February 13, 2004

Comment for Cliopatria Discussion

But posted here due to a problem with my Cliopatria registration. This is a rambling response to Timothy Burke, who responds in turn to Robert "KC" Johnson, at this entry at Cliopatria. Not meant to serve as a blog entry, and probably not of much interest to most readers of this weblog. So don't click unless you care, deeply and passionately, about current trends in historiography.

"'And as I said, there's a historiographical reason for that: if one has a
beef with social history in this respect, one has to contend with the fullness
of the reasons for its rise.' [this quotes Tim Burke]

I agree. I also suspect one might have to look beyond academic history in
order to fully account for this rise. If we look at various versions of history
that address themselves to wider publics (historical films, museum exhibits,
and so on) it seems clear that there's something else going on than a takeover by the New Left. For some reason (or rather, for some complex set of related
reasons), what resonates with people outside of academic history can be broadly
classed under social/cultural history: histories of everyday life, histories that
pay attention to various social/cultural factors (what did people eat? what
did people wear? did they have premarital relations? and so on). In other
words, I think many people aren't so much interested in What happened? as in What was it like?

To be sure, there's obviously an audience outside the academy for military
history (and also, I would add, for women's history in a women worthies
vein -- not for histories of gender roles, histories of women and property law,
but for biographies of inspirational women). But I think there's at least as much
of a demand for histories that provide access to some version or other of lived
experience. And even in the case of military history, it would be interesting to
know how people are reading and interpreting these works. It may sometimes
come closer to What was it like? than to What happened? (think civil war

I don't know exactly what's going on here. My point is that it's probably a
conceit on the part of academics to think that the direction of the field is
exclusively, perhaps even mainly, shaped from within.

Which brings me to my next point, which doesn't often get raised in these
discussions: namely, the issue of student interest or student "demand." To
what extent does the current pie chart (more social than military history, eg)
stem from student interest? This must vary from place to place, but I suspect
at many schools this *is* a factor, and I know from personal experience that at
some places it is openly acknowledged as a factor: if you want higher
enrollments, you need to do more of X and not so much of Y. This is a topic that makes a lot of academics uncomfortable, because open admission of a need/desire to capture student interest can come to close to sounding like a desire to capture market share (the student as consumer and etc), and because there are also obvious problems with having to cater, perhaps, to what might be seen as current fads and fashions.

But my point, again, is that I don't think the shape of the field (in terms of
scholarship and teaching) is solely due to the conscious choices and interests
of professional academic historians. To put it another way, one hundred or
two hundred years from now, someone doing a history of late twentieth-century
historiographical trends will probably come up with explanations that are
not yet available to us because we're in the middle of something the full
significance of which we don't and can't yet see.

Which brings me, finally, to my own hobbyhorse. I think the rise of social
history at the expense of political history has to be viewed within a
larger historical frame. Social history first emerged in the eighteenth century,
thanks to people who were most decidedly not New Leftists (ie, by people
who are now often dismissed as dead white males who helped secure the triumph of capitalism). These people (mostly French and Scottish: in the
Anglo-Scottish case, people like Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, Lord Kames, William Robertson, David Hume [though Hume combined traditional
constitutional-political narrative with the newer stuff on commerce and
manners]) invented the modern concept of "society," and they invented an
historiography that sought to account for the history of this entity. In practical terms, what this approach entailed was attention to the history of commerce, of manners, of arts, of laws and customs, of women, and etc. They were quite explicit about what they saw as the shortcomings of political narrative, with its focus on individual actors and particular events. Some of them (eg John Millar) went so far as to argue that such actors and events were merely
instances of broader conditions and trends. Though this approach to history obviously didn't replace conventional political narrative, it did offer a challenge to the political paradigm that continued to exert some influence throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. None of this is to deny the particular significance of the rise of the new social history in the 60s and 70s, but rather to emphasize that there's a longer history to the social v. political history debate.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 13, 2004 02:31 PM

If Margaret Thatcher had only been there to set them straight about the so-called existence of "society".

Military history has at least two overlapping popular branches, history buffs per se (usually but not always veterans) and gamers and reenactors of various sorts. It seems to be almost entirely independent of the university, but thriving.

Among gamers especially there is an enormous interest in concrete details of equipment, etc. Storytelling conveying the excitement, gruesomeness, heroism, cowardice, etc. is also necessary. The analytic side mostly less so. You wouldn't have a chapter calculating logistics needs and the drain on the royal fisc and its effect on taxpayers. Likewise you wouldn't have 60 pp. of textual criticism of documentary evidence.

As for undergrad student demand, when planning courses at a four-year school my contact person and I agreed that a class oriented around Marco Polo would be a much better draw than one on Genghis Khan. However, in a jr. college a Mongol course oriented toward gamers would probably work.

Posted by: zizka at February 13, 2004 03:04 PM

maybe orienting classes to fulfill the needs of gamers can lead to rising undergrad enrollments in history departments.

hopefully, the administration at my school will not take this idea to heart, or else next year I'll be explaining the history of +2 swords and deconstructing the Monster Manual.

Posted by: better left nameless at February 13, 2004 06:05 PM

Good post, IA.

It gets at precisely why cherry-picking course descriptions is such a useless way of determining course content. Professors write descriptions to attract students to their classes, and it's a lot harder to attract modern undergraduates to an literature course by talking about the course's planned exploration of terza rima structures than it is to promise an exploration of Dante's politics and interest in spiritual violence. So the description concentrates on the latter topics. Horowitzean critics of academe looking at this course might critique it for ignoring alternate (read: conservative) points of view, but I would be willing to bet that, in the vast majority of cases, the students in this hypothetical class would end up learning as much about terza rima and Christian eschatology as they would about Dante's treatment of women or Muslims. It's how I've taught Dante (or Chaucer or countless other poets), and it's how I was taught Dante by my own teachers.

What the description says is never an accurate guide to what the course will do. Even a syllabus (like Lal's) can be misleading: things planned at the start of a semester change over time, often in response to student interests and needs.

P. S. The gamers are already there, lurking in your history courses and taking notes to use in their campaigns. :)

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at February 13, 2004 06:51 PM

Here's mine -- I couldn't remember my log-in at HNN, plus I realized I'd set myself up using my own name, which I like to mask just a bit.

So, am I a social or political or institutional historian? I wrote my diss on Carolingian administration, but relied hugely on land transactions for evidence, because that's what is available. Those, plus the other sources available, indicated that, at least in the area I studied, personal relationships, kinship, family status, and marriage played huge parts in how the Carolingians "worked" their administration.

And doesn't it also matter what level we're teaching? if I ever taught US history (not likely), I would very much want to teach it as constitutional history, because I love it and feel most comfortable with it. But I would certainly not think that was an appropriate approach for a survey, where the students often are taking a required couse and need a balance between the "old-fashioned" history that offers a much needed chronological and institutional framework, and that darned social history, because it engages students and helps them learn one of the most important lessons in history and in critical thinking -- how to separate themselves from their subjects, yet still see them as people/cultures.

I also think it very important to have different scholarly approaches available -- so that students understand there are many valid approaches, and at upper levels, to begin to identify them. Faculty don't even have to subscribe to those schools -- I took Economic History from a Big Name who was certainly not a Marxist, but we had to read a broad range of analyses, including the Marxists, in his class.

As far as Lal's class goes, I can think of all kinds of things I object to in the part of the syllabus quoted above -- the most important being that he's already set up his class with "the answer." I also think it's clearly a case of proselytizing. But some of the issues seem very appropriate to the course title, even if the execution is not. Still, if a department posts its syllabi, and they are available to the students before they register, then don't students have the option to vote with their feet? If the class doesn't make on a regular basis, will it continue to be offered? Not in my experience.

Oh -- And re the whle military history thing -- I have several buffs/gamers at the moment -- but they really are focused on arcane details and aren't even that interested in John Keegan's very good stuff.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 13, 2004 07:02 PM

How about the Monty Python idea of getting Joe Cocker to sing songs about the medieval agrarian boon-work system? Who's the Joe Cocker of the third millenium, anyway?

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 13, 2004 11:17 PM

This was a great post. I'd thought about writing about a similar subject on my own blog, but my thoughts were far less developed than yours.

A related point: I don't think it's a coincidence that traditional political history has declined in college curricula in recent years, given that interest in politics and government has also (apparently) declined.

Posted by: Edward Cohn at February 14, 2004 01:23 AM


I suspect that a lot of political history has migrated over to Poli Sci departments, along with those students interested in such questions. My brother teaches Poli Sci (and is a happy academic conservative, BTW, who will be appearing on Fox News this weekend), and he reports full classes every semester. He also takes a political history approach to much of his teaching and hasn't been told to stop by anyone in his department.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at February 14, 2004 02:19 AM

Hey, "You wouldn't have a chapter calculating logistics needs and the drain on the royal fisc and its effect on taxpayers." that's wrong, lots of gamers (especially designers) are looking for that kind of information.

Have more faith in gamers, its an industry larger than the movie/film industry right now. Even hires some academics.

Posted by: visitng gamer at February 14, 2004 09:03 AM

IA: And you thought this wouldn't be of interest to your readers! Good post indeed.

a class oriented around Marco Polo would be a much better draw than one on Genghis Khan

Boy, am I out of touch. I would have assumed just the opposite. Much as I deplore large-scale looting and massacring, Genghis is a whole lot of fun to read about.

Posted by: language hat at February 14, 2004 10:16 AM

Terrific post. Made me realize how narrowly "professionalized" my thoughts about social history as a form really were--I was thinking much more about the particular mode of it that the Annales school, EP Thompson, Genovese and so on practiced, partly because it was that mode in particular which became methodologically powerful in Africanist scholarship in the 1970s.

But it's precisely right to think more deeply about the intellectual history which occasions the categories that professional practice is now divided into: social, political, economic. And once you do, it becomes impossible to just take the boundaries between them as givens, as I think KC Johnson has been doing in that thread. It helps me to explain my strong intuition that the scholarship and courses that I most admire are those that are somewhat indifferent to those boundaries.

The other question is equally interesting, of student demand, and here perhaps KC has more of a point. There *is* a strange disconnect in many universities to some extent between what we teach, in aggregate, and what students might be most attracted to. The reasons for that are complicated, though.

One legitimate reason is that academic historians might judge that there are important questions that students ought to explore which they might not be intrinsically drawn to based on what they know before they come to university. One of my colleagues teaches really important, interesting courses on the "transition to capitalism" in early modern Europe--I don't think such a course would look that sexy to your average undergraduate, but it's absolutely a crucial subject, and one whose "core" necessity seems indisputable to me.

Another might be that as scholars, we teach what we interests us, and if it interests us (and we are interesting teachers) we trust it will interest students. One of the best courses I took as an undergraduate was "Law in Medieval Iceland" with Steven White. I took it as a gesture of whimsy--I don't think most students would demand such a class--but it turned out to be consistently fascinating both as a subject in its own right and as an exploration of methodological questions in history. These are the kind of courses that simple surveys of course catalogs don't produce a very good representation of.

Still, at the end of the day, it's probably true that students in universities would welcome more courses on military history, diplomatic history, and various underrepresented subjects. I'm not sure how much force that ought to exert on the choices we make, but it's not something to outright ignore.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 14, 2004 12:45 PM

During my time at Michigan, 20th century American Wars was the most popular course in the department. But not because it attracted those interested in military history. They gravitated towards, John Shy among others for their courses. Rather, it was the notorious gut of the department. The grade was based largely on quizzes of lecture content that were mostly given to check attendence, required little difficult reading (mostly first person accounts, with Gray's The Warriors as the only theoretical text), and was a pretty dismal experience for everybody involved who actually cared about history or the military. Michigan actually offered a fair number of military courses when I was there. I have noticed that gamers get more sophisticated in their reading as they get older. (Possible exception: Civil War buffs) They move into broader issues and read more widely. Unfortunately, they have not developed the requisite critical skills to notice, um, lesser works, when they read them. Hence the popularity of Jared Diamond (wrong), the guy who wrote the book on the Chinese discovering the Americas (way wrong) etc. etc. The thing is, these books could serve as springboards to other, better, scholarship, but rarely do.

Posted by: David Salmanson at February 14, 2004 02:18 PM

"One legitimate reason is that academic historians might judge that there are important questions that students ought to explore which they might not be intrinsically drawn to based on what they know before they come to university."

Yes, I agree. Any department that is serious about teaching history will have to offer some core courses that may not sound as exciting as specialized seminars. And I don't think everyone should feel compelled to sex up the syllabus.

"Still, at the end of the day, it's probably true that students in universities would welcome more courses on military history, diplomatic history, and various underrepresented subjects."

Interesting. I'll admit I hadn't thought of it in these terms (eg, more military history). I was thinking more of student demand for various area studies (women's history, African-American history, and so on). But you're probably right about this.

One of the most interesting history courses I took as an undergrad was a course in economic history -- early modern to modern transition. Taught by a decidedly non-lefty professory with whom I often disagreed. But I learned a lot, some of which I still (at least vaguely) remember.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at February 14, 2004 10:15 PM

What a small world! Steve White was on my PhD committee, but I never got to take one of his courses. And I learned more about historiographic schools from my Economic History (Early Modern) seminar than from pretty much anywhere else.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 15, 2004 02:43 AM

My wife and I (we are both historians) have noted for years precisely the preferences for social history and everyday life that you commented on. The extent to which those preferences have determined courses may be different.

To some extent this does not change our course offerings. (She teaches on a small 2-year campus; I split time between the same campus and a mid-size 4-year). Most of what we do are surveys.

Yet, I must admit, even though Sue and I are political and constitutional historians by training, the elective courses we offer have a strong social or intellectual element to them.

Some of that reflects new interests. (And my approach to constitutional history always had a strong social element.)

But, if students were panting for political courses, it seems likely we would have developed some.

Posted by: Oscar Chamberlain at February 16, 2004 10:02 PM