At the time of this interview Simon Brown was in the fifth year of the program, where he continues to study early modern European history. He focuses on British history between the Reformation and Enlightenment, and his dissertation examines the history of “useful knowledge” as an aspiration and project from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century in England and its empire. He is particularly interested in the way that both Protestant theology and political economy informed how people thought about what makes knowledge useful in the period, when many began to insist that all learning ought to be of use.
First, could you tell us a bit about the questions that excite you as a historian, and how you approach them in your research?
I am interested in following how and why ideas that are contentious or distant from social concerns at one moment become so pervasive that they are normalized at another. My research partially focuses on thinkers who explicitly argue that controversial ideas, in their case “doctrines,” are always a bad way to grasp true religion, and instead insist on following the practical, common sense of everyday people. I also follow how that process actually took place, by reading popular theological works that justified a certain form of “practical” divinity alongside the school curricula that assigned those books and instructed teachers and students in how to use them.
Could you describe the work you've done in online publishing during the Ph.D?
In 2018 I became a contributing editor at the Blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas (or JHI Blog) where I also began a podcast along with Disha Karnad Jani at Princeton. The podcast, “In Theory,” brings on scholars from many disciplines and subfields to talk with us about their recent books in intellectual history. Last year I was named as one of the three lead editors. We publish work by graduate students and early-career scholars in the field.
Partly motivated by my experience editing at the Blog, I applied for a campus fellowship with the Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop last summer. The workshop brought together participants from many backgrounds (including lots of graduate students) to learn about the inner workings of book and magazine publishing, the economy of free-lancing, and the prospects for the industry looking forward. The workshop helped me understand the ecology of academic publishing and it inspired many ideas about how to expand the reach of the JHI Blog, including through new media like the podcast.
What has it been like to write and talk about your research interests in these different mediums? Has it influenced how you think about your work?
When I interview authors and publicize them, I’m always thinking about how to concisely relate the arguments of the book to questions that spur people working across intellectual history. It’s not so much about framing its “relevance” but rather about distilling its contribution to issues that could animate scholars whom I and the interviewee might never encounter within our subfields. Thinking concretely about who is in the audience of a given medium is really necessary to tailor that message. There is a lot of space between a peer-reviewed journal and a newspaper op-ed, and many sites like the JHI Blog cultivate an audience between the two.
I think there's a lot of uncertainty about when and how historians in training should publish their work. How has your thinking about this changed over the course of your Ph.D.?
I think that over the course of the Ph.D. I’ve come to recognize just how many opportunities there are to publish for different audiences and interact with new colleagues. I have learned to appreciate social media, particularly Twitter, for the opportunities it has offered to learn about new work in my field and the pressing debates across the discipline. You don’t need to post or scroll regularly to join in these discussions and introduce your work to colleagues. Publishing brief reflections on archival finds, for instance, on sites like the JHI Blog is a great way to frame your research and present your interests to scholars who might, say, invite you on a panel.
What advice would you offer fellow historians who are interested in online publishing and podcasting?
The first thing I would say is that publishing is likely no more stable or promising as a career path than academia, so it’s not a particularly reliable “alt-ac” trajectory. I have found it very rewarding, however, since I enjoy what I’m editing and producing, and I learn so much from the people I work with. I would advise anyone interested in these media to read across lots and lots of publications. These could include non-peer-reviewed academic sites like the JHI Blog (also Lady Science, Age of Revolutions and many more) but also magazines of literary and political commentary that publish historians and scholars for a wider audience (n+1, Dissent, New Left Review, for instance). It’s often in their pages where I have followed the big questions exercising scholars across disciplines. I’d suggest listening to podcasts of different formats, including some outside of your particular area of interest, just to get a sense of production quality, interview style and so forth. I would also add that, from my experience, working with other people makes it easier to garner a kind of legitimacy, and you learn a lot from the process.