White Supremacy, Capitalism, and a New Book on the History of St. Louis

Broken HeartIs capitalism racist? If you answer yes, you are one of the cool kids in the historical profession right now. Scholars working on the connections between capitalism and slavery have produced some interesting, helpful, provocative, and controversial work. Much of the debate over The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has focused on the strengths and weakness of this historiographical trend.

The relationship between capitalism and race also frames Nicolas Lemann‘s New Yorker review of Walter Johnson‘s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Historically, Johnson doesn’t find many people to admire. Among whites, the main exceptions are a few Communists and radically inclined labor organizers. He takes a dim view, too, of mainstream black organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Liberal politicians hardly attract his notice, except when, as in the case of Lincoln, their reputations require revising downward. But after laying out a relentlessly bleak history he ends, jarringly, on a hopeful note. During the unrest following Michael Brown’s death, he tells us, “the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history.” Since then, a number of activists—Johnson provides thumbnail sketches of them—have launched efforts in poor black neighborhoods meant to reverse, or at least resist, the pernicious workings of racial capitalism. Today, Johnson writes, “I have never been to a more amazing, hopeful place in my life.” Underlying his stated optimism is an implicit conviction that it wouldn’t do much good to look for help from the larger society; the victims of oppression must find a way forward by themselves.

As a child in the Jim Crow South during the civil-rights era, growing up in a conservative white milieu, I often overheard bitter adult conversations about the hypocrisy of white liberals in the North. Were they really any better than Southern segregationists, to go by their lived behavior? Walter Johnson, coming from the left, offers a good deal of empirical support for opinions like that. His account discourages us from drawing much hope from past events like the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the major civil-rights victories of the sixties, or the election of Barack Obama as President; the regime of racial capitalism, in his vision, always manages to reconstitute itself. Broader reforms that aimed, at least, to smooth the roughest edges of capitalism—like the regulation of business excesses or the creation of Social Security and Medicaid—are, we gather, no match for white supremacy.

Democratic politics, especially in a country with a racial history like ours, is necessarily messy, impure, and capable of producing no more than partial victories, and, even then, only when pushed hard by political movements. But deflating and deriding the progress it has made in the past and the promise it might hold for the future invites the hazards of defeatism. It distracts from the kinds of economic, educational, and criminal-justice reforms that mainstream progressives hope to enact. These are the tools we have at hand. It would be a shame not to use them.

Read the entire review here.

The State of the History Job Market

History

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.

“Title Policing”

Golden GOphers

Here is David Perry, senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities:

Historians value integrity, David; you should too if you truly are one of us.” So wrote a senior professor, a named chair at a regional public university on the West Coast, chiding me in an email. My sin: calling myself a “senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota” in an opinion essay I wrote recently for CNN.

This professor decided I was falsely claiming to be some kind of senior adviser to the faculty, rather than merely an academic adviser, senior in rank, assigned to work with undergraduates in the history department. By suggesting that history departments need senior advisers, he wrote, “you make us look like incompetent fools.” He added: “Good for you that you have this public profile. But please don’t advance it by trivializing what tenured and tenure-track history faculty, including those at your own university, do.” As for my job title, he insisted that “no such positions formally exist at universities, those that still have standards, at least.”

Then he CC’d the chair of my department — the classic academic equivalent of asking to speak to my supervisor.

Read the entire piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  There is a person like this “senior professor” at every university.

It is Time for a President of the American Historical Association Who Does Not Work at a Research University

AHA2020 Carousel Slide testNOTE:  This is a revised version of a post I wrote in January 2013.

What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?

2020: Mary Lindemann: University of Miami

2019: J.R. McNeil: Georgetown University

2018: Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

2017: Tyler Stovall, University of California-Santa Cruz

2016: Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

2015: Vicki Ruiz, University of California-Irvine

2014: Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

2013: Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

2012: William Cronon, University of Wisconsin

2011: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

2010: Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan

2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

2008: Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

2007: Barbara Weinstein, University of Maryland

2006: Linda Kerber, University of Iowa

2005: James Sheehan–Stanford University

2004: Jonathan Spence, Yale University

2003: James McPherson, Princeton University

2002: Lynn Hunt, UCLA

2001: William Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

2000: Eric Foner, Columbia University

1999: Robert Darnton, Princeton University

1998: Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia

1997: Joyce Appleby. UCLA

Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association.  In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson. She was president in 1943.  Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.

I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities.  They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession.  But I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.

Back in 2012,  William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts.  I know that Cronon’s interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff.  They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, podcasters, K-12 teachers, park rangers, and a host of other non-academics who “do history.”

So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches–a sort of “people’s president” who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy?  Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of her or his time in the classroom, does her or his job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum?  Why not a high school teacher?  It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.

Historians and the Work of Translation

book-glasses-translate-translation

I just finished Houghton College political scientist Peter Meilaender’s essay “Crossed Lines: The Importance of Translation in an Era of Growing Political Indifference.”  The piece, which appears in the Michaelmas 2019 issue of The Cresset, really resonated with me.  It is a reflection on the work of translation, born out of Meilaender’s reading of a collection of translated short stories.

Meilaender writes:

…only the lover is a faithful translator.  We today need more such translators–more peopel with the kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to it again, bringing with them the fruit of their travels.  Not all of us need to be such translators, but all of us should honor them, and we should want our public life to be enriched by their work as intermediaries, go-betweens, ambassadors.  At its best, that work embodies a form of intellectual virtue that holds out the promise of mutual understanding without papering over genuine difference.  It accepts the consequences of Babel while maintaining the hope that division and confusion need not be the last word, the ultimate and incorrigible fate of humanity.  It calls us to sing a polyphonic new song, with multiple languages in counterpoint and in harmony.

This essay resonated with me so much because I have been involved in the work of translation most of my adult life.  Translators, of course, must know something about two (or more) cultures.  They must know how to speak the languages of both cultures.

As a Christian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, American evangelicalism.   I can speak the language.  I have spent the better part of my life in this culture. I know it well. I know its strengths and flaws. (I was also a practicing Catholic until the age of 15 or 16, so I can also speak the language of that culture, although I now do so with a heavy evangelical accent).

As a historian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, the culture often described as the “historical profession.”  (I will be taking part in a community ritual associated with this culture in January 2020 when I will attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York).  I know this culture well. I know its strengths and flaws.  I can speak the language.

Some of what I have published over the years are works of translation–efforts to bring these two worlds together.  Other books and articles I have published are not works of translation. They were written in the language of the profession.

Public historians and academically-trained historians who write for the general public are always involved in the work of translation.  (See my recent reflection on this here). So are teachers.

Sometimes I need to translate my middle-class life to my working-class family, and sometimes I find myself doing the opposite.

I think it is imperative for the health of our communities that we all do the work of translation.  The divisions we face in the United States today are often due to a lack of skill in this area.  If you live in a social world where you are not forced to engage in the hard work of translation, you may be part of the problem. (And I am speaking here to my fellow academics as well). Meilaender suggests that the translator engages in moral activity.  She must have empathy for both cultures and use her work to seek “mutual understanding.”

But the translator always faces a conundrum.  Meilaender writes, “We today need…more people with kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to return to it again, bringing with them the fruits of their travels.”  I really like this sentence, but we also must acknowledge that sometimes a translator can get confused about exactly which culture is “home.”

It is Time for a President of the AHA Who Does Not Work at a Research University (#aha19)

AHAlogo

NOTE:  This is a revised version of a post I wrote in January 2013.

What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?

2018: Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

2017: Tyler Stovall, University of California-Santa Cruz

2016: Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

2015: Vicki Ruiz, University of California-Irvine

2014: Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

2013: Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

2012: William Cronon, University of Wisconsin

2011: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

2010: Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan

2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

2008: Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

2007: Barbara Weinstein, University of Maryland

2006: Linda Kerber, University of Iowa

2005: James Sheehan–Stanford University

2004: Jonathan Spence, Yale University

2003: James McPherson, Princeton University

2002: Lynn Hunt, UCLA

2001: William Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

2000: Eric Foner, Columbia University

1999: Robert Darnton, Princeton University

1998: Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia

1997: Joyce Appleby. UCLA

Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association.  In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson. She was president in 1943.  Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.

I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities.  They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession.  But I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.

Back in 2012,  William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts.  I know that Cronon’s interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff.  They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, podcasters, K-12 teachers, park rangers, and a host of other non-academics who “do history.”

So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches–a sort of “people’s president” who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy?  Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of her or his time in the classroom, does her or his job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum?  Why not a high school teacher?  It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.

*Inside Higher Ed* Covers the Erin Bartram Blog Post on Leaving Academia

AHA-Building

Headquarters of the American Historical Association, Washington D.C.

We blogged about this yesterday.  Get up to speed here.

Here is a taste of “Calling Academe’s Bluff.”

Janet Watson, an associate professor of history at UConn, worked with Bartram in graduate school and reached out to her about her essay.

That Bartram is now in such a position “is further evidence of how the academic job market is increasingly dysfunctional in ways that are harmful both to students and to the people who teach them,” Watson said Monday.

Joshua Eyler, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice University, shared Bartram’s essay on Twitter. He told Inside Higher Ed that there isn’t “a lot of space for this kind of grieving, which is why the kind of frank and open discussion of it in her essay is so important.”

Agreeing with Bartram, he said, “I think it is still true that the dominant reason people enroll in Ph.D. programs in the humanities is to one day be faculty.” That doesn’t mean everyone does so for that reason, he said, “but it is a major motivating force.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said his organization and the Modern Language Association are working on career diversity precisely because they’re confident that keeping people like Bartram “in our respective communities benefits us, the individuals and public culture.”

“If we cannot find good ways to maintain productive relationships among historians who follow diverse career paths, there is not only individual loss but also for the discipline and public culture,” he added via email.

Read the entire piece here.

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

Classroom

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.

“Finding the Courage to be Human” in Academic Life

Convo

I was cheering inside when I read Robin Marie Averbeck‘s wonderful, life-giving piece on “praxis.” She writes, “As a scholar and a citizen I am supposed to be producing knowledge and perspectives to enrich the public…but what is the meaning of producing thought if we are not simultaneously engaging in praxis?”

Averbeck continues at the  U.S. Intellectual History Blog:

Because praxis – for me, at least – isn’t just what petitions you sign, marches you attend, or boycotts you participate in. It’s what you do when your back is up against a corner during a politically charged departmental dispute. It’s how you show your support for the marginalized and oppressed in contexts and spaces not explicitly about their second-class status. And it’s also about friendship, and the obligations we have towards those we call comrades. This means it can also be incredibly difficult; at times you’re so unsure what the right action is that it tears you apart. But that’s how you know you’re breathing life into your vision for a different world; there’s no praxis I recognize as such without angry outbursts, mutually validating bouts of shit talking, painful disagreements and loneliness-annihilating reconciliation. To really do praxis, in other words, you’ve got to find the courage to be human, to be honest, and to place your politics in the same place in your heart where you relish your love for others.

There’s little to no place for that kind of thinking within the bureaucracies of the formal academy, where the admonishment of Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin – to keep the notion of love out of the practice of politics – seems to reign supreme. And yet a yearning for something like this rolls along underground; you can see it and hear it at the hotel bars of conferences – when all the papers are given, and all the Q&As politely conducted – packed with people who pounce on an opportunity to talk shop while also joking, flirting, boozing. But, some might say, all this is merely gossip, cocktail conversation – not to be placed side by side with finished manuscripts and carefully footnoted analyses. Therefore, so much of it goes unrecorded, dismissed, and discarded; and in place of this cacophony we form images of meaningful thought being born in quiet spaces of isolation: libraries, archives, offices.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian

Messiah

I think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people.  We live in the world of ideas.  We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts.  For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.

Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years.  At the risk of becoming overly confessional, self-indulgent, or dark, I thought I would mention them here.

I am sure some folks will appreciate my thoughts.  Others will deconstruct them in negative ways.  These are the risks I take every day when I write at this blog.  One day I feel that writing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is an act of courage. The next day I wonder if what I have been doing here for the past eight years has been one big act of foolishness.

So here goes:

I am a first-generation college student and the son of working-class parents.  This means that I am constantly trying to live between the worlds of my uneducated extended family and my own advanced education.  This has been even harder since the election of Donald Trump.  It can get pretty lonely at times.

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags.  I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does.  I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach.  As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it.  This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian.  That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas.  I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently.  I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues.  I wonder about my place in the mix.

I am a historian and Christian who is critical of conservative evangelicals and other right-wing attempts to blend Christian faith with political power or promote the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. My critique of the so-called “court evangelicals” makes me a bit of an outcast in my church community (although I feel this changing a bit) and perhaps raises some red flags among conservative colleagues at my institution.

I believe Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training people for our capitalist economy, but they are doing a poor job of investing in the preparation of people for life in a democracy. This means that I am viewed as suspect by most people in society and especially by those champions of pre-professional education who now dominate so many Christian colleges, including my own.

What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas.  And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues.  This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different.  I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.

Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

bowenThis morning’s post by Mike Bowen resonated with many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and struck a chord with folks attending the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Denver. Read it here.  In this post, Bowen offers some thoughts on the history job market.  –JF

Writing about the academic job market from the inside is very difficult. No one likes a braggart, and no one likes a complainer. If you stray too far in either direction your message can get lost amidst the visceral reactions emanating from the comment threads.

I tried writing about the job market once, back in the heady, pre-recession days of 2008. Frankly, the article is embarrassing and I wish I had never published it. It is too inflammatory and should have been more constructive and conciliatory. The response to the piece is why I spent the next nine years away from the topic.

Based on their reaction at the meeting in the graduate students/junior scholar job panel two days later, the AHA staff didn’t appreciate my contribution. There was no subsequent dialogue about any of the points I brought up. The AHA staff rediscovered a couple of those points in 2011 or 2012 on their own, and others have drilled down on the communication issue on non-academic sites, but there hasn’t been any substantive movement towards fixing the lack of communication or late notices for interviews.

More alarming to me were the grumblings among the job seeking community. You can see that a little bit of dialogue happened on the IHE comment thread, but the readership of the Chronicle forums was severely underchuffed. For the first time in my life, I was called a “special snowflake.” Someone said that I was “entitled.” God knows what would have happened if Twitter had been around back then.

The point for bringing all of this up…the profession is abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market. Everyone knows that there is a major concern that needs to be addressed, but no one will actually make even a half-hearted effort to try. That has compounded the problem.

As the organization that is most closely associated with the job market, this situation comes back to the AHA somewhat. However, in late 2014, the executive director of the AHA wrote in Perspectives that the AHA is not here to help people find jobs in academia. I am legitimately, with no sarcasm intended, glad that he admitted this and has turned the organization to career diversity initiatives. I don’t need the help (see below), but I know others do.

The remaining stakeholders generally fall in to one of four camps. One small group outside the faculty wants to put everyone on five year contracts and do away with tenure. Some proposals have been more radical than that.  Another, slightly larger, group of contingent faculty wants to unionize. That may be a viable solution in some circumstances but, given today’s political climate I can’t envision a movement becoming so widespread that it works at every institution. The third camp is composed of job seekers who hope to God that they can land on their feet next academic year and are otherwise powerless.

The larger fourth camp is generally the rest of the profession, and they tend to ignore the situation. Job seekers make faculty members uncomfortable largely because, while many want to help, they can’t do much. You can’t really blame them either. Is it worth going to battle with a college administration, risking potential blowback down the line, to try to get more lines? More often than not, in an age of disinvestment in higher education and the dominance of STEM, the answer is no. So rather than confront the problem, the faculty retreats inwards and worries about themselves.

The net result is that we continue on the same path we have been on, motivated largely by inertia. We are a profession composed of highly-educated, socially-aware people, yet we have collectively thrown our hands up at a problem that we find too difficult to solve. I wish that we could engage in an honest discussion about this without politicizing it. Our discipline is fading , and the job crisis is part of the reason why.

Postscript: I have received  e-mails from people offering to help me transition out of academia. I appreciate the contacts, but it isn’t necessary. When I received notice of my non-renewal, I connected with a local job coach and subsequently landed a very good job in the editorial department at a research and publishing firm. I now manage a great team, am surrounded by wonderful co-workers, and have a supportive boss.

More importantly, I was able to get on with my life. That distance is what is allowing me to write these blog posts. I still adjunct at JCU one night class a semester to keep a foothold in the field and to supplement my income but, barring a miracle, the new job is my first priority now. It has to be. Do I want to get back into history full-time? Absolutely. I feel that teaching history is my vocation, but my past experience tells me that that is highly unlikely that there is a place for me to do so. That is just the reality.

 

Historians Against Trump

lindberghamericafirst.banner.AP.jpg

Charles Lindbergh addresses an “America First” rally in Fort Wayne, IN on October 3, 1941

A group of historians has released an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump. I just signed it.

Here is the letter:

Today, we are faced with a moral test. As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.

Historians Against Trump does not align itself with any political party or candidate. Many among us do not identify as activists and have never before taken part in such a campaign. We are history professors, school teachers, public historians and museum professionals, independent scholars and graduate students. We are united by the belief that the candidacy of Donald J. Trump poses a threat to American democracy.

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence. Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.

The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve. No less than his sham “Trump University,” Donald Trump’s contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation mocks the ideals of the academy, whether in the sciences or the liberal arts. Academia is far from the only profession endangered by Trumpism. Donald Trump bullies and suppresses the press, and seeks to weaken First Amendment protections as President. Trump singles out journalists for attack and mocks physical disabilities. Both the judiciary and individualjudges face public threats from Trump. Non-white, non-male professionals and civil servants are irredeemably compromised in Donald Trump’s eyes.Judges are disqualified from service because of their ethnicity; women Presidential candidates succeed only because of their gender; the President of the United States is under suspicion as illegitimate and alien because of his skin color and heritage.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making. In another era, civil society institutions such as the academy, the free press and the judiciary were counted on to safeguard constitutional democracy. That this is no longer the case cannot be blamed solely on Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy has profited from the fears of people living precariously and a political culture of spectacle and cynicism, both of which long predate his emergence as a candidate. The impulses and ideologies that animate the Trump campaign will not disappear once he is defeated in November.

It is all of our job to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign, building an inclusive civil society in its place. Along with Historians Against Trump, groups like Writers On Trump and Citizen Therapists are organizing in defense of the ideals in which their professions are grounded. Historians Against Trump will be marching alongside these and many other groups as part of the peaceful protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. We will continue our work into the fall, publishing essays and articles that place Trumpism into historical perspective.

We have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built. This means equipping the public with historical skills and narratives that are “factual, accurate, comprehensible, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.” When Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination on July 21st, a Grand Old Party born out of the struggle for abolition and justice will have succumbed to snake oil. We are here to say, “No more.” Join us in standing up to Trump—for our history, for our future, and for each other.

Historians Against Trump

July 11, 2016

Here is an Inside Higher Ed piece on the letter.

On Integrating "Public History" and "Academic History"

I recently came across this post by Alix Green, the Head of Policy and Lecturer in History and Policy at the University of Hertfordshire.  Green is a public historian who recently attended his first National Council of Public History conference.  He came away from the meeting surprised at just how marginalized public historians are from the more traditional historians in academic history departments across the United States. 

Here is a taste of his post-conference post:

I’d always thought of public history in the USA  as a big field.  I guess I’d just made assumptions based on the 150+ programmes on offer and the energy of the discussions online and in print.  It was only going to the conference, and, in particular, the educators’ breakfast, that made me realise how atomised the field actually is in many respects.  The single academic with sole responsibility for directing an institution’s programme is common: an additional colleague if recruitment is good.  The public historian seems often to occupy a demarcated space on the edge of the history department,  responsible for ‘saving’ it through strong graduate employment outcomes, but at the same time not entirely integrated into the culture.  Maybe the worst place for a public history programme is in a history department, came one wry comment.  It was clear that the laughs that followed were in recognition of this sense of disjuncture between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history in universities….

…I can see why professionalisation of public history led to efforts to delineate its differences from the academic discipline.  But I don’t think we do public history as field finding its identity and purpose, or ‘mainstream’ history (or indeed our students, institutions or external partners) any favours by partitioning it off.  It shouldn’t just be the bolt-on – the public engagement phase formulated once the research project is complete, or the member of staff kept on the periphery of the ‘real business’ of the department.

Public history can be a vibrant and integral part of scholarship and teaching, and it can also be a topic for critical, historiographical and comparative study…A key question, it seems to me, is how to balance the need for a locus for professional identity with the need for a more integrated historical community of enquiry.

Trace Your Academic Family Tree

Richard Dunn

A couple of years ago we did a post on the History of History Tree.   Here it is:

It is a well known fact that historians and genealogists have a rather contentious relationship. While I am sure that their disagreements have something to do with the proper way of exploring the past, I can’t help but think that the real source of enmity between them is related to the fact that the genealogists are notorious for hogging all the microfilm readers.

Now history and genealogy come together through the History of History Tree. The tree is still pretty sparse,…but when and if it fills out this could be a really interesting resource. 

I was thinking about this post when I was surfing around the other day and came across Mark Cheathem’s post: “My Academic Family Tree.”  Mark traces his academic lineage through the great southern historian C. Vann Woodward.

Inspired by Mark’s post, I decided to do some work on my own academic family tree.  Here is what I have come up with:

Father: Ned Landsman

Grandfather: Richard Dunn

Great-Grandfather: Wesley Frank Craven

Great-Great Grandfather: Wallace Notestein

Not too shabby!

What does your academic family tree look like?

"Publish or Perish" in Baccalaureate Institutions

According to this survey by the American Historical Association, historians pursuing tenure and promotion at bachelor’s institutions are judged very heavily on scholarship and “research output.”

87% of the 2440 full and associate history professors at baccalaureate colleges surveyed said that teaching was “highly valued.”  28.8% of history professors at research universities said that teaching was “highly valued.”  This, of course, should be expected.  Faculty at research universities have lighter teaching loads and are required to produce original research, while historians at teaching institutions need to be able to teach effectively.

In the same survey, 84.6% of research university professors said that print monographs were “highly valued,” but so did 61.1% of history professors at bachelor’s institutions.

On average, research universities require 1.3 monographs and 7.3 peer reviewed articles for promotion to associate professor.  Bachelor’s institutions require 1 monograph and 3.8 peer-reviewed articles for promotion to associate professor.

What does this mean?  It would appear that baccalaureate institutions place more demands on their faculty.  They have to be effective teachers and produce a significant amount of scholarship.

Check out yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed for a full report on this AHA survey.  It also has some revealing things to say about digital history and the job market.

Remembering Alfred Young

In case you have not heard, early American social historian Alfred Young has passed away at the age of 87.  I never met Young, but I learned a lot from his work, especially The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution.  Here are some reflections on his life and career:

Historiann

Benjamin Carp

David Waldstreicher

J.L. Bell

Greg Nobles

Wayne Bodle

It has been a sad several months for the historical profession.  We have lost Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, Henry May, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and now Young.

Over at the blog of The Historical Society, Randall Stephens has a reflection on Wyatt-Brown.

"Being a historian means being constantly criticized and even rejected for the rest of your life"

According to Greg Kennedy, it all begins with the “Ordeal” of the dissertation or thesis defense.  From this point forward we are constantly attacked, criticized, revised, and evaluated (by peers, administrators, and students).  Our work must suffer the degradation of peer review.  Our books must suffer under the weight of negative reviews  (and the occasional attack from Glenn Beck).  Our conference papers are cut to shreds by the arrogant and pompous senior scholar.  Our grant proposals are turned down.  And our reputations as historians are built upon how well we (or should I say our work) survives the attack.  Kennedy compares it to a lifelong boot camp.  He wonders whether all of this criticism makes us better historians.

Here is a taste of his post entitled “The Ordeal: Evaluation and the Production of Historians.”

My own experience has led me to believe that the time has come to review “the Ordeal” of historians. This semester, one of my own students went through a Master’s thesis defence and I am also evaluating somebody else’s thesis for an upcoming defence. Both experiences have been challenging and I find myself questioning WHY we test our students in this way. Does it make us better historians? Is this experience fundamental to the requirements of our profession? Throughout my career, at conferences and public talks, I have seen people aggressively attack speakers and try to discredit or dismiss their work. Everyone else in the room shifted uncomfortably but rarely did someone intervene, even though everyone knew that the line into unconstructive criticism had been crossed. Often, people will say things like “that is just the way that person is, it was not personal”. I have similarly seen people take advantage of the protection of the anonymous peer review process to launch devastating attacks. Some of the statements certain reviewers make are more personal insult than constructive criticism. Perhaps their intentions were good, but from their tone and word choice it is hard to believe that their aim was not to discourage, discredit or harm. In talking to various editors and members of grant committees, I realize that the competition is fierce, the review process is long and it is difficult to find reviewers.

Excuses notwithstanding, our acceptance of these excesses allows them to flourish. Some people may even agree with such tactics. Watch Question Period or read a newspaper and you will find no shortage of insults and attacks launched by supposedly professional political leaders at each other. Our legal system is unashamedly adversarial, and witnesses and defendants are regularly attacked as a way of “getting to the truth.” Are these appropriate models for the profession of history?

Read the entire piece here.

HT: AHA Today

"No, You Cannot Be a History Professor"

This is what Larry Cebula of Eastern Washington University tells his students who want to pursue an academic career in history.  Here is a taste of his popular post:

I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers–and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.

Cebula responds to his critics here.

On one level, I think Cebula’s advice is a bit harsh.  While I can’t help but agree that the job market is declining, I think it is a bit alarmist at this point to predict the end of the tenure-track professoriate in the next twenty years.  There may be fewer such jobs, but there will still be jobs. And if an undergraduate history major, after considering the risks, feels called to pursue a career as a history professor, I will offer my encouragement.

On another level, Cebula’s post should be read as a call to reform.  We who lead and teach in undergraduate history departments continue to celebrate the students who want to be professors.  We often deem acceptance into a prestigious Ph.D program as the highest calling our students can pursue.  We pat ourselves on the back for the number of students we send to graduate school each year and we tell their stories at open houses to prospective students.

Why are we doing this?  Does it make sense?  Is it responsible?

Most of our undergraduate history majors do not end up pursuing Ph.Ds. Yet we invest most of our time and energy into these students.  What about the rest of our history majors?  What about the student with the 3.5 GPA who does not want to pursue a Ph.D but may want to use their history major in the marketplace or the non-profit sector or the high school classroom or in a public history setting?  We need to invest the time and energy in these students.  We need to celebrate them. We need to give them a vision for what they can do with a history major and help them to pursue a meaningful vocation.

A Critique of Academic History

Christopher Shannon’s article in the most recent Historically Speaking is getting some buzz.  (Unfortunately, I cannot link to it online because it is only available to subscribers through Project Muse).

I know of very few historians who write out of their faith tradition (in this case, Catholicism) more powerfully than Shannon.  For example, check out his essay on academic monographs in our book Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

I will try to blog on Shannon’s Historically Thinking piece when I finally get a chance to read it, but in the meantime here is snippet (with a response from Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn) posted at the blog of the Historical Society and a commentary by William Fine at US Intellectual History.