History departments: lite, brite, and mighty white

litebrite.jpgCenter of Gravitas has a worthy post on diversity in faculty hiring in History departments, and it has attracted some smart comments from some of the regular commentors here at Historiann.  GayProf’s takeaway line is, “we must disrupt this ‘lite-brite’ vision of U.S. history. The stories of minority groups in this nation are not simply festive, colored pegs that can be plugged into a core white background. The history of race in this nation is the history of this nation.”  Kudos, GayProf, for working a toy from the 1970s into a wonderful metaphor!  (The closeup of Lite-Brites above left is from a giant Lite-Brite at Burning Man.)  Go read the post and the comment thread, especially if you’re in a department that’s now in the midst of the faculty hiring season.

But, do most History departments see the issues GayProf raises as problems to be solved?  In Historiann’s jaded, conspiracy-minded view, the reason most History departments hire nonwhite and/or non-male scholars only in targeted fields is that they don’t really want to change the way business-as-usual is done in their departments.  Historians can be coaxed to hire people who look “diverse,” but only if they color safely within the lines of their segregated topics.  They tolerate diversity only if they’re pretty well assured that they won’t have to re-think their lecture notes or the categories they use to cut history up into bite-sized chunks to feed to their students.  Hiring an African American medievalist, or a Chicano/a women’s historian, or an Asian colonial Americanist, for example, threatens to disrupt this neat segregation that the gender and/or ethnic identity of the scholar in question = the sub-field of history that scholar “should” pursue.  That would of course challenge the white men who still dominate the historical profession that perhaps they could or should include non-white, non-male people in their own teaching and scholarship in something other than a token fashion (i.e. putting African Americans and women in the sidebars in the textbook, while the “real” story rolls on around the diversion.) 

litebrite-tits.jpgGayProf also has some (appropriately) harsh words for women historians and women’s historians, although I think he incorrectly elides the two categories.  As many of us know from weary experience, many women historians are not feminists, and therefore they’re not particularly inclined to view their profession differently than their male peers (although that doesn’t mean that they aren’t in fact evaluated differently by their male peers, the poor dears!  Feminism won’t necessarily save you from being treated unfairly because of your sex, but at least you’ll know when you’re being had.)  There are now more women historians than there are women’s historians, which is a victory of sorts if disrupting the categories described above is your goal.  And although This Bridge Called My Back is out of print, many more scholarly titles by and of women of color have been published since that book appeared in 1981.  I don’t know any feminist historian trained in the 1980s or 1990s since This Bridge who would deny the importance of race and class to feminist scholarship–but then, agreeing with a proposition isn’t the same as making it the focus of your scholarship and teaching. 

0 thoughts on “History departments: lite, brite, and mighty white

  1. You know, I took a field in Women’s History in grad school, precisely because I figured that hiring committees would *expect* me to teach WH just because I was a woman. It was purely a marketing strategy. But, somewhere along the way, I got seduced, and now I really like it a lot.

    That said, I think you’re right about what you said: nonwhite hires remain status quo if they’re in nicely segregated fields of study. It’s the potentially disruptive ones like those you mention that really have the power to shake things up, not by bringing an ethnicized agenda to traditional fields (though that can be productive, too), but simply by *being*.


  2. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Notorious. That’s funny that you thought that doing women’s history would make you MORE marketable–my experience has been exactly the opposite. (But, I certainly hope you have better luck than me!)

    Example: I’ve been asked, when interviewing for a “straight” job in early American history, if I would be “frustrated. . . because we’ve already got a women’s historian?” It was a fascinating question that revealed a number of assumptions: 1) we can’t have more than one of THOSE bee-yatches running around our department, because there’s only room for one women’s history course, 2) women’s historians don’t actually teach anything other than that narrow sub-field called women’s history, and 3) they certainly can’t represent a whole field or time period, whereas political or religious history types can unquesitonably do so. (And guess what: I didn’t get the job! But you guessed that already.)


  3. Thanks for the shout-out. I take your points. Indeed, if I had more time, I would have pointed out the difference between women who are historians and historians of women’s experiences (or how however we want to cut that up). All the same, though, I look at many of the women’s studies programs at R1 institutions and see that much has not changed since 1981.

    Also, you are right about the great works appearing since This Bridge. Still, I also don’t see that many of them assigned in “regular” U.S. history classes.


  4. GayProf–you are totally right. Most U.S. History surveys remain impervious to much of the most innovative and exciting scholarship of the last 30 years. And, when we introduce a few weeks’ of reading on slavery, family/sexuality history, or Native American history, we get complaints from students that the course was “not real American history, but only about blacks, women, and Indians.” Historians have to think harder about getting students to see a bigger picture than most survey courses and textbooks allow, which (as you argue so ably) probably has a lot to do with permitting students to see a broader diversity of professors in History departments.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post and for providing a forum for an interdisciplinary discussion of these issues.


  5. I’m not currently on a search committee, but have done so in the past. I would love to diversify the faculty in my department. The difficulty for those of us at non-elite, non-flagship state institutions is with recruitment. How do we get more minority applicants to apply to an institution where they are going to make considerably less than a R1 institution, and teach 4 courses a semester? We are located near several major, desirable, metropolitan areas but we just can’t compete in terms of salaries and workload.


  6. I know what you’re saying–but when you look at it nationally, MOST academic jobs are not terribly desirable for one reason or another, or probably at least two out of three major reasons (location, teaching load, and money. I count myself lucky to have found a job that’s got one or two out of three going for it!) It’s an interesting phenomenon that many (but not all, right GayProf?) of the top-flight graduate institutions are in major coastal metro areas (NY/LA/Chicago/Boston/Washington), but the vast majority of us end up in rather rural or exurban places nowhere near these major cities, and at places with 3-2 loads or much, much higher. So, if you’re think you’re competing with NYU for candidates, well, yeah, you’re out of luck. But it’s likelier that you’re competing with Iowa State, or Wittenberg, or Southern Illinois, or Utah State, etc. And for many people, your university would beat all of those. (Not that I’m knocking those places–some people would prefer to be at those schools, too.)


  7. Two thoughts:

    1. Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who teaches at a history dept at an R-1 not on one of the coasts, even for us it is very hard to find minority candidates in a general search (U.S. History, say). We have hired a lot more minority candidates in the last ten years, and I think our R-1 status has helped us there, but most of them in studies positions or in non-U.S. fields. I think we would be overjoyed to get members of minorities onto our short lists in other fields. Maybe our problem is that we’re competing with NYU.

    2. Speaking as a feminist who is not a women’s historian, isn’t part of feminism getting to do what you want and not being expected to do something in particular because of your gender? I am so tired of being berated by my colleagues who study women for allegedly not being feminist enough because of not having made gender one of my areas of specialty. One of the great aspects of living when I do is getting to study something that fascinates me and was previously the province only of a very specific group of men, and I don’t see those of us who aren’t focused on gender as somehow failing to live up to the feminist ideal.


  8. SB–thanks for visiting and commenting. I’m sorry that my post implied that women historians were not feminists. I was just trying to sort out the differences between women’s historians and women historians–women’s historians are indeed overwhelmingly self-identified feminists, and I think most women historians are too, but not all of them. As I said, I agree that the fact that not every woman in most history departments has to do women’s history is a net benefit to all of us.


  9. I would just point out that the ‘disruption’ works in a number of directions. As a white, male, post-feminist medievalist who is currently teaching a course for our Women’s Studies minor I can attest to that. I wonder if one of the issues we are facing is essentially generational, like the debates between second and third way feminists. To someone like myself who received their Ph.D. this decade, teaching a Women’s Studies course is no big deal. I imagine it would be rather awkward for my senior colleagues.


  10. Hey–thanks for visiting and commenting, Profane. I’m glad you’re teaching women’s history, as it’s important for students to see everyone involved in it. (Although you probably get more credit for being more “balanced” and not as motivated by ideology than women professors of women’s history, right 😉 I’ve got a good male friend who teaches women’s history, and he wrote an article last year about that phenomenon.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.