'History's Babel'

Author discusses new book on history's evolution as a discipline and what that means for the field today.

February 4, 2013

The historical enterprise -- that is, the work of historians, in any sphere -- has become too divided, even fragmented, Robert Townsend believes. While the American Historical Association was founded with the intent of bringing together "professors, teachers, specialists, and others" (according to its original call, in 1884), today the profession of history is seen as synonymous with the work of professors at research universities -- to the detriment of the discipline as a whole.

Townsend ought to know whereof he speaks: he is the deputy director of the AHA, where he has worked for over 20 years. He is also the author of numerous studies on the state of the historical profession.

In his new book, History's Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940 (University of Chicago Press), Townsend traces the beginnings and growth of what he calls the "professional shift," in which historical work splintered into separate professions: academic research, teaching, and public history.

In an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed, Townsend explained why this shift had a negative impact on the historical enterprise, and how it might be mitigated to help the discipline as it faces new challenges.

Q: "Too often," you write, "the terms 'history discipline' and 'history profession' are used interchangeably, as if they designated the same thing." What is wrong about this conception, and what are its negative consequences?

A: Early on in my time at the AHA, I noticed that faculty at research universities referred to themselves as “the history profession,” while ignoring or excluding vast areas of history work that seemed professional by almost any definition of the term. This tendency often led to friction between university faculty and teachers, public historians, and an array of other history specialists, and limited our ability to work together on a variety of issues of collective concern, such as the presentation of history in schools and museums. To try to reframe the discussion, I’ve found that it helps to separate the discipline that we have in common (our notions of history as an organized body of knowledge) from the different professional activities (each with their own idioms, literatures, and practices) that shape the way we do history.

Q: What does it mean to say that "[f]ollowing World War II, the historical enterprise was irrevocably broken"? What was the cause, and what were the results?

A: In the late 19th and early 20th century, leaders of the discipline engaged quite broadly with the various activities of history, taking a direct part in the development of professional and content standards for the schools and the gathering of historical materials. At the same time, high school teachers, leaders of historical societies, and librarians could all rise to prominent positions within the AHA. By the 1940s, however, the various spheres of historical activity had broken off into separate spheres, each with their own distinct professional structures and idioms, leaving the AHA as the province of self-defined “research men.”

The net result is not entirely negative, as the professionalization of most aspects of history led to significant improvements in the way history is taught and historical records are maintained and made available to the public. Nevertheless, the differences often generate friction across the various areas of history work when we could potentially work collaboratively. As a result, the academics are often viewed as an object of scorn for many who perceive themselves as excluded, and academics find they have little standing to intervene in questions that closely affect the public’s window into the discipline, such as teaching of history at the K-12 level and the presentation of history in a variety of cultural institutions.

Q: "It is too late to try to reconstruct a historical enterprise, but there is still time to bring the sundered pieces back together in more active conversation and collaboration with each other." What might that entail?

A: The book developed out of an effort to explain why and how the professional divisions built up over many decades, which can make it so difficult to come together in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect to address growing challenges to our role in public life and the financial resources necessary for that work. While those in the academic wing of the history discipline can bring substantial content knowledge to the table, they often seem to forget that their potential collaborators bring a significant amount of training and wisdom about their areas of work. As a result, I've been involved in a number of projects that foundered on the academics' failure to appreciate others professional expertise, and a purist view of the way knowledge about their subject should be shaped and delivered. When these sorts of projects work well, the academics and other history professionals work with a clear understanding about the limits of our respective areas of expertise, and a willingness to work through differences about the way a particular piece of historical information may need to be organized or even simplified for different constituencies and audiences. To try to open a better foundation for that kind of discussion, I tried to show how the refinement of particular areas of expertise benefited the discipline, but also made it increasingly difficult to speak across professional lines.

Q: "Today," you note, "only about half of the students completing history Ph.D.s are employed in academia, and barely a third of academic historians are employed at institutions that support substantial writing and research." What implications, if any, does and should this have for the structure and content of Ph.D. programs?

A: I worry that history doctoral programs spend too little time preparing students for the many professions into which they might enter — professions that include teaching and even (as the recent Ithaka S+R report indicates) historical research. This tendency has deep roots in the history of the discipline (and I suspect in the humanities more generally), as jeremiads about these same problems go back to the 1920s.

Nationwide, history doctoral programs are experimenting with a variety of ways to integrate these often-neglected aspects of professionalization into their courses of study. Some programs are integrating these skills into traditional content-oriented courses; others are introducing entirely new areas of study (such as public history); and almost all of the programs have started to offer workshops that introduce their students to the job opportunities that are available, and some of the skill sets (such as teaching and syllabus preparation) that they might need. As often as not, however, these efforts arise only in response to perceived changes in the job market or the interests of a particular leader in the department, producing only a local and often temporary change.

Q: You write that the discipline of history today faces "at a similar crossroads" to one it faced some three decades earlier: "grappling with a challenging job market, new technologies, and changing pedagogical methods." What lessons have historians learned (or should they have learned) from past crises that might be applicable now?

A: In researching the book, I was surprised at how many of the challenges to the history discipline have recurred over the past century. Repeatedly, new technologies have disrupted the way history is conducted and disseminated, politicians have tried to impose standards on the schools, and the various practitioners of history have scrambled after small trickles of funding support. As someone who has closely watched the various crises in the discipline over the past 20-odd years, it was a bit painful to discover about how often we faced similar challenges in the past, and how often we reacted to each of them as if they were occurring for the first time.

The AHA is currently working to address many of these issues, by opening up discussions about the full spectrum of career options for history Ph.D.s, joining with historians and teachers employed in a wide array of work settings, and participating in a wider set of engagements with historians employed in the public history fields. Our biggest challenge often lies in the decades of resentments — many of them well-deserved — that were built up by the divisions of the mid-20th century.


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