Getting Engaged (to “the public”)

As I wrap up the first draft of my dissertation (whoo-hoo!), I’m starting to look for ways to engage in public discussions of broader themes and topics to which my dissertation is relevant, however remotely.  I’ve approached my teaching institution’s communications office to participate in a series of public talks; I’ve added a Google News section with keywords associated to my dissertation topic; and I’m saving my pennies to restart my subscription to the New York Times and maybe, if I can bear it, The Economist.  My hope is that by and through these outlets, I’ll both find ways of making broader connections within my dissertation and bring my dissertation to a group larger than my three committee members and my dog.

But I’m not entirely sure how to begin.  Initially, I thought that I should get involved in the comments sections of blogs and other websites when something relevant comes up — like a TED presentation a few weeks back about which I might have left some insightful (of course!) comment.  But maybe that’s a waste of time, or maybe I just need to pick and choose; Foreign Policy might be good, while Seeking Alpha might be the wrong audience.  And what, exactly, should I say?  While I have the advantage, compared to other historians, of working on a relatively recent and relevant topic, I’m used to talking about the past for its own sake, rather than making the direct connections to the present and future that most readers — who are busy with real jobs and lives in the real present and future — want.

Despite these concerns, I will push forward with my grand plans for public engagement, for at least two reasons.  First, it is actually important that we historians — both student and faculty — take a lead role in bringing historical interpretation to the public.  If we don’t, other people who don’t know a damned thing about the past will use it and abuse it.  Second, this sort of thing can’t hurt when trying to land a job.  Of course, you have to be smart about where, when, and and how you engage the public, but I think it can work out well if you do it right.

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