U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Crosspost: Eric Arnesen On Historians As Public Intellectuals: Where Does The Problem Lie?

[This comes from an H&E post earlier this week.]

The Historical Society publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Historically Speaking. Articles for the November/December 2007 issue are available via .pdf. A piece in that issue by THS president Eric Arnesen, titled “Historians and the Public: Premature Obituaries, Abiding Laments,” caught my attention.

Therein Professor Arnesen, who is also chair of the history department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, reflects on the death of Arthur Schlesinger and subsequent commentary.

The ground-level instigation for Arnesen’s reflections are both Sam Tanenhaus’s lament on demise of historians as public intellectuals (in the New York Times), and a subsequent HNN symposium on Tanenhaus’s article and Schlesinger in general. But Arnesen takes it further by connecting these events to Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Basic Books, 1987). After making these connections Arnesen asks:

“Are the lamenters correct? Are historians really no longer writing for the broader public? Have they truly buried their collective heads in the sands of academe, refusing their responsibilities, reaping professional rewards, reveling in disciplinary jargon, and otherwise impoverishing our civic culture?”

Arnesen takes the negative position, and recounts numerous historians and books that have both purposely and accidentally engaged the public. This is a welcome cataloging. [Aside: What does the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich bumper sticker say?]

Of course the situation is still not exactly rosy. Arnesen quotes Maureen Ogle on the fact that many popular history books have been “written by journalists.” Ouch. But Arnesen speculates, rightly I believe, on a—if not the—source of the problem:

“Academic prose may serve on well before a tenure committee but won’t likely prompt nonacademics to curl up with one’s tomes late into the night. Many writers ‘trained in academia are steered down a path that will preclude’ their being read widely, concludes Melvin Ely, himself the author of several popular histories. ‘Too often our graduate students think that what we, as professors, want is something that is very dense, very theoretical, which on every page self-consciously engages the existing scholarly research.’ “

Earlier in Arnesen’s piece he recounts some of the roots of that problem. This occurred in a January 2007 AHA panel, attended and reported on by Rick Shenkman (link here, Day 1 notes). For a convention best known because of its “War Resolution” and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s “jaywalking incident,” I’m glad that Arnesen found a more enduring remembrance. The issue was this: writing for a mass audience. Here is Arnesen’s summation with my interspersed commentary:

“An audience member suggested that graduate programs don’t teach good writing.”

TL: Generally speaking, this seems true enough to me. At least it’s not done in a positive, constructive way. Improvements come incrementally by suggestions on papers, and these suggestions come through the courses one takes in order to earn an M.A. (10 or so) or Ph.D. (20 or so courses). The problem is that you only receive consistent advice if you happen to have the same professor more than once. Then you must also respect that particular person and he/she must have clear suggestions on your writing style. But let’s continue with Arnesen’s narration:

“Jim Banner is reported to have responded that good writing is not ‘something you can probably teach’ and that a ‘great writer’ like Hofstadter did not take ‘some class’ in writing in order to develop his own style.”

TL: Bumpkis! No offense to Jim Banner, but if good writing can’t be taught, then our entire education establishment is for naught. And it’s senseless to learn the rudiments or subtleties of history as a graduate student if neither can be re-communicated in writing. I think Jim Banner is this “James M. Banner, Jr.” of the History News Network (Advisory Board, scan down) and History News Service fame. Perhaps it was a moment of exasperation at the AHA panel, or maybe Mr. Banner was playing devil’s advocate, but I fervently hope that opinion is not prominent among professors.

Arnesen finished the AHA recounting:

“Shenkman concluded that ‘by the end of the afternoon all the usual suspects had been rounded up and shot. The problem was that historians aren’t writing about subjects the general public finds interesting. Or. The problem was that textbooks turn Americans off to history. Or. Historians don’t privilege public history so historians don’t write it’ ” (bolds mine).

Well said, Rick. And thanks to Arnesen for re-presenting it. I would add to Rick’s litany this point:

“…Or. Historians in the academy whose opinions on the teaching of writing resemble what Jim Banner articulated have reneged on their duties.”

If that sentiment is truly representative, and there exists a quotient of history professors who asininely believe that good writing can’t be taught, then they should relinquish their sinecure. Let those who can—and want to—do their job actually do it. This would have the side benefit of freeing up the academy of the dead weight keeping the backlog of humanities Ph.D.s who care from gainful employment. – TL

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The Ulrich bumper sticker says “well-behaved women rarely make history.”

    I have seen that bumper sticker for as long as I can remember, much longer than I’ve known who Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is. I don’t know, however, where the quote comes from. I’ve read A Midwife’s Tale, and could easily imagine it being in there, but don’t remember seeing it. (Of course, when I read it, I’d seen the bumper sticker, but didn’t know the quote was attributed to Ulrich. Curse this misplaced chronology!) But that’s all I’ve read from her, so it’s just as likely that it’s somewhere else.

  2. Tim,
    I think one thing that needs to be said is that graduate school does teach writing, just not the way that the audience member seems to have meant it. Russell Jacoby’s point in The Last Intellectuals about the professionalization of academics gets at what I’m talking about. He argues that with professionalization, academics have turned inward, attempting to solve issues that will only appeal to a specialized tribe.

    If we talk about writing not just in terms of making words into sentences, but more broadly in terms of employing rhetorical conventions, then academic writing IS taught in graduate school. But this writing likely will not address a wider audience, because its questions, purpose, and audience are different. Graduate students are taught to familiarize themselves with a literature, to conduct original research, and then to intervene in that literature in some way. This means that many of the questions and framing of the issues are more technical than any lay person is going to find of interest.

    If this is not a good thing, and I judge by your comments that you think it is not, then graduate education itself would need a serious reorientation. Simply adding another imperative for faculty members to “teach writing” does not address the issue. The questions, audience, and rhetorical conventions would also need to change. In other words, graduate students would need to learn a different kind of writing, and probably a different kind of thinking.

  3. I tracked it down through a WaPo book review at Amazon. The quotation comes from the first page of an article Ulrich published in American Quarterly in spring 1976: “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.”

    Cotton Mather called them “the hidden ones.” They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.

  4. Jonathan: Thanks! It’s interesting to see, then, how the context gives a somewhat different meaning to the quote. Professor Ulrich meant it as side commentary on the invisibility of Puritan women, whereas the bumper sticker makes Ulrich a champion of feminist aggression. …I doubt I’m the first to notice this. I wonder how Professor Ulrich sees her pop culture fame?

    David: I appreciate your making me clarify my bluster. The problem is that there are two lines of thought in the article. Arnesen rightly points out that the writing and research we do in graduate school—aimed at fellow colleagues—is a good unto itself. Writing in that context requires a different set of rules, and those rules do not involve criteria commonly associated with “good writing.” Fine. But the AHA talk and comment by Dr. Banner seemed to operate on a meta-level, without regard to an audience of colleagues alone. Perhaps something of the conversation’s context was lost in Dr. Shenkman’s reporting, but his assessment “of the usual suspects being shot” seems to indicate a more general level of conversation than Arnesen’s.

    As for my judgment, I do still think that what’s taught in graduate school is not good enough. I think we’re trained too narrowly. Instead of being taught (often badly) simply how to write for colleagues who understand our conventions, we must also be taught how to be “good writers” in general. All PhDs must be taught, in the most complete fashion possible, how to communicate well with both colleagues and the general public. Why? Because publishers, even many university presses, demand that our book-length manuscripts have the ability to reach audiences outside the academy. In fact, if resources are scarce for teaching writing in history courses, it seems then writing our “best” for broad audiences ought to trump writing for colleagues.

    On this being a different kind of thinking in general, I don’t think so. It’s a different kind of thinking about communication, but not different in terms of primary and secondary resource analyses. It doesn’t mean we have to think differently about chronology and how we connect events. It means, I believe, that we use special language less, or confine that language to our footnotes. Yes, I know that publishers demand sparse, non-discursive footnotes. Sigh.

    What to do? – TL

  5. In the ask and you shall receive category: In addition to Jonathan Wilson’s comment above, this Christianity Today article by Elesha Coffman also answers the question about Ulrich in reviewing the same’s new book with the bumper sticker’s phrase as its title. – TL

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