No sex or bad language please: We’re historians

Michael O’Brien, in “Of Cats, Historians, and Gardeners,” part of a roundtable discussion on “Self and Subject” in the June, 2002 Journal of American History, writes of the congenital bourgeois politesse of the historical profession in our era:

Historians seem to bungle the self-reflective moment and, on the whole, live dull, inconspicuous lives.  Compared to novelists and poets, they tend to be genteel, unwilling to narrate their own jagged hatreds, betrayals, sexual passions, and ugly experience, though happy enough to narrate those of others.  Rather, historians like to show themselves as virtuous and competent, the prudent guardians of reform and hope, the users of inoffensive language.  (The skeptical historian, contemplating the matter of Sally Hemings, may venture of Thomas Jefferson that he might have been a hypocrite, not that he was a fucking son-of-a-bitch.)  This primness offers thin encouragement that the cultivation of self will yield much of literary range, comparable to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, though we might hope for a peer of Vladmir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.

I have to say that his description of the historian’s personality and temperament cuts pretty darned close to the bone.  Dull and inconspicuous?  Check.  Genteel and unwilling to reveal much of the self but willing to dish about others?  Check check.  Pretends to be virtuous, competent, and the prudent guardian of reform, and a user of inoffensive language (online anyway)?  Checkitycheckcheck and check.  Have a cuppa tea?  When I read this earlier this week in preparation for my graduate seminar, I was reminded of this from The Onion last week, Historians Politely Remind Nation to Check What’s Happened in Past Before Making Any Big Decisions:

According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

.       .       .       .      .       .      .       .      

While the new strategy, known as “Look Back Before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.

Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.

We are a profession of polite and pretty comfortable Cassandras.  (At least those of us with tenure, anyway.  We made it into the last lifeboats before the ship went down!)

Finally, all of this reminds me of an old joke I once heard about the American Historical Association annual conference–and stop me if  you’ve heard a version of this old saw before too.  Here goes:  (supposedly overheard from one housekeeper to another in a quiet hallway):  “I’ve never seen a convention with so much drinking and so little f^(king!”

25 thoughts on “No sex or bad language please: We’re historians

  1. Check-ola! I bet that last crosscut saw gets genericized among the staffers to apply to every group that comes through town, though. Too much fun not to. A Starbucks server actually told me when the AHA was in Philly that historians are much better tippers than, say, plywood systems logistics planners, and I’m sure that get’s said about each incoming group in succession. But it’s true, getting paid to read dead people’s diaries and mail is about as transgressive as it gets in our biz.


  2. I think this is very true: I’ve always felt that historians were typically progressive and leftist, in terms of politics, but extremely middle-brow, verging on conservative, in their social mores (or at least: the ones they project to the world). Indeed, I remember being quite surprised to realize this, in grad. school. In my naivete, had expected academia to be filled with a certain kind of avant-garde, populated by people of creative temperaments and rebellious, questioning spirits; I was so disappointed to find it so tame and middle-of-the-road.

    This is the why most of my friends are non-academics: as a group, we lack a certain verve.


  3. Well, I would challenge both Mr. O’Brien and the old saying regarding the AHA to come visit some departments I know very well. There is enough expletive-use, stabbing-in-the-back, and f**king to make even the Founding Fathers proud. Of course historians – and academics generally – used to be a lot worse behaved Back In the Day. Y’know, the day that was ruined by the insistence of feminists and people of color to be included and treated like human beings. So now we’re polite! And less racist/homophobic/misogynist!

    I was under the impression that refraining from using expletives, launching personal attacks, and making my baggage front and center in my work was actual pretty fundamental to being a professional historian. People might be deluded by how much of their own self permeates their work, but I’m a little troubled by how much “genteel” “inconspicuous” and “virtuous” feels like a gendered attack, *especially* when the negative comparison is to big d*ck authors like Ginsburg. It could easily read as a Naipaul attack on Jane Austen, no? And frankly, I’m okay being the Austen, the not-Ginsburg in this scenario. Some historians are beautiful writers. But no, they aren’t novelists or poets. It’s a different genre.


  4. My most memorable AHA old saw(could be apocryphal, but was told to me by someone who swears s/he hear the colleague say it personally): With the increasing diversification of the profession in the 1980s, a renowned senior male colleague commented, “With all these women, it is getting hard to tell the historians from the hookers.”

    (Which is to say: I wonder if historians talk smack off the record, rather than on!)


  5. Totally genteel and conservative in my private life, and I’m trying to keep my use of expletives for offenses beyond the every day screw-ups that annoy me. I kind of miss the days when cursing meant something was *really* bad. Like Perpetua, I’ll take Jane Austen over Ginsburg But I see this stance as somewhat counter-cultural in this day and age, when we’re encouraged to let it all hang out, and to express everything. My genteel is by no means that of my grandmother. But I do think there are things the world doesn’t need to know about me.

    I suspect it also ties into my pedagogy, because I think one of the things I try to offer my students is a set of frameworks within which to contain ideas, possibilities,etc. It’s not just random, and so many students think of history as just a set of facts.

    That said, I try when I write to locate myself: but that’s background, not the center of my analysis. I try not to be boring, in other words, though only my readers can decide that.

    Oh, and as to the shenanigans, I think the whole academic world is pretty boring these days. Most sexual activity (like the drinking) has gone very private, what with sexual harassment etc. But I do remember running into friends at the national conference of my subspecialty laughing because they had just seen two people who had a long affair going off together. I have always wondered who it was!


  6. well, yes. That’s me.

    I have to say that I’m a pretty straight laced, play it safe, follow the rules, get those ducks in a row, kind of guy. So my question is this: does the personality determine what discipline or profession you enter or does the profession/institution shape the person?

    If I worked in the arts would I become more of a rebel? Or if I were more of a rebel, would I have become an artist instead of a historian?


  7. Heteronomatively married for twenty years, two kids, two dogs and a cat. I am so boring in some ways: the same ways that a lot of my other colleagues are boring.

    There was one historian in our department who’d been divorced and had remarried (no students involved). That’s as scandalous as we get in the discipline hereabouts!

    On the other hand, my publications establish my bohemian bona fides – pop culture topics abound. I incorporate television and film clips in my scholarly talks. I even incorporate post-colonial theory. The next thing you know, I’ll be setting up shop with the lit people!


  8. Perpetua–I think that O’Brien would agree with Sharon that there’s the private life of historians and then there’s the public record. He suggests in the above clip that historians indeed have their own “jagged hatreds, betrayals, sexual passions, and ugly experience–” but they prefer to write about those of *others*, not themselves, and prefer to pretend to virtue and objectivity, etc.

    But I think you raise a good question about the gendered nature of the comparison–manly d!ck swinger artists versus feminized (and in some cases, feminine) scholars. There are lots of bad boys, and a very few bad girls, in the profession, but I think overall that we’re much less daring than we think we are both personally and intellectually.

    I’ve written here before about how I’ve always admired bad girls even as I’ve failed utterly to be a bad girl myself. (I jokingly used to refer to myself as the Courtney Love of early American history–but that was only funny about a decade ago, and I don’t think that for all of her talent and accomplishment that most of us would really like to trade lives with her. At least I sure wouldn’t.)

    As to Matt’s question: it’s both, right? But I think that if the erosion of tenure continues it might mean that we get more daring historians. (With nothing left to lose and no job security, maybe the artsy daring types might be drawn to the field?)

    And, Shaz, on the hookers comment: nice.


  9. I talked with one of my classes this week about the goals of higher education. One student asked me to address an assertion made by bell hooks in her essay Democratic Education (Chapter 2 of Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom) regarding conservative responses to the inclusion of formerly disenfranchised groups:

    “Progressive professors who had once pushed for radical change were simply bought off. High status and high salaries motivated them to join the very system they had one worked so hard to dismantle.”

    My reply involved a couple of examples from my own life, the relatively minor bad consequences, and the importance of my relative privilege (tenured, white) in those outcomes. (Though on the one occasion somebody outright demanded I be fired, I was not yet tenured. Good Dean.) I said I think there are both internal—self-policing for the sake of job security—and external drivers toward certain modes of behavior and that in my observation, gender, race, and other biases are alive and well in the academy, they are just expressed in other terms.


  10. I’m with Perpetua on this one, though I’m not a historian (and btw I’ve heard that same joke about drinking and f-ing applied to my completely unrelated field). You can be self-reflective (examining your own biases etc etc) without being a loud, swearing lout. In fact, I’d say that the only people who swear and talk trash in public in my field are all established white guys, and regardless of their intention, it absolutely silences a lot of other people. In private? A different story.


  11. Academia offers high status and high salaries?

    I don’t think that’s the case, certainly not for the vast majority of us, but it’s a system with routines and benchmarks and steps and (for a minority) eventually, valuable job security. But what can most of us do for “radical change?” That almost by definition has to come from without, not within.

    It is interesting how even “obedient white girls from the suburbs,” in Tina Fey’s expression, are treated as though they represent some fundamental threat to many academic disciplines and departments. I guess what’s so sad is how little rebellion it takes to court trouble with academic advancement.


  12. I guess what’s so sad is how little rebellion it takes to court trouble with academic advancement.

    Agreed and that’s how I read hooks. Concern about job security (“status and salary”) is in the academy a conservatizing force. It’s not that we have failed to learn our labor history but that we don’t understand it to apply to ourselves.


  13. Funny you should bring this up today. A couple of hours ago, on the way to class, I was thinking of how I’d have written a book review of a certain book we were discussing that day, and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could write:

    The weakness of this book is that it tends to meander and mark time for several chapters before getting to its promised argument in chapter five. Of course, that argument, when you get to it, is pretty fucking awesome. But on the whole, this should have been a longish article rather than a book.

    And then I thought: Wouldn’t I love to keep that f-word in there when I publish.

    Fuckity-fuck! (That’s Girl Scholar-speak for “Hugs and Kisses!”)


  14. Back in my undergrad days I was concentrating in English history, I discovered and *loved* the EHR and other journals featuring Geoffrey Elton and other luminaries of the 1950s. Not simply because they wrote about (and wrote well about) subjects that interested me, but because they often launched right into vitriol. I don’t recall which one, in a review, accused another of “spreading more error and confusion through the halls of history” in some book review, but I thought “*this* is a world I want to have an argument in!”

    I was convinced that this was daily fare in academia. It seemed so lively. Unfortunately, I was not only not a man, but not a man who entered the profession in the 1950s in Oxford…

    Now, I’m the soul of the measured, generous comment, in reviews but in my head I write reviews like Truffula. Most things should be articles but the Tenure and Job Machines require us to churn out padded articles as books.



  15. I was assigned the debates between Geoffrey Elton & his colleagues in my first year of my doctoral program, and I have to second ga’s comment–those are absolutely hilarious. But, after finding similarly strongly-worded reveiws in more recent historiographical debates, my graduate seminar eventually decided it was a British thing–the British academics in the British journals (and the TLS!) seem to enjoy far more aggressive academic debates/reviews that we do on this side of the pond.

    “This primness offers thin encouragement that the cultivation of self will yield much of literary range, comparable to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, though we might hope for a peer of Vladmir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.” (A little) more seriously, I wanted to take a bit of issue with the assumption in this statement–since when is professional history writing *supposed* to “yeild much of literary range?” I confess I would be a bit puzzled as to how I would react to a historical argument if it was presented in Ginsburg’s verse form–isn’t that, rather simply, not the right format, or to use the literary term, not the right form? Don’t we have professional writers/poets/novelists to write novels, whereas professional historians are supposed to be up to something else?


  16. Well, certainly, I know more than a few stories about fucking at conventions, as well as the numerous tales we all recount about the people who sleep with students…

    But, perhaps, what is quite sad is the way that certain really rather boring things are seen as rebellious: swearing, fucking. Dude, that’s rebellion when you’re fifteen; when your 30/40/50 etc it’s just sad. Especially because sex as a rebellious activity becomes increasingly difficult as an adult, unless you are hurting lots of people, and why is hurting people cool? I think people who think sex is rebellious just aren’t getting enough sex.

    I think rebellion should be about challenging ideas and challenging norms; and some of us peeps with conservative lifestyles write books that challenge the status quo, reshape what is known etc. Do I need to be angsty with too much eyeliner for this to count? To that I say: fuck off.


  17. As a foul-mouthed SOB who tells it as I see it with minimal understanding of who gets their feathers ruffled, and a string of wives to boot, now I get why I am working as an adjunct, still 17 years after the PhD, and spending the rest of my time working for a pitiful $25 per hour teaching chess to children (the one place I manage to keep my foul mouth in check).

    Thanks for the insight. I read the Onion piece as biting satire, and wholly missed the genteel politeness.


  18. @CPP: presuming that’s directed at me. I was presuming that most of us do drink, swear and fuck for exactly that reason, and not because it’s rebellious. But, rather, I have an issue with these behaviours being the benchmark for rebellion (which seemed to be the implication of the article and the way it was interpreted by the examples given in comments). I’m just not sure this stuff has been rebellious since the Puritans.


  19. I took my first course in English history from Lawrence Stone, who was engaged with Elton in the gentry debates. They are fascinating to read, but I’m not sure it’s a model for the field: people stopped talking to each other. There are many reasons to stop talking to someone, but how you understand what happened 300 years ago should not be one of them (I think).

    While my self presentation is pretty conservative, I don’t think my ideas are. But one of the reasons I’m a historian is that I don’t want to “narrate [my] own jagged hatreds, betrayals, sexual passions, and ugly experience.” Without denying the way my experience shapes my work, I’m writing about people in the past, NOT myself. If I did that, I’d be writing memoir, not history.

    And I have an ambivalent relationship to the establishment: sure, I have job security (gained at the age of 50+) and a decent salary. But for someone with almost 30 years of experience and a Ph.D., I don’t think I’m paid *that* much. I’m cheering on Occupy Wall Street, though I’m not occupying it myself. And as an educator, I’m simultaneously trying to give my students (first generation, many quite poor and from immigrant families) the tools to succeed in our society while also giving them critical lenses with which to think about it.


  20. I too am skeptical (like Michael O’Brien in the commentary I quoted from above) that historians’ private lives are necessary or important to know to fully understand their work. Like you, Susan, I don’t write about me through my work. I’ve written about things in the past with which I have zero personal experience: warfare, violence, gun ownership, and manhood in the past, and now Wabanaki missions and convent life. Any jagged hatreds, betrayals, and passions of mine are pretty weak tea by comparison, I should think.

    My graduate students yesterday, after reading Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran and that forum in the June 2002 JAH were to the contrary enamored by the notion of connections between the self and the historian’s subject. I wonder if this is more of a conceit for historians of the very recent past (19th & 20th C historians), rather than for those of us whose work ranges into the early and premodern past. But to argue against seeing or looking for deep psychological or personal reasons for choosing our subjects has an almost 12-step recovery-like logic, right? We’re either in recovery or in denial.


  21. Ellie–that’s a good example, but I think the reason that blog died quickly has to do with blog software & technology. See, in order for C. Vann Winchell to develop a following, ze’d have needed to 1) post more frequently, and 2) have drummed up interest in the blog by posting comments on other people’s blogs. But as many of you know, bloggers can see the IP addresses of their commenters & can trace them if they’re so inclined, so I think it’s unsurprising that Winchell’s blog was pretty short lived.

    Maybe ze could carry on on Facebook? (I don’t know how that works.)


  22. Sorry–I was a bit unclear, but in re-thinking what I wrote above, I think Ellie is entirely right. The fact that (I presume) C. Vann Winchell wanted to avoid exposure/outing emphasizes the caution and avoidance of conflict that characterizes historians as a group. Ze wanted to dish, but the fact is that dishing publicly about senior historians was probably imperiling hir anonymity & thus perhaps hir career, so ze took the prudent course & stopped blogging.


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