History Under Attack, part II: Can splitters be polemicists?

Get to work, friends!

 Last week, we had a conversation here inspired by incoming American Historical Association President Tony Grafton’s call to arms in this month’s Perspectives, the AHA’s monthly magazine.  I’ll republish here what I saw as the nut of his argument: 

For history has its own special place in these indictments. Critics rebuke historians for drawing politicized conclusions from their research—and even, in some notorious cases, for deliberately distorting or inventing the evidence to support their own left-wing views.They criticize authors of textbooks and public historians for subverting patriotism, claiming that they emphasize violence, inequality, and oppression in European and American life at the expense of more positive qualities. . . 

.       .       .       .      .       .      

[T]he indictment is hydra-headed. . . . It’s here that the real difficulty arises.  The real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical: it’s that our research and teaching are nothing more than sterile pursuits of mind-numbing factoids, tedious and predictable exercises in group think, or politicized exercises in deploying the evidence to prove predetermined conclusions. If we can’t answer those criticisms convincingly, we will lose on all fronts: history positions will disappear, and so will neighboring departments in foreign languages and other fields, without which we can’t function. 

The discussion in the comments here included some great points and contributed many important nuances to the conversation:  many of you noted that our perception of these issues varies by the kinds of institutions academic historians were educated in and now work in; others commented on problems of anti-intellectualism within the profession and within our own universities; there were several comments about the double-bind most of us are in with respect to the adjunctification of the profession:  in spite of popular representations of our work in the media and in political discourse, most of us in fact spend much more time teaching than we do in research, but 4-4 and 5-5 teaching loads don’t lead to better teaching, they just lead to more teaching.  And the pious critics of higher ed who insist that we spend more, not less, time in the classroom don’t in fact want to spend the money it would take to pay for more higher-quality instruction, which would mean reducing, not expanding, the teaching loads of most of us–they just want to beat us rhetorically with the unfounded assumption that those large classes and scantron exams are due to faculty research agendas rather than the casualization of academic labor. 

I think Grafton is correct that “[t]he real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical,” but I have real doubts about our profession’s ability to answer his call with a polemic or ideological defense of our work.  Historians are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers.  We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity.  This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.  (H/t to Jeremy Young on this point.)  A professor of mine once explained to me that this is why History is, in his words, the “queen” of all disciplines.  But queens don’t have to explain or justify themselves, whereas we must formulate some kind of coherent response to these attacks on the value of our research and teaching.    

In many ways, I think we’re done in not because our work is “too inaccessible” or too much of an elite conversation among specialists, but rather because it’s too accessible.  As I said in response to a comment in last week’s thread, “People in the natural sciences and STEM fields do this too–and no one is staking out their national meetings or complaining about the narrow, technical nature of their research. We actually publish books that the general public can get their hands on for free in their local libraries [or] via [Interlibrary Loan]–-not just narrow, technical journal articles. . . . there is an unreasonable expectation that anything in History or English be immediately transparent and useful to lay readers that I think is mistaken. We are not hobbyists building backyard rockets–we are professionals, and we need to have professional conversations with other professionals whose meaning and importance is not always transparent.”  We are accused of being obscurantists, but apparently most of us write in plain and clear enough language that our critics can understand it just enough to dismiss its importance–usually for ideological reasons, not because they can address the merits or faults of the argument or the evidence.

I would also add that portraying graduate education and our profession as an elite, insider club is a funhouse mirror view of what the professionalization of history has meant for the practice of history:  while the American historical profession is overall much whiter and more masculine than the U.S. population, the professionalization of history has actually diversified the practice of history far beyond the days in which it was only WASP gentlemen (or very occasionally, lady) scholars with inheritances who had the time and money to spend writing books.  If that were still a requirement for the job, I’d never have become a historian, nor would most of us working in the field today. 

In the end, I think Grafton answers his own questions very well, specifically with his call to defend research as the cornerstone of our work:  

[W]e need to make another argument as well—one that has become hard to frame in a way that is both cogent and accurate, but one that is nonetheless vital: the argument that scholarship matters. By doing history as well as we can, we are searching for exact knowledge, and teaching students, undergraduate and graduate, to do the same. We’re modeling honest, first-hand inquiry. That austere, principled quest for knowledge matters: matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before. The problem is that it’s a quest without a Grail. The best conclusions we can draw, scrutinizing our evidence and our inferences as fiercely and scrupulously as we can, will be provisional. We will disagree with our contemporaries, and the next generation will replace our conclusions, and theirs, with new ones. But the fact that the search goes on—and the energy and integrity that the searchers put into it—matter deeply, for the health of our culture. 

Any of us can do this, at every level of the profession:  graduate students, adjuncts and lecturers, and tenure-track faculty; those of us who teach at community colleges, “directional” universities, SLACs, or R-1s.  We can collectively make a case for the value of our work both in its specific context where we teach, as well as for the professional study and writing of history more generally, and we can do it with reference to the larger context in which most of us work:  most of us do this without much grant support and while simultaneously juggling a substantial (if not crushing) teaching load.  And we can stick to the specific, the particular, and the local–we don’t have to sacrifice nuance or complexity if we speak from our own experience.  We can also make the case for how an Anthropology or Sociology course was critical to framing our questions, or how training in foreign languages opened up new archival sources to us, and why it’s important for us geopolitically as well as intellectually to read in foreign archives.  (At least it’s a place to start.) 

Blogs and other online forums might be a good place to have these conversations–they’re the best chance that most of us have, since (as I noted last week) newspapers and magazines only permit the most eminent and prestigiously employed among us to write for them.  The professional critics of higher education won’t listen or care–but some of our neighbors and community members might. 

What do the rest of you think?

20 thoughts on “History Under Attack, part II: Can splitters be polemicists?

  1. Great post, Historiann — I’ll link to it over at my place.

    I think you and Grafton are right that history doesn’t provide answers, only offers complexity. (That’s not the same as saying that history doesn’t effectively disprove some notions — as we must continually remind the believers in black Confederates.) That’s a difficult point to make to most lay readers, but it is essential that we make people more comfortable with uncertainty; it’s the best thing we have to offer.

    I’m not quite so certain as you that our purveyance of uncertainty, or the fact that we’re professionals who need to discuss ideas with other professionals, precludes our ability to do it in a well-written and popularly-accessible way. The honest truth is that very few historians are ever taught or encouraged to write accessibly or well; if my advisor didn’t place so much stock in doing so, I would never have been told to do so at any time in my graduate coursework. That’s a failing we can remedy, but it doesn’t counter the larger point you’re making, which I think is quite well-taken.

    Finally, one quibble: it’s actually pretty easy to get op-eds published in a variety of newspapers around the country. The difficulty is in getting a paper to let you write something more than the usual political pablum for them. I’ve published several op-eds in a number of locations, but I had to edit them very carefully to meet the exacting (and, I’d say, mind-numbing) standards of the paper. If I wanted to discuss issues like the one Grafton raises in a newspaper, I’d have to be, well, Grafton himself.


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  3. Regarding “splitting” versus “lumping” — do you think that renewing our focus on interdisciplinarity in the humanities might counter this a little? Just a hypothetical question from the medieval side of things, where the value of interdisciplinary study is often stressed due in large part to the dearth of evidence in any one discipline’s purvey — what do your wise and worldly (and predominantly non-medievalist) readers think?


  4. The question of complexity and ambiguity drifting toward obscurantism, and that of workload, are separate ones, although undoubtedly interconnected. But I think we have to find individual answers for them. On the latter it’s a question of finding a vocabulary, and maybe metaphorical analogies, that will get some grip with people out there in the public sphere. Nobody ever went broke in this culture with sports metaphors, and rather than nibbling around the edges I’d start with the high hard one. College and university faculty, by and large, spend TOO MUCH time in the classroom, not too little. Not for their own sakes, but for the wellbeing of the people who sit in front of them. What we do is high friction, erosive work, and tired practice does more harm than good, much less some neutral set. Education is a content question and a head-drained prof is as useless as an empty canteen. Moreover, what they install in you in graduate school (quite above and beyond the matter of interpretive shifts) is not–like nuclear submarine fuel–a reactor with a half-life exceeding the metal fatigue expectation of the vessel itself. It runs out fast, has to be replenished, and this can’t be done by reading _Reviews in American History_. Research time is not self-indulgence, but responsible refueling.

    I see I’ve lost the sports thread…O.K., only in the decidedly minor league precincts of academic administration would “running your starter out there every other day instead of every four or five days” be saleable as a “productivity play.” The athletes the culture most cares about play about sixteen actual games a year and spend more time during the week reading plays and watching film than practicing, much less playing. Proposals to go to eighteen games a year wouldn’t even change these ratios much, and are already recognized by check-writing fans as a scam effort to re-brand “exhibition” games as “championship-level” play. Ordinary patients have been trained in recent decades to be suspicious of treatment by zombied-out hospital residents doing 24-hour shifts, and policy changes have gradually emerged in that sphere as well.

    Whoops, I’ve drifted outside the white lines again, but the point is the same. Nuance and complexity may be a tough sell except to intellectual gourmets or “foodies” out there. Pointing to stories that the stork doesn’t bring and that wouldn’t be there to tell except for rotating practitioners into and out of the classroom, might work with the Tostitos-level demographic.


  5. I think the value of history (and anthropology and sociology etc etc) is its ability to help us (society) think ‘outside the box’- to help make us aware that what seems ‘natural’ is not in fact ‘natural’ and that boundaries can be challenged and broken. Because that is how change happens- and technology/ culture ‘moves forward’ (since progress metaphors are so popular). So, we are in fact vital for social and economic development.


  6. @Vellum – I think one of the difficulties with interdisciplinarity is that universities are organized around departments that are, for the most part, defined by separate disciplines. With that being the case, if one can’t make a coherent case for one’s discipline, that leads to greater casualization of labor, greater teaching loads, greater gen ed burdens, or the danger of being eliminated altogether due to financial exigency. Further, in the current budget crisis, interdisciplinary departments (women’s studies, American studies, but I think we can also put language departments in this category for my purposes here) are in an even worse position: because they do so many things, there is a perception that they can either withstand dramatic cuts or just be cut altogether in the interest of “efficiency.” (Why do we need a women’s studies program if we have people all over campus who do classes on women’s issues? The answer, for a lot of people in charge of budgets, is that we don’t.) I am a strong proponent of interdisciplinary work, but I think the political reality on most campuses is that it does nothing to advance the cause of the humanities.

    @Historiann – thanks so much for this post. Even though I’m not a historian, so much of what you say applies across the humanities.


  7. When trying to make non-academics understand why my (obscure) field is necessary, I often use the metaphor of the mosaic, like the ones found at the ruins of Pompeii. I’m only working on adding a small handful of tiles to the fragmented picture, which doesn’t sound like much, but each tile adds something that could change our entire understanding of the big picture (ie humanity, or human history if we’re talking specifically about the past) without it. Instead of mosaic, one could use the more accessible metaphor of a puzzle. (If you were elaborate, you could even illustrate this with visuals – how when you only have certain pieces of a puzzle, you have no idea what the picture is, a few more and you might get the wrong idea, or anyway it’s incomplete, versus what it looks like when it’s done.) Or it could work in terms of bones, too – like when teeny tiny bones are found that change our whole understanding of the development of a specific species. I don’t know if these metaphors are broad enough to make a case to everyone, but they help me move beyond the “But it’s important!” stage.


  8. Good points, everyone. I love Indyanna’s sports metaphors–you’re right that by the NFL’s measure of productivity, 14 working days a year is a pretty good year’s work. I’ve frequently used the metaphor that teaching is acting: sure, we’re only “on stage” a few hours a week, but there’s constant rehersal and preparation. (And unlike stage actors, every day’s a different play for us, so to speak.)

    To build on Perpetua’s ideas, I also think we might make a reasonable case for humanities as conservators and transmitters of our collective cultural heritage. For most people that might seem antiquarian, but frequently there are instrumental uses for the knowledge and skills we conserve: consider the sudden demand for Arabic, Pashto, and Persian about 9-1/2 years ago, and the proliferation of these languages at American universities in the 2000s. So as Perpetua says, conserving as many pieces of the puzzle seems a valuable enough service–and society gets the larger benefit of our teaching to boot.


  9. Another terrific post. I very much like the point that what “professional” historians do is distinct from what history-buffs do. I have recently decided to demystify the world of the professional historian with my students. I’m currently teaching a methodology course and plan to talk to the students about my research. Not just the subject matter, but the process. I’ll start by discussing the book review I wrote over break–how the journal commissioned the review, my note-taking and writing process, and the publication process. I have a manuscript out to readers at the moment, and plan to go over that process with them as well. I’ve done something similar with graduate students for many years, as part of professionalization, but have found that undergraduates respond very positively to this “inside information.” Potentially it might give them more respect for such endeavors. This is small-scale, I realize, but on a larger level very few folks out their understand what goes into “professional” scholarship. Can’t anybody write a history book?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. widgeon–I think you’re right that these “behind the curtain” exercises work well with students, even undergrads. Your comment on why it’s important that people understand our work better gets at a point I should have made in the post above, which is that most people don’t understand why our jobs are different from secondary school history teachers’ jobs. Hence their frustration that we’re not on our feet teaching all day long–if we’re not, then, we must not be earning our keep. When you invite your students to understand a little bit of your life as a researcher and scholar, that starts to change.

    Interestingly, my students are much savvier about the different demands on regular vs. adjunct faculty than I would have expected. When I was talking to them about what they thought was a reasonable turnaround time for grading their essays, they said, “it depends on the number of other classes they’re teaching,” and said that they don’t expect as fast a turnaround time from adjuncts as they do from regular faculty. (Now this indicates that they may not really understand the rest of regular faculty workloads–but I thought it was a pretty reasonable and humane response w/r/t the adjuncts.


  11. I think we have to do a better job communicating how history training helps us think through real world problems. There is a reason why Goldman Sacks for years only hired history majors. And that’s because studying history teaches you how to evaluate evidence, who is lying, who isn’t. One of the reasons why we had the economic collapse recently was because people relied only on numbers to do economic evaluation and didn’t visit the factories or job sites and interview the folks there to see if the numbers were backed by reality. We saw it with Enron. People trained in history would have recognized the problem. (And some of them did).

    In the Madoff case, the opposite happened, you had lawyer/regulators who didn’t understand that Madoff wasn’t just brilliant, but that his results were mathematically impossible. They were only concerned that the paperwork was filled out correctly. People trained in history would have recognized the problem. (And some of them did).

    What history (and of course, all the liberal arts) teaches us is something called problem solving. It’s the most important life skill there is. In history it works like this: why did somebody do x. Ok to answer that question, what do I need to know? What sources can I find? What am I not going to find – that is what are the limits of my knowledge. What can other people who have looked at it tell me. Can history answer this question or do I need other fields’ help?

    If you’ve ever tried to buy a house or a car you’ll need these skills (particularly a used car). If you ever need a lawyer, you’ll need these skills. If you ever… well you get the idea.


  12. Dear Historiann, dear all,

    This has truly been inspiring, for me at least, and in my next column I will discuss the responses to the first one, here and elsewhere, and see if I can push the discussion a little bit forward with your help.

    Thanks so much,



  13. I would hate it if we ever *stopped* purveying complexity and uncertainty. Our culture is riven by people who insist that they know all the right answers, and who deny uncertainty. Learning to reject facile black-and-white thinking and to seek nuance ought to be among the primary skills students take from higher ed.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying I love, love, love this post!


  14. (1) I love Indyanna’s sports metaphors, too!

    (2) Actually, deranged ignorant assholes apply plenty of scrutiny to what scientists do and, especially, what research is funded by federal grants. The ban on human embryonic stem cell research is a perfect example of this.

    (3) Until I read this poste, I had no idea that arguments had nuts.


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