement (especially over these past four years of the war’s sesquicentennial. Maybe I would be exhausted by emails inviting me to speak here and appear on the teevee there, but isn’t that what agents are for?)
But I’m not a prominent U.S. Civil War historian, and most of us aren’t, so why are some of us such jerks about people asking us to share our rather arcane knowledge and expertise? Are the teeming masses really beating down your doors to get to you that you can’t answer an email courteously and be open to working with a historical commission, a study group, a local historical society, a documentary film producer, or a television show? It’s pretty easy to do, and you’ll meet some nice people and have fun, so why not show people that the work you do in humanities scholarship can be fun and fascinating?
Ask not “why public engagement?” but “why not?” It’s like the old rule in improv comedy: when your partner introduces an idea into a scene, you never say “no,” because that kills the scene. Always say “Yes! And. . . ” contribute your own ideas. (I’m working to make “Yes! And. . . ” my new motto in all aspects of life, not just professional life.)
So as for “WhoDo:” I said “Yes! And. . . ” and I had fun! I got to meet and hang out with Tom Bergeron and his wife along with the rest of the “WhoDo” crew, who were all incredibly nice people who were good at their jobs. (How many of you can say that about faculty life in your department?) You can see the results for yourself Sunday night August 30 on TLC.