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.
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.
Love & kisses,