This week has brought to my attention yet another ultimate irritation. I learned the American Historical Association (AHA) decided last month to expand the definition of scholarship to include “both long-standing and increasingly diverse genres of historical scholarship that go beyond traditionally valued models of single-authored and peer reviewed books, journal articles, and other essays.” The AHA defined “diverse genres” as “textbooks and reference works…documentary and journal editing, op-eds, expert witness testimony, and more.” But be warned. This shift does not “imply an abandonment or even relaxation of standards,” the AHA said. “A case must be made, at least during a period of transition to these broader definitions, that a particular publication or other product is appropriate to communicate the knowledge and precepts of a professional historian…(for example, not all op-eds are works of scholarship).” Deep sigh. I am glad for years of yoga and deep-breathing exercises and (now) high-blood pressure medication.
Some of my historian colleagues would likely assume I would be happy about this change in the AHA’s standards and its embracing of the “outward-facing scholarship” I have been doing for years. Actually, no. I am irritated, with them and with the army of historians who believe scholarship equals scholarly journal articles and books published with university presses only. The AHA’s statement of its standards change is so begrudging that they come off as a bunch of jealous-hearted muthafuckas. Their acknowledgement of the need for “the diffusion of knowledge” as part of the historians’ mission would seem like a no-brainer. But just like the turgid writing of most historians, the AHA and most historians could not write a coherent sentence or find a coherent vision of the field if they had a subject, predicate, verb, and an electron microscope.
The AHA standards change on what they define as scholarship matters little in a field as hierarchical and as in decline as history. They are only responding to the inroads that journalists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, social psychologists, social justice and creative writers, and public historians have made in the past few decades in making history accessible and exciting to large audiences. The AHA is reacting to the overwhelming sea change wrought by Nicole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project and its impact on US education, culture, and politics since 2019.
But the AHA should have made these changes when Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons, a New York Times bestseller and the winner of multiple awards, outshined the entire subfield of Black migration studies in 2010-11. It should have reacted when Colson Whitehead published The Underground Railroad in 2016 and when Erica Armstrong Dunbar published Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge in 2017, bestsellers winning big-time awards and showing the world what history paired with great creative writing looks like. It should have been expanded the definition of scholarship to include the many creatives history departments have either denied tenure or never even bothered to interview or hire, decades ago.