Academia Meets Community in a Battle of Understanding

Last week I attended a presentation that was part of a community commemoration event.  The lecture touched on the history of a minority community one, that the speaker was not part of.  Many of the audience members were part of this community and were offended by the approach the speaker took to ‘their personal history.’  Since this lecture I’ve been struggling with the presentation content, audience reaction, and the gap between academic and public conceptions of history.

I’m sure the audience outrage at the event wasn’t a unique experience.  Many communities –women, indigenous people, racial groups, and the LGBT community, etc — have had the history of their communities explored by ‘outsiders.’  This type of research is far from inherently bad, it has the potential to create bridges and provide new insight to research topics.  However, cultural sensitivity and awareness are crucial to this type of work. Without awareness and understanding, historians can easily tread into unwelcome ground with communities.

The nature of academic publishing and conferences can cause academic historians to miss opportunities of engagement with the community who’s past they are researching.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that during the composition of a research paper an academic historian spends numerous hours on archival research and doesn’t ever visit or speak with the community they are researching.  This approach completely ignores the value of oral history and community resources.  It also disengages historians from the general public.

Back to the previously mentioned outraged audience.  Was the academic wrong to take a new approach to an accepted past? Of course not.  Was this community commemoration event the proper place to address this approach? Possibly not.  A number of audience members thought the presentation offensive and some considered it outright racist.  Had the audience been composed of academics the response would have most likely been completely different and not contain such an emotional response.

The very nature of public history involves sharing the past with the general public.  So, how does one bridge the gap from academia to public forum?  In my mind, community participation in all stages of research is key.  Knowing and reaching out to your audience/community can help bridge the academic-public gap.