David Armitage

British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.

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?