The AHA and the Future of the Profession

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 FeaLincoln 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.

18 responses

  1. Excellent points! Thank you for the writeup and sharing your thoughts.

    How do you think the reception of writing and publishing more “narrative” history will be received by the decision makers in the academy? Also, how do you believe that (“every man”) readability can be increased? Does it start with the dissertation process? University presses?

    • J. Stuart, thanks for reading and, especially, commenting. What I am trying to say above is that if the field can publicly generate and declare consensus on something like supporting narrative dissertations, then concern over reception is minimized to some extent. Surely, historians themselves can reform the field should they so choose. To contest that assumption would be to assert that our field is wholly under the control of administrators and would call into question the efficacy and utility of the AHA itself. I certainly don’t believe that is the case. I think if the profession stands together in a public way to not only advocate but implement reforms (to the extent it can without administrators) that real positive progress can be made.

      One of the discussions in the panel revolved around the university-press monograph. Possibilities were raised about the prospects of historians publishing their work in shorter, more easily consumed forms such as 30-40,000-word ebooks (like Kindle singles). As much as UP editors don’t like to hear it, the important role they play in furthering academic careers will increasingly diminish in the coming decade. The presses that survive and thrive will be those who can successfully navigate the shift toward digital delivery, which many are already doing (see the UP books on ProjectMUSE and JSTOR). That shift will also have deep ramifications for the profession in terms of tenure and hiring practices. The move to digital delivery will likely minimize the importance of the monograph, to some degree. The question is: Do we, as the profession, want to just let this happen over time or do we want to grab the bull by the horns and be masters of our own destiny.

  2. Excellent post, and I think Pollan’s comments should give all historians pause. Speaking also as a graduate student and someone who engages with the public in historical discussions, I think one of the smartest things a doctoral program can do for its students is to teach them to write for different audiences. While it is critical that we all master the craft of the dissertation, and academic writing in general, there is no reason that we cannot also apply our knowledge to popular audiences as well, whether that be in digital format or for the popular press.

    • I agree. However, I wonder if we, as a profession, are fooling ourselves in thinking that academic history can engage the public. That is, I suspect there will always be an academic history and a popular history. This is the case in the sciences. Lay readers aren’t expected to understand the nuances of things like quantum mechanics. Yet (some) scientists are much better at translating their work into books that engage and excite the public (e.g., Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan). We historians need to be able to do that. In that case, it’s not so much that our academic history itself needs to change so much as the way we present it to the public (which one could argue we don’t do now really at all, and the ones who do are subject to scorn, e.g., see the WMQ and JER reviews of Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty).

      • I agree, I think there’s always going to be, and maybe always should be, a divide between academic and popular history. I’m ABD working on race in the Revolutionary period, and there’s just not a lot of room in the popular narrative for histories of race that aren’t triumphalist stories of racial minorities being incorporated into the enlargement of the franchise. History sometimes doesn’t have a happy ending, or a neat forward progression, and frankly the ways in which many of the plenary panels suggested making narrative history more accessible to the public were indirect attacks on the progress women’s and ethnic studies history have broadened the horizons of the profession in the last forty years.

        At one of the presidential panels, “Clio’s Craft: History and Storytelling,” Tony Horwitz suggested and many of the panelists agreed, that the profession should specifically avoid jargon like “problematize,” “agency” and “privilege” because they’re alienating to popular readers, ignoring the fact that those words and the subfields which use them came out of a direct critique the ways in which women and racial minorities have been marginalized in history and the writing of history. The type of history which sells well to popular audiences often is more concerned with old wine in new bottles.

        And I think Michael Pollan unintentionally hit the nail on the head with “Why do people like me who use your work end up selling more books than you do?” Popular work like his, which does sometimes engage with newer scholarship, relies on the work of specialists whose work is overly dense for lay audiences, and to say that cutting edge work which reshapes the field has to also be accessible to wide audiences misses the fact that scholarly consensus is reshaped by discussing the minutiae of theory and evidence that aren’t necessarily going to be of interest to the kinds of audiences who want to read something intelligent on the train.

  3. Michael,
    Fabulous post! I love your list of a few things academic historians can do beginning immediately. Most of these apply equally well to those of us in other related fields. Structural change is key, but I thought I’d suggest two resources for people who are/were in programs that didn’t offer graduate-level writing courses or an emphasis on narrative. The first is Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.” We use this at my institution in a grass-roots faculty writing group. It is particularly effective for a summer group structured around the 12 weeks. If one didn’t have enough interested people in one’s own program to do a writing group, perhaps one could do one with like minded folk via weekly skype meetings and google docs? The other resource I like is Rabiner and Fortunado’s “Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published.” Blogs like the Junto also strike me as incredibly useful for helping academics rethink writing, if for no other reason than force us to think about audience and feedback.

    • Thank you, Laura. I have a personal copy of Belcher’s workbook and highly recommend it to anyone who is having trouble figuring out how to attack producing a journal article submission. Some of the most interesting stuff she does regarding actual writing is in her proofreading section. But she is not addressing writing narrative or for a general audience. I have found writing for the blog is forcing me to try to find ways to say things about academia and academic topics in non-academic ways, which I will hopefully be able to apply to my historical writing. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Michael, I think your commitment to the distinction between academic and popular history, and your analogy to the sciences, are really crucial here. We might ask why that distinction itself seems to be missed by the (frequent!) calls among those higher up the profession for more narrative and accessible history-writing. I think Barnard Bailyn gave his Presidential address (of the AHA, or was it just SHEAR?) on that theme, like, twenty years ago.

    Scientists do worry about making their work known to the public – and especially to policy and funding audiences; but they don’t confuse that aspect of their job with the work of science itself. The problem for history is its own (ongoing) crisis of identity. Becker’s Everyman is exactly the right place to look on that score. The point is that history, unlike science, is precisely concerned with public understandings and identifications, with telling useful stories.

    If that’s the case, there’s an enormous problem about how to judge historians’ work. A lot depends on the questions, “useful how, and for whom?” Of course that brings up all sorts of stuctural political questions about the academy and its ancillary institutions. I think you’re spot on to place the onus on administration. Changing the way we write can only be done by changing the way our writing is judged.

    As graduate students we’re used to writing for a committee of three people. Some academics seem to pride themselves on doing that their whole careers. But are they actually who we want to be writing for? Dissertation committees and the like should be ruthless and rigorous in maintaining scholarly standards. But they should constantly remind themselves that they are not really the target audience: they’re just the gatekeepers. It seems to me that journal editors are a step ahead on this – they’re often thinking of a broader audience, often beyond academia itself.

    That said, I agree with a comment in Christopher’s post, which pointed out that “narrative” and “popular” aren’t, and shouldn’t be, synonymous. (Here:

    People read history for lots of reasons, but analysis and argument are central. The issue is writing things that address public questions, writing things that are actually interesting. To be honest I’m not sure that dissertation committees are qualified to judge that! They might be if they recalibrated their lenses. But better, perhaps, to stick to vetting the scholarship, and leave everything else open.

    Finally, of course, you’re right again: that could only work if there was some sort of public declaration of intent. Otherwise, those of us lower down the pecking order will continue to live in fear of “discipline”.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Tom. I think you’re spot on when you describe what is going with the profession as an “identity crisis.” I think attacks from the right on the humanities and higher education more generally have precipitated this existential crisis on the part of the profession. Jesse Lemisch has made the point repeatedly in places like H-OIEAHC that we should not be looking to adapt the profession to the right-wing vision of higher education. The idealistic side of me agrees, but the practical side of me thinks we need to react and respond to the reality of the situation we are facing. I suspect the smart path is something which applies the proper approach to each individual problem.

      For example, in a very real sense, the accomodationist tactics which Lemisch deplores belie the profession’s desperation. In this mode, we get things like “No More Plan B,” where we are supposed to alleviate the jobs crisis by directing history PhDs toward public history jobs that are fewer in number and just as competitive as any faculty position. That is the idealistic side. On the practical side, I don’t agree with Lemisch and Potter that we need more PhDs. I think overproduction is a significant problem. This is one thing which, if we want to have an impact on the job market, accommodation may be the best move. A “starve the beast” tactic would likely prove more efficacious. It’s hard to make this argument without sounding elitist, especially as a doctoral student at Yale and a contributor to a group blog of which almost all its members are from elite institutions, but the fact is that the demands of the market are such that 25-50 PhD programs could easily meet them. We live in a capitalist world and as long as there is a pool of surplus labor desperate enough to adjunct courses for $1800 and no benefits, administrators will hire them.

      We are also, I think, making a fundamental assumption that could be wrong, i.e., that getting general readers interested in academic history will help save the profession. Getting general readers interested and reforming the profession are two separate problems. Being able to sell books will not necessarily make one a better tenure candidate nor change the way the administration views and judges the profession. Either way, the time for words is over; the time for action is now. That is the point I was trying to make in the piece.

      • Part of the struggle is over how (or whether) to see the “historical profession” as a separate and larger thing than “history departments in academia”. That’s obviously where a lot of the thinking on public and digital history is coming in. It’s from the perspective of this larger history industry that selling lots of books seems to matter. But you’re right, that’s not at all what matters in historical academia.

        The crisis *there* is a somewhat separate one, and part of the general crisis of the humanities and universities themselves. It comes down to capitalism, and more locally, the financial crisis: university costs a lot, and that means it becomes an investment that must generate returns. Is there anywhere for the humanities to go other than returning to being an expensive commodity and status-indicator for the very few?

        Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it seems to me that history, unlike say literary studies perhaps, has some chance of surviving the collapse of the university precisely because there really is a market for it – people want to read and watch and engage with history. That’s the “plan B” bandwagon that senior folks are hitching themselves to, it looks like – which brings us back to the question you raise: is there room there for us graduate students and early career scholars?

        • I wonder how many Plan B historians the market will be able to bear–the options floated at the presidential address and panels were journalist, public intellectual, non-fiction mass market writer, and collaborator with filmmakers. And maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part, but those fields aren’t particularly desperate for labor nor does it seem like there’s a lot of other options for a history PhD, even if we were trained differently.

          The few PhDs I’ve known who make a living as independant scholars from their writings often have to foot the bill for their research expenses upfront from their spouses’ income, and then live off whatever little they make from their non-best-seller mass market book. I know not all faculty receive research money, but the little things like salary and benefits help subsidize research that might not be done if the profession shifts to non-departmentally based writing, or history done by those privileged enough to come from backgrounds where they can make a poorly remunerated Plan B work.

          Someone like Bill Cronon or Michael Pollan will probably always be able to sell books, because they entered the publishing market when there were fewer barriers on the publishing side, and they’ve had time to build a following (the most frank advice given at the Clio’s Craft panel on how to engage with popular readers was “have your publisher hire a publicist”–not an option for most of us). What, then, about the junior people who have trouble getting their first book published? Three UP editors I spoke with this weekend said they were looking for first books which would sell beyond academic audiences, and I suspect popular presses would be even more insistent on that, but if those kinds of books won’t help win tenure cases, and at least at my doctoral institution they won’t, that’s a hell of a Catch 22.

          • Indeed, Eileen. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I agree wholeheartedly. There was a time and place for things like “No More Plan B,” but that time is well over. Public history and digital history positions are even rarer than full-time faculty positions and regular history PhDs are at a disadvantage compared to those whose graduate training was in those particular “sub-fields.” We know what the problems are and we’ve known for years now. The point I tried to make in my piece was that it is now time for decisive action on the part of the AHA, for them and their members to start shaping the future of the profession rather than merely reacting to it.

  5. I agree that readability of our books is a problem–and that it’s not just about narrative, but whiggish narrative, as you point out. But I wonder if another issue academics are also bemoaning is actually the bigger issue: the idea that a college education should be a path to a particular profession, and liberal arts has little value. I do think there’s a connection between devaluing liberal arts and preference for simplistic, triumphalist historical narratives–in both cases, people have little appreciation for analysis and nuance. Maybe it’s a chicken/egg question; will the public value history more if they like our books, or will they want to read our books if they first learn to value history?

    Also, thanks for pointing out that the change needs to come from the establishment. The question is, how do we as junior scholars convince senior scholars to take action? Unless they’re all reading The Junto, it’s a big task!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Cassandra! We know that we have some established/senior scholars among our readership and subscribers. The question is whether anyone from the AHA is reading.

  6. As you point out, when it comes to finding a wider popular audience for the work of academic historians, the style and structure of historical writing is not the only problem, or even the most important one. As you also point out, the kind of history that is most voraciously consumed is the “triumphalist” variety that seeks to reaffirm the reassuring dominant myths of our culture. This kind of storytelling is precisely what we are trained to avoid and to criticize. I think Gordon Wood’s heated criticisms of Jill Lepore’s work a couple of years ago provide a good example of the fundamental divide between these two different ways of envisioning the work of historians. If we are going to take seriously the idea that our profession’s mission is to serve as a Socrartic gadfly of sorts, to deconstruct easy, self-serving narratives that usually justify political positions, then I’m not sure how we can bridge the divide.

    Perhaps more historians engaged in work in the field of public history would help generate a critical conversation about the function of historical studies.

    • That Wood/Lepore dynamic may be more complicated than you think – not necessarily the best example of an academic/popular divide!

      As for the public’s appetite for particular kinds of history, I try to draw some comfort from the success of something like Dave Graeber’s Debt. That’s not a work of history exactly (actually, it basically is), and nor is it winning Pullitzers, but it had a big impact among a pretty large public. Imprints like Verso in the UK have been publishing oppositional works of history for an informed general audience for ages; Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History is one example. So I don’t quite agree that the public only wants triumphalism. And if they do, that’s at least a little bit our failure as historians and as fighters in cultural the war of position!

      • You’re right, the Wood/Lepore dynamic is more complex than I made it out to be. I was thinking particularly of Wood’s review of Lepore’s book on the Tea Party in the NYRB, and his criticism of her deconstruction of popular memory. In that review he is making an argument about who the audience for historians should be. It’s actually a thought provoking review, one which I have considered using (despite my general aversion to Wood) in class.

  7. Pingback: Serial, Microhistory, and the Perils of Historical Research « The Junto


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: