Monday, December 3, 2012

Bill Cronon, We Hate to See You Go!

I agree with Chris Gehrz when he says "I’ve enjoyed William Cronon's tenure as much as that of any prior president of the American Historical Association (AHA)...."  (I would put Tony Grafton, Cronon's predecessor, a VERY close second).  In the past year Cronon has put forth a vision of the historical profession to which ALL the members of the AHA can relate.  He has challenged us to speak to public audiences and to engage the digital revolution.  And now he has devoted his final column to teaching.  Here is a taste:

Yet somehow we rarely start our answer to the question "what are you working on now?" by referring to our courses or our students. Even those of us who might be so inclined know this isn't the answer that's expected of us, and feel a little apologetic when the best and most accurate response we can offer is indeed about our teaching. So rather than talk about the work and activities that fill most of our days, we anxiously offer up the research we wish we had more time to do and the writing we wish we could finish. Within the complex hierarchies of the academy, in which the research universities implicitly rule the roost and where professional status more often than not correlates inversely with teaching loads, to talk about one's work as a teacher seems almost déclassé.

Worse still, we too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain "I just can't find enough time for my work"—implying that teaching isn't part of that work and in fact competes with the "real" work of research. When my father was a graduate student in the 1950s, a senior professor took him aside and encouraged him to develop strategies for protecting as much time as possible for his scholarship. To avoid too much service, this faculty member said, one should "cultivate a dignified incompetence," so that one would never be asked twice to serve on a committee. As for teaching, he said, it was like "building castles in the sand." No one who really mattered ever knew what one did in the classroom; it contributed nothing to one's professional reputation; and unlike a book, one had nothing to show for oneself when it was over. Teaching, in other words, deserved as little time as possible.

If you are going to the AHA in New Orleans next month, be sure to attend Cronon's presidential address.  It has a very simple title:  "Storytelling."