Roll Over Ranke, Tell Hofstadter the News

more on no more plan b and the future of history.

Tenured Radical (Claire Potter) has a typically incisive blog post about the recent “No More Plan B” brouhaha (upcoming panel this Friday at the AHA in Chicago). Calling Grafton a rock star, hers is a synthesis of his call to restructure the values of advanced historical training and Jesse Lemisch’s retort that what we need are jobs, jobs, jobs in education.

Of course, as TR points out, we need both:

Although I think that Lemisch would agree with me on the point I make above, the implications of his argument are that expanded employment (which would enact other kinds of social justice agendas, not the least of which would be expanded opportunities for education) would be enough. I disagree: it is not enough, and this is why Anthony Grafton is a rock star. Arguing that we stop pushing young scholars into a failed market where the most successful will be constrained in their opportunities and intellectual choices, Grafton wants to change the values that have been ineffective in creating jobs for historians. Public history has the potential to create a more free employment system that would support an expanded intellectual community and allow creativity collaborations to flourish.

Furthermore, in a topic that I will take up in part II of this series, Grafton is arguing that the most path-breaking and influential scholarship in the twenty-first century is likely to be collaborative and accessible to a broad public.  Breaking with the model of the exceptional individual, who works in private and competes successfully among professionally and narrowly similar peers, a paradigm that has governed access to the profession for over a century, is in its own way revolutionary.

There’s a lot to consider in TR’s synthesis, but I want to weigh in again with the point that we need to honor the desire of many hopeful history graduate students to become tenure-track professors. Yes, we can, should, and must imagine new modes of cooperative, public historical scholarship (digital humanities in the house). We just need to do so in ways that do not wind up reinforcing experiences of precarity, exploitation, and contingency among the intellectual laborers in the field of history.

In other words, there are important things to cling to in the older, increasingly impossible model of tenure-track professorships. In fact, the longing to be a tenure-track professor seems to me to be connected to the larger critique of intellectual labor within neoliberal capitalism implicit in Lemisch’s curmudgeonly response to Grafton and Grossman. People want to practice the independent craft of history securely, with a range of autonomy and freedom that empowers democratic historical activity rather than impoverishes it.

Ultimately, the question is not just what kind of history we pursue, but also what kind of public we pursue it in. We need to imagine and work toward a public life that supports the knitting together of university history departments, public institutions, and people’s lives in ways that are robustly intellectual and economically innovative. It needs to be a public that expands individual autonomy and collaborative historical research at the same time.

If we do not think carefully about the profession and public life in tandem and work toward changing both, we risk creating a field and a public that merely incorporate historians into existing, exploitative labor markets instead of transforming labor conditions to unleash improved historical investigation and a better public life.

This project, however, will require more collective modes of historical creativity, not just a rock star in the spotlight.


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