Monthly Archives: January 2013

Policing boundaries.

In some ways, I suppose this is an interesting post.  Although it feels like I’ve been reading iterations of the argument therein for years, and I’m not sure it amounts to much more than a tonier version (British!) of “get off my lawn!” I sympathize with the author’s anxiety about the future of history. That said, I don’t think the problem is that the profession has been “taken over by non-specialists.” Or, more charitably, I sometimes share the author’s frustration when I see yet another hack on TV with the title historian after her or his name (I’m looking at you, Doris Kearns Goodwin). And I agree with the author that all too often these people don’t do any heavy historical lifting. Which is to say, their work, even when it’s not dead wrong, isn’t especially interesting or analytically sophisticated. But I’m not sure this is an entirely new or threatening phenomenon.

In fact, as anyone who’s even a bit familiar with the history of the discipline[1] in the United States knows, there’s only been a profession for approximately a century.  And for much of that time, non-professional historians have written history and enjoyed expert status in the eyes of the public.  This probably means that the profession of history, in the US at least, isn’t a very good profession, as professions go, because it’s not particularly adept at policing its boundaries and establishing the authority of its members.   Still, I’m not really sure I want the boundaries policed any better than they’re being policed at present.  Or at least I’d worry that the unintended consequences — actually, they’d probably be intended consequences, right? — of policing the boundaries might be worse even than simply throwing the profession’s borders wide open and offering amnesty to any undocumented interlopers who’ve already managed to sneak inside.

A big part of my new book[2] deals with how different people have different perspectives on how to study the past properly.  Some of the people in question are professional historians.  Some  aren’t.  Some of them produce what I think of as good history:  well sourced, analytically interesting, carefully argued, reasonably accessible.  Some don’t.  But a PhD isn’t the key variable that determines who does and who does’t do good history.  I mean, I understand that it’s important for professional historians to have some way of establishing their authority and regulating their disciplinary activities.  I’m just not entirely sure what that way should be.

I’d also quibble with the author when he says, of historians’ willingness to “spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work” so that someone else, usually a journalist or popular historian, can present it to the public, that it’s “difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.”  First, I think political scientists regularly share their research with journalists and pundits (or with the lackeys who then feed it to pundits).  So insofar as this state of affairs is a problem, it’s a problem shared with at least one other discipline.  Second, if one wants one’s work to be made available to the public, one either has to do it oneself or find someone else to serve as a mouthpiece.  Personally, I’m delighted when journalists or popular historians want to talk about my work — though I do hope they’ll credit me with any insights they glean from the conversation.[3]  And third, is this really the issue that most obviously threatens the future of history?  I tend to think not.

I do, though, believe the author is onto something when he suggests that the move toward market-based measures of the utility of history seriously imperils the discipline’s longterm health.[4] But I think it may be an equally grave problem that so much history that’s now being written will be completely ignored.  To walk around the book exhibit at the AHA[5] is to be confronted with a very cruel reality:  the overwhelming majority of scholarly monographs being produced each year will never be read by anyone at all.[6]  Not by students, not by other experts in the field, perhaps not even by a reviewer writing in a professional journal.  Although I understand that these books represent knowledge that has been produced, and maybe that’s enough, it is to weep to witness what seems like such a waste of time and resources.  I can’t help but feel like until the profession decides, really decides, that scholarly books are living on borrowed time, we’re edging ever closer to the abyss.[7]  Should the profession choose to embrace the article[8] as a measure of scholarly achievement, that would leave the market to determine who gets to write history books.  For what it’s worth, I think we’re nearly there already, though it wouldn’t hurt if we had some effective leadership as we continue walking this path.  Or we can just bumble along.

Which leads me to the author’s point with which I most agree:  that the leading professional organizations are failing us.  Forget the fact that they aren’t policing the discipline’s boundaries, which they aren’t; they also can’t seem to come up with any effective policies regarding contingent labor, the related glut of PhDs facing the ruined wastes of what used to be known as the job market, and, again, the future of the book.  I also agree with the suggestion that professional historians should become more involved in the discussion about the crisis of history education — if, amidst the push for ever more STEM education, we’re still having that discussion at all.

So in the end, I’m for more scholarly and pedagogical populism rather than less, leaving me fundamentally at odds with the author of the linked post.[9]  That said, I don’t think anything I’ve suggested above is going to save the profession.  For that, I’m afraid we might need divine intervention.  Does anyone have David McCullough’s phone number or e-mail address?

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Magic bullet.

Magic Bullet panel from Battle Lines

Having finished the Sand Creek book, I’m now working with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, an awesome artist and all-around weird and wonderful guy, on a graphic history of the Civil War for Hill and Wang. It’s an odd project for a variety of reasons, some of which I may detail in later posts. For now, though, I wanted to put up a sample page for your viewing pleasure.

The central conceit of the book is that it’s object driven. Each chapter uses an object — the flag that flew over Ft. Sumter, the writ of habeas corpus issued in the Merryman case, a leg iron that once bound a contraband slave, just to name a few examples — to open up a story from the war. In the case of the illustration above, the chapter is about the impact of the Minié ball on battlefield tactics, grand strategy, and, as the image indicates, medical practices.

I’m the map.

This is not the best Sesame Street clip ever.  In fact, by the standards of Sesame Street clips, it’s not even very good.  But it’s still cool, if only because Grover has what looks like the Peters projection on the wall rather than the more common (and wildly inaccurate) Mercator projection.  The Peters projection represented an effort to offer a more realistic, albeit still two-dimensional, picture of the globe, a picture that wouldn’t distort the size of North America and Europe, thereby “foster[ing],” as The West Wing taught us (see below), “European imperialist attitudes for centuries, and creating an ethnic bias against the Third World [ed. note:  we don’t say Third World any more, but whatevs].  Which is just a long way of saying that, yes, the Children’s Television Workshop was nothing more than a Maoist front.  And Mitt Romney was right:  we should have strangled Big Bird when he was still just a fledgeling.

I bring all of this up, because the third chapter of the new book is all about the politics of cartography.  Long story short, in the course of searching for the location of the Sand Creek killing field, the Park Service believed that it found the site where Black Kettle’s village had stood on the eve of the massacre.  The Cheyenne descendants disagreed with the NPS and felt betrayed that their perspective received short shrift when the NPS created a map of the site, including Black Kettle’s village.  The result was a controversy that still looms over the Sand Creek memorial today, clouding efforts to interpret the historic site for the public.


As some of you may know, I used to blog, at one point pretty actively.  I haven’t for some time but might start again here.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about the new book — or, for that matter, about the old book — I’ll do my best to answer them.