Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Future of History

Via IK on Facebook

image from

So announced a license plate I glimpsed the other day — nestled, it so happened, in the rear end of a sinister, black Lamborghini. The car passed our six-year-old Toyota Camry while I was driving my daughter Louisa to her music lesson. My car, let me add, is neither sinister nor black. Instead, it is dull and, in the words of the car salesman, "champagne" colored, though I myself prefer "dynamic beige."
As the Lamborghini purred alongside us for a moment, then shifted into a gear that I thought existed only in Star Trek, Louisa, who is 10, asked me what "no phud" meant. "Pee aich dee," I replied. The driver, I added, wanted us to know that he didn’t have one. Louisa asked why, and I answered that he or she was proud to be driving such a nice car without having gotten a phud. "But you have one, right?" Indeed I do, I said, and proud of it. I was about to say that I, too, was advertising this fact by driving our frayed and forlorn Toyota, when Louisa interrupted: "Does everyone need a phud to be an historian?"
At that very moment, we reached her music teacher’s studio and I didn’t have to answer the question. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot. In part because it appears one can no longer be a historian with a Ph.D. The job market has downshifted from bad to catastrophic. From a high of 1,064 tenure-line openings that were advertised in 2006-7, the numbers tumbled this past year to 638. According to a report in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, the prognosis is not encouraging, especially when compared with the decline in general unemployment figures in the United States.
Of course, there are many powerful factors at play. The subsiding of the demographic surge that raised student numbers at colleges, the decline in state support for public colleges, and the shift from tenure line to temporary lines at research universities have all contributed to this collapse in the job market.
But can these elements alone explain this sea change in the profession? Or is it possible that a focus on external factors helps us ignore the internal causes to our decline? For example, graduate history departments have continued to bestow doctoral degrees at a rate that exceeds available positions. They do so for simple, though ultimately suicidal reasons: The flow of graduate students not only justifies the economic relevance of our department in the university, but also justifies the existential relevance of our work. I teach graduate seminars, therefore I exist. That this leads to a second twist on the Cartesian cogito — I have a history Ph.D., therefore I am a barista — does not, I suspect, keep the tenured and happy few awake at night.
But the source of our self-inflicted ills lies elsewhere, I think. Slightly more than 65 years ago, Fernand Braudel published his landmark work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II. A vast canvas of the early modern nations and peoples that bordered the Mediterranean Sea, the work has enjoyed a celebrity that rests on the manner in which it treats historical time. Braudel rejected the domino method, in which historians set up a neat series of political or military events with one seemingly knocking over the next.
Instead, real history, Braudel declared — demographic, economic, and climatic — rumbles deep below the surface of things. When the dominoes tremble and tumble, it is not due to the flick of a general’s or king’s finger, but instead the work of natural and man-made changes rippling up from the historical depths. What Braudel called la longue durée, or the long haul of history, dwarfs and largely determines the actions of individual men and women.
Braudel’s approach casts light not just on early-modern scholastics, but also on their postmodern descendants. Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip. Still governed by guildlike regulations and socio-professional traditions that our early-modern ancestors would recognize, the careers of grad students advance as languidly as trade caravans once did across North Africa.
As they pass the oases of independent cafes and bookstores, a good number of these exhausted explorers will quit their trek and join the tribe Aibeedee.
Trudging slowly across the desert of coursework and dissertation research, grad students pass the many skeletons of peers who had, without success, launched themselves along the same route. As they pass the oases of independent cafes and bookstores, a good number of these exhausted explorers will quit their trek and join the tribe Aibeedee. Their professional lives will come to resemble what one of Braudel’s students, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, called l’histoire immobile, when history seems to idle, if not stall and stop altogether.
For those who survive the desert passage, and reach the port of a tenure-track position, time shudders back into movement. Just barely, though. The seven-year span of time during which your worth will be weighed and fate determined will move as sluggishly as a ship across the Sargasso Sea. The seaweed of service committees will cling to your hull as you wallow in the becalmed waters of academic presses. The process of revise and resubmit for articles you had already chiseled to perfection, the sending out of book proposals to editors who mix short bouts of interest with long periods of silence, the larding of dozens of obscure footnotes demanded by anonymous manuscript readers will make Philip’s Mediterranean seem like the floor of the NYSE in comparison to the static sense of tenure-line life.
The pace of life does not change dramatically for most of those who reach the El Dorado of tenure. Committee servitude deepens as post-publication lassitude descends; now that your dissertation has (finally) become a book, your life has (suddenly) lost its compass. Often, of course, another monograph will take root and slowly flower during la longue tenurée,accompanied by the annual harvest of a lone scholarly article. But academic time, at least when measured against the professional world beyond academe, continues to move with Braudelian languor.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we are unprepared for the tempo and temper of the times. We have handicapped ourselves, in addition, by a process of professional fission, fracturing into a growing number of subdisciplines. As our profession continued to sprawl, we fastened on ever smaller matters, and phrased our work in ever more arcane jargon. Mostly indifferent to the art of storytelling, we have been dying a death by a thousand monographs.
Rarely has a phud fallen with such a thud. Yet, while the institutional future of historians might be grim, is this the case for historians at large? It is conceivable that the future of the past is in better hands with those who drive cars — though not necessarily Lamborghinis — with plates that announce "no phd." Ancients like Thucydides and Tacitus, through moderns like Voltaire and David Hume, to even more modern figures like Barbara Tuchman and Stacey Schiff, are all non-phuds. Careful archival work will always be a sine qua non of the profession, but so too are the smarts and skills of storytelling. Years spent in reading rooms and graduate seminars have misled us to the only audience that matters: those who read us because they want to, not because they have to.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, was recently published by Harvard University Press.

No comments: