This past weekend, historians from all over the country invaded the Big Easy for the American Historical Association’s 2013 Annual Meeting. Thanks to Twitter, those of us unfortunate enough to not be in attendance were kept abreast of the discussions occurring regarding the state of the field. Most notably, the traditional AHA Presidential Address by outgoing President William Cronon has sparked much debate among historians as well as articles in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Before that, Cronon oversaw a panel entitled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age,” which explored academic historians’ failures to reach the general public and the profession itself failing to sufficiently adapt to the rise of digital technology. Changes to the profession discussed included a renewed focus on storytelling and narrative to better engage the general reader in academic history, weighing digital history equally with print history (when of equal value), and rethinking the monograph as the standard mode of delivery of academic historians’ work. Due to my lack of attendance, I am indebted to the excellent Twitter and blog coverage of these events by John Fea, Lincoln Mullen, and others, as well as the History News Network‘s video recording of Cronon’s address (see below).
In his address, Cronon spoke of the dangers the historical profession is facing, from ever-decreasing public funding to students who lack the attention span sufficient to read a book. Primarily, he called for academic historians to recommit themselves to the art of storytelling as the best way of getting the public—both students in our classrooms and readers in their homes—to engage with our work. He referred to Carl L. Becker’s well-known (and, like much of his work on the topic of history, still worth reading) 1931 Presidential Address, “Everyman His Own Historian,” in which Becker warned historians of their impending irrelevance should they not find a way to connect with “Mr. Everyman,” for whom history “is essential to the performance of the simplest acts of daily life.”
At the “Public Practice of History” panel, journalist and food writer Michael Pollan touched on a point later made by Cronon in his address. He asked, “Why do people like me who use your work end up selling more books than you do?” Part of the reason, he felt, lies in the voice in which academic historians write. As Cronon later pointed out, it is an omniscient voice derived from late nineteenth-century positivism that has not changed since those earliest days of the profession.
But when we ask why history is neither engaging readers nor changing fast enough to accommodate the digital age, Cronon’s point about voice only hints at the problem. Our unchanging voice is just one aspect of a profession that has not changed much since the late nineteenth century. When before has the historical profession changed to accommodate any “new age?” Indeed, the entire profession retains its original guild-like structure.
To a graduate student in early American history, the focus on narrative history and storytelling as the savior of the profession ignores a key feature of popular history consumption. Early American historians recognize that readers don’t just want narrative per se; they want a specific kind of narrative. If one looks at the explosion in popular interest in the history of the Revolution over the last 15 years or so, it is quite obvious that many of the most popular books are the ones that present the kind of triumphalist, Bancroftian Whig narrative that our profession largely dispensed with in the early 1900s, courtesy of men like Carl Becker himself.
Being the outsider, and therefore lacking the intellectual and historical baggage of the academy, Pollan made some of the most cutting remarks including pointedly asking why the people of the AHA simply can’t change how the academy judges historical scholarship. It is a disarmingly direct question that accurately places the onus for change on the AHA and its membership of established academic historians.
I cannot help but point out that some of the changes proposed would amount to nothing less than career suicide for us graduate students and junior faculty, without there first being consensus among established academic historians. To refer to what John Adams wrote about the Revolution, the change in perception and judgment must first come in the “hearts and minds” of established historians (on a broad scale), before it can be expected of junior historians with much more to lose.
At the same time, reforming the profession cannot even be effected by consensus among academic historians alone, or even primarily. It would require significant changes in the “hearts and minds” of administrators as well, including increasing the number of full-time positions and reforming tenure and hiring practices. But consensus backed up with action by established historians can go a long way toward effecting change in the administration.
Having no firsthand experience with the politics of higher education administration, this is probably naïve and highly presumptuous on my part, but I’d suggest a list be made by the AHA of a few things which academic historians themselves can do beginning immediately, whether that is to teach a graduate-level writing course, encourage more narrative dissertations, agree to weigh digital and paper history (of equal scholarly value) equally when sitting on committees, or things like that. And, because consensus is fundamental, this list could be signed by academics agreeing to begin doing these things. It could also be kept public on the AHA website, because there is power both in numbers and in the individual who knows they have numbers behind them.
Cronon says that we must not “allow tenure to define the practice of history.” But as long as tenure defines success—because it is the only opportunity for a stable career in academia—it will continue to do so. Until both academics and administrators alike commit themselves to reforming the profession, we will continue to churn out what our graduate training prepares us to produce, i.e., dense dissertations that, at best, turn into ridiculously overpriced monographs that no one outside the profession would ever care to read, even if they could afford them.
In the end, Pollan’s seemingly simple question is actually not so simple and gets to the heart of the problem. The lead must come from those best positioned to effect change: the AHA and the profession’s established members. Indeed, none of the issues or problems raised in last week’s panel are particularly new. We’ve been discussing them amongst ourselves and at the AHA for years. The time has now come for meaningful, decisive, and, most importantly, concerted action to be defined by the AHA and implemented by its membership.
Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.