Thursday, October 15, 2015

Historiann "Brings the Fire"

Earlier today I published a post on Robert Zaretsky's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the University of Houston professor laments, among other things, the failure of historians to tell stories in their work.  He also points to an earlier generation of historians who seemed to have a larger audience and more cultural influence because they wrote for the public.  Finally, he offers a pretty depressing account of life in graduate school.

Historiann, aka Anne Little, the prolific blogger and Colorado State University history professor, is having none of it.  Here is a taste of her post:

Seriously?  The “we’ve forgotten how to tell stories” line again?... Whenever I see that old line trotted out about “dying a death by a thousand monographs,” I see someone getting ready to push someone else out of the lifeboat, or at least hear him tell some kids to get off his lawn.

Enough of the “golden age” fantasies about the awesome, well-paid, and always well-respected scholars of yore.  When is your imagined “golden age” for history in these United States–the early and mid-nineteenth century, when only Gentlemen Scholars wrote history and bent it to their Protestant, white, male, triumphalist ends?  Just how many of those historians were actually making a living at it?  Just about none?  Alrighty then.

Or is your “golden age” the so-called “progressive” era, when loads of German-speakers had university jobs but lost them in World War I, because it would be a bad thing to be able to read and write an enemy language?  Was it the post-World War II era, when the G.I. Bill permitted universities like mine (formerly “Colorado A&M–for eighth-grade graduates!”) to expand, but at the same time Cold War politics meant firing a lot of faculty for their current or past Communist ties (or for the mere suspicion of Communism?)  Was it the fat and happy 1960s, when faculty were hired in great numbers but also fired for supporting students in the antiwar movement?  (It happened in my department back in the day.)
And in all of these previous eras, someone like me would have been as unwelcome as a fly at a picnic, because university faculties were overwhelmingly white and male.  I’m white, but as they say:  close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!  
Guess what, friends?  I hate to break it to you, but being an intellectual has never been a very good career move in the United States.  So as I see it, our options are 1) don’t become a historian, 2) become a historian and try not to offend anyone with your informed opinions, or 3) (my choice) enjoy your outlaw status, whether or not you collect a paycheck.  Piss some people off!  Write a few books because no one else will!  Start a blog!  Start a podcast!  Make friends, influence people!  If you have tenure, use it.  Enjoy fame, if not fortune, on social media.
Two thoughts:
First, I love the last paragraph above.  Thanks, Ann!
Second, Historiann may not be white or male, but she does have tenure (I assume) and thus has the security to let it rip in posts like this. I am guessing that most graduate students and pre-tenure professors, whether they like it or not, relate more to Zaretsky's description of academic life.