Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September Issue of Historically Speaking and the History of History Departments

Randall Stephens

In the coming weeks Historically Speaking subscribers will receive the latest issue.  In it we have essays on American political history and reform (John Frederick Martin and F. S.
Naiden), objectivity in the study of history (Judith Walzer Leavitt), Atlantic World history (Trevor Burnard), photography and the Great War (Von Hardesty), an obituary of Pauline Maier (Chris Beneke), and Evangelical Catholicism (Mark Edwards).  Alongside those are interviews with scholars concerning American religious history (Larry Eskridge), and the critical years of 1979 (Christian Caryl) and 1913 (Charles Emmerson).

The September issue also includes James M. Banner's fascinating essay "The Almost Nonexistent History of Academic Departments."  Writes Banner: "Department histories are almost nowhere to be found."  Why is that so?  Says Banner:

The history of education has never found a strong place in history departments. Those aspiring historians seeking entry to graduate programs, even those with a nascent interest in the history of education, have not been without good sense in defining their interests to graduate program admissions committees as being, say, in the social history of ideas if they are interested in academic culture or, say, in the history of the social composition of academic faculties or student cohorts if they have a general interest in academic institutions. Those of their mentors who might wish it were otherwise, who would like to see students pursue the history of academic departments—and there are a few, even if very few, of these—have found it a losing game to try to attract their students to such subjects. It is thus a distinctive and hardy student who proposes to undertake a dissertation on the history of a university department in any discipline.

Two other forces are at work against the pursuit of departmental histories. One is the simple fact that institutions do not have memories; only their members and employees do. If faculty members fail to take an interest in their histories, academic departments are not likely to be the subject of institutional histories. The histories of departments are carried within their members’ memories, not within the institutions themselves; once their members resign or retire, the history they embody leaves the department with them. Only concerted efforts to capture and preserve those memories can avail.

But a second reality working against department histories is the disposition of most faculty members toward their own departments and colleagues. Academics are practiced in, sometimes champions of, gossip. They nourish themselves on intramural disputes, on information about their colleagues, on battles over appointments. That is generally all to the good, for if kept within collegial bounds, gossip and inside information are constituent parts of the equilibrating mechanisms of all institutions. But in this case, private knowledge gained and imparted through gossip stands in for formal historical knowledge and is not recorded or caught on paper or tape as a resource for formal future histories unless it happens to be set down in personal correspondence or diaries that find themselves into library collections. If not, that knowledge is allowed to vanish into air and thus be of no use to future historians. . . .

Read more by subscribing to the print issue or by logging on to Project Muse.

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