Is Professional History Boring?

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.

Cronon’s piece has recently been attracting considerable attention. As Timothy Burke put it, “all the cool kids are doing it.” For a roundup of posts, see: “Debating “Professional Boredom” in History.”

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.