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Reflections of an AHA First-Timer

by Emily Rutherford

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
—David Lodge, Small World, in The Campus Trilogy, 223

Lodge’s novel, a brilliant pastiche of medieval romance which traces the peregrinations of several international conference-going English professors, climaxes at “the Big Daddy of conferences,” the Modern Language Association’s Annual Meeting. His extended description of that meeting is worth a read for anyone who, like Lodge’s ’70s literary scholars, found themselves at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan last weekend awash in sensory overload. One of the things Lodge’s novel gets most right is how much of the point of academic conferences, particularly enormous ones, is about anything other than the ideas being exchanged: the people exchanging them, the social and political contexts in which they are being devised and exchanged. At AHA 2015, for every panel, like those we highlighted, devoted to new developments in the scholarship of ideas, there was a panel about the historical context of Ferguson, or about Leftist takes on the meaning of “public intellectual” and how to be one. One of the most important things going on at the AHA was how historians worked together to imagine how they might be historians in the world, whether that meant debating whether to suspend the AHA bylaws to allow a resolution regarding Israel and Palestine to be considered at the Business Meeting, countless sessions about digital humanities, social media, and more traditional forms of public history, or the usual and essential spate of sessions about teaching, one of the most important forms of public engagement.

From the panels I attended, it was clear that what a “public intellectual” is can be an intellectual-historical question. So can questions of field and relevance, and whether politically and socially conscious history in the United States can be produced and taught as effectively by non-US historians as by those who do the national history. But just as important as all this are closely related questions about who is debating these issues, how they interact, the personal commitments that inform their stances on history, society, and politics, and what happens when you pour them all into the hallways of a Manhattan Hilton and ratchet up the tension by requiring many of them to undergo high-stakes job interviews in the process. As effective as (though certainly very different from!) Lodge’s novel in explaining how this is the case was outgoing AHA President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, which mapped the moral field in which a variety of different nineteenth-century French racial theorists operated. Goldstein stressed the need to recover these theorists’ own debates about the moral content of scientific versus philosophical approaches, allowing us to move towards a more complex understanding of their different views than a blanket condemnation of their distasteful imposition of racial hierarchies allows. The published version of the address will appear in the February issue of the AHR, and perhaps I will delve more deeply into its content then. But as I listened in-person on Saturday, it seemed that the method Goldstein was modeling for us could easily be applied to the AHA itself, to the complexities of the moral and political implications of our work, the unintended consequences of decisions made on such grounds, and the ways in which personal contingencies can shape the moral field in which it seems possible, as a scholar or intellectual, to operate.

The most revealing aspect of the conference was the five hours I spent as a shift-worker for the Local Arrangements Committee, during which I, in the company of many other New York-area grad students, ran around the Hilton in an orange t-shirt, providing directions, answering questions, and doing headcounts in the sessions. I must have come into contact with a hefty proportion of the conference attendees, and it was interesting to note who was kind and respectful when they asked for directions, even if they were senior scholars; who remembered that we had met before; who banded together in groups because they had been grad students together 25 or fifty years ago; who made a beeline for the receptions as soon as the panels were over; who (like the two military history buffs who came up to me looking for a lecture on George C. Marshall) had never heard of the AHA before. My own research on nineteenth-century England shows that intellectual communities and the making of their history occurs just as much in these circumstances as in what can be discerned through formal published conference proceedings, journals, or monographs. Understanding the historical profession as a thing today also entails understanding who historians are, why, as much as what, they think about the past, the webs of their friendships, how they treat graduate students, which way they voted on whether to suspend a bylaw and the discussion that got them there.

I hope there wasn’t as much sexual scandal at AHA 2015 as there is at David Lodge’s fictional MLA. But in choosing to account for conferences in the terms of romance, he has an important point to make about the relationship of intellect to everything else.

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The History Manifesto and Its Discontents

by Emily Rutherford

David Armitage and Jo Guldi published their History Manifesto online and in print in October, and since then the critiques have begun to roll in. There has been plenty of chatter on Twitter and an interesting set of responses from a group of graduate students and faculty at the Modern British Studies program at the University of Birmingham. But most trenchant to date is a response from historians of Britain Deborah Cohen (Northwestern) and Peter Mandler (Cambridge), shortly to be published in the American Historical Review with Armitage and Guldi’s reply.

Cohen and Mandler take sharp aim at the “fantasy” (8 – page numbers refer to the draft PDF published on Cohen’s personal website) that they argue the History Manifesto has constructed, of history’s increasing overspecialization and declining relevance. Their primary criticisms are twofold. First, they take issue with Armitage and Guldi’s interpretation of historian Benjamin Schmidt’s data about the last several decades of history PhDs, as well as other evidence Armitage and Guldi present in order to suggest that dissertations’ horizons have contracted since the 1960s. In fact, they write, the last four decades of AHR book reviews show that “There’s no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall off afterwards, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (4). This, therefore, undermines the urgency of Armitage and Guldi’s central claim that history needs a return to large-scale, narrative, political history in order to reestablish its relevance to policymakers and world events. Second, Cohen and Mandler turn, as many others have, to Armitage and Guldi’s representation of “microhistory” as the antithesis of the “longue durée” history they advocate. Cohen and Mandler write that Armitage and Guldi’s “microhistory” is a caricature, incorporating the traditional definition of microhistory as well as an “overflowing grab-bag of other sorts of history” (7), such as those of race, class, and gender, which in fact have not confined themselves to short time-scales. They point to specific instances in which these “new” forms of history have had precisely the concrete effects upon policy for which Armitage and Guldi wish: such as the Lawrence v. Texas case which overturned sodomy law, in which a pivotal historians’ amicus brief drew on kinds of history which Armitage and Guldi disparage. Finally, Cohen and Mandler point out that, whatever the role of historians in policy, history retains a serious hold among a diverse public in large part because of the ever-widening range of subjects and approaches it embraces, and that this is as much or more a claim for its significance (and success) than any crisis narrative focused on policy.

Whatever the merits of Armitage and Guldi’s and Cohen and Mandler’s respective stances, what becomes clear in this exchange is the significance of intellectual-historical approaches to finding a role for our discipline in today’s society and polity. Cohen and Mandler’s critique rests on their claim that the intellectual genealogy Armitage and Guldi trace, of history’s declining relevance through its increasing specialization and increasing marginality, is a spurious and lazy one (see e.g. p. 5). In calling Armitage and Guldi to task not for their political solutions to the alleged humanities crisis but for their methodology as professional historians (at least one of whom does have a background in intellectual history), Cohen and Mandler made a choice. That choice may turn out to shift the terms of how the History Manifesto is being debated in an interesting way, away from rhetoric about Crisis and (as happened in the course of arguments twenty years ago about the linguistic turn) back to how we as specialists practice our craft. As historian Rachel Hope Cleves wrote on Twitter last week, and as the master’s students at Birmingham who engaged with the History Manifesto this autumn have already demonstrated, this discussion is well on its way to becoming a key set of readings for students learning to think about controversies within the discipline.

From the Birmingham blog to Mandler and Cohen, the major published engagement with the History Manifesto thus far has come from historians trained in the British field. Indeed, Armitage and Guldi were both trained as British historians as well. As someone who works in (and defends the relevance of) the British national field, I’m interested in what this says about the field and its relevance to historical practice more widely. What about the issues the History Manifesto raises would interest British historians in particular? Part of it may stem from the crises this field in particular has confronted in recent decades, as British historians have striven to adapt to a historiographical landscape in which the centrality of the British Isles cannot be taken for granted and have reimagined themselves as historians of empire, Europe, or the Atlantic world. Part of it also may stem from British history’s long-held interest in social history and problems of class: Cohen and Mandler’s criticisms touch in part on the possibility of elitism inherent in Armitage and Guldi’s implication that policymakers, rather than the public, are a historian’s appropriate target audience, and a similar tension was present in the Birmingham responses (and some comments Armitage made about them at a History Manifesto event I attended at Columbia University on November 17, 2014). These days, “impact” and “public engagement” are built into how academics at UK universities must represent their research to the government, and so perhaps such questions are felt more keenly by those whose careers are in or connected to the UK.

The issue of what it means to be a historian of (modern) Britain is one which I hope to think about on this blog in the months to come, and the History Manifesto debate may well help to frame that question. It has always seemed to me, though, that historians who teach in universities have their public-engagement factor built in: won’t we all be asked at some point in our careers whether we can teach the survey?

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What Does Early Modern Bibliography Have To Do with a Blog?

by Madeline McMahon

Conrad Gesner’s 1545 Bibliotheca universalis was a powerful tool for managing information. Like a Wikipedia dedicated solely to authors who had written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the catalogue was intended as a companion for anyone trying to wade through what Gesner referred to as the “harmful and confusing abundance of books” available. Of course, Gesner’s own enormous book contributed to this overabundance—it even required a separate book’s thematic indices, those of the unfinished Pandectae, to navigate the thousands of authors listed in it. Gesner, as Ann Blair has vividly shown, lived in a kind of information age before our own (Blair, Too Much To Know, especially 1-2, 13, 56, 162-3). Yet Gesner’s distrust of the multitude of poorly written material and subsequent impulse to manage data had a flipside. His attempt to be exhaustive reveals an equal impulse towards preservation, even at a time when there were more books than ever before.

It is this first information age’s panicked scramble to preserve that I want to explore here, since it seems more alien to our own experience of information overload. Gesner’s older contemporary and friend, the Englishman John Bale, also wrote reference books that were intended to preserve as well as digest knowledge. Bale collaborated with Gesner during his exiles under both King Henry VIII and Queen Mary. While Bale worked for the talented Basil printer Oporinus, Oporinus in turn published Bale’s magnum opus, the Scriptorum illustrium Maioris Brytannie … catalogus (1557-59), a bibliographical compendium of British writers and their works. Bale’s Catalogus was organized chronologically and geographically, with indices functioning as readers’ “search” function and additional lists— of writers who had written on the Book of Revelation (for Bale, the key text to understanding human history), writers especially useful for writing a continuous narrative history of England, and priors general of the Carmelite order (Catalogus II:59).

Given Bale’s rabid anti-Catholicism (not for nothing did a historian of the next century dub him “Bilious Bale”), this latter list may be a surprise, even though Bale had been a Carmelite monk before precipitously and wholeheartedly converting to Protestantism in 1536 (ODNB). But Bale’s research into British libraries’ medieval books began during his time as a Carmelite. His wide-ranging knowledge of the location of medieval books, apparent in his notebook in the Bodleian library, benefitted from his itinerant career cataloging Carmelite monasteries’ libraries—perhaps all the more once those monasteries were dissolved (Andrew Jotischky, The Carmelites and Antiquity, chapter 7). For despite his confessional allegiance, Bale had one reason to mourn the dissolution of the monasteries: the accompanying dispersal of monastic libraries. Bale lamented the loss of these books to Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury and Bale’s employer: since the dissolution, he had found books “in stacyoners and boke bynders store howses, some in grosers, sopesellars, taylers, and other occupyers shoppes, some in shyppes ready to be carryed over the sea into Flaunders to be solde” (in Timothy Graham and Andrew Watson, The Recovery of the Past in Elizabethan England, 17). Bale’s own efforts to recover the books under Edward had been counteracted under Mary, and Matthew Parker assumed the aged Bale’s lifework, eventually bequeathing his own and many of Bale’s medieval manuscripts as the Parker Library to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Bale’s catalogue and other writings functioned like a shopping list for Parker’s team of scholars, helping them to identify books from the masses of material they found in private collections and cathedral libraries as well as to trace missing manuscripts’ provenance.

This desire to preserve the past crossed confessional boundaries—John Dee had pushed (in vain) for a national library, not so different from Parker’s, to be created under Catholic Mary with “great and speedy diligence” (John Dee’s Library Catalogue, 194). To compile books—whether in a book or a library—demonstrated early modern scholars’ faith in Pliny’s maxim, “no book so bad,” whatever its age, aesthetics, or ideology.

Among the many things this blog is not is an early modern reference book. And yet I hope that we can curate information in such a way as to preserve voices from the past and discover new ones in the field of intellectual history as we, too, sift through the sources of the past, and trace the meaning of old debates into the present.