Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who Is The Smartest Historian of All?

April 8, 2012, 12:53 pm

I am currently operating about a month behind on much of my professional mail because of the job-switch thing.  Therefore, it wasn’t until I was riding the train last week that I picked up on American Historical Association President William Cronon’s article, “Professional Boredom” (Perspectives on History, March 2012, 6-7.)  Without explicitly linking his thoughts to the job crisis, Cronon raises some issues about how we evaluate the quality of historical work, and what the consequences of defining the category of “good history” might be.

Cronon’s piece reminded me of a turn of phrase that irritates me more the older I get, which is characterizing a scholar or a piece of work by that scholar as “smart.” Most of us do it, but it either means nothing (original? well done? fun to read?) or it means way too much (“I have put X in the smart bin and that is that.”) What is worse is to say about scholarship one doesn’t like that it “isn’t smart;” or, even worse, the condescending turn of phrase, “s0-and-so is smart” (not), “but I found the first book really problematic.”

But back to this week’s reading: what is “good history” anyway? “Good history is accurate,” Cronon writes. “Professionals work extraordinarily hard to avoid errors, and can be quite contemptuous of those who make foolish mistakes when describing the past. Getting facts right generally trumps good storytelling. Good history is rigorous in its argumentation, deeply grounded in archival sources, fully in dialogue with the best recent work by leading scholars, and richly nuanced in its interpretative claims.”

These are real virtues, Cronon, argues, and yet when taken to an extreme makes our work only accessible to experts. Sometimes scholars are not even accessible to each other, much less colleagues in related fields.  Conceptual categories that we take for granted but are obscure to non-professionals; overly-specialized or theoretical language, and “failing to notice the absence of those who don’t feel welcome” in an intellectually exclusive coterie are all weaknesses of practice that can emerge from qualities that are otherwise praiseworthy.

The result can be that despite popular enthusiasm for history, and the genuine desire of other historians to connect with our work, we run the risk of turning people off instead of tuning them in. “Given the immense public appetite for history,” Cronon writes,

and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of “professional history” could not be more clear.

This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch on boredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let’s ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.

Cronon ends by urging us to keep expanding the circle — not just to new audiences, but to people producing popular and public history — and to be aware of ways we might be closing that circle without knowing it.

While we are delivering life-changing messages, click on over to Tim Burke’s Easily Distracted for a terrific post that critiques critique.  Sometimes, Burke argues, finding fault with other people’s work just goes too far.  His awareness of this problem began in graduate school when he noticed that even though “my closest friends…were wonderful, engaging thinkers, I still found that we got into discussions about scholars and scholarship that felt like a story by Shirley Jackson. We didn’t necessarily start our discussions in that tone but eventually someone, often a professor or graduate student outside of our little affinity group, would take it there. The stakes would ramp up quickly, loyalties would be declared, terms and definitions would be invested with world-shattering significance, footnotes would be scrutinized for evidence of mortal sin, and so on.”

Even if you think vicious critiques are just performance produced by the overanxious, as Burke notes, a person”get[s] remade by it.” Intellectual life becomes one long “fraternity hazing” (a double shout-out to entire departments where nasty, dismissive critique can be the specialty of dominant and minority cliques.) History requires a critical eye, and “Intellectual life shouldn’t be a pollyanna parade or a group hug,” he continues. “But neither should criticism be a habit, nor should we casually arrive at judgments about the character of other professionals from a critical reading of the work they produce.”

Aside from being required reading for all history departments, I think both pieces are worth teaching on the first day of a course to generate conversations about what “counts” as historical scholarship and how that might be discussed without writing off the people who initially seem to fall outside the circle of rigor. Cronon cautions us not to be boring, a worthy goal for teacher and students, and his message about broadening what counts as “good” historical scholarship is a conversation every department should be having prior to the next tenure case. Burke’s message is to try not to be an asshat a person whose every utterance is about building up me, me, me at the expense of someone else’s reputation. Devaluing others unfairly in the name of principled disagreement — at its extreme, entire careers are damaged, derailed or destroyed – is not the same thing as being smart, or having high standards.

These two articles remind me that historians talk, talk, talk, but we don’t necessarily talk enough about how we talk.  While neither of these pieces directly address the “job crisis” in history, or what is to become of history as a college-level subject, they each provide an opportunity to step back and think about what can make otherwise relevant scholarly conversations appear so irrelevant to otherwise intelligent and interested citizens.

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