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Jan 10, 2007 3:31 pm

The Politics of History: Professional Buzzwords

Over the past few months I’ve been busy trying to get going on a new book, but attendance at the AHA meeting, where I chaired a panel that showcased some bright young historians, brought me back into contact with the realities of the profession. So here is the first in a series of episodic thoughts about just where we are and what we are all about.

We all know that a book’s cover is no indication of its quality, but the cover does deliver a first impression. Hence the more attention-getting the better. (If anyone doubts this, examine the lurid cover of a Spanish-language edition of David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, as pictured on the cover of the American Historical Review, April, 2000.) The same principle applies to AHA panels and papers. Some words grab the attention of program committees; others are turn-offs. If you have not yet discarded your AHA program, go to pages 58-73 and read the titles of the AHA Program Committee approved panels. My point is not to question the quality of these academic exercises. I am certain most of them were quite good. What did strike me were certain words that often popped up in them—the buzzwords that get attention in scholarly history these days and doubtless have curb appeal to program committees.

I did a quick but I think reasonably thorough perusal of the 223 numbered programs, looking for key words, combining different forms of a word and lumping together words that were for practical purposes synonomous. Those with sharper eyes may fine-tune my numbers, but I think the trend is clear. Here is a list of key words that appeared on five or more panels:

Race (racism, racial; African-American, black): 18
Identity (identies) 16
Culture (cultural) 15
Gender (gendered) 10
Sex (sexuality, sexed, carnal) 8

Slave (slavery) 8

Contest (contested) 7

Construct (constructed, constructing, construction) 6

Body (bodies; anatomies) 5

Class 5

Some panel titles contained three or four of these words, e.g., “Creating Gendered and/or Racialized ‘Others’: Race, Gender, and Class in Women’s Movements in Turn of the Century United States” (#65); or “Constructing and Contesting the ‘Cultural Nation’: Defining ‘Citizenship’ in Postwar Japan (#64); or “The Bonds of Brotherhood and Sisterhood: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in the Collegiate Greek System, 1945-Present” (#156).

There is some good news for those who think cultural history is overemphasized. I caught only one use each of “subaltern,” “memory,” and “commodification.”

All the same, one looks long and hard for the names of great men, white or otherwise. Woodrow Wilson pops up once, but one finds other American presidents only in the list of meeting rooms. Forget about eminent congressmen, Supreme Court justices, prime ministers, emperors, or great dictators. The gap between the general public’s understanding of “history” and the perception of the historical establishment remains immense. Some will say this is to the establishment’s credit. Others may cite a line from “Everyman His Own Historian,” Carl Becker’s AHA presidential address of 1931: “The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.”

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John Richard Clark - 1/18/2007

I used to have a personal joke I played on my fellow graduate students: I conjured up the most ridiculous dissertation topic I thought possible whenever one of them asked me what I planned to write about---"Left-Handed Seamstresses and Their Search for Social Justice in a Right-Hand Dominated Patriarchal Culture in Pickens County, South Carolina, March 1836-December 1839."

The depressing aspect of the joke was that my classmates thought I was serious.