Friday, May 12, 2017
You Are Now Entering the No Bullshit Zone: My Letter of Application to Teach College History
In this letter of application for the position of teacher of History at your university I have decided to be brutally honest instead of playing that nice little etiquette game we usually play when one applies for an academic position and when one considers those who apply for an academic position.
I have found during my years of teaching History and Sociology that it is more difficult to teach general education classes in History than to teach general education courses in Sociology for a variety of different reasons. Many students, for example, find History "boring" for understandable reasons given how History is taught in secondary schools and in many colleges in the US. Many students rightly, in my opinion, find memorising names and dates with little in the way of broader theoretical context and discussion, history as trivial pursuit in other words, as irrelevant to their lives and their future lives as they see them.
I share these student concerns about the relevance of the academic discipline of History to them and have other concerns about History as it is practised in the ivy walls of the academy. First, I think that academic History is far too often boosterist in form. I think, in other words, that History is far too often the academic version of vanity motorcar plates or citizens of a particular community trying to sell the supposed virtues of their particular town to tourists or to those who might move to it. Mormons, for instance, tend to write Mormon History. Mennonites largely write Anabaptist History. Jews by and large write Jewish History. Those who romanticise the working class tend to write working class history. Americans tend to write American history. As Max Weber realised long ago, it is questionable whether anyone can write dispassionately about someone or something they value. And the truth about History is that those who write History too often value that which they are studying and writing about and celebrate it as one more step in the progressive march of time.
Second, academic History as practised is not as atheoretical or anti-theoretical as it thinks it is. Mormon diaries and journals, for instance, don't say that I became a Mormon because the Erie Canal transformed the Burned Over District, that I became a Mormon because Jacksonians democratised American political culture and I hated democracy, they don't say I became a Mormon because I hailed from a geography with a Puritan heritage, or that I became a Mormon because I was poor. Mormons say they became a Mormon because they believed Joseph Smith was a prophet because of the Book of Mormon or because he was receiving revelations from on high. One would think that the fact that History is inherently theoretical would lead Historians to foreground theory and have students, particularly postgraduate students, take mandated courses in theory so that the theory they engage in is a sophisticated and reflexive theory. That History doesn't generally do this says something important, in my opinion, about the dismal state of the discipline.
Third, I have a problem with the notion, a notion fed by the boosterism and lack of theoretical rigour and sophistication, common among many Historians that anything and everything, regardless of significance, is worthy of analysis even if it has been done before. It is this, in my opinion, which makes academic History so amenable to and vulnerable to the vanity analysis, to history for the sake of ethnic, religious, national, or cultural pride. One can, as Weber does, of course, raise the question of whether all intellectual and academic analysis is in some way, shape, or form grounded in the values of the person doing the analysis, and I think it is. There is, however, a world of difference between a vanity analysis that is significant, a recent study which concluded that women in 19th century Albany, New York were engaged in business in numbers heretofore not understood, for instance, and a vanity analysis that is not significant, a study which concluded that Jews in World War II Cairo divorced, for example. It is the degree of significance that makes the former important, important because it turns upside down the common academic historical tale of a lack of businesswomen in 19th century America and the latter study which doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.
Fourth, I don’t think that History is exceptional or unique. History is really no different from many of those other academic “disciplines” that arose in the modern world of mass consumer capitalism, mass nation states, mass centralised bureaucracies with their large numbers of mass professionals, and mass culture. Historians interpret, though they don’t necessarily foreground this, primary source materials through the same economic, political, cultural, geographic, and demographic frames that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries and which are today commonly used, if in a much more reflexive fashion, by Sociologists, Anthropologists, and many in the Humanities to make sense of human life, human society, and human culture.
Like any culture academic History has its own sacred symbols, namely its archival research, and its devotion to totalism and wholism, the notion that it is useful to research and write about every aspect of every local history even if it has been done before, the endless papers and books written over and over again on labour movements, specific ethnic groups, and specific religious groups or denominations, for example. This totalism as practised by Historians, is, by the way, hardly unique. American Anthropology with its quadrifurcation into Biological Anthropology, Social Anthropology, Linguistics, and Archaeology, is a product of the same social theoretical mania that began in the 19th century for a complete accounting of every aspect of human life. Like all cultures academic History has its own sacred practises or rites of passage, archival research, through which all of its postulants have to pass before they can earn a postgraduate degree, and a narrative writing style marked by the, some might say, excessive use of examples. And like all bureaucracies academic History has attempted, with some success, to mark off or set boundary markers around knowledges that they, or so they tell themselves and try to get others to believe, and only they, can, using their sacred symbols, analyse and interpret authoritatively and accurately. When viewed dispassionately, however, History’s emphasis on primary source material is no different than Ethnography’s emphasis on specific societies and cultures, its primary source material, Physics’ emphasis on the stuff of the universe, its primary source material, or Biology’s emphasis on species, its primary source material. Academic History thus, unlike Anthropology with its study of human evolution, its study of the remains of human evolution and human life, and its study of dynamic human society and culture via ethnography and ethnology or Sociology, with its quantitative and qualitative analysis and its theoretically sophisticated study of human society and culture, does not and cannot have anything unique about it.
Because academic History is not unique, a compelling case can be made that History is not and should not have ever been an academic discipline. History in its non-academic sense, history as looking critically at the past and its artifacts, should, in my opinion, be a way of thinking about and a method for approaching everything from particle physics to the rise of nanoscience, and from film to television. History thus has no specific methodology or realm of knowledge. History, in this sense, is a methodology. History is the long-standing notion that, that what came before may have an impact on what happened afterwards. History is, in other words, a notion of cause and effect.
These two fictions—that History is distinctive and that vanity History is worthy History—have made me particularly skeptical of the notion that academic History is a distinctive discipline and skeptical of so much of the History undertaken and produced in name of academic History. And it is these two fictions that have led me to conclude that History is a truly dismal humanity and social science. History is perhaps not as dismal as academic Economics, which is theology masquerading as empirical analysis, but it is dismal nevertheless.
Some of you may be chomping at the bit to ask me the obvious question: why, given your empirical analysis above do you even want to teach History? That is a great question and there are several answers to that question. I have, for good or ill, a Ph.D in History. My pension is vested at SUNY. I have my health insurance after retirement from SUNY. I like to travel. I like to experience new experiences. I would like to make more money. I would, by the way, if I could do it over again take a doctoral degree in Sociology or the Social Sciences because I like teaching something, Sociology, that is far more relevant to students and I like teaching something that has a reflexive and critical core.
If you are looking for a more traditional non-traditional reason for why I am applying for a job in History you can, of course, consider the usual suspects. I have a PhD. In History, specifically American History, and have taught American, Comparative, World, Western, and European Histories. Or you can, more importantly in my opinion, consider hiring me because I am not your typical academic Historian. You can consider hiring me because I because I believe it is essential to put history into its broader theoretical, methodological, intellectual, and empirical contexts. Such a history, I think, at least potentially, makes for a far more interesting and generalisable History than is often taught in Introductory American History classes. You should hire me because I want to try an experiment. I want, in other words, to make History relevant to the lives of students I teach..
Dr. Ronald Helfrich Jnr.