Digital Project Proposal: Reformatting Academic Journal Articles for Non-Academic Audiences

The Problem

In a recent Washington Post Opinion piece, Max Boot argues that historians should accept rightful blame for the sorry state of America’s general ignorance of its own history. Historiographic shifts to studying social and cultural history and history through the lens of gender have “[led] to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect… Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals.” Boot’s unoriginal argument took heavy criticism from historians via Twitter. In other words, Boot lobbed a familiar rock at the academy, and historians lobbed a familiar rock back at him.

I argue that Boot and other critics of the academy have mis-identified the root of the problem. Boot posits that historians’ changing interests have rendered students, and therefore the American populace en masse, ignorant of their past and thus incapable of learning from mistakes like electing a demagogue to be president.

Not exactly.

Some people simply have a genuine disinterest in reading or watching or hearing interpretations of history, but many more will take an interest in subjects is they are discussed using creative, intellectually, and financial viable formats. Historians must give them a way of doing so. I’m not so dense as to think that universities and private colleges have the resources to reproduce a Hamilton-type cultural wave. But institutional subscriptions to JSTOR or ProQuest simply aren’t enough to make waves in public intellectual culture.

Unlike Boot and some of his critics, my project doesn’t pick fights. Instead, it tackles the immediate problem: an uninspired public and an academy that can inspire others to learn and ask questions.

The Project

I propose to develop a model for an open-source audio-visual journal that replicates existing journal articles through visual representation and full-length audio recordings. In an ideal world, my project would consist of dozens of videos and recordings dedicated to distilling single articles down to stimulating yet captivating segments. Seeing as how the semester is limited in time and resources, I propose to produce one such video and audio recording of a single article to demonstrate the utility of this resource.

Existing Project Models

There are a few existing projects that serve as models for my proposed project. The first is the Journal of Visual Experiments (JoVE). JoVE is an online, peer reviewed scientific journal that shares videos of thousands of different scientific experiments with institutional and individual subscribers. The video articles run the gambit of subjects, from Breath Collection from Children for Disease Biomarker Discovery to Assessing the Particulate Matter Removal Abilities of Tree Leaves. The videos follow students, researchers, and top scientists as they conduct the experiments so that they may be reproduced. Yet unlike JoVE, my proposed platform will not exist behind a paywall; it will be open-access.

A second similar project is historian and host Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast. Published weekly for free download, Dr. Covart conducts interviews with leading historians on subjects related to their recent publications. During a recent interview with Professor Ryan Quintana, they discussed what historians refer to as the “state” within the context of colonial South Carolina. A subject as complex as the “state” is not well understood beyond academic and policy circles. An audio-visual journal modeled after Dr. Covart’s hour-long podcast episodes aim would introduce nearly any audience to the complexities of any number of fascinating historical subjects while reproducing the same stimulating yet welcoming atmosphere of Ben Franklin’s World. My proposed audio-visual journal will not address monographs or edited volumes, but rather will focus on journal articles, which receive far less attention from podcasts generally.

Outreach and Benefits

First, students with visual impairments often have to rely on readers or text-reading software to consume text-based readings including articles. My proposed audio-visual journal provides students the option to listen to articles, read by historians and voice-over professionals on their own time as they would an audiobook or podcast. Those with hearing impairments may also find use in videos with subtitles generated not imbedded software but rather by video editors who include accurate transcriptions of what otherwise may be heard.

Second, my proposed audio-visual journal adopts models of video content production to reproduce articles in visual form. For example, an article that relies on and even quotes from archival material may be reproduced visually. The video would proceed through an abridged version of the article with photos of the same primary sources used as evidence in the original text. Editing software will allow the narrator to guide the user to specific lines in text and places in photographs and objects that are noted in the article. Visitors to historic sites and cultural institutions want to see the places and objects and documents that comprise the historical record. Seeing what is otherwise only spoken of demystifies the process of producing history and inspires pride and a commitment to learning and sharing knowledge with others of the public.

As for publicity, I propose to share (with necessary permissions) the videos and audio files with professors and history teachers in high schools who currently use academic articles in their classrooms. Until sufficient resources are acquired for wider distribution, my proposed audio-visual journal will spread through word-of-mouth.

Evaluation and Final Considerations

A successful project will attract a slowly but gradually enlarging base of non-academic users as more articles are distilled as videos and recorded as audio files. That being said, the videos produced using this platform are not intended as permanent substitutes for textual articles. They are meant as teach tools and take on a medium that is often more engaging than readings.

One Reply to “Digital Project Proposal: Reformatting Academic Journal Articles for Non-Academic Audiences”

  1. You’ve identified a really interesting problem area to work in. Figuring out ways that we can make the results of scholarship more open and engaging to broader audiences is a great issue and something that I think fits well with the focus of our course. For some good ideas in this space, you may want to jump ahead in the course and read the various readings and explore the projects from our second to last week of the course that focuses on opening scholarly communication.

    Zeroing in on trying to produce one model example of what this would look like for a particular academic article is a solid way to make this very specific and concrete. With that said, demonstrating the viability of this approach would likely be significantly stronger if you could show us what it looks like across a few different articles. That is, depending on how you scope this, if you could do it with three articles I think that would likely be much more robust as a way to demonstrate proof of the concept. Along with that, if you tried to do it a few times you would end up with a much richer concept of how much time and energy it would take to sustain this kind of work as an ongoing form of digital publication. That said, it will all depend on the scope of how involved your work on this becomes for each one. If you do end up going deep and investing a lot of time and energy in doing one of these then it’s worth doing that deep dive to get one right. There are tradeoffs either way and it’s your call how this will work best for your project.

    The examples you point too as context for the project are great. You’ve built a nice case for why this is important work for historians to be exploring.

    You’ve identified non-academic audiences as your primary focus. That’s great. It’s great to be thinking about how the work of academic historians can get out of the ivory tower. As you go, it will be important to keep refining your ideas about audiences. That is, I could see this being a useful resource for teachers. But if teachers are a key audience it would be great to think about finding a few teachers to run the idea past to see what things would really be critical to make this work for them and their students. If you want to reach other audiences it would be great to think about how to reach out to some folks to run the idea past. Like you might reach out to folks at the American Historical Association or some journalists (like some of the folks we’ve read in the course) that might have ideas about how something like this could build an audience.

    Picking the article or articles for this project will be really critical. So it would be important to start with that as an initial focal point. My sense is it would be great to have folks from the journal publisher and the author of the article in the loop and interested about the project. As I mentioned in class, I think there is a potentially related concept here that could involve doing interviews with the authors of recent major historical scholarly publications that would focus on getting them to lay out the key points of their arguments and the so-what of their work. I think that could be something that a lot of folks might find interesting and engaging.

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