The historian in action needs to do more than research, write, and publish if she or he hopes to be the best historian possible. All scholars acknowledge their responsibility to contribute knowledge and understanding to the larger world, but far fewer also acknowledge their responsibility to engage with the non-academic community. Public engagement is – or at least should be – a scholarly pursuit. It should be striven for and achieved with the same level of seriousness that scholars devote to research and writing. But where is the time, one might ask, and where are the rewards? We all have careers to advance, after all, and our work isn’t going to take care of itself. Aside from the personal rewards one gains from interacting with and giving back to the community, there are also many rewards for scholarly engagement with the public that are built into the academic system. And if career credit for community involvement is built into the system what excuse does the responsible historian have for not making the time to be engaged?
Career rewards for historians who engage with the public may not be as widespread as they should be, but they do exist. Those with insight into the inner workings of the academic sphere know that individual universities and colleges vary greatly in how much they choose to emphasize research and teaching. At times the emphasis is 50/50, at others it is 60/40, or perhaps even 100/0. (Of course, definitions of and standards for good teaching will also vary from one institution and department to another.) Decisions about promotion, pay grade, and tenure are determined by how much an individual meets or exceeds institutional expectations, so there are obvious connections between institutional expectations and the motivations of individual scholars. System-wide and national awards for teaching, research, and community involvement offer additional incentives for scholars to fulfill specific obligations or play greater roles in society. Universities and colleges that emphasize and reward historians for teaching are, in part, acknowledging the responsibility historians have to pass the benefit of their education, training, and knowledge on to others. Teaching is a form of engagement with the public – albeit a select, paying segment of the public – but teaching alone cannot satisfy the historians’ responsibility to the non-academic community.
Historians who hope to make the most of their education, knowledge, and experience must look for ways to utilize and share the benefits of their training and insight with others. Professional associations, academic conferences, and social networks provide a fair amount of support for historians seeking to interact and collaborate with one another. But there are also many ways historians can engage with the public. During my time as a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I have witnessed the birth of several activities and programs that represent great opportunities for history students and faculty to pay it forward.
There is, for example, the Omaha Public School District’s Making Invisible Histories Visible (MIHV) program, a summer camp for at-risk students preparing to enter high school. Students work with graduate students, district high school teachers, and university faculty to conduct original research on a neglected aspect of Omaha’s history and share their findings via digital projects they develop over the course of the program. I participated in MIHV in its first year, 2010, and learned a great deal not only about the history of North and South Omaha, but also about the significant impact role modeling and mentoring can have on the lives of young people. Making Invisible Histories Visible ran again in the summer of 2011, and has become a model for other school districts across the nation.
Another program that also emerged in 2010 to promote ties between historians and the community is the History Harvest. Aimed at encouraging members of the public to come forward with their unique histories and historical artifacts, the first History Harvest was a joint venture between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s History Department and NET television. It focused on railroads and the making of modern America, and united railroad enthusiasts with UNL history graduate students and faculty to discuss the larger significance and context of the stories and artifacts contributed. This led to a second History Harvest in Nebraska City on the broader topic of family stories as well as the development of the History Harvest scholarship and internship program at UNL. The third History Harvest will take place in North Omaha on October 22, 2011.
Granted, the above examples are programs that are currently unique to Nebraska, yet plenty of other opportunities for involvement in the community – such as National History Day – are nationwide. Still more can be found with a simple internet search or a little old-fashioned footwork in one’s community. The historian that embraces the personal, professional, and altruistic benefits of sharing her or his talents is the truly responsible, truly active scholar.