Blogs > Cliopatria > The Perfectly Baked Pie

Feb 16, 2004 10:50 pm

The Perfectly Baked Pie

To move the discussion of specialization in the discipline of history forward several steps, first a couple of miscellaneous observations:

a. Unlike KC Johnson, I don't in any way mourn or worry about it if a student interested in history, pursuing a knowledge of the past, happens to major in another discipline. (At least, not until such time as an administrator regards that as a problem--but that problem, if it ever came around, would still not be an intellectual one.) But the fact that this happens is testament to the degree to which the discipline of history has spread itself methodologically through most of the social sciences and humanities over the past thirty years. In turn, the discipline of history has benefitted from methodologies and ideas coming from anthropology, political science, economics and literary criticism in particular--but I do think that history's outflow has been greater than its inflow. This is all to the good, except that it may sometimes leave historians whose employment depends on making the case that they do history better than others struggling a bit. What's the difference between a political historian and a political scientist who writes historically? Depending on the cases being compared, perhaps very little. What's the difference between a cultural historian working on 20th Century Africa and a cultural anthropologist doing the same? Depending on the cases, virtually none at all, except that the historian (e.g., me) might be able to get away with vanishing into the archive for far longer periods of time than the anthropologist. The end scholarly product may not be that different, though.

b. I still think that beyond formal, dramatic questions about interdisciplinarity there is a more banal reality, which is that all good scholarly work and good pedagogy of necessity ignores categories like"political history" or"social history" whenever such categories stop being provisionally useful heuristics and become barriers to asking and answering good questions. I once watched a tape designed to help junior professors learn how to teach that was produced (I think) at Harvard University. It showed one example (all of them were frightfully 'stagey' and unreal, but this one especially) of a"political historian" teaching about the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the states' rights question. In the tape, an African-American student wants the professor to talk about slavery in the debates, and he replies that that's not what his class is about. The tape was a clear prompt to think about racial sensitivity in the classroom, but I had a simpler response: the pedagogical problem was that the professor was a lunkhead. You can't talk about the Lincoln-Douglas debates and wall off the social historian's interests in slavery as belonging to some other class.

This being said, let's move on to my major question. I once asked students in a class on methodology and history how they would go about systematically deciding how to replace the Swarthmore Department of History if we were all simultaneously run over by a bus.

10 positions. Currenly 1 African specialist (modern, cultural, with a sideline in cultural studies); 1 Chinese specialist (17th-early 20th Century, economic); 1 Latin American specialist (20th Century, social/cultural); 1 medievalist (Iberia & North Africa, social/political); 1 early modern European specialist (comparativist/world history as well, social/economic); 2 modern European specialists (1 Central Europe, 1 Russia; social/political/cultural); 3 US history specialists (colonial to Civil War cultural/social, African-American social 19th-20th, 20th Century social and diplomatic).

How would you bake that pie of 10 positions? More importantly, what principles would you use to justify your allocation of it, keeping in mind that the pie is being served at a small liberal arts college where range and flexibility is something of a requirement?

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More Comments:

Anne Zook - 2/17/2004

1 radical, left-wing, vegan peacenik (with a history of social protest and a police record); 1 moderate left-wing, anti-nuclear, green activist; 1 radical, right-wing survivalist (with a basement full of MREs and bottled water); 1 extreme right-wing warmonger (driving a truck larded with 'love it or leave it' bumper stickers and sporting a confederate flag); 1 conservative, religious, anti-abortion creationist; 1 moderate Republican puzzling over a copy of the federal budget; 1 centrist Democrat wearing a "doesn't anyone else like Kerry?" pin; 1 progressive liberal waving the Bill of Rights; and 1 historian, just for the appearance of the thing. Specializing, by preference, in short-lived political movements in South American countries in the mid-19th century, so as to keep themself out of trouble.

(I know, that's only nine. We've had budget cuts. Anyone complains and the historian gets it next.)

What? There's a problem with the list?

Based on recent readings, I thought politics was more important than field of study these days. You can't say I haven't offered you a nice, all-around, PC mix.

Jonathan Rees - 2/17/2004

I'd hire any quality teacher who can teach as many courses as possible with as little overlap as possible between the candidates. That way I could get a whole range of courses taught despite my comparatively small faculty.

These days, they teach American historians in Grad School to specialize early and often. However, if you want to get a job in the current job market doing the opposite would be much smarter. Small state schools like mine have to get as much as possible out of everyone they hire because it may be years before they can get the money to create a new tenure line.

Just because you don't specialize in a sub-field, doesn't mean you can't teach it well. Circling back to where this all started, I think that's especially true of political history which everyone has to know something about if they are going to offer a cohesive American survey.


Timothy James Burke - 2/17/2004

Yeah, it's a good point. This is of course where one runs into the practicality that governs actual hiring in a given year--if you're open to political history (as we were) but end up feeling that honestly, the social/cultural candidate who fetches up in the pool is the best choice, then you make the best choice. But if I were going to rebake the pie from scratch myself, I might make the same argument that you make.

I'd also, by the by, argue that my position (the Africanist) ought to be broadly interchangeable with South Asian history, if I were going to stick to a geographic basis for baking the pie. I'm not entirely sure that itself is a sound plan, but...

Charles V. Mutschler - 2/17/2004

I suppose everyone has opinions, like noses. But am I the only one who thinks that it would be reasonable to find one of three Americanists at a small college who has a background in political and economic history instead of three social / cultural specialists? I realize we all tend to study what interests us, but if the department is really trying to show some intellectual diversity, and provide a broad coveragage of the subject for the students, it would seem desirable to have someone who emphasizes the political aspect of U.S. History. Not a majority of the department, but at least one out of three would seem logical.

[Disclaimer: My specialties are in economic and history of technology]

Charles V. Mutschler

Robert KC Johnson - 2/17/2004

As usual, I agree with much of what Tim says. Certainly any historian of 1850s politics that says that slavery doesn't matter is a lunkhead.

On the broader points: one can easily imagine a historically-inclined student electing to major in another discipline and getting a historically-informed education equal to that of a History department. I can imagine a student interested in US history, say, majoring in PoliSci in a school with a strong specialization in American Political Development; or in Sociology.

On the other hand, I think it would be hard to say that if a student wants a History education he or she would be just as well off majoring in a related discipline. We all ask questions differently; and all other majors have requirements that reflect aspects of their disciplines that are less influenced by History. It seems to me that we're a long way from social science majors being interchangeable.

On the question of job structure, moreover, as long as PhD programs train, by and large, in both a disciplinary and sub-disciplinary fashion, distinctions based on these disciplines and sub-disciplines are going to be useful.