GayProf and Historiann teach it all, part II: how the west is (still) lost

Good morning, friends!  Today’s post is part II of GayProf‘s and my radical subversive plot to ruin American history!  (Part I was over at Center of Gravitas yesterday.)  Enjoy–and please leave your thoughts in the comments below:

Historiann:  As a Coloradoan now, it’s interesting to note that there have been two articles published in The William and Mary Quarterlyin the past fifteen years urging the de-centering of “colonial America” from the Atlantic littoral and recognizing that there is an early American history west of the Appalachians, west of the Mississippi, and west of the Rocky Mountains (not to mention South of the Rio Grande and North of the St. Lawrence.)  In “Why the West is Lost” (WMQ51:2, April 1994), James A. Hijiya decried the absence of western history from most American history textbooks, and the relentless focus on eastern history and Anglophone people.  Claudio Saunt’s cartograms in “Go West:  Mapping Early American Historiography” (WMQ 65:4, October 2008) illustrate the eastern bias of early American history, and he notes that much of this was probably due to the fact that colonial historians were and are still trained in eastern U.S. universities near lots of local archives and libraries with colonial records, making it easy to do local history and call it early America.  (Saunt also says that if American historians bothered to learn Spanish, they’d find a wealth of records in Spain, Mexico City, and in western local archives, and I can assure you that there’s lots of exciting things to be found in French archival sources in Quebec.  But, as we all know, it’s just pi$$ing up a rope to insist that American historians learn another language!) 

<<GayProf rushes to read articles in the WMQ so he doesn’t sound tragically uninformed>>
I think it’s quite telling that Hijiya’s article spurred a lively, often defensive, sometimes congratulatory, and sometimes patronizing response from early Americanists and western historians later that year (“‘Why the West is Lost,’ Comments and Response,” WMQ 51:4, October 1994), while Saunt’s article has been greeted with silence.  (So far, anyway.)  This appears to be a trend I’ve observed in the historical profession in the past decade or so.  Maybe because the debates over “the canon” and multiculturalism were sometimes overheated in the 1980s and 1990s, we all seem to have a policy of détante.  No one will call us names or accuse us of ruining the historical profession these days–they’ll just ignore us.  (We’ll see–on blogs, anything can happen!)

[gayprof2.JPG]GayProf: I think that Hijiya’s point that adding “new” (read: nonwhite) material will mean making cuts in other things that we talk about in class.  Maybe the U.S. Civil War doesn’t need two weeks after all?  At least, not if that means that the U.S.-Mexican War can have more that 15 minutes (if even that!).  And that 15 minutes usually sets it up as a prologue to the Civil War.

Historiann:  I think Hijiya was right to say that adding something means subtracting something else.  We all make choices every day about what to include and what to leave out.  If we emphasize some themes or ideas at the expense of others one semester, we may lean the other way the next semester.  That’s life, right?

GayProf:  And we all make cuts.  Sometimes one lecture runs too long and we therefore edit the next lecture to keep the class on schedule.  I have been thinking of adding a clause to my syllabi that says, “This history has been edited from its original run.  It has been shortened to fit the time allotted and reformatted to fit this screen.”

Historiann:  It concerns me that Saunt, like Hijiya since 1994, may be destined to remain a vox clamantis in deserto.  When I started graduate school twenty years ago, “diversity” on graduate syllabi in early American courses was a regional approach to the English colonization of the Americas (“New England,” “The Middle Colonies,” “The Chesapeake,” “The Lower South,” and “The Caribbean”) supplemented by the Mod Squad:  one week on “women,” one week on “Indians,” one week on “slavery,” which meant books that focused on enslaved African American people.  (And yes–all of the “women” books and articles were about white women, and the books on Indians and African Americans focused exclusively on men.)  That’s not at all how I teach courses in my own field–I’m much more prone to select books thematically than to worry about “coverage” of particular geographies.  But, I’m afraid that many of my colleagues remain imprisioned in their monolingualism, and that the historiography still reflects that.
(There’s an old joke about orthopedic surgeons that goes something like this:  “How do you keep a secret from an orthopod?,” and the punchline is, “publish it!”  I guess we could write the same joke about American historians, with the punchline being, “publish it in any language but English!”)

GayProf:  Currently one of the graduate programs where I am a faculty member has no (zero (0)) language requirements for Ph.D. students.  That still leaves me with chills.  Even if their ultimate research won’t be in another language, don’t we expect that they be broad enough to at least engage a bit with something other than English?  Anything other than English? French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Esperanto … Something? Heck, even Klingon would at least show some effort. 
Historiann:  This is shocking to me!  I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am.  My program required reading knowledge of two other languages, and one could take a course in computers in the social sciences and have that count as a “language.”  (Yeah—how helpful is your BASIC or FORTRAN now, friends?) 

GayProf:  Are you saying you don’t use the “GOSUB 20” command almost daily?  I mean that’s more useful than being able to ask where a bathroom is in Russian.

Historiann:  Believe me, I’m not bragging:  it took me two tries to pass my French translation test!  But I’m so grateful I did, because it meant that I had another tool for research, a tool that I’ve only dusted off and sharpened in the past few years, but a useful tool nonetheless.  This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with an older grad student when I was a tragically naïve first-year grad student.  He was blathering on about how to get through the foreign language requirements of our program with as little effort as possible, when I asked, “Shouldn’t a Ph.D. indicate that the holder is an educated person?  And how can one consider oneself educated without knowledge of at least one other language?”  The older grad said confidently, “Historiann, that’s terribly noble of you, but I’m a modern U.S. Historian, so there’s no need for me to do research in any other languages.” 

Do you think that kind of thinking has anything to do with the marginalization of Latino/a history in U.S. history? (When bilingualism is outlawed, only outlaws will be bilingual.) 

[gayprof2.JPG]GayProf:  Well, the U.S. is really unique among industrialized nations in taking pride in being so monolingual.  In the 2004 election, most of the Democratic presidential candidates were monolingual but feigned sorrow over the fact (rather than, you know, learning another language)).  We don’t even require our chief diplomat to know other languages!  I’d like to see a day when Lt. Uhura is made the Secretary of State.  She totally nailed Klingon in Star Trek VI.

I am sure Older Grad Student never considered the power implications of being a modern U.S. historian who didn’t bother with any other languages.  It keeps in place the idea that there is a central “core” to the nation, and that core is implicitly Anglophone (and Anglo!)

This isn’t to say I am whiz at foreign languages, either.  Quite the contrary!  English has always been my primary language and my abilities in Spanish are shockingly limited (Trust me).  Still, it doesn’t require that much effort to learn some basic grammar rules.  Once you have done that, you can start sifting through documents with your trusty dictionary at your side. By not making it a requirement, it oddly upholds the mystique and supposed impossibility of learning other languages.

Historiann:  That’s a fascinating point–I hadn’t considered that before.  Language really ropes off the U.S. historians and ties ’em up good.  I have to say that I’ve been skeptical of the calls for “transnational histories” by U.S. historians–how transnational is it really, when the conferences are being held in the U.S. in English, and when it’s all being written in English-language journals and books?  This strikes me as hegemony, not international collaboration.

Well, folks–thanks for reading.  Join us tomorrow back at Center of Gravitas for the thrilling conclusion!

0 thoughts on “GayProf and Historiann teach it all, part II: how the west is (still) lost

  1. Thanks for this. As a person who works with all her primary sources in other languages, and many of her secondary sources as well, I so appreciate hearing a pair of US historians underscore the value of knowing foreign languages. And since I am not a US Historian myself, I hadn’t ever considered before how the issue of monolingualism plugs in to the Anglocentrism of the the field: that’s a fascinating observation that is helping me to reorient my understanding of things significantly.

    Historiann, your story reminds me of a friend I knew in grad. school back at Midwestern Funky Town. He crowed for weeks about his “coup” in getting a course in statistics accepted as meeting the “foreign language” requirement.

    I don’t quite understand why there is so much resistance to learning foreign languages, either. It really isn’t very hard, particularly for romance languages like French or Spanish. With all the difficult intellectual tasks PhDs accomplish, this strikes me as a pretty simple one to accomplish, and one that would pay off so intensely in terms of access to sources and ideas. Why cling to linguistic parochialism?


  2. Historiann has a store?!? I want to order a custom-made t-shirt! Really. Back to this post when Spring Break starts here, in about 105 minutes! Saunt’s stuff is fascinating. I think everything gets greeted by silence, however, within a two year time frame of original publication; if that means in print, anyway.


  3. Foreign languages are usually not a requirement for graduate study in the life sciences, but they certainly do come in handy. I will admit to grumbling when my mother insisted I take a second year of Spanish in high school because it was “something you should do”, but that second year really allowed my love of languages to blossom and opened up quite a lot to me later in my graduate studies, when I was able to access literature not only in Spanish, but also in the other Romance languages, including once an article in Romanian. I think, though, that my mother had a few moments of regret when I decided I wanted to go study in Spain for a while. Moms are fickle that way.


  4. Squadrato, people who have gotten through college and into grad school without any foreign languages are pretty confident, I suppose, that they don’t need any at that point in their careers. It’s lamentable to hear of History (or interdisciplinary) departments that have acquiesced to the dictates of the broader culture, rather than demanding that their students counter them.

    Ph.D.s are total weirdos compared to “normal Americans.” What’s a little French, German, or Latin knowledge? If I hadn’t been required to brush up my 10th grade French 20 years ago, I likely never would have left the U.S. or Britain when doing my archival research.


  5. squadratomagico: The language thing is deeper than even Ph.D. programs. My sister was able to graduate with a BA without ever once taking a college-level language course. Who thinks that’s legitimate?

    Indyanna: If Historiann has a store, I think I deserve a free t-shirt.


  6. Oh, and Indyanna: the letters to the editor blustering on about Hijiya’s article were published 6 months later, in October of 1994. That’s about as speedy as a comment on a blog post, in print journal publication time!

    I fear that the silence means that people in our field basically agree with Saunt–(how can they not? It’s an empirical data report)–but I don’t think they’re going to change.


  7. Mel: I think that the language thing also points back to my other post on the need for “liberal education.” While your career might not have an obvious need for multiple languages, other elements of your life have benefited from having those skills.


  8. Thinking about it some more, I am struck by how early US history and my own field of medieval history are related to one another. When US faculties first began considering hiring Medieval historian in the early part of the 20C-, there was resistance to teaching it. Ultimately, the argument was made that “Medieval English history is Early American history” — and this keen little insight allowed for medieval history to enter the US academy. This who teleology, of course, undergirds so much of what your two have been talking about here: US colonial history is a history of English colonists who were (a) fighting for “democratic” principles with roots in English common law and (b) “seeking religious liberty.” Some of the founders — esp. Jefferson, if I recall correctly — read the Magna Carta (1215) as a declaration of democratic principles — which it surely isn’t! (It in fact is about protecting baronial prerogatives against royal encroachment, not a general statement of equality before the law.) TO this day, the oldest document in the Library of Congress’ “Hall of American Charters” (or something like that) is the Magna Carta.
    Not only does this narrative emplot US history within a frame of continuity with exclusively English traditions, it also influences my own field quite a lot. The vasat majority — I think something like 60% — of all medievalist dissertations are on English history. So, though I talk big about the language training in my field, there are many medievalists who don’t learn foreign languages, either. Both fields, in my view, are impoverished within the American Academy when viewed as some kind of transatlantic cultural unity.


  9. I would think that a lot depends on what exactly someone is studying. If a researcher is studying something related entirely to the internal dynamics of an English-speaking colony, almost all the primary sources are probably in English. Even in a case like that, though, there might be a few relevant secondary sources in other languages. One of the revelations that I had during my (brief) graduate school career was that yes, there are actually people from other countries who study U.S. history – I had somehow figured that nobody from outside the USA cared in the least about our history.

    I’m almost certain that more U.S. historians would study areas like 17th-18th-early 19th century New Mexico, Texas, California, or Florida if there were simply more of them that knew some Spanish. Many Americans (myself included) have a strange attitude about languages – I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “I’m American – I can’t learn other languages”, as if people think that language ability is genetic and that most Anglophone Americans are afflicted with a nasty recessive gene that destroys their ability to learn. There must be some cultural/psychological block in there somewhere. Decades ago, my father switched majors because he couldn’t pass introductory-level German. Neither me nor my brothers ever liked or did well in foreign languages, and we joked that the whole family just couldn’t “do” multiple languages. One of my younger brothers was the worst, struggling just to pass foreign language classes in school. Then, he became interested in living in Germany (long story). In a few months became proficient enough in German (a language he had never studied at all) to pass a test required to go to university there. Now my sister-in-law is from Germany and they live together with my niece in Dresden. So much for the family’s hereditary with regards to knowing more than one language.


  10. The language thing cuts lots of ways. I don’t read as much as I should in various foreign language journals. But also, I once published an article in Very Prestigious French journal. It has, at least to my knowledge, never been cited by another historian of Britain. Harumph. I even got requests from grad students in the UK to send a translation!


  11. Paul: I wonder if the language thing is a historical legacy of the nineteenth century conflicts with Mexico. During that time, Euro Americans spent considerable time trashing the Spanish language as evidence of Mexicans’ supposed racial inferiority (Hard to imagine how they made those leaps, but they did). It wasn’t just that they wanted Mexican Americans “to learn English,” but they actually wanted the total obliteration of Spanish, too.

    Susan: I am jealous of you multi-lingual publishing. Zounds, I find it hard to get things published in English alone!


  12. To me this discussion brings up the question of what, exactly, we are teaching–and are supposed to be teaching. Does decentering early American history consist only of moving west and looking at the borderlands histories of Quebec and northern New Spain, or does it also involve looking at Jamaican history, Mexican history (in toto), and the history of Brazil?

    In other words: when we teach the first part of the American history survey, are we teaching the history of those parts of North America that become part of the US (a project that should place a greater emphasis on the history of non-Anglophone regions) or are we feinting towards a history of the Americas? To me that’s a crucial difference. Each of these projects involves a move away from the traditional model (Puritans and Cavaliers, then Independence, then the history of Presidents, then the Civil War) but towards something different ends–something more continental in one case, more Atlantic in another.

    To my mind, there’s a difference between what I do as an “early Americanist” in my teaching and what I do as a lower-division “survey” teacher. Early American history has already begun to expand, in fits and starts, beyond the 13 colonies model, though more towards something that incorporates northern Atlantic history and Canadian history than something that incorporates western history. But the US history survey is pretty stuck in teleology land. And since that’s where most undergraduates get their RDA of US history, that’s the harder trick.

    I’ll freely admit that it’s the harder one for me to solve; my survey syllabus is much more traditional. Some of this has to do with specialization. I feel like I know the first couple of centuries of early America well enough that I can make good judgments about how to go “bigger” (continental or Atlantic). My more limited knowledge about things historical after 1820 makes me more conservative.

    And the language thing is real, and limiting. I think the biggest mistake that grad programs (and I include the one I went to and the one I teach in here) is pitching foreign language learning entirely in terms of research. I am not sure how much I will research in non-Anglo sources (though I have some ideas of what I might like to do). But it would be *tremendously* useful to me in terms of learning historiography. My lack of Spanish has a negative impact on my teaching and my scholarship (in that I would like to be able to frame my work in a larger context). Lots of work is implicitly (if not archivally) comparative. But being able to draw only anglo-phone comparisons negatively impacts “Americanist” scholarship.


  13. John S.: You have anticipated Part III of this discussion, where Historiann and I touch on the idea of dumping the U.S. survey entirely in favor of either a hemispheric or “Americas” course. Great minds think alike!

    I agree that the language thing plays an important role in all of this. But most of the scholarship on Spain’s colonial borderlands and Latino/as in the U.S. (even more so) is published in English. So, even without expecting another language, we could all read more broadly. This goes back to the idea that grad students are not encouraged to think about that literature as part of the “canon.”


  14. So am I master of the future, as well as the past? Defining the “canon” is indeed the issue, I think. We spent a good amount of energy around the time I arrive here debating “minor field” requirements. For our early Americanists it always came down to the same choices–should they minor in Latin American history (a tack the discussion here would seem to favor), early modern European history (per squadratomagico’s point), or world history?

    We’ve had a couple choose early modern European minors, but these were the students working on immigration projects where a broad knowledge of European religious history especially was useful. Some working on western/”borderlands” early America chose Latin America. But most have chosen world history, entirely for job market reasons–easier to get employed if you can teach a world as well as US survey. But this is generally a pretty utilitarian choice that has done little to change how they frame their work. This structural push in our program hasn’t (yet!) yielded entirely the intellectual push it might.


  15. This is a very interesting discussion, and as a Westerner who now teaches colonial American history in New England I have a lot of strong opinions on the subject. I totally agree with the impulse to expand the boundaries of early America and with the spirit, if not the specifics, of Hijiya’s ands Saunt’s critiques. At the same time, I’m not at all surprised that people continue to write about the same stuff — it’s because that’s what people wrote about in the past, and current grad students naturally want to write stuff that responds in some way to the historiography. The challenge for either writing about or teaching early western history, as I see it, is to fit it into some existing narrative.

    My answer to this has been to teach early American history as comparative colonial history. This allows me to continue to cover the “old-fashioned” history of Virginia, New England, the middle colonies, etc., but also add Florida, New France, New Mexico, and the imperial contest for the rest of the continent as a feature of early American history. I like this approach because it creates a new overarching narrative of the period, one that students can easily understand, and that replaces the old, British-centered narrative while still acknowledging that aspects of that old story are important and can’t be ignored.

    Being inclusive is great, but we can’t be inclusive in a broad survey without having some sort of overall structure. I sometimes feel that this is the biggest challenge for the field now: how to incorporate all of these new people and places without becoming completely incoherent?


  16. I passed a college-level exemption test for languages by one point (I actually think it was a decision based on the college’s reading of the SAT achievement score) after four years of high school French, and I’ve sort of been sorry I treated that as an excuse not to take any college languages. But, on the other hand, what part of the extraordinarily wide range of electives I took under the distribution system would I now part with in order to have had a fifth year of French, or a single year of another language? On the graduate side, I was a beneficiary of that 1970s era “quantitative skills are a sort of a language” latitudinarianism, and I had no intention of being a cliometrician. But again, if I had passed a language reading competency exam at that point, it would have been French. And for the longest time, that would have been dumb, because Dutch would have been much more relevant. But now things have evolved again, research-wise, and French would again be more useful. So the question is how, if at all, can you improve your ability to quickly learn new languages as interests shift. (Maybe that Rosetta Stone ad about the farmboy and the Italian super-model is resonant after all). The best alternative in the meantime, I think, is strategic collaboration partnerships across sub-disciplanary platforms–if I can talk like an associate dean for a minute. Sorry, just had to say that!

    I just checked my shopping cart and still find no t-shirt there!


  17. Indyanna, the solution is just to dive in and learn a second foreign language. Some years ago, for instance, I began corresponding with a scholar in my field in Lisbon. She sent me a copy of an article of hers that sounded very interesting, so I just bought a Portuguese dictionary and I read it. It took a me a while to get through it, but since I’m used to reading things slowly (manuscripts), that didn’t bother me particularly. I guess I also have the advantage of background in other languages, so I was able to figure out the structure of the language pretty easily. Thus I read an interesting piece of scholarship and made a new connection, all because I was willing to read some Portuguese. Later, she invited me to speak at her university.
    International connections are a big reason why I became an academic. I don’t particularly admire a great deal of the dominant American culture, so I am pleased to take advantage of these possibilities.


  18. I really have enjoyed both parts I & II of this conversation. As someone who has learned two languages for research, and desperately needs to find time to learn a third, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I am glad to hear so many Americanists speak up for the importance of language study in post and comments.

    The availability of language study at Woebegone State is frustrating. I have students interested in taking foreign languages, but there are very few sections offered. They are starting to offer Chinese and Japanese at the beginning and Intermediate level, but regrettably, the German program has self-destructed. Also, the programs seem to serve their own majors well, but its been tough to get history majors to take the courses because of scheduling conflicts.


  19. Owen writes: “Being inclusive is great, but we can’t be inclusive in a broad survey without having some sort of overall structure. I sometimes feel that this is the biggest challenge for the field now: how to incorporate all of these new people and places without becoming completely incoherent?”

    This is indeed the challenge. I agree with John S. that teaching early American history in a survey necessarily differs from teaching it as a stand-alone course that doesn’t need to get anywhere in particular (to 1776, or to 1848, or to 1865). Survey courses demand some kind of narrative frame to help organize all of the information. I freely admit that colonial Mexico gets only cursory treatment until I make my way to 1846 in the survey class, whereas I usually include at least one book on (from the el Norte perspective) the SW borderlands or colonial Mexico when teaching upper-division early American courses. But, that’s probably because for the last five years, I’ve been using Andrew Cayton and Fred Anderson’s Empire of War as my main survey text–in many ways it’s quite traditional (the chapters are all anchored by the biographies of famous military and/or political leaders), but in other ways it’s innovative: it puts Anglo-American and U.S. imperial expansion at the center of American history.

    I freely admit that I give short shrift (if indeed I give any shrift at all) to things like the Great Awakenings, and to the market and industrial revolutions. (But, realistically, how much can we be expected to cover in 9 or 15 weeks with any kind of coherence?)


  20. John S2: Master of the future and the past — Sorta like a Ouija board.

    Owen: In many ways, I don’t think this is a “new” problem. Herbert Bolton was complaining that colonial U.S. historians ignored Spain way back in 1921. Yet, it still is news.

    I do take your point about how to include everybody and still have structure. My concern, though, is not as much that Latino/a history isn’t covered fully — It’s that they it’s never covered at all.

    Indyanna: You want to date an Italian super model?

    Mall L: I think one of the things that all of us is ignoring is the fact that language departments on university campuses are often some of the most underfunded units (even more than history or [English] literature!).


  21. I also found Squadrato’s comments on the connections between early American history and medieval English history fascinating. Although Magna Carta is something I never talk about, she’s right that we share some intellectual ancestry back about 100-150 years or so. (I do talk about English Common Law b/c of coverture and other stuff about inheritance law.)

    So: how do we get U.S. historians to learn some other languages? I’d like to hear from some U.S. historians who might defend having no language requirements for U.S. history students. (I’m not trying to be provocative here–I’m just noting that there’s a great degree of agreement in this discussion so far.)

    This is of course a bad time to implement a new requirement for grad students, who are already under pressure to get in and get out in 5 years (or fewer!) OTOH, it’s not like there are more open jobs than qualified applicants–so slowing down to learn a few languages isn’t going to be the only thing that might prevent new Ph.D.s from moving on to employment.


  22. In response to Historiann’s last comment:

    Everyone who is responsible for training Grad Students in American History could also start assigning articles and primary sources in another language as seminar reading. Its nice to work your way through that material in a class with other people.

    I am a scholar of eastern and central Europe and I wish I had read more stuff in German as part of seminar before I went hippity hopping down the research trail. We did some, but it was minimal. I can see why we didn’t (even as grad students) for some of the reasons outlined above: coverage is a bogey man, even in grad training.


  23. The ancient Romans had to study some Greek to be regarded as educated. In the British empire, some French was supposed (and preferably some Latin as well). Yankistan seems to be the first empire too uneducated even to notice that’s what it is. If any country really needs Esperanto, it is the USA – not in spite of it’s already speaking the dominating language, but because of.


  24. Squadrato, thank’s for that suggestion. I have a few times just sat on a short foreign text and tried to piece my way through it with the help of a dictionary. Mixed success. Funny you should mention Lisbon. Since the fall I’ve corresponded with an American-born hispanicist in Madrid, who connected me with one of hir Spanish colleagues in Barcelona–to very good effect–on the trail of a certain source. But then I discovered that my histori-d00d lammed out of Barcelona when the Bourbons prevailed there and went to Lisbon for the duration–which I presume meant for the duration of his life. So I’ve been idly thinking about trying to acquire a historiographical pen-pal there too. My colonial Latin American colleague here began to help me pick through a Spanish document I fished off the internet, when ze said, whoah, man, this isn’t Spanish, this is Catalan!


  25. Oh, I should post about language training. I am not the poster child for second language fluency (far from it — ask Josette at my U who’s suffered through trying to get me past Intermediate French for far too many years) but at least I had two other languages (German and Latin) under my belt before I thought to add French. And I threw in a bit of Italian on my own to aid in my dissertation work.

    Contrast this with the sad truth that our fully bilingual university requires no second language work or certification from students. So we will routinely graduate students who are monolingual (almost always in the Anglophone stream, mind you, not our Francophones who are mostly functionally bilingual just from the regional culture).


  26. Love these convos. An array of belated and random comments:

    1) Historiann — hey, some of us have actualy made careers using those stats courses!! Not that they should necessarily be a ‘language’, but I’m a fan, generally, of encouraging historians to look outside their discipline (as well as learning languages).

    2) At a certain Ivy grad school in the 1990s that shall remain nameless, a US history colleague had to fight to have Spanish allowed as a ‘scholarly’ language. Up to that point, it was French or German, unless you showed an exceptional need for such marginal tongues as, uh, Spanish. This is no longer the case, so maybe that is progress?

    3) I teach the colonial survey as cultural encounters: equal time on each topic for Europeans (Fr, Sp, Eng, some Dutch and German), Africans, and Native Americans. But things fall apart when I get to social life — just not as much to draw from for all those groups, unfortunately. Every year I try to do a little more — I finally have a kickass week on witchcraft that ranges from Europe to Mexico to Iroquoia to… what’s that place again?… oh yeah, Salem.


  27. Paul: I wonder if the language thing is a historical legacy of the nineteenth century conflicts with Mexico. During that time, Euro Americans spent considerable time trashing the Spanish language as evidence of Mexicans’ supposed racial inferiority (Hard to imagine how they made those leaps, but they did). It wasn’t just that they wanted Mexican Americans “to learn English,” but they actually wanted the total obliteration of Spanish, too.

    Interesting – I had never heard about the language itself being regarded as inferior.

    On a tangent, I wonder how much of the negative stereotyping of Spanish-speaking peoples in Mexico and elsewhere by Anglo-Americans was borrowed from older English negative stereotypes about the European Spanish, which were already part of the cultural baggage of the earliest English settlers in North America.

    Historiann – Regarding whether it’s defensible for American historians remain monolingual, I’m not a historian myself, but I would think that a lot depends on what a particular scholar specializes in. There must be some places/times/topics where almost all of the sources really are in English, so a scholar there wouldn’t be missing much.


  28. I have something of a skew perspective on this, since I’m not a historian. In my discipline, grad students are assumed to need at least one other language for PhD research and, at least in theory, formally tested on such before they can jaunt off to research. In instances where people are doing research in an Anglophone area, I think it’s more common than it ought to be, though, that people wangle language exemptions out of their advisors, rather than take the old-school path of acquiring, say, French or German for expanded theory reading.

    The larger similarity that I see, though, is that only recently have (most) people begun to deal seriously with literature published in a language they have acquired for research. Historically, a lot of our crowd have regarded language acquisition as a primarily oral exercise — as in, “What would I bother to read in Language X, when everything worthwhile is in English?” Ethnocentric at best, and sometimes distressingly racist, too.

    Acquiring my main research language slowed down my grad school progress by a year and had moments of pure agony, so I certainly see the trouble for those not inclined that way to put forth the effort. (I’m a language geek, so I was excited for the opportunity.) But the ones who treated the language classes as some irritating burden to be borne until they could escape paid for it: it’s pretty obvious to everyone when a dissertation based on ethnographic research was written by someone who didn’t understand what people were saying.

    There’s another problem for grad students related to both underfunded language departments and that fucking five-years-and-alley-oop model of grad programs: funding for the extra time that language acquisition requires. Some languages are hot and sexy with funding sources, and students can apply for FLAS grants and so forth to underwrite their studies. Other languages, like Spanish (as GayProf and Historiann have discussed at length), get short-shrifted at every level, and a lot of researchers who desperately need a year or two to sit down and get schooled in the new language are left to their own devices. It’s staggering to read the old classics of the discipline and see how our venerable predecessors could while away two or three years doing nothing but language acquisition on their universities’ accounts, before actually getting down to work. But since that possibility seemed to go hand in hand with the old white boys’ club of academia, perhaps I shouldn’t be too nostalgic.


  29. As has been pointed out, knowing only English means historians of the u.S. really only have to master one historiography–that of scholarship published in English. This leads to a certain parochialism. For example, I study women and gender history in “Country X,” so I have do research in that language and know the historiography of my topic(s) in English and language of Country X. Inevitably, when I discuss my research with historians of the u.S., they want to know how my research relates to the U.S. “What were we doing here in the U.S. at that time?” Or, “Oh, historians of the U.S. did *that* topic years ago, we’ve moved on to discussing something new.” Heidi Tinsman has a great article in the AHR that discusses how this is problematic–it forces all other histories into a U.S.-centric paradigm.


  30. Pingback: Historiann and GayProf teach it all, part III: Revolution! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  31. Pingback: Campus Round Up « Like a Whisper

  32. Pingback: Rethinking the U.S. History Survey « Jacobpedia

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