Wednesday, October 24, 2012

James Banner on "Being a Historian"

Back in August I wrote an Anxious Bench post on James Banner's Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History. I have been recommending this book to everyone, especially graduate students.

I was thus happy to see Don Yerxa's interview with Banner at the blog of The Historical Society. (The blog post is excerpted from a longer interview in the September 2012 issue of Historically Speaking).

Here is a taste:

Yerxa: You argue with conviction that it is a mistake to confuse the discipline of history with the profession of history. Why is it such an important distinction to make?

Banner: Simply put, because of the facts. The academic profession is but one of the professions—although, surely, the central one still—in which historians practice their many crafts and apply their great variety of knowledge. Historians also practice history in law and medical schools, in government at all levels, as reporters, in museums and historical societies, and as schoolteachers. These historians, when employed as historians, are all professional historians acting professionally, taking part in the worldwide community of historical discourse and applying historical knowledge in some manner to some purpose. It’s the discipline that binds us, not our places of work, the kinds of work we pursue, the forms our work takes, or the audiences to which we direct that work. Those differ widely. The conventional terminology—“the” history profession—gives pride of place to those who coined the term and have long employed it: academic historians around whom, in the first century of the discipline’s emergence, the world of history gathered. After all, they were the people (mostly men) who created the departments, the standards, the training protocols, the products (mostly books), and the tenure system in which, until the 1960s, most historians were organized. But while historians must still be prepared by academic historians in research universities to master bodies of knowledge and to undertake and produce research scholarship, their employment has long escaped academic walls. In fact, there’s reason to believe that at least half of those now receiving history doctoral degrees, either by choice or necessity (we lack information about that critical matter), do not enter academic work. Consequently, in recent decades we’ve gotten used to distinguishing academic from public historians. That’s fine as far as it goes. But, as I also argue in the book, it’s a weak distinction. Increasingly, historians are hybrids—I’m one of them—who move back and forth between the classroom and other occupations, who write, film, and curate history while holding faculty positions and who teach while working in government or nonacademic institutions. An increasing number of historians are both academic and public historians. So why can’t we just term ourselves historians— colleagues all—and put aside the distinction, perhaps useful but increasingly outmoded, between public and academic historians?


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