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.