An interim report on the history biz

These days, I don’t attend many conferences, and so it’s easy to lose touch with current intellectual trends. It’s one of the weird things about modern academic life: we’re so oriented to writing and publishing, so keen on having our students write well, and yet so much information still passes face-to-face, in casual conversations. In fact maybe more than ever– there’s so much written and published now, I at least often need real-life talk to sort it all out and understand who’s arguing about what. In an earlier post, I described how different things are in Paris — there you can’t go a week without that kind of conversation. But North America isn’t like that, for better and for worse. Even big-city American scholars work for long stretches in isolation, and it tends to makes us both more original and farther out of touch.

So last week was quite a change for me– the inscrutable Scheduling Gods signed me up for three high-intensity events in a row. Last weekend our Buffalo graduate students put on their annual conference, so I interacted a fair amount with young people just starting in the profession; then Wednesday, there was a visit to Buffalo by Roger Chartier, probably the most famous French historian of my own generation; and then Friday the terrific U Illinois historian Clare Crowston spoke about gender in French history, to a Toronto audience that included both some famous names and some neophytes. That typified my whole week– it included moments with pretty much every level and every age group in today’s history biz.

These were all great events, and I won’t get into the details. But with it all fresh in my mind, it seems worth jotting down some impressions about how history looks in 2016, after a week immersed in discussion of it.

Of course the basic answer is the same as it always to that kind of question: in some ways history’s looking great, better than ever; in some ways (maybe fewer in number but sharper in impact) it looks terrible; and then in some ways, it’s complicated– things aren’t better or worse, just new and strange.

The good news starts with the continued enthusiasm of young people for history studies, despite all the discouragements in their way. The students at last weekend’s conference (a few undergraduates, lots of MA and PhD students) are doing good work on fascinating topics; and the same is true higher up the professional ladder– publishing is harder now than it used to be, but historians still manage to publish a spectacular number of terrific books. There’s good news about the profession’s sociology as well. Interactions are way more democratic than back in the old days, and talk actually moves pretty well across the famous/not-famous, old/young barriers. The interest in global history is another  democratizing force. Yes, it’s limited the resources available for old-line fields like my own, but the net effect is clearly good: we’re all aware of other peoples in ways that were inconceivable twenty years ago.

But then, the bad news also starts with the social contexts. There’s the academic jobs crisis, which in the last couple of years has moved from bad to downright horrible. That shouldn’t surprise anyone– for years our governing elites have been cutting back on education funding, plus we’ve had endless lectures on the importance of practical, employment-prep, STEM-style education; historians themselves sometimes talk that talk. Who can be surprised when young people heed the advice, and decide they’re better off taking courses in accounting? And if the students don’t show up, departments are going to shrivel and disappear.

And this is where the bad news shades into the “it’s complicated” news, because the changing sociology of historical studies seems actually to be changing the content. That the content has changed was one of the themes that popped up at each event over the last week– meaning above all the near-disappearance of social history. Few historians do quantitative studies any more, or study class relations, or social groups like slaves, workers, or bourgeois; and few say much about social conflict, whether between classes, races, sexes, or generations. Through about 1980, these were all hot topics, but now we’re much more likely to study questions of culture and identity, how groups and individuals define and understand themselves. That was the organizing theme of our graduate student conference; at a round-table session there, one of my colleagues even said that understanding identities pretty much summed up his idea of the historian’s basic mission.

There are numerous reasons for these shifts, including the most basic: culture and identity were big parts of the past, and we need to recapture them. But the mechanics of modern academic life contribute as well. Social history tends to be slow and expensive; today’s cash-strapped institutions can’t afford the costs, and individuals can’t easily afford the time– spending a dozen years researching (say) family structures in a German village doesn’t square with today’s career timelines. You’re usually better off using those years to work up two or three more impressionistic books.

But I think there’s another reason, lurking farther in the background and exerting a vaguer, more intermittent influence: namely, that a lot of social history has seriously buzz-killing overtones, because many lives in the past weren’t so great. They were actually brief, impoverished, hopeless, dingy, constrained. And exploited– much of that poverty and hopelessness resulted directly from arrangements made by the rich and powerful. Do we historians want to explore all those downer sides of life? Do we (or the agencies that pay the bills) want to highlight the ways powerful people screw over the weak? Of course those issues haven’t disappeared from historians’ agendas. But all three of last week’s events left me with images of a historians’ tug-of-war, optimism against pessimism, with optimism generally winning.

In fact that’s the bottom-line impression last week left me with, that all sorts of history-related issues are being tugged back and forth, without many clues as to outcomes.  Stay tuned- the next decade should be awfully interesting.