'Who Is the Historian?'

Author discusses his new book, explaining his discipline and the work professors do.

February 12, 2016

“Who is this historian?” might seem like a question to which scholars should know the answer. But not all of them do, and certainly many in the public do not. And so Nigel A. Raab tries to fill in the blanks both about who historians are, what they do and how their role is changing in his new book, Who Is the Historian? (University of Toronto Press). Raab, associate professor of history at Loyola Marymount University, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Why this format? Do you see a problem that many people don't know who the historian is?

A: The title is a play on E. H. Carr’s What Is History?, a book that appeared in the early 1960s. Carr was acutely aware of the personal role of the historian, but his title still gives the impression that the objective concept of history is more important than the individuals who actually ply the trade.

I think the common view of the historical profession is too narrow. I wanted the reader to see beyond the stuffy academic office. We rarely think about all the environments in which a historian might find herself working. Historians have immense opportunities to travel around the world, to intersect with different cultures, past and present, and to meet with interesting individuals. Historians can talk with state officials, collaborate with underserved groups and even participate in important local debates. They also get to work with rare objects and perplexing documents that require deciphering and interpretation. Reading and writing still plays an important role, but it really is only one facet of a very dynamic calling.

Q: What do you consider the major misconceptions about historians?

A: We too often think of the historian as a professor at a university with piles of books in his or her office. I wanted to imagine the historian more dynamically. “Historian” is not a title reserved for university professors. There are all sorts of professions that require historical expertise, even if the job title does not explicitly say “historian.” Librarians, archivists, museum curators and conservators can all be considered historians in their own right. Each plays a very important role in interpreting the past and in working together with other historians.

Q: What are some of the ways the work of historians has changed significantly in the last generation?

A: Technology has had a major impact because so much material is online; here we have to be very careful that an abundance of readily available online sources does not lull us into a comfort zone and we forget about all the untapped and undigitized physical sources. We also cannot become slaves to the Internet and let Google do the searching for us. I also see the rise of visual analysis playing a key function. Visual sources are not just illustrations but complex primary sources in their own right. Fifty years ago, mainstream historians were reluctant to dabble in imagery, but historians of the future will be looking back at a very visual age, so they will be ill-advised to ignore television shows, photographs and all the other forms of visual production.

Throughout the academy, there is a major movement to engage with communities and historians have played their role. I taught a class on the history of walking, which combined a close reading of philosophical and historical texts, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with physical walks in the city of Los Angeles. As study abroad and alternate breaks become the norm, the classroom will have an external component exposing students to history in a three-dimensional environment.

Q: The job market has been tight for historians. Will that have an impact on the discipline?

A: It depends how we define the job market. If we insist on a straight path from the Ph.D. to professorship, then it will certainly have an impact on the discipline. But if we think broadly about the possibilities and understand a wide variety of options, then the impact won’t be so great. Rebecca Peabody wrote a wonderful book called The Unruly Ph.D., which shows the varying paths outside formal university departments.

The current state of the job market also suggests that we are moving beyond the idea of a straightforward history degree. So much mixing and matching now occurs that students combine history with environmentalism, international relations or bioethics. I studied a country, Russia, but now students study oceans, transnational movements and all sorts of other topics that are more diverse than the country-by-country and period-by-period model I followed. This diversity should convince people that historians can find very rewarding possibilities.

Q: Many politicians question the value of the liberal arts (in teaching and research). Do you think this sort of book (perhaps applied to other disciplines) might shift the debate?

A: At the very minimum, I would hope this book becomes part of that debate. All too often, history and the humanities are questioned because critics don’t have an accessible way of understanding what we do. I clearly see the value of a liberal arts education and believe it is fundamental to curious individuals who want to fully explore themselves and their place in a global village. Yet we do have to find ways to explain to the widest possible community how this becomes important in unexpected circumstances. We have to look beyond overused references to critical thinking. It’s a discussion that involves a variety of professionals inside and outside history departments.

I don’t see why we can’t think about “Who is the Philosopher?” or “Who is the Sociologist?” or “Who is the Economist?” Each will have a different story to tell and each story will integrate the liberal arts in the widest perspective possible.


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