This post was partly inspired by a discussion of historical fiction that took place in the Q&A section of the Hidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archives, which I have written about, here.
When sitting down to first write this post, I had trouble defining what I actually want to talk about. After thinking hard and consulting Twitter, I think best way of defining the media I want to talk about is this…
Any media which aims to make academic and/or scientific topics accessible to the public aka #AccessibleAcademics. (This becomes complicated when critics argue that they aren’t ‘academic’ enough, but I will cross that bridge later.) I am talking about books, comic books, documentaries, childrens’s shows, twitter feeds, podcasts, public personalities &c..
OK, boring defining bit out the way. Why was I moved to write this? Because more and more regularly, I am seeing the producers or writers of this content be criticized for not being ‘academic’ enough or some how devolving their field into a ‘micky subject.’ This criticism turns caustic and especially volitile when it is directed towards female academics or educators. If I had a pound for every time an educated and qualified female twitterstorian was told she was ‘just a pretty face’ or pedantic because she expects to be addressed as ‘Dr’ as opposed to ‘Miss,’ I could fund a PHD myself (and probably experience the same ire).
This gets to me. Not only because it is both rude and factually inaccurate but because it points to the larger issue in academia of intellectual gatekeeping. I don’t want to believe it, but it seems that a lot the academics who criticise popular science or history do so because they don’t want the masses to have access to academic subjects and not because they are particularly worried about the calibre of such media. Sure, there are crap science and history books/shows out there, which perpetuate myths and falsehoods, but this concern wouldn’t account for why bonafide and qualified personalities are facing such criticism.
This upsets me even more, because I am a first gen university goer battling through her masters and I wouldn’t be at university without my TV. Is every home filled with books? Are all parents university graduates who take their family to the theatre or to galleries? Are all school teachers great at spotting and nurturing a child’s passion for a topic? No. Do most children have access to a TV? Yes.
As a child I watched BBC 4 relentlessly. I loved all things Ancient Egypt (Not going to lie, it was because of The Mummy) and so would watch Zahi Hawass’s documentaries. I bored the bejeezus out of my mother by demanding to watch Time Team so much that she banned it off the TV. I learnt about the history of food from Sue Perkins’s and Giles Coran’s Supersizers go… which I still love and rewatch. My (purely academic) love of syphilis comes from an episode of Historical Cold Cases in which they give a face to a nameless young sex worker who was afflicted with the illness. And I will never forget the day that I first saw Susannah Liscomb’s Hidden Killer’s of the Victorian Home – she was so enthused, so clever, so well educated, had her own show and she was a lady. You have to see it to be it – and in that moment, I saw an opportunity for myself.
Where all these shows suitable for a young person? No, absolutely not if you go by the offcom rating system. I watched science documentaries about obscure illnesses with graphic surgery scenes. I watched documentaries that sensationalised the Ripper murders and gave me nightmares for weeks. That’s why I am so glad that there are now Children’s TV shows like Operation Ouch and Horrible Histories. My younger sister had no interest in my Horrible History books but could she sing every word to “King who brought back partying”? Yeah she could, and near drove us insane with her renditions.
I could (correctly) assert that this media acts as a gateway for some people to pursue interests that would otherwise be off limits. I could wax lyrical about health and science educators fostering science literacy in a ‘fake news’ era. Yet I am aware that even this argument privileges the notion of academics being ‘above’ those who don’t pursue higher education. A person may just like watching Secrets at the Museum or reading Sapiens and that’s that – it is entertainment. Is that not reason enough to support popular and accessible documentaries and books? There is a market for it. People enjoy consuming it. What better reason do you need?
Now we have Twitter, podcasts, lovely friendly educators who love talking to their enthused followers, museums and collections are reaching out hosting fun and free events, popular figures are travelling on book tours and giving speeches. History Fest is happening this week (!!!) offering an amazing line up of fantastic historians on diverse subjects AND offering digital events too for peak accessibility. (I stan).
And if all this irritates some dusty ol’ academics then tough tatties. Accessible academics is in and it is here for the long haul.
This is the first in a series of #accessibleacademics post.