Reflections On Historically Speaking‘s Forum About The State Of U.S. Intellectual History
(Part III of III)
by Tim Lacy
[Recap: In Part I and Part II, I introduced my reorganization of the forum‘s essay topics into three categories: external issues, relational issues, and internal issues. Here I conclude with a relatively short discussion of the final category of my tripartite taxonomy and hierarchy.]
The bottom-most category of importance in the Historically Speaking forum are issues related to professionalism and professional structures. These include: subfield recognition and organization (i.e. identity); hiring and job availability; departmental and professional politics; historiographical trends; perceptions of the subfield; finding publishing venues; promoting and organizing conferences; and creating professional organizations.
I characterize these as varieties of internal concerns. They are pertinent to those whose livelihoods are staked on the health of the subfield, but few on the outside—consumers of intellectual history, if you will—care about these issues. These topics, while necessary, are only important in a ‘helping’ fashion. I foresee that answering questions and solving problems in first two categories will cause internal issues to lessen in urgency.
The problem with internal concerns is that they often feel tedious, whiney, petty, and self-serving. McClay aptly summed this negative side up in a word: “careerism” (p. 21). Because of this I will limit my discussion to only a few issues—even though all four forum contributors make legitimate points about internal concerns. I do not mean to underplay their observations about jobs, neglect, decline, status, pride, past “eminence,” and Igo’s influence-versus-autonomy dichotomy (p. 19) by failing to summarize them here. My primary concerns are identity, infrastructure, and community. I intentionally underscore these particular internal issues because they are forward-looking and positive.
To address my three concerns I am increasingly of the opinion that a USIH society must be formed. I see this as necessary, if not convenient or fun. This society would provide the structural legitimacy needed to affiliate with either OAH or AHA. I am unaware of THS’s policies on partnering or affiliation. But neither of the older organizations contains a constitutional allowance for sub-field solidarity building. To link yourself to a larger organization, you have to establish your identity independently and prior, then build a partnership.
Establishing a society will provide a sense of identity and, hopefully, community. The primary goal of the society should be to host a regular conference. Whether regularity is defined as an annual or bi-annual meeting is of less importance than creating a home forum where professionals are guaranteed numerous opportunities for presenting historical topics related to the life of the mind, history of ideas, philosophy, thought-promoting institutions, etc. This home forum will be a prime place for feedback from like-mined historians on your work. And that self-correcting feedback will help move the field forward—opening new avenues for research and presentation, as well as preventing past mistakes in topical emphasis (e.g. elitism). Practically speaking, aspirants and professionals will also be able to look to the society as both a forum for concerns and place where actions might be taken.
I propose, therefore, the creation of a 501(c)(3) called either “The U.S. Intellectual History Conference” or the “U.S. Intellectual History Society.” This group would not, initially at least, be concerned about funds. The fee for entry could be as low as $1 per year. The purpose of the society would be to create a friendly, democratic structure that, to begin, provides intellectual historians with the option of partnering a subfield conference with OAH, THS, or AHA.
If members choose to remain independent of either superstructure, then the group would have officers whose primary concern is the maintenance of the weblog and the annual (or bi-annual) administration of the USIH conference. If the organization chose to raise membership rates in the future for the purposes of conference stability and the distribution of funds for scholarly endeavors (e.g. award for best paper, travel grants for grad students), then that’s an option.
Speaking personally, I am willing to help in this endeavor. I cannot, however, take the lead because of a pressing concern to draft my first book (i.e. turn my dissertation into a book manuscript). That is my first professional priority for the next 12-24 months. Indeed, this series of reflections on History Speaking‘s forum will be my last lengthy online post at USIH for some time. I think my USIH presence will be reduced to quick-hit “light reading” posts.
My purpose in summarizing and extending the forum’s contents is to re-present the rich material therein in an alternative fashion that may speak to another audience. Other tropes are available, but the external-relational-internal structure allowed me to get behind the forum’s well-written, individual reflections in order to systematize and prioritize the issues. But if my presentation is inadequate, one can always return to the forum. I will reiterate that I felt every essay in it held astute points presented persuasively.
But, to me, some prioritization of the issues raised felt pressing. Why? On the one hand, in terms of perception, the potential exists for non-intellectual historians to view, in the extreme, some of the concerns raised in the forum as self-serving. This falls under McClay’s “careerism” observation. As such, it is therefore not only an outside-in problem. It’s an internal one that perpetuates a destructive, dog-chasing-tail theme in some subfield discussions. I have been guilty of this in the past.
On the other hand, I wanted to convey what I felt were the essential, highest-priority issues moving forward. There is most certainly a positive agenda to be discerned in the essays—ways to move beyond intellectual history’s current “everywhere and nowhere” status. First is the work of foregrounding ideas, thought processes, and thinkers in history. Everything else a distant second. Creating a low-key society should aid the primary cause. – TL