The American university teacher who gives honor grades to students who have not yet learned to write English, for industrious compilations of facts or feats of memory, is wanting in professional pride or competence.
Samuel E. Morison, History as a Literary Art (1946), 3.
The current unease about history’s declining fortunes echo an anxiety that has afflicted the profession for nearly a century. This anxiety seems perennially familiar: overly specialized monographs filled with turgid prose are driving away readers, graduate education is doing little to improve the situation, and, consequently, history no longer commands the respect it once did. The present situation might be more precarious, but the general themes of this crisis have been rehearsed before.
In 1920 the AHA formed a committee to learn what could be done to “awaken young students and historians to a realization of the part good expression must play in enabling history to maintain a place in the world of letters.” History’s readership was already in decline and with that decline in readership so too was history’s standing as a respectable subject. Six years later the committee produced its report, Writing of History (New York, 1926). The report diagnoses the problem, tracing the cause back to undergraduate and graduate education that has beaten any appreciation of style out of students and future historians.
By 1926 John Spencer Bassett looked back longingly to a former era when
historians like Bancroft and Prescott stood side by side with the great poets at the top of the world of letters. From the men of their day they received esteem, public honors, and wealth. They lived like proconsuls over provinces of literary expression. To-day the historian’s influence has waned. He is no longer to be compared with the lordly proconsul, but rather to the hard-working centurion, whose labors held together the military units on which rested the Roman authority in the province.
We can hardly imagine a world in which historians stood anywhere near “the top of the world of letters” and “received esteem, public honors, and wealth.” If Bassett lamented the historians fall from proconsul to centurion, imagine his horror knowing that historians today rarely rise even to the level of optio. However much Bassett feared civilization had decayed, he could still assume readers would know the terms proconsul and centurion. Today even writing for historians Bassett would be wise to link proconsul, centurion, and optio to their wikipedia pages.
Bassett’s utopian past was best represented by the great German historian Theodor Mommsen. Stories of Mommsen’s fame are not hard to find. When Mark Twain visited Berlin in 1892 he was amazed by the reverence shown to Mommsen. One evening at a banquet in honor of two leading scientists, Hermann von Helmholz and Rudolf Virchow, the crowds of students attending rose to celebrate Mommsen’s entrance into the banquet hall. Mommsen’s lectures drew enormous audiences that overflowed the auditoriums and spilled out into the streets. These people turned out to hear lectures on the Roman Republic, on coinage, on inscriptions, on constitutional and criminal law. Mommsen wasn’t just a great historian; he was also a literary giant and incredible stylist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Mommsen was a giant amongst giants in an era that for whatever reason valued history more than the subsequent period. The 19th century was, as Anthony Grafton put it, the age of Clio.
By contrast, the 20th and 21st centuries have never been particularly fond of Clio. While there are undoubtedly many reasons for history’s declining fortunes, a seemingly pathological lack of literary style and an obsession with monographs are commonly identified as the root of history’s woes. Twenty years after the AHA report Samuel Eliot Morison once again blamed the educational system for destroying any sense of style. In History as a Literary Art (1946) he wrote:
There has been a sort of chain reaction of dullness. Professors who have risen to positions of eminence by writing dull, solid, valuable monographs that nobody reads outside the profession, teach graduate students to write dull, solid, valuable monographs like theirs; the road to academic security is that of writing dull, solid, valuable monographs. And so the young men who have a gift for good writing either leave the historical field for something more exciting, or write more dull, solid, valuable monographs.
Like Bassett before him, Morison singled out William Prescott and George Bancroft as exemplary stylists and lamented “the introduction of pseudoscientific and psychological jargon” that had come to infect historical writing.
Sixty years later, postmodernism had replaced pseudoscientific and psychological jargon as the particular symptoms, but the diagnosis remained the same: impenetrable and esoteric prose was driving away readers and ensuring academic history’s marginalization. Accessible, interesting history is written by non-academic historians, often disparaged as journalists or merely writers. Style—vocabulary, language as well as form—is again implicated in William Cronon’s recent “Professional Boredom.” While he identifies other contributing factors, he concludes by drawing attention to style:
How do we avoid professional boredom? … By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.
Are we asking too much of style? Do we expect it to bear more responsibility for history’s success or failure than it possibly can? Does our focus on style perhaps obscure larger, societal shifts away from traditional, academic history?
I want to return to William Cronon’s “Professional Boredom” from last month’s Perspectives on History and think about how certain aspects of professionalization—especially the practices of professional identity—have excluded audiences for our work.
Some of those cool kids have raised important issues that nuance or complicate Cronon’s claims. For example, do academic historians already combat professional boredom through teaching undergraduates of diverse backgrounds and with divergent goals? What does boring really mean and how is using specialized language necessary, or at least beneficial, to communication with certain audiences? How have the structures of the profession, the metrics used to evaluate performance, and the profession’s relation to the publishing industry shaped our forms of production? Who are these academic historians, this “we” who fail to reach a broader audience?
The notion of identity recurs throughout many of these posts. Who are academic historians? Who is this perhaps mythical broader audience? Do professional standards and conveniences present disincentives to speaking to broader audiences? Are there good or bad reasons for adopting forms of expression and publication channels that exclude non-specialist audiences (such audiences can include not just a broader public but also other academics who are not experts in a particular field)? Does academic history lose something important if it relinquishes footnotes and technical vocabulary? Do we cheapen our work and undermine our authority if we produce popular histories for an interested public?
Three recent conversations have underscored the importance of identity in distinguishing us vs. them: a discussion around William Eamon’s The Professor of Secrets (see his website); another discussion about Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches (see her website); and a discussion about Fever: 1793 (the second episode in “Philadelphia. The Great Experiment”). I’ll return to these conversations in a subsequent post.
The problem of us vs. them is not unique to history, or at least some of the handwringing about it is not unique. A few years back Steven Shapin wrote about a similar problem in the history of science, “Hyper-Professionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science,” Isis 96 (2005), 238-243. He identified hyperprofessionalism as a “pathological form of the professionalism that we so greatly value.” In his first paragraph Shapin identified the problem and related it to institutional structures in which we work:
There is a crisis of readership in the history of science. It is not a crisis unique to this field, though of course there are aspects of it that take specific forms in our subject. The crisis is one of pertinence: we are not producing work that many people outside our field want to read and even that colleagues in different parts of our own field want to read. This crisis of pertinence may be something more than a failure of ability— our individual capacities to write things that get a readership. It may be what many of us intend, or at least what our institutional apparatus is geared up to produce and in whose results we acquiesce. That is to say, we have collaborated in shrinking our own readership, and we have done so just at the point when the history of science has so much to say to the wider culture and when there is so much evidence of wide cultural interest in science and its past. The circumstance that has delivered us to our present crisis is, under another description, one of our greatest achievements: the history of science has become one of the academic professions. We enjoy the benefits of academic professional standing, so we must also consider some of its handicaps.
Shapin characterized the hyperprofessional practices as those marked by excessive self-referentiality, by bad writing that shuns “vernacular because it doesn’t sound smart enough,” writing for tenure files rather than readers, and self-absorption or the absence of any effort to make non-specialists interested in the subject. Hyperprofessional disciplines conflate their own literatures with the things in the world to which that literature is thought to refer, they fetishize their own expository conventions, and condemn anyone who strays too far from the disciplinary norms (these sentences are closely modeled on Shapin’s comments on page 239).
The problem, Shapin suggests, is less the scale of our work—the minutia we often find ourselves studying or the depth and detail of our knowledge—than our interest in writing about those minutia and the connections we make when we do write about them. We need to connect our work to issues that matter to our audiences. The burden is on us to interest non-specialists in what we do: “We owe our audiences a sense of “aboutness” that brings them into our conversations rather than excludes them” (242). In other words, it is our responsibility as authors to attract our audiences. There is nothing inherently interesting or relevant about our work.
He offers a thought experiment for combatting this self-absorption. Imagine you are at a dinner party with intelligent, successful, non-academic friends. One asks you about your work. You can’t launch into an 45-minute lecture or offer the person an offprint or assume your discipline’s proprietary knowledge and esoteric vocabulary. “You own them an answer that is economical and intelligible and that speaks to the concerns that they may plausibly be assumed already to have” (243). Their expertise might not give them access to certain terms and conventions. They might not understand that you seek to understand the past on its own terms rather than as some precursor to the present. But you can’t patronize friends. Clearly, this is neither an exercise in popularization nor an opportunity for teaching. How do you explain your work to such an audience? If you find it difficult, Shapin suggests that you might “lack a fundamental understanding of your own special subject” (243).
We may not always want to make our work speak to broader audiences—as Shapin points out, “after all, tenure, promotion, and prizes put bread on the table”—but if we want our work to be more widely read, we have to make it interesting to those audiences (here, “we” refers to the people who are concerned about audiences and readership for history and history of science). The burden is on the author to bring people into the conversation. Clearly there is an audience out there for books and articles on topics in history and history of science. Equally clear is the fact that most of the people writing for that audience are not academic historians. I fear that academic historians risk further marginalization and irrelevance when ignore those audiences and disparage those authors.
The first volume of Preternature just arrived in my mailbox. And while I am looking forward to reading the articles, I started as I always do by first turning to the book reviews.
Many years ago a mentor convinced me that one of the most important reason to look at journals in the field was to read the book reviews. When a new journal arrives, I survey the books reviewed and mark up the table of contents indicating which reviews I want to read, which I’ve read, and whether or not I should read the book. I find well written and thoughtful reviews helpful. Cursory, celebratory, or vindictive reviews are not too useful.
I like book reviews and think they can and should serve a real function in a broader scholarly conversation. At a minimum, they can introduce scholars to the breadth of work in their own and closely related fields. They can indicate broader trends in research. When done well, a book review, usually an essay review, can be insightful, suggestive, and generative.
But the scholarly book review seems to be losing traction. Whereas websites that post book reviews seem to be proliferating, think Goodreads or the customer reviews at Amazon, scholarly journals are apparently less inclined to commit the resources and space to publishing book reviews. Scholars are often reluctant to take on the burden of reviewing a book, which is always time consuming and can be difficult.
In “The Book Review Strikes Back,” Notorious Ph.D. makes a good case for not reviewing books, or at least not until a certain point in your career. In her case, that point seems to have come when she was confident in her own expertise and when she had finished her own book. Even at that point, she finds “it’s a lot easier to write a review of a really excellent book” than a less than excellent book. Notorious Ph.D. points out the challenge when reviewing a book, good or bad: how to balance the “professional mandate to write a review that [is] honest about the book’s strengths and weaknesses with a personal desire to be … nice.” Nice here, I think, means professional and respectful. You have to confront that challenge when reviewing any book, good or bad, but I think it is particularly acute when reviewing a book you don’t find compelling and well constructed.
It is that challenge that most people seem to address by summarizing the book rather than reviewing the book. In her recent post, “The Endangered Scholarly Book Review,” Lynn Worsham refers to fellow editors who have become increasingly “frustrated hat too many reviews were simple summaries with little actual “reviewing”—that is, thoughtful engagement with, and critical evaluation of, the book’s project.” Further, because writing a book review accrues little academic capital, it is difficult to find people who are willing to expend the time and energy.
These concerns echo something Heinrich Kuhn mentioned recently on Twitter. Like some of Worsham’s colleagues, Kuhn thinks the scholarly review is dying. He laments that today specialists don’t actually review books and non-specialists aren’t qualified to review many of the books they are asked to review. Consequently, he says, a TOC and bibliography are more useful than a superficial and poorly written review.
A good book review takes time, effort, careful reading and analysis, and thought. It also takes a level of intellectual courtesy that can be difficult to muster or balance with criticism. I have reflected elsewhere on what makes a good book review—see Musing on Book Reviews. And the work is rarely compensated in any way, either by the journals asking scholars to review books or scholars’ home institutions that don’t recognize a review as a scholarly production.
All this leads me to wonder if the book review is worth saving or if we should just let it die a quiet death, to be replaced by “customer reviews” at Amazon. Do scholars still read book reviews? Can book reviews be revived so that the once again place a role in scholarly conversations?
William Cronon, the current president of the AHA, knows a lot about how to make history accessible and interesting to non-historians. See his website for some of the ways he moves beyond the narrow sphere of academic history. So when he worries about how the profession defines itself, we should probably take his concerns seriously. In a recent essay for Perspectives, “Professional Boredom,” he raises a number of good points that warrant further consideration. In particular, he points out that despite the general public’s healthy appetite for history, professional historians rarely produce work intended for public consumption. He urges historians, by which he means professional, academic historians, to make our histories less boring, to resist the temptation to define our field too narrowly:
Given the immense public appetite for history, and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of “professional history” could not be more clear.
This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch on boredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let’s ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.
How do we avoid professional boredom? By making sure we don’t define “professional” too narrowly. By not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history. By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.