Saturday, May 30, 2009

I Want to Bang My Head: A Rant

Several months ago I mentioned a book discussion that had I facilitated in which the author of the book showed up (it's item #18). The problem with this was that the author had written a history book about the Constitution and presented really old research that had been common knowledge for ages. At least, it was common knowlege among historians, not Constitutional attorneys.

Well, he wrote another book. Now, my college wants to bring him back to speak because someone saw him at some local event and thought that he had some "interesting new information on the subject." Somehow, I doubt it.

When I first wrote about this writer -- who, sadly, gets reviewed in the NYTimes instead of actual historians on the same subjects who write better and more original books -- I also complained of another "historian" who wrote a book about women's history that would have been out of date 20 years ago. Yet, everyone at our college went on and on about what fresh, new work she had done.

I bang my head at this not out of jealousy. I have no pretentions to the NYTimes or of being considered original and fresh. I bang my head at this because these are not trained historians. They are hailed as "fresh" because they have "archival research," as if "archival research" were some revolutionary activity. They don't acknowledge that many of their ideas are build upon a foundation of other people's work; or, if they do, those parts are cut out of the book.

I don't despise them personally, nor do I begrudge them the joy of writing or consider them the root of all evil. I do see that they serve a sort of function; but I still have a huge problem with a system that keeps the work of actual historians marginalized as "too academic" (not to mention the way that actual historians are supposed to be out of touch with the "real world" in the "ivory tower") while anyone with the time and independent wealth (which often buys time) ends up with best sellers and speaking engagements from books that churn out the same ole same ole as if it were original to that writer and new to the study of history.

At my school, I bang my head because, in a city with a gazillion universities and agencies that employ a gazillion more historians, educators who should know better are turning to non-historians to speak on historical subjects.

Then, I read the last line of the e-mail. This particular writer is a married to a county council woman. As in, this writer is married to one of the people who approves funding for the college.

It all makes sense, now!


Belle said...

Oh, that sound you hear from the west? That's me howling as an accompaniment to your head banging.

Just a silly question: since we are 'required' by professional standards to present our research as scholarly and thus in scholarly language, is that what makes our work 'too academic?' Are we putting ourselves out of reach by the kinds of language and structures we use?

When I was working with some British trained historians, they were thrilled that I, as an American-trained historian, didn't succumb to academese in my writing. I had to re-learn academese when I returned to US-centric writing.

Susan said...

Oh, gee. We're not cynical are we? So we headbang. You could give an advanced assignment to find out where non-historian got ideas from?

One of the privileges of tenure in my book is that you can write for a somewhat wider audience. I still do footnotes, but I write for an intelligent reader who is not engaged in all the debates.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Me? Cynical? Always!

I think part of the headbanging comes from that conundrum of being both professionals while also wanting what we have learned to reach a wider audience, and often having that not happen for decades -- then having some other person get the credit.

As professionals, we do use specialized language and we do engage with one another more than a wider audience. There isn't a thing wrong with that. Every profession does that. The next step becomes bringing that to the public, which involves a whole separate set of filters than those in academia. That may be why journalists -- such as Nathaniel Philbrick or Cokie Roberts -- are usually the "historians" who become popular (if they aren't already). They are essentially reporting the work that historians have done.

Susan, I'd actually like to know more about your experiences as an academic writing for a wider audience. I've written the academic book, but I've also written a book that I refer to as the "tourist book." The "tourist book" was, obviously, written for a very popular audience; and some of the problems that I had in the publishing process had to do with decisions made by the marketing department of the company, not the editorial department (although there were sufficient problems there). These involved dispensing with most of the aparatus that made my research transparent, anything that demonstrated my debt to other historians on the subject, and pretty much anything else that "distracted" from the straight-ahead narrative in X-number of words or less (seriously!). I often wonder if others who try to straddle the academic/popular divide have similar difficulties, and what reasoning they have encountered in regard to this aversion to the aparatus that shows the research trail.

I also wonder who I'm really trying to criticize here -- is it the writer and his/her genuine lack of understanding of historical research, is it the publisher, or is it the whole game of publishing? What makes the work of historians seemingly so inaccessible that, years later, we have non-historians publishing the same stuff that makes them either seem ignorant of what historians have already written or unable to show their debt to those historical debates?

I do like how you describe what you do, "writing for an intelligent reader who is not engaged in the debates." I was told by that popular press that the public doesn't want all of that footnote stuff. Yet, in that book group that I facilitated on "Mrs. Lincoln," the participants (for all of the failings of the male members) appreciated that Clinton had referred to the debates -- not in great detail, but enough to make them aware that Mary Lincoln's story had been one about which people disagreed. They also like the footnotes because they, in a vague sort of way, wanted to know a little more about the process of historical reseach -- or at least that a process was going on!

That's a great idea on the assignment. I would pursue it if our school had a more academic collection. To give you an idea of the current obstacles in creating such an assignment: I myself wanted to read Jill Lepore's book on King Philip's War, so I went to our college library. They did not have that book, but they did have Philbrick's "Mayflower." Two copies, no less. So, before I get to that type of assignment, I have to work with the librarians on the types of history books that they might want to include in their collection. That's a much bigger project!

To be fair to the librarians, they don't have subject specialists, and we have only had 1 1/2 historians at most on faculty for ages. With budget cuts and being a 2 year college and such, our librarians make decisions differently than those at the state university down the road. In fact, they only agreed to subscribe to J-Stor because all of the faculty demanded it, not because they saw it as being of use to students in the first two years of college. A cc is a weird hybrid in many unexpected ways -- much like public history!

profacero said...

I head bang re the same phenomenon.

Bavardess said...

I sympathise with your frustration. I have the same reaction sometimes watching programmes on the History Channel that present highly controversial and debated interpretations as if they are a done deal.
To an extent, though, I think the historical profession (at least in some countries/ 'schools') has brought this on itself by deliberately using highly specialised and sometimes almost impenetrable language to create a sort of mystique - kind of like what Belle notes about the differences between British and American historical writing.

Ann said...

Jon Meacham and Cokie Roberts?

Ann said...

I think the dubbing of journalists dabbling in history "historians" is more about celebrity and marketing than anything else. People like the dabblers you describe already have a big name and a built-in audience, and publishers are much more willing to publish their reheated pap than they are well-written, cutting-edge research by excellent although obscure writers like you and me.

But--if you've taken a look at those books--would you really want "Clio Bluestocking" to get the credit for them? My beef is that that's what gets sold as "history," so it's no wonder that most people claim to hate history. But the demands for authors to already be well-known and have a built-in audience make publishers unwilling to take chances on the brilliant but obscure.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ann: David O. Stewart and Cokie Roberts. Stewart just discovered that slavery was part of the Constitution, and Roberts just discovered that elite women during the Revolutionary and Early National periods had opinions about the the government -- and wrote about them! Who knew? That is, aside from every student who takes a U.S. history survey class.

Bavardess: Don't get me started on the History Channel! I have a great bag from the OAH, which sadly has a HUGE History Channel logo on one side. The bag fits everything that I need, so I use it, but I hang my head in shame and try to keep the logo out of sight.

When I was in a refernce class in library school, a classmate wanted to know if the History Channel was a good reference source. The instructor was hopeless in this regard, so I gave a list of reasons why you should never use the History Channel as a reputable source for any historical research. I backed it up with anecdotes from historians I had known who had been asked to be talking heads and discovered that they were supposed to follow a very simple script. There I go again, opening my big mouth. The whole class turned against me. How dare I criticize the great and mighty History Channel!

Profacero: I can't begin to imagine what you encounter with your Latin American focus. You get the intersection of Amerocentrism ignorance and historical ignorance -- and in Louisiana with that governor. (My aunt, who lives in BR, deploys the F-bomb with every syllable of his name.)

Everyone, go to Professor Zero's blog where she links to a petition to keep k-college funding in Lousiana. You can sign the petition even if you aren't a resident.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ann: we must have posted our comments at the same time.

You flatter me by including me in the scope of cutting edge researchers like yourself!

Yeah, you are right, except for the money and fame, I'm not sure that I would really want credit for those books! I read them and think, "hell, I could have written this -- I give it as a lecture every semester" rather than, "wow, I wish I could have written this."

I think you are right that the pre-existing fame of the writers, and fame begetting more fame much in the way that money attracts more money, means that they get the big book deals and the publicity. So, the problem is more in the economics of publishing. You need a sure thing with little to no risk, and a celebrity name as author guarantees the sure thing with the built-in fan base.

Whenever I see a celebrity dabbling in some field outside of their own -- be it an actor or musician writing a book (other than their own memoir), or an actor trying to be rock star, or a rock star trying to be an actor, or an Playboy centerfold trying to be a doctor -- I can hear a million screams of people who have studied and worked to be experts in that field. There has to be some sort of work ending -archy to describe this phenomenon.

And it's not that I'm looking for the fame myself. I have this naive fantasy that, if the real historical work gets out there sooner, then good chunks of the public at large will become more educated about history and about the process of historical research, and that this will ultimately make our jobs as teachers easier and the world at large a more thoughtful and intelligent place.

(For the record, I don't smoke dope or wear tie-dye -- not that there is anything wrong with that.)

Ann said...

Ha-ha! I love this: "Whenever I see a celebrity dabbling in some field outside of their own -- be it an actor or musician writing a book (other than their own memoir), or an actor trying to be rock star, or a rock star trying to be an actor, or an Playboy centerfold trying to be a doctor -- I can hear a million screams of people who have studied and worked to be experts in that field. There has to be some sort of work ending -archy to describe this phenomenon."

The fakeiarchy? Famearchy? A related pet peeve of mine is the way in which the path to success is smoothed for children of the famous (for whatever reason). You know, Sophia Coppola, Jakob Dylan, anyone named Kennedy, etc. Why take a chance on all of those NYU and UCLA talented film school grads when you can just produce a movie by someone named "Coppola?" (She's talented, but so are a lot of other people whose work will never get a second look because their last name isn't Coppola.)

Too bad my name isn't C. Van Historiann, or Elizabeth Fox Historiann, or E.P. Historiann, eh? I should have changed it before I published my first article! Maybe my children, if I have any, will go on to become historians who can profit by my name! (I can just imagine the whispers in the corridors of the 2033 AHA: "Don't you know that Mini-storiann and Mini-storianndrew are the daughter and son of Historiann?!!?")

I should get to work building my professional legacy TODAY.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Yes! Brilliant! We could breed a whole new generation of historians! I have no babies, but I have nephews and they do share my last name. I must get get working on them in greater earnest!


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