The State of the History Job Market


The number of full-time faculty jobs in history has declined over the past year, but the history job market appears to be stabilizing. The number of Ph.D.s in history is dropping.

Here is Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed:

The new data appeared in the American Historical Association’s annual jobs report, released Wednesday. The report is based on jobs posted to the AHA Career Center and the separate H-Net Job Guide. About 25 percent of historians work outside academe, so the report does not reflect the entire jobs outlook, but it is considered representative of overall disciplinary trends.

“We may have reached a point of stability in the academic job market,” reads the report, written by Dylan Ruediger, an AHA staffer. During the 2018-19 hiring cycle, the AHA Career Center hosted ads for 538 full-time positions, making for a 1.8 percent decline year over year.

Read the entire piece here.

Enrollment in History Courses is Holding Steady


Here is the latest from the American Historical Association:

After years of declines, undergraduate enrollments in history courses held steady in the last academic year. Last summer, the AHA conducted its third annual survey of history departments and joint academic units, and received 120 complete responses for the past four academic years, the most recent of which was 2017–18. The responses suggest that the overall number of undergraduate students enrolled in history courses changed little from 2016–17. Enrollments slipped down less than 0.5 percent at US institutions. When Canadian institutions are included in the total, enrollments were almost identical (up less than 0.01 percent).

Read the rest of Julia Brookins‘s piece at Perspectives on History here.

Gina Barreca on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

Boyer Hall

What’s an education for?

University of Connecticut English professor Gina Barreca answers in her recent op-ed:

An education is about learning things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten before, we need to approach unfamiliar subjects. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.

Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing the notion of familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s T.V. Dinner.

Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: it is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.

This is one reason that students should be required to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. While they may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down through their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.

Read the entire piece here.

I appreciate Barreca’s point about students taking courses outside of their area of specialization.  At Messiah College, students are required to take a 100-level history course (a United States history survey course or a Western Civilization survey course) to fulfill their general education requirement in History.  But there are also other opportunities in the curriculum to take a history course.  A student can take World History to fulfill their Non-Western Cultures requirement.  Or they can take Native American History, African American History, the Historical Study of Peace, Immigrant America, Urban History, Women’s History, or Pennsylvania History  to fulfill their Pluralism requirement.  They can also take a history course to fulfill their Social Science requirement.  So, if I got this right, it is possible for a Messiah College business or nursing major to take four history courses to fulfill general education coursework.

But every now and then we have students who take history courses purely out of intellectual curiosity.  This semester in my colonial America course I have two students–an accounting major and a sustainability studies major–who are not required to take the course, but just find the subject interesting.  I applaud them and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them, but students like these are becoming increasingly rare in this age of specialization.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession


This dispatch from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association comes from Zachary Cote, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles, California.  Some of you may remember his great posts from the 2017 AHA in Denver.  Enjoy!  –JF

In perusing the various sessions here at the AHA, I have noticed two things:

1. Sessions lean more heavily toward teaching the subject over purely new research, and

2. Historians are vocalizing something resembling an identity crisis.

I will address the second point in this post rather succinctly and save my thoughts on the first one for another, more in-depth response. If one scans the AHA 2018 program, one finds sessions dealing with “reflections,” “Why history matters,” enrollment issues, “The State and Future of the Humanities,” among others with similar themes. When I see words and phrases like this I sense urgency and perhaps a bit of fear. Sessions with such topics imply a sort of redefinition of what the profession entails. In fact, when I attended the “Why History Matters” session this morning, I could hear the urgency expressed by professors and graduate students eager to equip their students with the skills that will help them find jobs outside of the academy.

As a middle school teacher, I cannot offer too much commentary on this perceived shift in the historian’s focus, but I can express my excitement. In teaching 8th grade, I can already see in some of my students a disregard for history and historical thinking. This worries me, but it also encourages me to be a teacher that can change their attitude toward historical study.  In attending some of these sessions, it appears that my micro-observations are fairly widespread.

I am excited to see the academic side of the historical profession shifting its focus to further bridge the gap between the public and the past. The profession is changing, and I am comforted that at least some in the academy are not only recognizing it, but taking steps to respond.

A High School Student is Asking About Leopold von Ranke.


Apparently a high school student is sending e-mails to historians asking them about 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke.  The student is interested in whether or not these historians believe in “objectivity” in the writing of history.  As some of you know, von Ranke had a lot to say about the subject.

Here is what I wrote about him Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

p.49: One of the most important critics of a usable past was the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).  He introduced the concept of “historicism,” or the idea that historians should seek to understand the past on its own terms.  Historicism has since become a mainstay of the historical profession.  As Ranke put it, “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, or instructing the present for the benefit of ages to come.  To such lofty functions this work does not aspire.  Its aim is to know how things happened.”  Ranke wanted historians to study the past for its own sake, not because it has a usable function for guiding our lives in the present.  He rejected the notion that the past is useful in that it teaches moral lessons, inspires those who study it, strengthens civic bonds, or provides individuals and communities with a better sense of identity.  Rather, for him, history is a science, and historians can teach the Enlightenment ideal of objectivity in their work.  The task of the historian is a conservative one–to seek after objective truth and to narrate “what happened” in the past.  No more and no less.

Several historians have wondered whether the girl asking about von Ranke is a conservative activist of some kind. Here is a taste of Nick Roll’s piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Professors and graduate students at at least six institutions received correspondence from the same email address. Some professors and historians even think the student might be a fictitious character made up as part of a right-wing trolling scheme, or part of an effort to catch “liberal professors” in an embarrassing trap. Even if the student in question — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the Gmail address used to contact the professors — is just an kid doing research, in an age of “fake news” and partisan tension, historians are treading carefully.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that his organization had become aware of the emails over the holiday weekend, and was planning a review of the situation — and what to do when members are approached by unverified students and members of the public — when staff returned Tuesday.

“This is one more reminder of the caution with which everyone should approach email and social media,” he said in an email. “When I receive a query from someone claiming to be a student but without an institutional address, I ask the name of their school and teacher. If I do not receive a satisfactory response I end the conversation.”

It was on Facebook that Greenberg noticed his peers had received similar emails. In one instance, the student had even sent graduate students at Harvard a link (which, as of Monday evening, was available here) to a survey asking for more detailed responses.

“At first one of my [Facebook] friends who is also [University of Texas, Dallas] faculty and I were wondering if this email might have originally come from someone at UTD, since we both got the email, but then when I learned of all the other schools getting it, it seemed to me that someone elsewhere must be casting a wider net,” Lora Burnett, a teaching fellow in history, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

What’s even more curious, Burnett pointed out on her blog, where she wrote about the incident, is that the University of Texas, Dallas, doesn’t have a formal history major, instead offering “historical studies.” So why would Burnett be of interest to a prospective history major, which the student claimed to be, Burnett thought. Unless, of course, the email is “fishing/trolling by a [right-wing] outlet looking to create a fake-scandal headline: ‘Liberal Professors Don’t Believe in Objective Truth About Past’ or some such nonsense.”

Forgive me if I am not yet ready to believe that this is a conspiracy theory.  If this is indeed a high school student working on a paper, the historical profession is going to look awfully silly. (Does this really merit an AHA investigation?).  This kind of stuff is the reason academic historians have such a hard time engaging the public effectively.  I hope we don’t have to explain all of this to the hard-working teacher who encouraged his or her student to e-mail professors for help.

Of course I could be wrong.  But when it comes to high school students and history teachers I always want to err on the side of caution.

Let’s for a moment give the conspiracy theorists the benefit of the doubt and say that this e-mailer is indeed a “right-wing” troll looking for a “fake-scandal headline.”  This wouldn’t be the first time academic historians have been accused of something sinister by the political Right.  If such a scandalous headline did appear, I would post the piece at my blog and use it as yet another opportunity to educate the public about what historians do and how they work.

Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing “Academic History” and Writing History for Public Audiences

ancientI usually do a few of these posts a year, as the spirit moves.  Having a blog means that I can occasionally write autobiographically. Sabbaticals provide opportunities to do more of it.  So here we go again.

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, Karin Wulf defends the importance of academic history writing.  Here is a taste:

…The question is what constitutes purposely “writing for the public,” and how that differs significantly from the writing academics do for one another — and which might also be of interest to the public. For historians this often boils down to “narrative” versus “argument.” “People care about stories, not arguments,” was one tweeted paraphrase of Lepore’s talk. Storytelling is one of the oldest human forms of communication. It is not a simple thing to tell a story well and with meaning. One of the masters of the genre (and Lepore’s teacher), John Demos, teaches a course on narrative history that pushes students to think about form and expression as well as evidence and argument. These debates about narrative versus argument have been happening for eons; I imagine Thucydides saying “look, guys, narrative is the only way to write history of the Peloponnesian War.”

The question ought not be, however, one versus the other. Academic writing is expository. For academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. Academic research is the accumulation of new information by many different means. The significance of this information is articulated through evidence-based argument, the heart of historical disciplinary practice. Argument doesn’t preclude narrative — a very fine writer can craft a narrative that conveys a variety of important arguments, but pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.

Why not? Don’t professional historians appreciate a good story? Every historian I know loves a good story. Academic writing, however, is the formulation of research into new knowledge. That might be in the form of genuinely new information, or it might be an importantly fresh perspective or interpretation. Using new methods and tools as well as the regular revelation of new materials means that historians are generating new knowledge at a rapid clip.

So how do we know what’s new? A fundamental responsibility of academic writing is to explain the relationship of new scholarship to its forebears. Knowledge doesn’t accrete in a linear or progressive fashion, of course, but explaining how research and interpretation is related to the literature that’s come before it is fundamental to our evaluation of the work. After all, historians have been writing about the American Revolution since shortly after the American Revolution. As a professional historian, how would I know whether the next book I see on either an oft-studied topic or an entirely fresh subject is important to read and digest, to inform or incorporate into my own research perspective or plans, and to integrate into my teaching? I just watched an exchange between an experienced former journal editor and a manuscript reviewer who asked “if I think I’ve seen something like this argument before but I can’t quite place it, what should I do?” And of course the former editor encouraged the reviewer to try to address that issue as fully as possible, noting that expert peer reviewers play a key role in signaling to editors how a submission relates to the existing scholarship. In other words, historians are particularly attuned to the history of history.

I largely agree with Wulf here.  We need academic history. Scholarly articles and books find their way into databases that can be consulted later and perhaps even provide a scholarly foundation for popular writing on a given historical subject.  Academic scholarship is needed, even if the public audience is small or non-existent.  New knowledge must be advanced.

If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early Americagave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Maybe some of you feel the same way I do about all of this.  If so, send me an e-mail. Let’s talk.

Kevin Flatt: Some Words for Our Amnesiac Civilization

Over at Comment, Kevin Flatt, a Christian historian who teaches at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, enters the ongoing conversation about why Christians should study history.  I love the way he frames his essay:

When I was in graduate school, studying for a degree in history, my department went through a hiring process to bring in a new faculty member. Custom dictated that each candidate’s interview include an informal question-and-answer session with some of the department’s graduate students. The questions I decided to pose to each candidate were ones I had been wrestling with myself: Why study history? Are there lessons we can learn from the past that might benefit the present? I expected at least tentative answers, but what I got instead, in nearly every case, were blank looks of incomprehension. These questions seemed not to have occurred to these historians, and they struggled to provide any kind of response.
After one of these sessions, an older graduate student took me aside. I was surprised to see that he was agitated, even angry, about my line of questioning. My questions, in his eyes, were not just odd, but indecent, violating some unspoken rule of etiquette within the historical profession. Why should these scholars have to justify their discipline, he asked? Who are you to put them on the spot in this way?
More than a decade later, I have learned that such attitudes are widespread among professional historians, at least in Canada. In North American universities, advanced training in history tends to bracket foundational questions about the origins and purpose of the discipline and treat it as a side interest pursued by an eccentric few. More broadly, however, it reflects a disdain—not taught so much as passed on by osmosis—for the idea that we can learn “lessons” from the past, as if we were people arguing about Hitler in online comment sections.
Now, in reality, under the layers of feigned detachment, many historians are deeply invested in the past as a particular kind of morality tale. As Christian Smith has recently argued regarding American sociologists, historians are engaged in their own “sacred project” of vindicating the marginalized, exposing what they see as unjust systems (whether neoliberal capitalism, white privilege, patriarchy, or heteronormativity), and subverting all potentially oppressive categories. This project, whatever it might have to commend itself, turns history into a vindication of a set of values that were literally unthinkable before the intellectual milieu of the late modern West.
Read the rest here.

Keith Harris: "Entertaining Stories and History Are Not Necessarily The Same Thing"

What makes good history?   Should journalists be writing history?  Keith Harris explores these questions at his blog. aptly named “Keith Harris History.”  Here is a taste:

I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.
Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.
Harris also has some good things to say about historians and social media in this post.  Check out his very informative blog.

Enrollments In Yale History Classes On the Rise

History is back!  Or at least it is back in New Haven.  According to an article in the Yale Daily News the history major at Yale University is growing.  Here is a taste:
Amid national discussion decrying the decline of the humanities, Yale’s History Department is on the rise.
According to the director of undergraduate studies for the department, Beverly Gage, the department’s course enrollments are up by roughly 30 percent this year — making them close to the highest the department has seen in the last decade. The number of declared majors, which has been falling in recent years, is also up this semester, she said.
Students and faculty in the department pinned the uptick in enrollments on the department’s increased efforts at student outreach. However, some also suggested that this may be a reversal of what they described as a turn away from the humanities following the 2008 recession.
“What really matters about it to me is that we’ve actually worked pretty hard to turn this around,” Gage said. “The narrative, certainly since the recession, is that humanities are on the decline … I think this is just an indication that that’s certainly not the case.”
Gage said much of the increased interest may come as result of changes in the department this year, including the addition of several new faculty members and some new courses.
Read the rest here, including a reference to a new class called “Beer in History.” 

Do Academic Historians Dislike the American Revolution?

Over the past few weeks there has been a very interesting conversation going on at New York History, a blog that should be getting more attention due to the thoughtful posts from blogger and public historian Peter Feinman.

Recently Feinman attended The American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia (May 30-June 1, 2013) and wrote a series of excellent posts on his experience.  In one post, Feinman noted that none of the participants in the conference were willing to recognize “the profound power of the revolutionary ideas of the American Revolution.”

The posts led to an exchange between Feinman and Penn historian Michael Zuckerman, the co-organizer of the conference. The exchange focused on academic historians, the American Revolution, and American exceptionalism.  Here is a taste of Zuckerman’s response to Feinman’s series:

In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution.  People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not.  But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did.  He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth.  BUT WE DON’T.  That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference.   A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do.  The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?

Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was.  That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together.  That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing.  That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution?  On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever.  Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.

Read Zuckerman’s entire post here.

And now a taste of Feinman’s response, “Scholars in the Public Mind“:

How do scholars “market” themselves in the public arena so their image is positive, and not apologetic anti-American? If scholars seek a call to (political) arms as Mike Zuckerman seems to suggest, then those issuing the call need to do so as prophets who want America to live up to its ideals and oppose the wealthy, powerful, and the loudly ignorant. 

If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

At one point in the exchange Feinman accuses historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of ducking a question about “whether the Revolution was a good thing.”  Feinman sees this as a failure by academic historians to openly acknowledge what is exceptional about America.  In fact, he called Ulrich’s failure to answer the question “embarrassing.”

Now I don’t know what Laurel Ulrich thinks about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the American Revolution.  I do not turn to Ulrich or any of the scholars at the conference for their opinion on such a matter.  But I do want historians like Ulrich to help me understand the meaning of the Revolution. In other words, to wonder whether the American Revolution was “good” is certainly a topic that can be debated and discussed, but it is not an issue that falls within the scope of the historian’s vocation. And the American Revolution Reborn was a historical conference.

As Zuckerman notes, “The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in (America’s) birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth.”

Zuckerman also has some very good things to say about the place of history in our society, particularly the limits of our discipline. He writes:

I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do.  The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric.  But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all.  The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues.  The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds.  But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities.  If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.  

Zuckerman’s response here reminds me of Catherine O’Donnell’s recent op-ed in an Arizona newspaper,  “History is a Useful Tool, Not Answer to Every Problem.”  I encourage you to check it out.

On the other hand, Feinman certainly has a point when he writes, “If the new master narrative gives the appearance of being anti-American, then it will be rejected.  If it is presented by people who have pride in being American and who are not always apologizing for it, then it has a better chance of resonating with the American people.”

I think Feinman has put his finger on one of the primary reasons academic historians have struggled to speak to the public. American exceptionalism and so-called “founders chic” is so popular today because academic historians have abandoned the public sphere.  While there is definitely change on the horizon in this regard, historians should not be surprised that Americans get their American history from the likes of David McCullough, Bill O’Reilly, and David Barton.

Popular Histories of the American Revolution and Recent Scholarship

Eric Herschthal is absolutely correct.  Most of the new popular histories of the American Revolution ignore existing scholarship.  I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but for Herschthal, a graduate student at Columbia University, it is definitely a bad thing.  Here is a taste of his piece at Slate:

Every Independence Day the book industry offers new titles about the American Revolution, promising original thoughts and fresh relevance. This year is no different, with some of the nation’s most lauded historians releasing major new titles making bold claims of insight. Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis just came out with Revolutionary Summer, which focuses on the few months in 1776 when the 13 colonies declared independence. It comes on the heels of Penn professor Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor, which also follows the road to 1776. And the National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, already a best-seller, zooms in on the 1775 battle that transformed the conflict from a series of skirmishes into a full-blown war.

These are carefully written books that are sensitive to contemporary attitudes. (Perhaps occasionally too sensitive.) But you’d be mistaken in thinking that they provide a new perspective on the Revolution, because none of them seriously consider much of the latest research being done by historians across the country—which has a lot of new and relevant things to say. If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different? 

Herschthal wonders why these popular books glorify political and military leadership and do not address questions of race, slavery, and globalization.  These are all very good questions, but as long as people want to read about politics, war, and leadership the kind of books written by Beeman, Ellis, and Philbrick will be popular.  Lay readers of American history will always gravitate to a past that is useable. 

Is it possible to write a best-selling popular history of the American Revolution that incorporates recent scholarship?  Would the ordinary history buff want to read such a book? 

I think the answer to both of these question is “yes,” but we have much work to do.

Historians and MOOCs at the 2014 AHA

Jonathan Rees reports that his panel, “How Should Historians Respond to MOOCs,” will be on the program at the annual January meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.

Rees is one of the more prolific critics of MOOCs and has transformed his blog “More or Less Bunk” into a virtual anti-MOOCfest.  In fact, he has just announced the “Down with MOOCs World Tour.”  Catch him in a city near you.

Rees will be joined on the panel by Anne Little of Colorado State (a.k.a. Historiann), Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia, and Jeremy Adelman of Princeton.  This should make for some interesting conversation.  As some of you know, Rees enrolled in Adelman’s World History MOOC and has been quite critical of it.

I will be in D.C. for the AHA festivities and hope to make it to this panel.  Stay tuned.  It should be a packed room.

History Channel’s "The Bible" as Public History

My family and I raced home from a volleyball tournament in Philadelphia last night in order to catch the latest episode of The Bible on the History Channel.  (Unfortunately we did not make it in time and decided, cheeseheads that we are, to wait until it is replayed so we can catch the entire episode in one sitting). 

I have been bouncing around the web this morning looking for some commentary and I found some good stuff.

Religion Dispatches, a left-leaning religion webzine, has been hammering The Bible pretty hard.  In this piece, Sarah Posner quotes biblical scholar Wil Gafney who attacks the mini-series for not showing the slaughtering of babies, the ethnic cleansing, and the sexual violence that is part of the Old Testament.  Fair enough.  The Bible is very violent and Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have chosen to focus on the less-violent, more redemptive moments of the text.

Again, I am fine with this kind of critique, but I will continue to think that the benefits of the mini-series far outweigh the problems. This entire debate is not unlike those happening between academic historians and popular historians. Academic historians pan popular histories (think David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc…) because they do not offer the kind of interpretive depth common in academic writing. Yet these popular histories sell tens of thousands of copies and introduce their subjects to a lot more people than the run-of- the-mill academic monograph.

I think I am safe in saying that more Americans will learn something about the Bible from this mini-series than they will from the books in the upcoming Fall catalogs of Oxford, Brill, T&T Clark, Peter Lang, The Society of Biblical Literature, or Wipf and Stock.  Don’t get me wrong, bad history–whether it is related to the Bible, Christian America, or something else–needs to be countered, especially when it is being used to promote public policy–but I don’t think The Bible crosses the line in this regard.

Rather than sitting in their ivory towers and panning the film (I am not saying Gafney is doing this, her bloggingheads interview with Posner offers a more nuanced position than the quote Posner chose to include in her post), Biblical scholars should be rejoicing. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to engage the public in meaningful and intellectually fruitful ways about the importance of the Bible.  To be fair, I think this is what Gafney really wants to do.  I can’t imagine that she wants all of those stories of ethnic cleansing and rape to be included in the mini-series.  Instead, she wants a conversation.

And now on to Paul Harvey, who also weighed-in on last night’s episode at Religious Dispatches.  He compares the series to The Lord of the Rings and decries the violence and racial stereotypes.  I offered a slightly dissenting view to a previous Harvey post on The Bible, but it is hard to argue with what he has to say in this latest piece.

On our ride back from Philadelphia last night, my family and I had another great talk about the violence portrayed in The Bible.  My daughters are old enough to deal with all the blood and gore, but I am not sure I would have let them watch this when they were younger. 

Harvey’s critique of the “whitening” of the Biblical world and the “racially-stereotyped” Samson character is another strong point, although, with the exception of Jesus (and it is a big exception), I saw many people of color in the film.  It was clear to me that a deliberate effort was made, although perhaps not to Harvey’s satisfaction (and I defer to him on this), to have a multicultural cast.

I am glad to see that Harvey is using the occasion of the mini-series to speak to a larger audience through the medium of Religious Dispatches, but I also fear that he, Gafney, Posner, and others are merely preaching to the choir.  How many of the evangelical Christians who really need to hear what they are saying are reading Religious Dispatches?  Perhaps they are finding it through Google searches.

This mini-series certainly has some problems, and it is the job of academics to point them out, but from where I sit, the good still far outweighs the bad.

"The Limits of Blogging Are Defined Only By the Limits of the Blogger"

Keith Harris has a few ideas

Great line from Keith Harris at Cosmic America.

Check out Harris’s post on the role of social media in bridging the gap between academic historians and the public.  Here is a taste:

Not all blogs are created equal. Academics who blog, and there are a number of first-rate bloggers, are successful precisely because of their openness, their consistency, their engagement with the commenting public (regardless of the comment) and of course, their historical content – often defined not by scholars…but by the public scholars seek to reach. Student-run blogs are also worthy of mention. 901 Stories from Gettysburg, for example, brings the voices of the battlefield to the public – all courtesy of the research of Gettysburg college students. The blog has its shortcomings (there is currently no forum open for discourse), but as it develops it is sure to become a wonderful platform for academics, students, and the public to exchange ideas.

Twitter is perhaps the most powerful, but alas, most misunderstood and misused tool. Many historians, historical institutions, and lay people alike miss opportunities to create and maintain informed conversations on historical matters (in 140 characters or less – believe me…it’s possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse. Granted,Twitter can be a number of things – a platform for self-indulgent narcissists with too much time on their hands, or, it can be a media dumping ground – harnessed by would-be marketers for free advertising. Both fail miserably to reach anyone. But with patience and attentiveness, Twitter can (and does) facilitate discourse between academic and academic, academic and the public, and the public with everyone.

The History Department at Messiah College will be offering our first digital history course next year and there will definitely be a unit on social media. I should also add that the digital history course will be required for our revamped public history concentration.  Stay tuned.

"Why History Doesn’t Matter"

This will apparently be the title of Professor Grumpy’s new book.  His recent post at Historian on the Edge explores the difference between a trained historian and someone with basic literacy skills who writes and tells stories about the past.  Here is a taste of a post he calls “The Siege”:

… [W]hile the discipline has been bogged down in post-empiricist soul-searching, history itself has been, to a considerable degree, taken over by non-specialists.  It is a platitude that ‘the past’ has become public and that academic historians do not have sole access to or control over it.  Most of the volumes shelved in the history sections of bookshops are not written by what I consider to be historians.  The history that appears on television is similarly dominated by non-specialists.  Usually styling themselves ‘writer and historian’, ‘journalist and historian’, ‘broadcaster and historian’ or whatever … ‘and historian’, they are in most cases, in fact, writers, journalists, broadcasters or whatever who have written books about history.  Having written a book about history does not make you a historian.  This does not mean that these books and broadcasts represent ‘bad history’ (though frequently they do), that they do not present factually accurate accounts, that they do not contain valid and valuable ideas and interpretations or – most importantly of all – that they do not play a huge part in getting people interested in the past.  The problem for history is in important regards the opposite.  What they do, they do very well.  That leaves the academic discipline of history in a very difficult position.  What exactly do proper, qualified, university historians have to offer?  In the current political climate the surfeit, ubiquity and (by its own lights) quality of popular history places the discipline very much under siege.

The implication of the situation just described is that anyone with basic literacy can write history and call themselves a historian.  When you think about it, there are not many intellectual disciplines where anything like this is the case.  I cannot, for instance, buy a chemistry set and a subscription to New Scientist, come up with some cranky idea about ‘bad egg gas’, and go on television as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and chemist’.  If I didn’t have a degree in the subject, I could not dig up my back garden and appear on documentaries as ‘Hubert Grumpy, writer and archaeologist’.  At the very least, the word ‘amateur’ would have to be appended.  The purveyors of television and ‘bookshop history’ do not (with notable but fairly rare exceptions) carry out actual historical research but are still called historians; they are not academically qualified beyond, on occasion, a first degree and have no university post but are nevertheless referred to as ‘media dons’.  They work from the published research of academic historians.  Sometimes (especially in the case of the presenters of television history) they don’t even do that; they have researchers to do it for them.  Parasitically, they make money from other people’s labours.  Any university historian who works on any subject even remotely interesting to the wider public will be able to tell you how she has been contacted by a TV or radio researcher expecting them to spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work so that a broadcaster can make money out of it through a television or radio broadcast and spin-off volume.  I am surely not the only one who, in refusing to do someone else’s job for free, has been accused of ‘not being interested in communicating’.  It is difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.  If we take the most successful purveyors of popular science, almost all are academically qualified (well beyond first degree level) in the subject about which they talk.

Read the rest here.