Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe
Thanks to a series of Teagle Teaching Workshops at Northwestern, the executive director of the American Historical Association, Jim Grossman, gave a lecture on “Historical Thinking and Public Culture.” Much of what he said hearkened to conversations I had at the Historical Society’s 2012 conference "Popularizing Historical Knowledge: Practice, Prospects, and Perils." As Jim said, we know people like history. The History Channel, thousands of reenactors, and millions of genealogists indicate a thirst for knowledge of the past. Derision of such historical fancy keeps doctoral candidates
clothed in a veil of superiority while their bank balances dwindle.
Grossman suggested a revolutionary shift in academic historical thought:
dispense with the patronizing judgment and listen to what people want
The lesson holds for the undergraduate classroom. Faculty ask one another, “what are you teaching?” Grossman suggests we end the obsession with our own performances at the front of class and focus upon what the students at the back learned. While teaching and learning have a symbiotic relationship, the shift of emphasis from professor to listener signals a broader embrace of history’s public value. The nuances of Foucauldian analysis may help the professor frame his or her argument, but if every iPhone in the lecture hall sends out a frantic “wtf?” we have lost the pedagogical point.
Few undergraduates seek to join the professoriate. All but a few desire paid employment. Grossman would not suggest that we shut our doors and send our students across campus to become computer programmers. However, we owe our history majors the language with which to market themselves upon graduation. Messiah College’s John Fea makes a noble effort in his blog series, “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” Until every historian commits to explain the value of historical thinking, parents and politicians will direct students away from the classes possessed of the power to make them empathic progeny and conscientious citizens.
So then, what does Jim Grossman think history has to offer John and Jane Q. Public? The contingency and complexity of the human experience. Every medical professional takes a patient history, but how many understand the art of the open-ended question or the capacity for a written document to contain multiple truths? Academic historians sneer at biographers, but nothing sells better than a book with a president (or his wife) on the cover. The myths that undermine popular conceptions of the past emerge from these tomes. What if history classes taught students to compose biographies based upon a messy past in which the subject is but one actor with limited agency and tackled the linear hagiographies lining airport shelves within ivy-covered halls?
History doctoral programs posit law schools as their perpetual rivals. Grossman confronted a paneled room filled with professors and would-be-professors with a painful truth. Historians slander law schools as “vocational,” but law graduates take their skills and apply them in myriad occupations outside the law. Doctoral programs in history train their students to become one thing, professors. Who looks vocational now?
Historians also like to slander lawyers as unethical, but Grossman argues that Ph.D. programs have become intellectual ponzi schemes. Universities constantly expand the number of graduate student TAs who “sell” history to undergraduates although they will never reap the rewards of tenure, because the removal of a retirement age depleted the lines available. Ethics demand early, repeated, reality checks. Tell graduate students that tenured jobs at R1 universities are as rare as positions in the NBA. We know that every child with a great playground jump shot cannot become Michael Jordan; neither can every brilliant young scholar become Natalie Zemon Davis.
Furthermore, that brilliant young scholar might prefer to avoid the life of multiple moves and long-distance relationships nigh-on inherent to a lofty academic career. Grossman shared a study that concluded that historians outside the academy are happier than those within it. Commitment to a life of the mind ought not be mutually exclusive with commitment to a physical community. Early introduction to the options that may resolve the tensions between such commitments would remove the secrecy and shame associated with the pursuit of positions off the tenure track. Because I work outside a given department, my office often serves as the “safe space” in which to discuss the desire to stay with another person or in a particular geographic region rather than to travel wherever a tenure line might take an end-stage dissertator. The anxiety associated with such decisions undermines students’ job searches in all arenas.
I suspect if we could borrow Rawls’s veil of ignorance and place it over the tenured and chaired advisers who direct dissertations, they would offer greater empathy toward their advisees’ plight. Those who won the academic lottery sometimes forget that their success came from luck in addition to ability. Grossman reminded skeptics from his audience of a friend who got an offer from an illustrious Ivy on the same day he received a rejection from a regional university. Now, what if that friend had no desire to live in New Haven, because a spouse, ailing parents, or children loved their environs elsewhere?
Proper pedagogy prepares people to make difficult personal and professional decisions. Historical thinking helps in that task. To my mind, we cannot take Grossman's advice and move our ideas and ourselves beyond the cloister known as tenure too soon.