U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Is “Taking It Seriously” a Scholarly Justification?

A small notice in the New York Times this week alerts the reader to the news that, “The Midwest has long had cornfields, niceness and plenty of jokes about such by (ahem) coastal types. And now, it also has its own historical association.”

Full disclosure, I’m at least on the mailing list of this group, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, and am involved in a separate, but also brand-new, interdisciplinary journal, the Middle West Review. I am enthusiastic about these new ventures and the renewed energy about the region which they represent, and I greatly admire the hard work of Jon Lauck, the president of the new association. But I am also interested in the way that such new projects tend to make certain kinds of claims about their scholarly validity, their right to a place in the academic sun.

To be specific, I am curious about the way that scholars often sound aggrieved and peremptory when making the case for the significance of their work and interests, deploying the language of “neglect” and insisting that one’s subject needs to be taken “seriously.” Here are two quotes from the Times article:

“Unlike other regions, the Midwest hasn’t had a journal focused on its history until now,” Jon K. Lauck, a lawyer and historian in Sioux Falls and the group’s first president, said in an email. Mr. Lauck, the author of the recent book “The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History,” added, “We think it’s time for the Midwest to stand up for itself.”

Jon Butler, a retired Yale professor and board member of the new group who lives in Minneapolis, said that the region, with the exception of Chicago, was “as much the flyover zone in history as it is in public culture.” He added: “Or think of it another way: a book for every minor Puritan, Southern military man, and Western cowboy, while Hubert Humphrey gets a footnote.”

Butler’s keen wit (I once bought a used book in New Haven that had the inscription “Unwillingly owned by Jon Butler” on the flyleaf. The book: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind) is fully on display here, but let’s pause for a moment. Is this true?

There was actually a small Humphrey vogue around the turn of the millennium (coordinating with Paul Wellstone’s political success, incidentally), with Robert Mann’s Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1996), Timothy Thurber’s The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle (1999), and Jennifer Alice Delton’s Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2002). There have been other random articles and book chapters about Humphrey since, but the most recent book of some importance is Todd S. Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I haven’t gotten a chance to take a look at it, but I’d wager that Humphrey gets more than a footnote.

And that is the point of this little bibliographic exercise: it cannot be said “seriously” that Humphrey is unstudied. If you want to research Humphrey, you’ve got the secondary sources to make a good start, especially in terms of Humphrey’s involvement in civil rights. Presidential losers tend not to be taken “seriously” in the sense that they often have jokes made about them, but as Robert pointed out earlier this week, there has been a lot of recent work done on Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, arguing persuasively that the movements behind their campaigns had huge and lasting influence on the US political landscape. On the other hand, we may not see a pathbreaking monograph on Michael Dukakis soon (see! Disdain can even happen to New Englanders!).

But the question I have is, would scholars really shun a historian who made a case for Dukakis’s significance or refuse to advise her dissertation or repeatedly patronize and try to redirect her efforts? Because that is what I think we should mean when we accuse the scholarly community of not taking our subject “seriously,” not that someone cracks a joke and then gives you an honest hearing.

I’m reminded here of a passage from Kathryn Lofton’s excellent book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon—surely a project that led to a couple of waggish comments. Lofton writes,

I have become increasingly concerned that in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act. Within religious studies, this has meant a diminishment of studies attempting to explain broad themes in religious history out of a fear that to do so may violate the granular greatness of any subject’s contradictory expression. We have become so worried that we will contribute to the bigotry of caricature that we have become lost in pointillist profusions, dividing our material by decades, our sects by geography, and our rituals into practices.

Lofton is speaking to some disciplinarily specific issues—in my layman’s view, more of religious studies is still suffused with a post-Geertzian quandary of representation than is history—but the point is clearly applicable. The line about the “bigotry of caricature” is particularly keen, although here I am speaking more about a scholar’s fear that others will subject their topic to that bigotry rather that they themselves will inadvertently do so.

The language of “taking it seriously” preemptively imagines a scholarly community in which one has to fend off lampoons of ridicule before one can lay out one’s argument. The language of “neglect” conjures one’s fellow scholars as so cruelly selfish that they have purposely rerouted scholarly attention away from the subject you intend to pursue. We see a bit of this zero-sum thinking in the quote by Jon Lauck above: “We think it’s time for the Midwest to stand up for itself.” It’s time everyone else stopped bogarting the journal space, the grants, and the attention. The Midwest is going to grab some of it back.

The problem with both ways of imagining the academy is that there have been cases of real “neglect” and real efforts to block or remove the support for scholarship, to not take a project seriously as a way to prevent it from happening. Mostly those cases have been research on women, people of color, and sexual minorities. Not Hubert Humphrey.

The point is, there is a real danger to the conventional scholarly self-justification “No one has taken my subject seriously.” Saying that erases the distinction between what is often just a back-door and really rather paltry claim to originality (other scholars haven’t talked about this topic as much as I’m going to talk about it) and an actual history of conflict, of struggling to have one’s voice heard over the staunch objections of powerful people.

I think it’s great that there’s more work being done self-consciously under the banner of Midwestern history and Midwestern studies. But (and this is a topic for a different post), the history of why the Midwest is only now obtaining a historical association is not a question of not being taken seriously, when “taking it seriously” means something more than fending off a few preliminary jokes.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One thing at issue here—a pivot point, if you will—is how one views or imagines “scholarly community.” Andy is right to caution against overly broad readings and interpretations of the phrase.

    For starters, when people talk about “scholarly communities” they are likely extrapolating or projecting from their own personal experiences. So when someone blames the scholarly community for something, they are really articulating something they heard from either a professor or professors, or other grad students, in the first instance from within their own university department. So the condescension, rejection, and belittling felt by an individual arises from what’s likely a real experience, which makes the problems of recovery and neglect real.

    And there are other larger iterations of “scholarly community” that must be considered. For instance, what of the secondary or direct neglect a scholar feels at a scholarly conference? What of one’s poorly attended panel, or the terrible comments that might occur in that context? Or what of journal submissions and book proposals? “Anonymously” authored rejects can be downright nasty and stinging.

    So the way we arrive at any consensus about what is neglected or not can derive from many types of interactions, or combinations of same. – TL

  2. Thanks, Tim, I think you are absolutely right to think about “secondary or direct neglect,” as opposed to my overly broad treatment of it above.

    My feeling is that it’s worthwhile to distinguish between different kinds of negative experiences, between, to take your example, a sparsely attended panel on (keeping with the example above) Hubert Humphrey, and the kind of experience that women scholars often report having, of being “mansplained” to about their own topics, especially if they are writing about women. That doesn’t mean denying that both kinds of experiences are truly wounding, of course. I just would like a better way to classify and discuss different kinds of wounds.

    • To continue with the hairsplitting, taking things seriously also involves varying levels of seriousness and non-seriousness. Sometimes we want things taken VERY SERIOUSLY and are offended that others don’t see things as we do. And sometimes this is justified due to past injustices. And then there’s “serious” and “pretty serious” as in “yes, this is neglected and someone should work on it, but I wonder if you’re the best for that project?” So a grad student or topical champion may mistake a personal slight, or underestimation, for an underestimation of the topic. Personality and affect can often make a huge difference in getting “community approval” for a topic beyond any timeliness or merit the topic deserves. – TL

  3. “Would scholars really shun a historian who made a case for Dukakis’s significance or refuse to advise her dissertation or repeatedly patronize and try to redirect her efforts?”

    Yes, I believe they would, but mostly because such a dissertation would be in political history.

    Just kidding, sort of. But your larger point about the need to justify scholarly pursuits in terms of neglect is an important one. I see at least three different intersecting trends here. The first is that historians often justify their subjects or projects by claiming that some specific aspect of it has been neglected. The nagging academic question, “What is really new here?” pretty much requires you to say that everyone before you either got something wrong or neglected it. It wouldn’t be surprising if that habit of thinking began to affect many other aspects of scholarly life.

    The second point is that the culture of academia, in my experience, tends to breed a feeling of neglect. Grad students are neglected for funding, then neglected on the job market. If they continue, then readers neglect their work and students don’t appreciate the work they put in on their classes. I think many professional scholars feel a lack of attention to their own work and the things they care about, though this concern can easily resonate outward.

    Finally, both liberals and conservatives today emphasize the neglect of the weak by the powerful. They place very different people in those roles, but the common theme testifies to the power of the narrative of neglect in our contemporary cultural moment.

  4. I think that this a profession wide feeling – “they are not taking my subject seriously” meaning “my work is not getting the attention it deserves” You can talk to people in every historical field and even those who have the most success, and they feel unappreciated. I noticed that very early in my studies. It’s either military history, or native Americans, or gender. Is it really about our topics or is it about our great sense of irrelevancy? Where is that coming from? We all feel it in some way even as we try to catch the next scholarly wave.

  5. Mike O’Connor:
    …historians often justify their subjects or projects by claiming that some specific aspect of it has been neglected. The nagging academic question, “What is really new here?” pretty much requires you to say that everyone before you either got something wrong or neglected it. It wouldn’t be surprising if that habit of thinking began to affect many other aspects of scholarly life.

    Yes. I would add only that this fairly standard way of justifying a project is by no means limited to historians.

  6. Two points, one practical and one theoretical:
    1. In my understanding and in the advice I’ve received and then passed along to peers, making the case for the stakes of one’s work in terms of filling a gap, compensating for neglect, or, as you write, taking something seriously anew is a sure-fire way to land one’s grant application in the rejection pile. Instead, funders seek projects that deal with a paradox, a puzzle, a contradiction that one’s research is poised to unravel. The research question should address a problem not of historiography but a problem in the world. So the point is: profs who justify their work in terms of neglect might be do a disservice in training students to think of their work in this way–a particularly pernicious problem if the students are writing about marginalized people. I have written a little bit of how-to on this subject here (in a 3-post series): http://stuartschrader.com/blog/advice-graduate-students-why-you-need-external-fellowships.

    2. I agree with your framing of the politics of the issue: getting taken seriously is a problem of power and gatekeeping, though I know nothing specific about the Midwest venture here and am not addressing it. To take the point even further, the “chip on the shoulder” type of demand to be taken seriously can be a reaction formation against the gains of social history and the study of marginalized groups that veils itself in some of the very language used by marginalized people to gain access to academic circles of acceptance and legitimacy. Matthew Frye Jacobson’s work is useful on the issue of white ethnic reaction clothed in language of Black and other insurgency.

    There is another way to look at it, though, if the issue at hand is the profusion of narrow studies of heretofore ignored locally sourced details. This problem is surely not new, as Hobsbawm himself said somewhere that the point of studying history is not just to fill the holes on library shelves (massive paraphrase). Yet I do think it would be worthwhile to historicize this problem. The work of people like William Sewell Jr and Geoff Eley on the broad-based shift from social to cultural history helps to think through the issue. Manu Goswami published a very important article in the AHR in a roundtable on Eley (and another that extends the argument with original research on internationalism) that makes the case that a profusion of narrowly scaled (temporally and spatially) historical studies is consonant with a broader shift of political horizons away from systemic change. Embedded in this argument is a claim about how neoliberalization’s structural and ideological lionizing of the individual rational actor gives support to a narcissistic me-too variety of filling up shelves with heterogeneous, fragmentary studies that lack any broader political implications and by their very nature abjure broader political implications because, as Goswami argues, they are framed to exclude transformation of social relations. The point is that earlier generations of historians took advantage of the political resonance of social history with a broader sociopolitical milieu, what Goswami calls social history’s “capacity to link together collective experience, especially the realm of aspiration, and historical knowledge.” Today, historians may be unwittingly writing within an intellectual paradigm adequate to the times as well, but the times are void of collective experience geared toward transformative political aspiration. Instead, as Thatcher said of society, “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” So too for historiography.

    • Thanks, Stuart, I think Jacobson’s work on the appropriation by white ethnics of Black insurgency is a useful sidelight on this problem. I also largely agree with your historicization of this issue, but what I’d add is that I don’t think most scholars who use the language of neglect think of their work as just filling a hole in the library shelf. What I see more often is less an argument that there ought to be a book on a given topic (so the scholar will write it and fill that gap), but that the scholar should be the leader in a new wave of scholarship on my topic, that his work ought to start a trend, a turn, a paradigm. (Philip Deloria talks about this attitude a bit in his 2008 ASA Presidential Address.) I would say that–if I’m reading you correctly–it’s often less a case of a sort of snowflake theory of scholarship (every individual or fragment is really irreducible and so needs its own monograph) that drives this sense of aggrievement, but a frustrated desire to change the field into a shape that one likes.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I want to be clear that I wasn’t arguing that a case for the originality of one’s project is unusual or problematic. That is a healthy part of the process of scholarly self-justification, I’m sure we can all agree. What I am interested in here is the particular tone that has become routine in making a particular kind of claim to originality–an assumption that some kind of malice has been the only thing standing in the way of the scholarly community (perhaps even the public) giving your subject its due. Perhaps we use “neglect” and “taking it seriously” so reflexively that we have become numb to the quite grave charges that they so casually imply.

    I would argue that they are not neutral words but allegations, and that scholars throw them around indiscriminately, often not basing them on real evidence of concerted hostility and condescension but on the ambient feelings of anxiety and insecurity that you all have pointed to as a constituent part of an academic career (not that we are alone in this). I believe there is a genuine problem in allowing those general feelings to erase distinctions between relatively routine experiences (revise and resubmits, outright rejections, small audiences at a panel, etc.) of disappointment and more systematic forms of oppression.

  8. This all reminds me of the continual plaint and rallying cry of intellectual historians, that “ideas matter!” – or as Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn said in adapting Richard Weaver’s title of the ‘40s, “Ideas Still Have Consequences,” Chronicle 2.27.14.

  9. I think the problem of the rhetoric of “neglect” and its potential conflation of systematic oppression and discrimination with a lack of scholarly recognition or centrality may be traceable to the new social history. When E.P. Thompson argued for a new working class history that would rescue workers from “the enormous condescension of posterity,” he laid down a position, picked up by many in his wake, that the project of historical scholarship amounted to a form of political recognition. The historical scholarship on the left that followed frequently made appeals to the exclusions of various groups from historical accounts as a form of ideologically-based aggression. The idea that to study historical actors was to grant them a form of recognition, to be an advocate for them, to accomplish through historical scholarship what had not been accomplished through contemporary political success, became one of the defining motifs of social history scholarship. All the debates about agency, power, culture-as-politics, that followed put at the center of the discussion a view that equated studying historical actors with giving them a place at the table, inclusion, respect, and recognition. Perhaps the complaints about X being a neglected field stem from the logic of justification that achieved a kind of dominance in the field thirty years ago, and are now the rote appeals despite the transformations that have moved the discipline away from the epistemology of the new social history.

    I say this as someone who once wrote an essay (although the title was supplied for me by an editor) called “Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study?” My hope is that my answer was more nuanced than the question implied, but it was clear that the funding for the series on “neglected fields” that ran in _Historically Speaking_, of which my essay was a part, was driven by a conservative reaction to a presumed marginalization of “traditional” fields of study: military history, economic history, intellectual history among others. Thankfully, the editors were interested in having real answers to these questions, rather than culture war screeds (although, as I recall, they had Victor Davis Hanson respond to the essay on military history with an embarrassing know-nothing screed against “political correctness.”!

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post Andy.

  10. There’s an inverse corollary to the complaint of neglect, and that’s the complaint of undue attention: the idea that by paying attention to some subjects or sources or problems, historians are elevating them to a level of importance beyond what they deserve. This complaint too has been a two-edged sword — it has been wielded by those who seek to upend “the canon” because the “dead white European males” are (presumably) not relevant or pertinent to present needs/problems, and it has been wielded by those seeking to defend/reaffirm some hierarchical idea of the canonical against the encroachments of the (presumably) parochial, trivial, or ephemeral.

  11. Dan,
    I think you’re absolutely right to root this particular mode of justifying one’s project in those famous lines from Thompson and the larger direction of social history, and your description of the way that this logic works is very well-said. Thank you.

    To build off that, I went back to look at Thompson’s preface to TMotEWC and, while this would probably be better suited to a post of its own, I think that the way that the “enormous condescension” line has often been cited (in spirit if not in fact) in other recuperative studies misunderstands it. Thompson was not equating “condescension” with what we have been referring to as “neglect.” He was not saying that his figures had been left out of other scholars’ histories out of disdain; rather, disdain was the mood in which scholars *included* the plebeian writers, politicians, activists, and religious leaders about whom he wrote. He wasn’t pointing to an absence in the scholarly record, but to an erroneous interpretation.

    I wonder if, because his book may have been the first time a lot of U.S. students had heard of most of the figures he writes about, they largely interpreted his study as “rescuing” Joanna Southcott et al. from a total memory hole, as summoning them from oblivion in the same way that, say, Ida B. Wells and Olaudah Equiano were being “rescued.”

  12. Varad,
    I would say that the operative word here is “sometimes.” My point is certainly not “what is, is right” in terms of the distribution of scholarly resources and attention–the lack of studies on popular culture for many years was indeed an impoverishing influence on the scholarship that was being produced. But there have also been quite a number of very good books that explain why and how popular culture was cordoned off from high culture and thus made ineligible for rigorous study, and the reasons they give go far beyond an accusation that cultural and intellectual elites simply did not take pop culture “seriously.”

    That’s a really excellent and necessary corollary, and I’m glad you brought that invidious phrase “undue attention” into the conversation. What I find frustrating about the logic of this idea is that it is only rarely used to ask real questions about the merits of an individual case; instead it’s always about the bigger representational politics of a whole field or discipline–how many monographs on x were published this year as opposed to how many were published on y.

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