Sunday, April 19, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part II)

(Part I)

What does Goldish mean when he says that your work must fit into "some larger narrative?" Do you fit your work into a narrative that other historians have created?
On a normative level, should historians be creating "narratives?" And who are these narratives created for? The general public? Other historians? Academia in general? Posterity?It seems I would favor your initial desire to just do a textual analysis, and eschew from making your work fit into a larger narrative. The mains reasons to fit your work into a narrative would be for personal ends (i.e. career advancement, pleasing your superiors) than for any pedagogical or academic ends. One last thing I'd like to touch on is the relationship between "fitting your work into a narrative" and post-modernism's criticism and skepticism toward such metanarratives. I agree with your general assessment that post-modernism offers interesting analytical tools, but is probably misguided as an end in itself. Could you elaborate your thoughts on this topic?

There is, without question, a pragmatic issue at stake; one day, with the help of God, I hope to find myself, with my dissertation in hand, applying for a job at some university. I will be sitting in a conference room with a collection of professors from both inside and outside the history department, administrators, graduate and undergraduate students. (I have been one of those "other" people sitting in the room.) It is likely that there will not be a single Isaac Abarbanel scholar, apart from me, in the room. Most of the people will not have much of a background in Jewish studies nor will most of them even be medievalists or early modernists. At some point a scholar, maybe from the gender studies program or a modern American history person, is going to ask, not necessarily even with words, "why anyone should care?" There is, furthermore, a particular subtext to go with this question; why should anyone care enough about what I am saying to give me a position at this university that could just as easily be given to someone who does gender studies or modern American history?

At a broader level anyone who wants to work in the humanities is going to have to answer this question in the courthouse of society. The fact is that jobs in the humanities are dwindling; there are not enough jobs for all the newly minted Ph.D.s that our universities produce each year. This situation has only been made worse by the recent down turn in the economy. (For more on this topic, I recommend The Last Professors: the Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities by Frank Donoghue. Donoghue, coincidently, used to work at Ohio State.) Ohio State recently slashed their search for someone to fill a new position in the women’s studies department. I do not expect the people in the women’s studies department to forget this and it is going to be an issue for anyone, like me, who does “dead white male” history, trying to get a job at Ohio State.

The humanities have no Utilitarian value. I now that nothing that I or any of my colleagues, both the ones whom I work with here at Ohio State and the ones I will compete with in the future, do is going to cure cancer, stop Global Warming, or end our dependence on foreign oil. My younger brother is about to start medical school. I joke that he is a modern doctor while I am a medieval doctor; you come to me if you need your humours balanced or some limbs cut off. It is certainly a fair question to ask why society should fund my work and not simply leave it as a hobby for those who enjoy this sort of thing. Last I checked Ohio State is not offering any jobs for people who can beat Super Mario Brothers. (I seem to recall a Farside cartoon on the subject.) This question is particularly acute because up until the nineteenth century history was merely a hobby for gentlemen of leisure. Edward Gibbon was a member of the British Parliament in the eighteenth century who, on the side, wrote a seven volume work called the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that we could go back to this state of affairs. There are thousands of accountants and lawyers with encyclopedic knowledge of the American Civil War. (I used to be one of those people during my adolescence.) Why do you need professional Civil War historians?

(To be continued …)

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