January 12, 2004

Historians and the Public Sphere

'For once,' as one of the five historians behind the microphones in the cavernous ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel cheerfully announced, 'history's relevance is quite clear.'

Why, then, did the audience at this opening session of the 118th annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington last Thursday night -- like Gen. Douglas MacArthur's old soldiers -- appear to be fading away?

'I can see we've conducted a war of attrition,' joked Harvard's Charles Maier, as he watched his fellow association members quietly but steadily get up to leave. The scholarly papers presented under the rubric of 'Thoughts on War in a Democratic Age' had been a classic academic combination of insight and obscurity, thoughtful analysis and mind-numbing delivery, and by the time the question period finally rolled around, even the AHA's president, James McPherson, was ready to head for the door.

-- Bob Thompson, "Lessons We May Be Doomed To Repeat"

Another reader who wishes to remain anonymous emailed me about the above-linked piece, which carries the subtitle: "American Historians Talk About War, but Is Anyone Listening?" According to Thompson, the historians aren't even listening to each other:

The AHA conference, which will wrap up its business today, exemplifies a conundrum that faces all practitioners of history. In a world ever more dominated by rapid-fire, sound-bite-size units of information, how can they make their painstaking reconstructions of the past more relevant to the community at large?

To put it a bit more harshly: If they can't even hold the attention of their colleagues on such an innately compelling subject, how can they expect ordinary humans to absorb what they have to say?

Actually, I think historians can and do hold the attention of nonhistorians on topics of war and diplomacy. Military and diplomatic history may be marginalized in the academy, but check out the history shelves at the local Barnes and Noble.

(For a really interesting discussion of historians and the public sphere, check out Timothy Burke's latest entry at Cliopatria, where he looks at controversies over how to represent history in public spaces.)

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 12, 2004 07:51 PM

Isn't this simply an acknowledgement that a professional gathering of any sort is relentlessly self-aggrandizing and boring to any but an aggrandizee? It seems to me that this is a problem faced even by the Blogosphere. Look at two recent posts at "A Nickel's Worth of Free Advice" (or something like that, it's too late in the day to go looking for the effing link when the guy himself says he's bored) -- a fairly top-tier blogger says he's tired of blogging and tired of reading blogs. I suspect it's because he's tired of routine self-aggrandizement, which is a cause of Boredom and Ennui and Very Bad Writing, as I see it. So go see my blog, and IA, why not llnk to it? At least it's new, so I won't get bored for some actuarially calculatable period.

Posted by: John Bruce at January 12, 2004 10:38 PM

Okay, John, I've added a link to my sidebar.

I'm expecting big things: lots of fireworks and never a dull moment :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 12, 2004 11:06 PM

I was at that session, to the bitter end, and it was every bit as tedious as the Washington Post described it. However, well-informed sources tell me that the session was originally supposed to be a specialized one on German conceptions of warfare in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was then made into the plenary session. Evidently, the presenters did not make the adjustment required for a different kind of session. Why the program committee couldn't find a more appropriate group of people with a topic of broader appeal for the plenary session is another question altogether. There have certainly been some interesting and lively plenary sessions at past AHA's.

Posted by: In the provinces at January 13, 2004 05:27 PM

I'll be blogging about my own AHA experiences myself over the weekend (my New Year's Resolution -- to blog at least weekly), but I have to say that the few sessions I went to were really good. Two were actually run in conjuction with the American Church History Association -- One on Hincmar (although the Big Name professor sidestepped my question and the Q&A wasn't very good), one on 4th c. patristic stuff - all grad papers and great discussion, and one AHA panel on hostages that was very lively and whose discussion lasted so long they kicked us out of the room. Maybe the observers just went to the wrong panels?

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at January 14, 2004 11:22 AM