The notion of “an intellectual history of baseball” sounds a bit like an oxymoron, right? This is a game filled with cliches. And Bull Durham got everyone up to speed on those back in 1988—more than quarter-century ago: Continue reading
To catalyze excitement for the conference, below is my tentative itinerary for next week.
Thursday: Opening Night!
– Arrive early via Megabus. I plan to meet with some colleagues and friends before registration (@ 4pm)
– The BIG DRAW on opening night is the Plenary. I can’t miss Hartman, Sehat, Shannon, Kramer, and Curtis reflecting on each other’s ideological problems. I’m hoping for some fun mudslinging.
– Afterwards I hope to carry on the conversation at a local watering hole. I won a bet with Ben Alpers (stakes: single beer) on the Royals-Oakland game, and I want him to pay up. Continue reading
Happy New Year’s to all the S-USIHers out there! I hope you had a restful holiday and mid-academic-year break, even if your break isn’t quite over. Since your attention span is probably as short as mine, as you adjust to getting back in front of the computer—or as you hurriedly put the final touches on that article you
stupidly said you’d write over the holidays—I’m offering an assortment of odds and ends for your light and happy reading pleasure.
1. More Bad News on the History Job Market, Especially for Americanists
The Chronicle and the AHA politely waited until your holidays were over (or until your ticket to the AHA’s job fest were paid) to inform aspirants in the history profession that their dreams are as likely to blow away as your New England hat in the Nor’easter currently underway. Here are some numbers from the Chronicle piece:
– After two years of gains, the number of positions, both academic and nonacademic, advertised with the association fell 7.3 percent, from 740 to 686.
– Like some other scholarly associations, the group has yet to see its job advertisements rebound to prerecession levels. In 2007-8, employers listed 1,064 jobs.
– But the combined data sets [from the AHA and H-Net] didn’t hold much good news for those who recently earned Ph.D.’s in history—1,066 in 2011-12, according to the latest federal data available. The association projects that 1,112 history Ph.D.’s were awarded in the 2012-13 academic year. Yet there were only 654 jobs in the sample open to assistant professors. “This suggests a ratio of 1.7 new Ph.D.’s for every new assistant professor job—and that includes temporary, visiting, and other non-tenure-track positions at that academic rank,” Mr. Mikaelian said in an interview.
– Geographic specialty could also worsen a job seeker’s chances of success. Specialists in North America who earned a Ph.D. in 2012-13 faced a ratio of 2.2 new Ph.D.’s for every advertised entry-level job, while the ratio for Middle Eastern specialists was 1.5 to one.
And from an astute commenter at the Chronicle: Ratios of new PhD’s to job openings only tell part of the story. We should bear in mind the large backlog of PhD’s who have not been able to find positions, or at least constitute the “long-term underemployed.” According to statistics in this article, the number of positions is decreasing while the number of new PhD’s is increasing.
2. Electronic Research Serendipity Continue reading
A good friend of mine monitors all things Josiah Royce. She passed along this tidbit earlier today (from here):
[California Governor Jerry] Brown has more immediate concerns, including his annual budget proposal and State of the State address in January.
In preparation for the latter Brown said he is reading Josiah Royce, a philosopher who was born in Grass Valley in the 1800s and who Brown said “had something called the philosophy of loyalty.”
Brown said he hasn’t decided if Royce or his ideas about loyalty will make it into the address, but he said, “I’m thinking about whether that can apply to California … You’ve got to have a sense that it’s more important than your own particular interest.”
This caused me to wonder how much we know about the links between American philosophers and politicians as a general class, past and present. Continue reading
History and Theory Today
by Kerwin Lee Klein
[Editor’s note: this is the fourth and final essay in a series of roundtable essays on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011). — LDB]
One of the cheeriest things about our current academy, is the way that younger scholars have built institutions like this one. I am struck by the care my readers have devoted to the text. Gregory Jones-Katz’s elegant synopsis of Chapter Three; Daniel Wickberg’s canny observation that Chapter Four is also a reflective critique of the book; and Ben Alpers remarking the ways that I evade some of the contested ground on the frontiers of secularism and religion. These readings were really helpful for me, because when I return to my older work all I can see is duct tape, bondo and primer. The responses raise too many questions and issues for me to engage serially, so I will briefly situate the book in ways that I hope will address most of them, and then close with a few comments on our current moment. Continue reading
A Home-Grown Crisis of Secularism
by Ben Alpers
[Editor’s note: this is the first in a series of roundtable essays on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011). — LDB]
Kerwin Klein’s From History to Theory is a brilliant, idiosyncratic, and argumentative book. Klein spends a good deal of time in his introduction explaining to his reader what he is — and isn’t — up to. Too long, perhaps. It’s in the nature of projects like this that the real proof of the pudding is in the eating. In his most succinct introductory description, Klein writes that his book is “a series of interwoven accounts of particular episodes in modern philosophy of history, mostly in the United States and largely concerned with academic rather than popular discourse” (p. 5). He adds that his concern is more with words than with institutions or individuals. Such a description, while accurate, doesn’t actually tell us much about what follows. I mention all of this as a kind of apology of my own. Just as the only way to really get what Klein is up to in From History to Theory is to read it, the only way I feel I can do it justice is to begin by describing it, chapter by chapter.
The book opens with a fascinating essay on the idea of historiography and its evolving place in the professional study of history. This is followed by a rich chapter on the brief flourishing of the idea of the philosophy of history in the U.S. during the middle decades of the twentieth-century and the founding of the journal History and Theory in 1960, at the moment when the philosophy of history was beginning to run aground. Klein’s focus here—largely mid-twentieth-century analytic philosophy and theory before “French theory”— very nicely sets up the third chapter, which concerns the linguistic turn…or really linguistic turns. Klein notes that, prior to the linguistic turn taken by the new cultural history in the 1980s, the term was in vogue to describe logical positivism in the 1950s. In this and the following chapter, Klein does a terrific job of showing some important American roots for ideas commonly associated with the flood of French thought after 1968. In chapter three, Klein notes the importance of mid-20th-century Anglo-American philosophy to Clifford Geertz, who took the phrase “thick description” from Gilbert Ryle and approvingly cited Susanne Langer. In chapter four, Klein traces the evolving meanings of metanarrative in the works of both French and American thinkers, who sought to locate essential differences between Western and non-Western discourses, and concludes with a strongly argued objection to this project: “The search for eternal principles separating the discursive modes of the West and the rest has reproduced the sort of metaphysics that so many of us wish to escape . . . We would be better off recognizing that narrative mastery comes not from ‘meta’ form but from social situation” (p. 110).
The 50th anniversary issue of Perspectives on History (Vol. 50, No. 9, Dec. 2012), my copy of which arrived in the mail on Thursday, features a forum on the Future of the Discipline. Guest edited by Lynn Hunt, the forum includes a piece by Ben Alpers, “The Future of the Profession.”
The single greatest day in the history of American film criticism is August 14, 1967–the day that Bosley Crowther slammed Bonnie and Clyde in the New York Times. You laugh! That day film criticism became a full-intellectual-contact sport. Crowther was nearly crucified in letters he received from outraged readers. The “younger generation,” it appeared, did not share Crowther’s standards for movie violence nor his distaste for anti-heroes. Crowther’s colleagues excoriated him in print–Pauline Kael famously began her unusually long review of the film, “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” Kael’s influence rose dramatically, so much so that her friend Joe Morgenstern changed his review in Newsweek from negative to positive. The upshot of the “Crowther Affair” was that the most influential movie critic in the country who wrote for the most respected newspaper in America’s single largest movie market had been taken down. The decade that followed this moment witnessed a tremendous outpouring of high-level critical debate about movies amidst one of the greatest periods of filmmaking in American history.
And then Steven Spielberg made Jaws.
Based on a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws hit theaters in the summer of 1975 behind an advertising blitz that culminated in an opening weekend in over 400 theaters. While such an opening was not totally unprecedented, this single movie has often been regarded as the one that changed an era. As perhaps the first true blockbuster it recouped production costs in a few weeks and, just as important, it proved that film critics–with their ability to shape popular opinion–were growing irrelevant. The tradition of releasing a movie in New York and Los Angeles to build some buzz before sending the film across the nation, faded in the glow of Universal’s success with Jaws. Basking in that glow was 26-year old Steven Spielberg.
I am writing a long essay on Spielberg and film critics for a volume on the director that will include something on the order of twenty separate essays. In short, academics find Hollywood’s most successful director…interesting. This is so because, without a doubt, Spielberg is not only the most financially successful filmmaker in American history but also widely regarded as a very good filmmaker–not the greatest or the most innovative, but still a filmmaker that many talented people want to work with. And while not impervious to critiques from film critics, Spielberg is a very good storyteller and excellent technical filmmaker. In short, critics often don’t have much to complain about.
We have confirmation of that last point with the overwhelmingly positive critical reception of his latest film Lincoln. Generally Spielberg’s movies appeal to two sides of the critical community in the United States–he makes both great action/adventure movies and thoughtful period pieces. When critics sit down to write their review, it is no wonder that they thank the Hollywood gods that every so often Steven Spielberg makes a film that breaks up the schlock that comprises the vast majority of what they must watch.
And yet, there has been a chorus of discordant voices regarding Lincoln and the choices Spielberg and his team made when creating the film’s narrative. Ben Alpers has provided a great portal into the debate sparked by Lincoln. We know that other Spielberg films–The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad–have likewise caused flare-ups over choices of whom to focus on. Of course, when Spielberg focuses his lens on an event or historical actor, the effect is substantial and significant. As America’s most successful filmmaker, he generates a narrative that exists far beyond those in his films.
So what we often get with a Spielberg film is a general chorus of praise from film critics and a chorus of complaints from scholars. The critics know that their voices cannot do much to affect the Spielberg aura–and frankly most have no reason to try. Critics can write for public consumption of the film and for posterity, for people like me who attempt to take stock of what Spielberg has meant over the years to American film history.
For scholars of various stripes, though, Spielberg films create occasions of often intense and revealing debates. Over the past two weeks, I have thought more about the role of different historical forces, actors, and events in the fall of slavery than I would have if Spielberg’s movie hadn’t appeared. As a historian of the United States, I’ve profited a great deal from reading Eric Foner and James McPherson, David Goldfield and Dorris Kearns Goodwin, Ira Berlin and David Herbert Donald–but outside seminars in graduate school over a decade ago, I haven’t been engaged with texts on this subject like I have after reading Corey Robin, Ira Chernus, Aaron Bady, Tim Lacy, etc. on the film.
All this discussion reminds me of how I have pined to be part of the era in which Bonnie and Clyde entered the American debate over movies and culture. Except this time, rather than an establishment critic thundering on about the historical inaccuracy of a film and his critics screaming to shift his focus to the world revealed by that film, I read scholars thundering about the historical inaccuracy of Lincoln and their critics screaming that they, in effect, don’t want their world intruding on the one in the film. The debate sparked yet again by another Spielberg epic has been about the way we should remember the past as a people who use that past. Bonnie and Clyde created a similar moment in film history–the point was to argue over what the film meant as a culture signpost; at that time, critics moderated the debate. In our time, the moderators have changed, they are not film critics, but those of us engaged in a vigorous debate over how to represent our collective past.
It seems to me that the gold standard for sparking that kind of debate is Oliver Stone’s JFK. I teach the film every semester I teach a course on historiography. What better way to talk about and demonstrate the use of historical sources and argument than to witness one of the most manipulative and wrongheaded exercises in the historical method. Stone’s film is an utterly brilliant piece of filmmaking–if you want a good contemporary comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, JFK stands ready. While movies don’t “write history with lightening” (no matter what old Woodrow Wilson claimed), they do fire debates about how people can generate a broad, popular debate about our collective memory and the problems left unsettled. Robert Rosenstone argued: “If it is part of the burden of the historical work to make us rethink how we got to where we are and to make us question values that we and our leaders live by, then whatever its flaws, JFK has to be among the most important works of American history ever to appear on screen.”*
Indeed, for all it’s faults, Lincoln poses a moment to debate whether this nation, or any nation, ever truly had a “new birth of freedom.” And while we debate that claim, we should pause to affirm that our movies of the people, for the people, and by the people will not perish from vigorous critical–and scholarly–debate.
* Quoted in Robert Brent Toplin’s excellent treatment of debates over film and history, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (University of Kansas Press, 2002), p. 107.
During his tenure leading the American Historical Association, William Cronon has been using his “From the President” column, which appears monthly in Perspectives on History, to explore the various ways in which people seek to understand the past. He’s been comparing and contrasting the habits of professional historians with other people who study the past, such as popular and amateur historians. Cronon’s overarching objective, it seems to me, is to convince professional historians to make their scholarship more accessible to a larger public, without losing the scrupulous disciplinary standards which we’ve been conditioned to since our first graduate seminar. This is a laudable goal, even though, as Ben Alpers rightly pointed out a few months ago, in response to one of Cronon’s editorials, “the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.”
Analysis or synthesis: which should we prefer?
Is it better to explore tightly bounded specialized topics by asking small unasked questions that can be answered as rigorously as possible, combining previously unknown primary documents and technical arguments in original ways whether or not they ultimately matter very much? Or is it better to range widely across the historical landscape, borrowing insights from secondary sources to make large claims, relying even on documents everyone already knows to pursue big familiar questions which however unanswerable, we all recognize to be undeniably important?
Cronon loves his false choices. Of course good historians should closely analyze their subjects in original ways. And of course we should also put our subjects in a broad enough context so as to make our work relevant, which requires synthesis. But Cronon points out that where we’re trained more to do the former, the public is hungrier for the latter. “The Big Questions of history are often what members of the public most want historians to discuss. Yet Big Questions are precisely what our training has taught us to be wary about tackling—and what the sharp knives of our colleagues make us fear we would be unprofessional even to ask.”