Preemptive quit lit, or, does history have a future?

Come and get it!

Come and get it!

Much to my surprise, as I’ve been a bit of a grumpypants lately, the post last week on Matthew Pratt Guterl’s “What to Love” really struck a chord with a number of you.  Can you stand me blowing more sunshine up your skirt?

In today’s quit-lit-esque Jeremiad, Robert Zaretsky of the University of Houston riffs on Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II  in “The Future of History,” published today in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Braudel’s approach casts light not just on early-modern scholastics, but also on their postmodern descendants. Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip. Still governed by guildlike regulations and socio-professional traditions that our early-modern ancestors would recognize, the careers of grad students advance as languidly as trade caravans once did across North Africa.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we are unprepared for the tempo and temper of the times. We have handicapped ourselves, in addition, by a process of professional fission, fracturing into a growing number of subdisciplines. As our profession continued to sprawl, we fastened on ever smaller matters, and phrased our work in ever more arcane jargon. Mostly indifferent to the art of storytelling, we have been dying a death by a thousand monographs.

Seriously?  The “we’ve forgotten how to tell stories” line again?  Just how many copies of The Med and the Med World did Braudel sell outside of university libraries, anyway?  Was it a Book of the Month Club selection?  Riiiight.  Whenever I see that old line trotted out about “dying a death by a thousand monographs,” I see someone getting ready to push someone else out of the lifeboat, or at least hear him tell some kids to get off his lawn.

Enough of the “golden age” fantasies about the awesome, well-paid, and always well-respected scholars of yore.  When is your imagined “golden age” for history in these United States–the early and mid-nineteenth century, when only Gentlemen Scholars wrote history and bent it to their Protestant, white, male, triumphalist ends?  Just how many of those historians were actually making a living at it?  Just about none?  Alrighty then.


I’d rather be lucky than good!

Or is your “golden age” the so-called “progressive” era, when loads of German-speakers had university jobs but lost them in World War I, because it would be a bad thing to be able to read and write an enemy language?  Was it the post-World War II era, when the G.I. Bill permitted universities like mine (formerly “Colorado A&M–for eighth-grade graduates!”) to expand, but at the same time Cold War politics meant firing a lot of faculty for their current or past Communist ties (or for the mere suspicion of Communism?)  Was it the fat and happy 1960s, when faculty were hired in great numbers but also fired for supporting students in the antiwar movement?  (It happened in my department back in the day.)

And in all of these previous eras, someone like me would have been as unwelcome as a fly at a picnic, because university faculties were overwhelmingly white and male.  I’m white, but as they say:  close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!  

Guess what, friends?  I hate to break it to you, but being an intellectual has never been a very good career move in the United States.  So as I see it, our options are 1) don’t become a historian, 2) become a historian and try not to offend anyone with your informed opinons, or 3) (my choice) enjoy your outlaw status, whether or not you collect a paycheck.  Piss some people off!  Write a few books because no one else will!  Start a blog!  Start a podcast!  Make friends, influence people!  If you have tenure, use it.  Enjoy fame, if not fortune, on social media.

cowgirlgunsign1Finally, how many times must I point out the obvious?  It’s not “an historian,” it’s “a historian.”  As Eddie Izzard explains so elegantly:  because there’s a f^(king aitch in it.”

Love & kisses,

A Historian(n)

27 thoughts on “Preemptive quit lit, or, does history have a future?

  1. I agree with the argument here, and tend to be suspicious of ‘golden age’ arguments as well.

    That said, just to correct the record: in France, Braudel’s _La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II_ sold very well outside the academy, reprinted in multiple new editions over the years, including low-priced pocket book paperback editions.


    • Baaaah! I knew I should have looked it up, just to be sure. Thanks for your comment, Paul. (But I’m betting that most of those pocket editions were for students, not for general readers.)

      Mea culpa: too busy prepping for tomorrow’s classes.


  2. “Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip.” Really? This doesn’t sound like the life I see grad students and recent grads experiencing. They are multi-taskers, whether that’s good or not, marrying their research agendas with all sorts of skill-building and networking. Many of them are also damned fine writers or are working to be the same and for multiple audiences. Oh, and all on a shoestring budget. Thanks, adjunctivitis, for chopping away at the premise of academic employment! (And, in the case of American institutions in particular, charging too damned much for tuition, but that’s another story.)

    The “NO PHD” that inspired this musing is less useful to indict academic training than it would be to start talking about modern anti-intellectualism. Why would someone waste their presumably hard-earned money on such a vanity plate? Why not something cool, like “KHAL3SI” or “1DERWMN”?


    • “The “NO PHD” that inspired this musing is less useful to indict academic training than it would be to start talking about modern anti-intellectualism.”

      But that would be a BIG task, and hard! Much better to complain about non-existent problems to a crowd of CHE readers instead of taking on the real issues. I also agree with your point about today’s grad students, who are much better professionalized than my cohort ever was and much more informed about the risks and opportunities that may await them than I certainly took the time to be as a grad student.


  3. And the time to degree is being shortened as administrations demand humanities PhDs finish up in the same amount of time as STEM. So hard-to-come by training has to be acquired fast and on top of new types of training, and with fewer years of course work.


  4. Who’s this “we” he keeps talking about?
    And yeah, I’m with you: I can romanticize a bygone age of great scholars for so long only… until I realize that they had unlimited time and leisure to read and write because they either didn’t have to work for a living, or they had an army of wives and other support-females (many of them with advanced degrees themselves) to do the scut work.
    And yet, some of us still manage to tell stories (again, who’s his “we”?) *and* get the grocery shopping done.


    • And the fact of the matter is that most scholars who taught at institutions like yours and mine didn’t write even ONE book back in the day, let alone TWO books as I have done & as you will too. It sure helped that tenure standards were a lot lower, even aside from the wives and typists who offered critical support.


  5. On a different note, I think that there’s actually a good intellectual reason that history PhDs take longer than STEM or economics programs. While breakthroughs in mathematics are almost always done by the young (for reasons I’ve never understood), historical knowledge is cumulative. You need to know both *broadly* (the context of your topic in terms of both regional and chronological development, such as how Ivan the Terrible’s government fit in with political and military changes across early modern Europe) and *deeply* (all those tiny details in the archival documents). That just takes time, I’m reminded of this whenever I revise a lecture to incorporate new research or carry out my own research — I can understand new information much more thoroughly only because I’ve been at this for 20+ years.

    Which is not to deny that graduate programs can exploit students shamelessly and drag their time to degree out for years because some senior prof wants a cheap research assistant (that happened at my grad institution), but (surprise!) one size does not fit all intellectual disciplines. People stubbornly refuse to be widgets.


    • I agree Northern Barbarian, there is no such thing as a fifteen-year-old history prodigy, but for some reason they appear in music and mathematics. The longer you work at history or literature the better you can get at making the connections you describe. I would also say it gives you more experience with the languages and other skills you need to do that research.

      The comparisons with PhDs in the STEM disciplines bothers me, and not just for the reasons you and Katherine mention. I had a cousin who did a PhD in biochemistry in five years. I completed my PhD in eight years. His program was structured completely differently than my History PhD:

      He did not do an Masters. Back in the day my program assumed two years to an MA before you start the PhD.

      He worked throughout the year, including breaks between semesters and during the summer in his adviser’s lab. He did this for the whole five years he was working on his degree. I worked for two semesters as a research assistant for my adviser and another two semesters as an RA for a Research Institute on campus. I was a TA for multiple semesters. I adjunct taught classes as an ABD for three semesters and several summer sessions. I also had a couple of fellowships. But from year to year I had no idea how I would pay my bills.

      His dissertation consisted of four chapters that had already been published in peer reviewed journals with an introduction and a conclusion. He was co-author with his adviser and fellow students on all four articles. My dissertation was of similar length, but none of the chapters were coauthored, co-researched or published in peer reviewed journals before my committee read it for the defense. I think that is a very different kind of intellectual work.

      In short, research in the sciences is organized and produced very differently in the Sciences and Humanities. I don’t think one is necessarily harder than the other, but it is certainly difficult to compare them as processes and outcomes. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to say, “Well, PhD’s in STEM discipline X are finished in five years, so history PhD’s should finish in a similar time frame.” It might be the case that we are taking too long to finish PhD’s in the discipline, but we ought to look at the structural reasons for this within the discipline, especially those revolving around the labor and teaching conducted by doctoral students in the humanities.


      • Right on. Plus, people who compare STEM to Humanities times-to-degree forget somehow that microbiologists, for example, usually have to do a prestigious postdoc for **several years** in someone else’s lab before they move on to a TT job in their own labs, and they’re facing at least the same constriction as Humanities Ph.D.s for those kinds of jobs. At least when we get our crummy jobs, we’re not expected also to finance our jobs entirely through grants and support labs full of grad students and postdocs as well.

        Lots stall out at the postdoc stage or move to industry or secondary-school teaching. (Sciencey people, please weigh in here! I’m sure I don’t have the nuances entirely correct.)


  6. I quit skimming the “NO PHD” article when I realized I wasn’t in it, since apparently if you don’t join the Aibeedee tribe (::eyeroll::) but don’t go on to a tenure-track job, you aren’t a historian. (I guess I’m a skeleton?)


      • HAhahaha. But **we** know you count, Sophylou.

        What’s with the Twitter identity change, BTW? (Although I’m enjoying the new persona.)


      • It’s my Halloween Twitter handle! It’s the best I can do with my bland Scandinavian name. A friend of mine does a weekly radio show on his local NPR station, and I’ll often communicate with him via Twitter during — he dedicated a very cool Sun Ra spoken-word piece about history to me last night but got his words tripped up because he started laughing at my name. Oops.


      • Maybe I should switch my Twitter handle to my porn star name, which is my middle name + the name of the street I grew up on. It’s actually kind of an old-time movie star name: Marie Tamworth!


  7. For what it’s worth, I loved my time in graduate school. The time flew by. I loved being surrounded by the bright people in my cohort and some exceptionally dedicated faculty. And many of us understood fully that the dissertations we wrote–some of which became beautifully written books, might not lead us to the coveted tenure track, I was lucky, it turned out, and that might color my recollections, but still, I miss the regular meetings of seminar and reading group.


  8. You know I agree with most of what is being said here, but I would like to take a slightly different tack. Let me slip into my 1990s vintage Nirvana T-shirt and post structuralist propeller beanie and “unpack” this little morsel:

    “As our profession continued to sprawl, we fastened on ever smaller matters, and phrased our work in ever more arcane jargon. Mostly indifferent to the art of storytelling, we have been dying a death by a thousand monographs.”

    Every time I have seen this trope deployed in the last twenty years I have taken it at face value as some sort of plea for historians to reach out to another, larger, less specialized audience that is supposed to exist outside our discipline. But I think that literal reading is a mistake. The author doesn’t want better storytelling or narrative for the audience outside academic history, but inside it. The audience for popular history is satisfied with their reading list, but its us academic historians who are not well served by the current publishing paradigm.

    The “other publics” for academic history don’t actually exist. The readers of popular history are happy with the genre. There are plenty of authors who do a good job of digesting the parts of academic history that suit them and present it to the audience for popular history. The market works.

    The specialists are the ones who are unhappy with their fellow specialists. Take for example two recent books about “Global History” meant for popular audiences but written by academics: Jürgen Osterhammel’s, _The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century_ (Princeton: 2104) and Lynn Hunt’s _Writing History in the Global Era_ (Norton: 2014). Osterhammel is an exhaustive (and exhausting) attempt to stitch together the different thematic trends of nineteenth century historiography in a global comparative framework. He mobilizes a massive amount of information to support an equally massive number of case studies linking cities, economies and societies between 1789 and 1945. It is completely indigestible and unsuccessful. I’ve studied both nineteenth century Europe and China for my PhD. I teach these fields regularly. I am familiar with the specialist literature. I have a half decent knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and nineteenth century US history. But I was unable to finish the book.

    Osterhammel’s attempt at a grand synthesis failed because it lacked both narrative and a thematic coherence. It did not fail because of jargon, overspecialization or the rest. It might have failed because of its lack of narrative, but not every good history book has to be a narrative. The author could blame the reader, but I figure if I can’t tackle this, then who could? Who was the audience for this?

    Now, I am halfway through reading Lynn Hunt’s _Writing History_ and it is a completely different experience. The book deals with a lot of the same themes and questions that have driven Osterhammel’s book, but it is far more readable and delves far deeper into the theoretical frameworks for history writing. So far, I would say it is successful. Even though Hunt is tackling complicated questions about methodology and historiography, she writes with a minimal resort to jargon (like Osterhammel actually) and is trying hard to make her prose as clear and accessible as possible. Its a great book, one that I am thinking of assigning to my students in our Historiography class next semester. But you know what, it will never catch on with the audience for “popular history.” I think every historian, especially those who are at teaching institutions should read this book.

    Which (finally) leads me to my last point. When I hear someone deride all the specialization and jargon, or appealing to the popular audience, I think what they actually want is better synthetic works written by historians for their fellow historians. I think the profession would benefit immensely from more successes like Lynn Hunt’s book and even a few glorious failures like Osterhammel’s. We need synthetic works, biographies and narratives for our fellow PhDs. I bet the good ones will even be read by interested people outside the profession.


  9. My recent experience in exploring options outside of academia has led me to a completely different conclusion. While I haven’t completely jumped off the tenure track, I have been investigating other options, and I’ve been surprised by how many times my PhD has opened doors for me. And it is in a completely unrelated field to what I am transitioning to. For some people, having a PhD in and of itself is a marker of accomplishment. And it gets you in the door. So even if I do leave, it will clearly be an asset.


  10. Pingback: Medieval History and Policy Makers: Or, What Use *Is* a Medieval History Degree? | The Winds of War

  11. Pingback: The Future of History? It’s Already Here. | History Buff

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