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?

[1]  If you want to learn the history of history, at least as it’s been practiced in the United States, all you have to do is read Peter Novick. Sure, there are too many names floating around the book. And sure, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. But it’s still an excellent introduction to the topic, especially if you tell yourself that it’s okay not to know all of the names. Or if you make a really detailed chart of the names, and keep track of them that way. In which case, send it to me, and I’ll post it here. Or I’ll publish it under my own name. Because I’m like that.

[2]  You do know I have a new book, right?  Because if not, what’s the point?

[3]  This, I think, actually is a very annoying problem.  People rip off scholars all the time.  Journalists and pundits steal ideas from professional historians and pass them off as their own.  That sucks.  No, it really does.  The most notorious recent case I can think of involves Brown University’s MIcheal Vorenberg, from whose Final Freedom:  The Civil War, Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment  it seems Tony Kushner stole big chunks while writing the screenplay for Lincoln.  But is there anything to be done about it?  I sort of doubt it.

[4]  Indeed, I didn’t know that “British universities” were now “under the control of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.”  That sounds rather crappy.  And while the University of California isn’t quite there just yet, it certainly feels like we’re heading that way.

[5]  The American Historical Association’s annual meeting, newb.  It’s a terrible thing.

[6]  This is hyperbole, yes.  But I’d like you to allow it to stand unchallenged, please.

[7]  I should add, just so you know how very self-sacrificing I am, that such a move would hurt me, because I can’t write an article to save my life.

[8]  Yes, I’m aware that journals have their own problems.  So let’s go open access.

[9]  But of course I’ve also completely forgotten how to write a post of my own, as evidenced by this monstrosity, so I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones.

14 thoughts on “Policing boundaries.

  1. Ari Kelman Post author

    You’re very welcome. Although, as I said above, I suspect that we disagree about a great many things, I think the conversation is well worth having. And I very much enjoyed your post.

      1. Ari Kelman Post author

        I’m all for better books, Steve. But I fear that many of the books that are currently being written can’t actually be much better than they are. They’re terribly narrow and/or dull. Again, if one’s model of effective scholarship looks something like a wall, then each of these new books is a useful brick. For my part, though, I think it’s a shame that so much time and effort is going into producing knowledge that is almost entirely ignored. The books, in my view, are being produced because of the dictates of the profession — books = advancement — rather than because what they contain is important.

  2. jroth95

    I’m not an academic, but my understanding is that there’s a perverse set of incentives about publishing and getting one’s research “out there”*. First of all, given where we are in the history of history (and given the rules around what a dissertation must be and what counts towards tenure), a great deal of what scholarly historians produce is inherently narrow, which tends to mean narrow audiences as well. But people do seem to be very interested in history, so in some sense, the audience (read: market) is out there.

    The conveyance of fresh scholarship to the general public will almost never be the actual, original publication of that scholarship (whether in article or book form), because of narrowness and the clamor of the marketplace. Added to this is the difference between academic writing and popular writing, compounded by actual writing talent, which of course is not much related to scholarship.

    Thus, popular history writers are more or less necessary. The problem, as you say, is that becoming a popular history writer seems only tangentially related to being a decent historian (whether PhD or not). Ideally, the Goodwins of the world would be drawn from the best scholars/synthesizers/writers of the profession, not from whatever sausage factory currently seems to throw these people out into the wider world.

    So I think the crux of the issue is how to rearrange the system so that scholars/synthesizers/writers gain recognition and are rewarded with the opportunity to do popular history writing. And it’s hard not to think that blogs are part of the new arrangement, because good blogging is heavily reliant on at least 2 of those 3 skills. I confess that I’m thinking of DeLong here; IANAE, but surely his prominence in the conversation is derived almost entirely from his blogging efforts (which reveal his skills as a writer, synthesizer, and, yes, polemicist). Blogging isn’t an ideal filter – it takes a lot of effort, and it certainly rewards snark and speed over judiciousness and depth – but I think it’s probably a more meritocratic tool than whatever the hell led to Stephen Ambrose’s apotheosis. And of course it’s only part of a new, improved system.

    *and note that these are clearly not the same thing, and may not even overlap much, as you suggest

  3. Larry Cebula

    I am this morning in receipt of an email from a former student, now in a PhD program, in which he complains about how poorly-written are the “cutting edge” academic history books he is reading in his seminars.

    If our field is full of unqualified interlopers–and who can deny it?!–it is because they are filling a public interest that we have failed to address. Some of that ‘interest’ we rightly want nothing to do with. The ideologically slanted histories, from Barton to Zinn, are best left to the ideologues.

    Most of the objectionable popular history though is filling a different interest, the desire of the public to read interesting, well-written narrative accounts of past events. Such a thing is possible, look at TJ Stiles’ books, particularly the one on Jesse James. Few academics even attempt as much, though, and there are few professional rewards for doing so. Instead we operate in an increasingly closed and shrinking world. We write articles for 30 other people, and put them behind a JSTOR paywall to keep out the unwashed masses. And if we try to write a accessible narrative book, our academic publishers price it so that only a university library will buy one of the 500 copies they print.

    So we have little right to complain about the interlopers. They fill a vacuum that we have created.

    1. Ari Kelman Post author

      I think there’s a lot to this, Larry. We’ve ceded the ground to popular historians and journalists, so there’s not much sense complaining about self-inflicted wounds. Even in my new book, which I tried to write like a very long New Yorker essay (and failed, yes), I still couldn’t escape the tics of scholarly writing. In part, that’s because I’m not really a good enough writer to pull off a New Yorker essay, but it’s also because so much of what I read is scholarship, so it echoes in my head and then comes pouring out my fingers.

  4. jroth95

    All that jabber and I never mentioned the non-blog mechanism that I think could make a difference: more emphasis on meta-history*, where, instead of popularizers basically poaching the work of scholars, you instead get scholars explicitly compiling the work of other scholars. This is, of course, kind of the blog model – “Interesting People Saying Interesting Things” – but my idea is that, instead of 10 narrow, unread books relating to a topic, you’d instead see one book that discusses and contextualizes 10 articles (or 20, since articles take at least a little less time).

    I assume that this sort of book exists in the current climate, but I’m thinking it should become the primary form of non-general history book. IOW, you’d still have the usual array of bios and war histories, but then next level of history book would be this sort of compilation – not an anthology (which would generally be too academic to reach a broad audience), but a single piece of writing drawing together threads of the latest scholarship. And that, of course, becomes an excellent breeding ground for the next generation of popular history writers, a generation accustomed to crediting the scholarship of others and selected for prose, synthesis, and scholarship.

    Probably worth noting here that e-books probably work as a good medium for a lot of these – a couple of bucks for a software copy of 100 pages discussing the latest in US-Native American treaties or whatever.

    *I don’t mean history about history, I mean in the spirit of meta-studies that compile 20 small studies into a big pool of data.

    1. Ari Kelman Post author

      I really do thinking blogging is, for the most part, dead. The professionalization of the medium, coupled with the advent of facebook, g+, and twitter, means that it’s very, very hard to find an audience as a non-professional blogger — if, that is, the goal is to reach a lot of people, which it should be if one thinks of oneself as a popularizer (a term that I embrace).

      Put another way, I’m perfectly happy to curate (fancy!) this here blog for a very small audience — heck, I might even be happier than I was when I wrote for a relatively large audience during the heyday of Edge of the American West. But it’s hard to imagine generating a great deal of content for 200-300 people, especially given that I don’t get any credit for the work. And so, while it might make professional sense to spend a month writing an article that 20 people are going to read, it makes much less sense to spend four hours writing a blog post that 500 might read. Still, I’ll do it so long as I enjoy it.

      Also, I think that thing you’re describing is called “a survey.” And leading scholars, some of whom can write quite well, often produce surveys, in which they distill the work of scores of other scholars into something that’s ostensibly readable. This work is distinct from survey textbooks, which are their own thing, and narrative non-fiction monographs, of which there are some very good ones, if one knows where to look.

      1. jroth95

        I had no idea that Battle Cry is in line with what I was describing. It does seem to be at a different scale than what I had in mind, but I’ll assume that there are surveys that hew to smaller subjects and at considerably less length.

        1. Ari Kelman Post author

          Battle Cry is pretty fat, I’ll grant you, but I think that’s at least partly a function of the genre. It’s really hard to write a short survey of a major event. There’s too much literature to distill and too much ground to cover. That said, we’re probably again talking about the limits of scholarly discourse. A good journalist or popular historian won’t worry about passing the important historiographical milestones; s/he’ll just get a good story down on paper and consider the finish line crossed.

  5. steve muhlberger

    It was maybe Crane Brinton who said write 2 books for academic presses if you need to, to get tenure and a professorship. Take your other ideas to commercial publishers and their audience.

  6. David Hillman

    Of course popular TV programmes can arouse questions. I remember that after the series,on Welsh history, “The Dragon has Two Tongues” I bought the book and was pulled up short just by a set of quotation marks. It was about a Welsh poet “remembering” how his princes had always been betrayed. It made me think deeply about what is history and what is remembering. I agree that popular histories do not do this enough.
    David Hillman


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