Talking to Civilians

Academics all stand to gain if they become better skilled at talking about their work with non-academics, writes Katrina Gulliver.

April 26, 2013

You know the situation. The person next to you on the plane or at a party has just asked what you do.

I am a historian.

"Does that mean you teach history?"

Right now, yes. But for the last few years I wasn’t teaching. I was researching and writing, first at a university and then at a historical society.

Numerous conversations I’ve had over this time have included the other person saying they’ve never met a historian before, and that what I do sounds fascinating. It is, and it’s a lot of fun. I travel all over the place
and I write about what I enjoy.

But at the same time, people have seemed amazed: Is that a real job?

To some, it sounds like a hobby. Paul Lockhart expressed the frustration on his blog of hearing "my friend is a historian, he’s read lots of books."

I’ve also had to bite my tongue not to say "I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, that doesn’t make me an M.D."

Yet there are many people out there, at cocktail parties, on trains and planes, in waiting rooms, who have told me they enjoyed history in high school and are interested to hear about what I do. These conversations are important; yet I have friends who have encountered hostility to academics in social settings, who just say "I’m a teacher" and avoid the issue.

While that may be socially adroit in some situations, we have to be our own advocates for letting the public know what people with Ph.D.s actually do.

At a time when the humanities and social sciences are often devalued — those paying high tuition fees want to see some guaranteed "job skills" at the end of it — we need to be better at explaining our work to people outside academe. We have a tendency to use jargon, and even our "elevator pitch" summaries of our work are aimed at other academics.

While being in the humanities offers many rewards, sometimes we have to fight a rearguard action against "Who cares?" and "What’s the point?"

Some people are genuinely interested, and to blow them off with half-answers is only to perpetuate the disconnect between academics and the rest of the world — and at worst to confirm the idea that we are
snooty and out of touch. ("Oh, my work is so specialized and rarefied, you wouldn’t understand.") If you have a Ph.D. you are unusual, and it behooves us to not separate ourselves from everyone else.

If we are dependent to some degree on public funding, we do have to seem "worth it," which can also be an awkward conversation. I am probably not the only academic who has described his or her work to receive as a response a sardonic "your taxes at work." (Fortunately for me at that time, I was able to say I was paid by a private nonprofit organization, not public funds).

But what is it I actually do? How do I spend my time? I spend a heck of a lot of time reading, and visiting archives, which is an eye-opener to people who assume "It’s all online now."

I recently took up up a more traditional academic post, but I plan to keep a foothold outside academe too. And describing myself as a "teacher," while it sums up some of what I do, doesn’t acknowledge the bulk of
my work in research (and perpetuates the idea that we only work six hours per week, because that’s when we’re in the classroom...).

The years we spend training for academe, and then on the job market (which is a saga unto itself) leave plenty of time for contemplating, “What am I doing?"  But having such questions in our own dark nights of
the soul doesn’t make us any better at answering that question from others.

Writing about my work online has been very helpful; I have heard from people who enjoy history and like to know what historical research involves.

Communicating what I do on Twitter has brought me a broader audience than I will ever have in academe (more people read my tweets than my articles), and I want to encourage all academics to find ways to share what they do with a broader audience.

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Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars, and also contributes regularly to The Atlantic and the Berlin Review of Books. Her site is and you can find her most of the time on twitter @katrinagulliver.


Katrina Gulliver

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