TL;DR for Historical Scholarship

Because all the cool kids are doing it, let me dash off a quick thought on William Cronon’s essay “Professional Boredom”.

I’m very sympathetic with Cronon’s reasoning on almost every point, particularly with his sense that what ought to matter as “expert” historical publication or dissemination should be very broadly defined and with his celebration of communicative, readable scholarship. I don’t have any problem with using words like “agency” or “contingency” (one of my current projects is centrally about agency) but I think he’s right that scholarly historians should pause and explain at least some of the conceptual vocabulary they rely upon, to widen their vision of who might be reading and who might want to read. These are familiar themes for me here.

But here’s an slightly different idea riffing off of Cronon’s concern about history being boring. Some years ago, I wrote an essay about the Zimbabwean historian David Beach after his death. (JSTOR link, for those of you with access.) Much of Beach’s work would probably be considered ‘boring’ in some sense, but not because it uses impenetrable theoretical jargon. His writing style was plain and accessible, and his subject straightforward. It’s just that even many Zimbabweans are not altogether that interested in the fine-grained narrative recounting of the political histories of various Shona-speaking chiefdoms and states. Most of Beach’s work was history for historians, though he was delighted by the thought of a wider local or international public taking an interest in his scholarship. (At the time of his death, he was working on a project of much bigger scope, modelled on the Annales historians, that might well have reached a wider readership.)

What I wrote in my appreciation of Beach was that he’d converted me to valuing this kind of fine-grained empiricism more than I previously had. I came to admire the professional craft that it took to research and relate this knowledge (and Cronon notes that he similarly values this kind of effort) but I also realized more completely how scholarship is a very old and deep practice of collaboration between thousands of people separated by time and space. The exciting, engaging, communicative work that Cronon and I esteem often relies upon scholars who do “boring” work. You can’t synthesize or generalize without specialists doing their work first.

But let’s go beyond the usual huzzahs for pluralism or intellectual diversity here. Perhaps the problem is that specialized historical research is peculiarly ill-suited for the long-form monograph. Perhaps this is what makes specialized research “boring”: that its strengths and contributions are best expressed and disseminated in some other form. Here I think Cronon could take a page from Kathleen Fitzpatrick: that the issue is less with historians who are boring and more with the genres in which they communicate, the structure of what Swarthmore’s president Rebecca Chopp refers to as “knowledge design”.

So if being boring is a problem, let’s think about better ways to communicate findings from specialized research such that this knowledge can benefit the widest range of practicing historians and for that matter, history’s publics. There are established forms of publication that historians don’t use very often compared to other disciplines: the short research note or update in a journal; republication of a primary source accompanied by annotations or commentary; conference proceedings as a terminal form of publication aiming primarily at giving information about a specialized issue or question. More excitingly, using Fitzpatrick as a guide, I think we can imagine many novel digital forms of dissemination. Live or serial reports (short or long) from within the process of archival study or working through a historiography; a specialized weblog tracking fine-grained questions about interpretation and evidence; and other short-form modes of dissemination.

Inventing new channels and forms,or renovating and using underused ones, is more than just a matter of making work available, of course. It’s also about making sure that such work is highly valued. I recall sitting on a grant panel some years ago and being told by the funders that they simply never gave awards to reference works. This is what I discussed in my essay on Beach: that the incentive structures in academia, particularly in hiring and tenure, tend to work against both what Cronon calls “boring” and what he calls exciting and engaging, to valorize work which is in a very narrow middle zone of being “interesting, if you’re trained properly” (the sort of move that Claire Potter rightly suggests is being made when we say that someone’s work is “smart”). This is of course the issue that most strongly motivates Fitzpatrick’s critique of existing forms of scholarly publication: that even when alternatives make enormous sense, there are serious professional risks for scholars who pursue them.

If we can work out new covenants and infrastructure, however, the potential seems enormous. Imagine a huge cluster of well-preserved reports fresh from various archives, small interpretations generated straight out of the work of making sense of particular documents, research notes that identify the cutting edge problems facing specialized study of particular times and places. That would be both more useful to a range of publics and less “boring”, more a fulfillment of the collaborative and social responsibilities that scholars have traditionally exalted, than what we have now. Cronon’s not wrong that there are many monographs that we and our publics could live without, but he might be wrong about whether the research that has gone in to such works is equally dispensible.

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7 Responses to TL;DR for Historical Scholarship

  1. john theibault says:

    Although I ultimately fall more on Ben Alpers’ side that the amount of genuine value derived from the long percolation of “boring” works is underappreciated, it would indeed be great if academic historians could embrace a wider range of communication styles to help bridge some of the gap between “professional historians” in the narrow sense and readers of “professional history” in the sense that Cronon advocates in that piece. The recent publicity about upward revisions in the death toll from the Civil War shows that even highly technical historical work can reach a wide audience — if it is a timely intervention on a topic that resonates with the general public. But unlike “science,” which gets a weekly section in the national daily papers, most history news is communicated in reviews of books rather than articles.

    I think your last couple of sentences overreach. I don’t see Cronon suggesting anywhere that “there are many monographs that we and our publics could live without,” much less that their research would be “dispensible.” From what he has written so far, I’m sure he would embrace the diverse forms of communication you advocate, but without arguing that we need fewer monographs. After all, the other side of Fitzpatrick’s publication model is that it breaks down the gatekeeping function that prevents some work from getting published because its potential audience is too small.

  2. Mike says:

    It seems hard to believe that in these latter days there’s any potential audience that’s “too small” to address with a particular scholarly work — i.e. “product.” As the “distribution” costs have gone to nearly zero (after all, what does it “cost” to publish on the internet?) it’s possible to produce very specialized works of narrow interest. If you further relax the requirement that they be self-supporting (by leveraging your paycheck at a college or research foundation…or post office or high school or even stamping plant), then what would the use of keeping a gate based on potential audience?

    The problem remains that the “marketing” cost has remained stubbornly high. In academic or research circles as in general commerce, that’s the problem of notifying your audience (whom you may not be acquainted with a priori) that you have something they might value. Are there effectively clearinghouses for these kinds of materials? Or does the interested person have to rely on the Google, which is an imperfect solution if you don’t already know what you’re looking for.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    John, I read Cronon as indeed saying there are monographs he’d rather not have: boring ones. The question that Ben is asking is, “Can every work of historical scholarship be broadly engaging?” He’s saying no, and I’d say no. But that’s why the answer for me is that maybe it’s the form not the content that makes some works of scholarship ‘boring’.

  4. Darin says:


    Thanks for the “quick thought” on Cronon’s essay. Many of the issues he raises and that come up in various ways in your post plague the history of science, perhaps more acutely.

    I am particularly interested in your thoughts on how better communicate the results of our specialized research so that the knowledge we produce can benefit the widest range practicing historians (whatever delimits that category). Certainly digital channels for disseminating our work hold considerable promise as do some of the more traditional venues you mention. But as you say, the form of dissemination is not only problem, or even the most pressing problem. We have to generate value. We need to convince both our peers in the academy and various audiences outside the academy that our work has value.

    Unfortunately, there is a lot a stake here. It’s not just incentives that need to be changed. There are real disincentives, risks as you and Fitzpatrick put it, for scholars who pursue alternatives. Speaking for myself, as a junior member of the faculty, I carefully monitor what I do that doesn’t fit the narrow definition of a proper academic activity.

    While I am certainly not one of the cool kids, here are my initial 2¢ on Cronon’s piece:

  5. I’ve read some pretty damn boring journal articles, so I’m not sure length is the key factor. I have to say I come down on the side of there are some things that can only be done in monographs which may indeed be boring to the public, and so be it. Part of being a historian is engaging in debates with other historians about history. Part of being a historian is engaging with people not known as historians about historical subjects as well. It needn’t be either/or but I’m also not backing down from my right to engage in both.

  6. I really like the idea of historians exploring other established forms of publication. Every time I write in a different format I find I have to rethink my writing, my audience and my argument…this is always a useful process. I am wondering what you think about the way historians are trained to write in graduate school? Would it be beneficial to incorporate other sorts of writing assignments into the graduate school experience? I remember writing research papers, historiography, the odd book review a few short amorphous responses papers and a dissertation. As a grad student emeritus/pre-employed faculty member I now find myself fumbling for examples of history writing beyond the monograph, journal article, book review. I have found working on a blog to be a great way to reorder my thoughts and connect with others who are in the process of writing.

    Katherine O’Flaherty

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