'Becoming Historians'

May 18, 2009

How do historians become historians? That's the question answered in the essays of Becoming Historians, just published by the University of Chicago Press. Among those contributing -- senior scholars in the field today -- are Joan Wallach Scott, Linda Gordon, David A. Hollinger and the two co-editors of the volume, James M. Banner Jr. and John R. Gillis. Banner, co-founder of the National History Center and historian-in-residence at American University; and Gillis, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, responded to questions about the book.

Q: What was your goal in collecting these essays?

JG: Historians write about others, rarely about themselves. Despite the importance of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, they have not yet sat for their group portrait. We thought it time that that a start was made in recording the experiences of a group that was instrumental in bringing forth so many new fields -- social history, women's history, black, labor, public, and global history. We were aware that a small collection like this one could never do full justice to the subject, but it was important to start somewhere.

JB: While wishing to provide the outline of the lives, careers, and work of a single generation of historians -- ­our own -- ­we also wished some historians to set down their lives of learning (to adapt the title of annual ACLS lectures, which have long interested and affected both of us). We also hoped to offer some perspectives on the endeavors of members of a generation whose professional experiences had begun to go beyond the borders of the academy as well as respond directly to public issues that pushed historians into new areas of inquiry and action. But then, too, we wanted aspiring historians to get a glimpse of the diversity of choices they could make, the role of chance as well as deliberation in a career, and the many joys of lives as historians.

Q: How did you decide whom to ask to contribute?

JG: Between the two of us, we have a reasonably large base of acquaintances, mainly in American and European hiistory but also in the global field. We tried to be inclusive with respect to background and field. Of course, we are painfully aware of how many voices we have excluded, but we trust that others will follow in our footsteps, filling in the gaps and rectifying our oversights.

JB: Diversity was the key, always hard to achieve with a small number. Also, we excluded those historians known to us to have written autobiographically before. And to avoid too much overlap, we didn’t invite as participants those who’d been fellow graduate students or our immediate colleagues. Fortunately, very few declined our invitation to participate. Most welcomed the chance to undertake this form of life and career review.

Q: Do you see common themes on how this diverse group of historians were attracted to the discipline and grew into distinguished scholars?

JG: I have been struck by how much chance rather than design has shaped the lives of this generation, born just before or after World War II. All were inspired by liberal arts educations that opened the world to them. They arrived at graduate school eager and enthusiastic, though unfocused, and were almost universally disappointed by the specialization they found awaiting them. All around them, the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams; and it was not long before they were challenging the conventions in and outside academe, changing their chosen fields, often inventing whole new fields of historical endeavor. Many included in this volume became recognized pioneers in their respective fields.

JB: In addition to what John writes (and with which I fully concur), I’d add a certain element of boldness to the mix. Members of our generation of historians were people unshackled from the economic necessities of the previous, World War II generation. They were of more diverse origins. Their world seemed to be filled with uncertainty and implacable demands for justice and equality. Also, by good fortune, employment was available enough so that “newcomers” like women and African Americans could find academic and other berths.

Q: Several of the essays touch on the creation of new ways to look at history (women's history, social history, etc.), well established today, but not when these individual started careers. Do you think the development of these fields holds lessons for history sub-fields that may be young today?

JG: Historians are trained to understand that major transformations are extremely rare and mainly unexpected. Frankly, I don't think anyone could have predicted the flowering the fields that has occurred in the lifetime of this particular generation. For the most part, the impetus came from outside academe, forcing historians to consider issues of race, transnationalism, gender, and the environment that had not been on the agenda before. If one wants to know what are going to be the new fields of the future, one will find few clues in academic journals and conferences. When the next big changes arrive, they will be, as was the case before, quite unexpected. How well the next generation responds will depend on whether they are as open as this particular generation to the world around them.

JB: While I agree with all that John writes in his response to this question, I’d add some additional thoughts. I think that our generation has exhibited more than a touch of pride about its accidental position in history, as if others might not have had the foresight and intelligence to adopt and undertake what we have. That is not justified. Our generation of historians lived when the world was asking everyone to adapt to new conditions and create new institutions, practices, and conventions. Historians pursued a discipline that, by requiring them to study change, necessarily became a laboratory for change. As much as many still protest the alterations we brought to the writing and thinking about the past, those changes are here to stay. There will be more ahead.

Q: Today, when there are fewer tenure-track positions, do you think new history Ph.D.'s have the same opportunities as those in this volume?

JG: It seems clear to me that we are facing a long period of contraction in higher education, but this does not mean that history cannot grow in new, productive generations. The generation featured in Becoming Historians was innovative in many ways, but not in terms of conveying the past to the general public. The next generation has a real opportunity in the area of new media and of digital innovation to deliver history to whole new audiences. If Ph.D. programs are to remain viable they need to consider form as well as content, the media as well as the message. As was the case in our generation, when change comes it will come unexpectedly, and from the outside. Be ready.

JB: No. They have different ones. But the question can be read as implying that historians honorably and productively pursue their work only from academic positions. That is no more the case now than before. When more or less one-half of new Ph.D. holders in history now take up non-academic positions as historians, it’s clear that there are plenty of opportunities open to enterprising, aspiring young historians, in fact many more than formerly. As John says, doctoral programs still have far to go in preparing people for those opportunities ­in the many varieties of public history, as writers of history, and as historians applying historical knowledge to public policy issues. Right now, preparation for academic and public history tends to be in tension, often separated into distinct programs or tracks. That must end if history is to retain its boundless applicability and relevance to everyone’s lives.

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