U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Style in History (Blogging)

The following is a guest post from Oliver Lee Bateman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is also the Reviews and Commentary editor of The Good Men Project. 

Years ago, I had a journalism professor who was fond of remarking that there were only two problems with academic writing: the content and the style. I remember laughing at this—not so much because it was funny, but rather because this was what you did when an instructor made a witticism. However, after eight years of post-baccalaureate education, I was forced to conclude that he was utterly wrong.

When I sat in my first graduate seminar, I wanted to hate and trash the books that I was assigned. I eagerly anticipated casting my lot with one ideological camp or another. The resulting slugfests would transform the classroom into the nerdy equivalent of the mosh pit. Alas, for reasons that still remain obscure, I began to actually read these books, only to discover that most of them were quite good.

Even the various critical theorists who were sometimes criticized by my undergaduate mentors offered useful takes on one aspect of human behavior or another. Jameson, Deleuze, Bourdieu, et al. were “challenging,” I suppose, but their work was far from impenetrable. In fact, the biggest challenge posed by Outline of a Theory of Practice was its minuscule font size (an impediment, it must be noted, that is shared by most university press publications). Only “Can the Subaltern Speak?” would prove opaque, although I suppose that was partly Spivak’s purpose in writing it.

This is not to say that such quality work excited all of the creative faculties. Even the loftiest of introductions and prologues, as in the case of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, find themselves buttressed with vast amounts of evidence from the historical record, which can make for slow going. This is in many respects preferable to the frequent editorializing and moralizing of Gibbon and Macaulay—an indication that our discipline is “professionalized,” its methods “regularized.” You can expect that a university-trained historian will: 1) gather hundreds if not thousands of primary sources, 2) spend years reading and sorting them, 3) produce a careful and difficult-to-assail argument using this research, and 4) engage in debates with colleagues regarding the cogency of other approaches to his subject.

And business is very good, if one judges from the wealth of well-reviewed dissertations being published rather than the dearth of full-time job openings. Yet it is precisely because that end of the business is booming that faculty advisors should encourage their advisees to experiment with the work that they are doing. Mind you, should doesn’t imply ought, but in an age when approaches to peer review and tenure and promotion seem quaint at best and harmful at worst, senior participants in this process might wish to accelerate the process of reform.

What am I talking about? Well, as an eighteen-year-old journalism major, I had an infatuation with the so-called “New Journalism” of the 1960s and 1970s. “Joe Louis at Fifty,” “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” struck the naïf-ish me as grand formal innovations—clever ways to insert oneself into the work, or to manipulate the narrative structure in such a way that the reader’s expectations were confounded at every turn. In Cold Blood and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bookended the realm of possibility in creative nonfiction, while Studs Terkel’s deliberately unadorned oral histories offered a mainline into the pulsing heart of Americana.

Of course, I matured into boring adulthood, and as I did, I set aside what I perceived as childish things. The best of this material now came across puffy and overbearing. The worst of it, a great deal of which originated from post-1980 Hunter Thompson’s typewriter, was irremediably over-gimmicked and intellectually vacuous. Most of these men—Terkel, Wolfe, Thompson—developed into caricatures of themselves, as I suppose the finest of us eventually do. I found myself craving the clarity provided by serious academic work.

Several weeks ago, inspired by a post on this blog, I re-read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience.” A concatenation of rapturous phrases such as “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion” eventually led me to this passage, at which point I made a full stop:

Once I took such delight in Montaigne, that I thought I should not need any other book; before that, in Shakespeare; then in Plutarch; then in Plotinus; at one time in Bacon; afterwards in Goethe; even in Bettine; but now I turn the pages of either of them languidly, whilst I still cherish their genius. …The child asks, ‘Mamma, why don’t I like the story as well as when you told it me yesterday?’ Alas, child, it is even so with the oldest cherubim of knowledge. But will it answer thy question to say, Because thou wert born to a whole, and this story is a particular? The reason of the pain this discovery causes us (and we make it late in respect to works of art and intellect), is the plaint of tragedy which murmurs from it in regard to persons, to friendship and love.

Many outside academia bemoan what they view as the valueless and unnecessary production of scholarship in the humanities, but Emerson has it right: because no particular argument can sustain the whole, the work must continue. I believe that that work should commence flowing in all directions, using whatever materials are at hand.

History is a kind of bricolage. Even a magnum opus like The History of the Peloponnesian War consists of cobbled-together recollections of speeches and battles. Today, however, the bricoleur has a vaster array of tools available to him—videos, images, and digitized collections of archival collections are all at one’s fingertips. For many historians, particularly those working in the modern period, the choice of content is thus made more challenging than ever before, if only because there is so much to sort and process. This explains, at least in part, the rapid push for more and better research in “digital humanities” (the other part of the explanation, I assume, has to do with the trendiness of such discipline-wide buzzwords).

I think that work in the digital humanities, however amorphous that catch-all term might be, will yield considerable benefits in the organization and presentation of content (this is a claim I have made in a half-dozen grant applications, and thus feel impelled to restate here). But such an evolution in content presentation ought to be coupled with fresh approaches to the actual writing in which that content is packaged. “The historian’s problem,” explained Hayden White in Metahistory, “is to construct a linguistic protocol…by which to characterize the field and its elements in his own terms (rather than in the terms in which they labeled in the documents themselves)” (emphasis White’s, not mine). Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock would likely set themselves against such a proposition, and the late Leo Strauss would certainly have run athwart it, but White’s claim warrants consideration vis-à-vis the training of the generations of historians who will replace us.

The “New Journalism,” for all its warts, was reportage on its own terms. A book like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test provided an account of the goings-on of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, but Tom Wolfe went out of his way to remind readers that this was merely his impressionistic version of a particular set of events. With blogging now an activity that many academics consider at least tangentially a part of their work, and with a few “superstars” (e.g., the Tenured Radical) emerging in that subbiest of subfields, the time has come to convince administrators, colleagues, and graduate students that this medium can support a host of innovative messages.

In the first place, as witnessed here and elsewhere, blogs can serve as a place to stimulate debate. Old arguments can be tested, advice can be solicited, and research prospectuses can be entertained. Eventually that sort of exchange, canalized through the careful vetting of respondents, may come to supplant “blind” peer review—a welcome development indeed.

But more to the point—more to the point of this column, anyway—blogging could come to serve as a laboratory for stylistic experimentation. The interpretation of primary sources can be filtered through journal articles and monographs, but the blog format opens new and interesting vistas for the exploration of these sources. Perhaps one can lovingly and carefully render a single moment in time, with a link to audio or video that, for so long as it is maintained in whatever archive that houses it, will allow the reader to share in that process of rediscovery with you. Or perhaps the blog is the only place where certain research can be done, as in the case of, say, a day-by-day journal in which different forms of user-submitted media are analyzed. Some of this work is already underway, with more to follow, making these exciting times indeed.

Prior to my dissertation defense in April 2012, my advisor gave me some valuable advice. “Finish your first book,” he told me, “and then work on whatever interests you.” But I would modify this exhortation ever so slightly: finish your first book (at least for so long as the monograph remains the sine qua non of tenure and promotion), then work on whatever interests you, in whatever way you want, because there’s simply no reason to do otherwise. “Progress” might be a decidedly 19th century notion, but evolution—unpredictable and unplanned, yet ineluctable—is a concept that has endured.