Writing History for the General Reader: A Roundtable with Grantees in the NEH Public Scholar Program

AHA Session 225
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Daniel Sack, National Endowment for the Humanities
David Courtwright, University of North Florida
Jeremy D. Popkin, University of Kentucky
Linda Przybyszewski, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

A scan of the best-seller lists or documentary programming on television shows that there is a substantial general audience for broadly accessible, well-told history. Yet much historical scholarship fails to reach this audience. Because of habit, training, or professional expectations many historians write narrowly focused books for their fellow academics in language that lay people find inaccessible. These books may create scholarly buzz or satisfy tenure requirements, but they do not usually interest broader groups of readers. The result is a public that is often ignorant of history or overly reliant on history that is intellectually suspect.

In recent years it has become clear, however, that many historians want to break this pattern by writing for general audiences. This desire is reflected in the strong response to the new Public Scholar grant program being offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program, which offers fellowships to those writing well-researched books in the humanities aimed at a broad readership, has attracted over one thousand applications in its first three years. The academic historians in this applicant pool want to be read widely and to contribute to discussions beyond their narrow academic fields. For many, that’s why they got into history to start with.

In this roundtable session, three historians who have received grants from the NEH Public Scholar Program will discuss their experience writing for a general audience. The goal is to encourage other historians who are interested in doing this kind of work. Each of these three NEH Public Scholars--AHA members who have also published traditional academic scholarship--has received support for a history book aimed at general readers. David Courtwright’s book is on the history of pleasure, vice, and addiction. Linda Przybyszewski’s project treats the unexpected origins of modern religious liberty in America. Jeremy Popkin’s book is a new history of the French Revolution.

They will share their experiences and offer advice, especially on the differences between public scholarship and academic writing. The discussion will be led by a NEH program officer, who will ask questions including:

  • Why do you want to write for general readers?
  • What did you learn in the process?
  • How does writing for the public change the way you conceptualize, research, and write?
  • How is publishing with a trade press different than a university press?

The moderator will also allow significant time for questions from the audience. This mixture of conceptual and practical questions will help those in the audience who would like to reshape their scholarship for general readers.

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