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More Form and Function, Objectives and Audience

Just to be clear, I am not saying that “professional” historian is synonymous with “academic” or “Ph.D” possessing historian. To echo Brooks (I think), the most simple way of determining whether one is a professional historian is to ask, is it your job? Far more people answer this question in the affirmative than the Ph.D. possessors (or is it possessed?). Brooks mentions Ed Bearss, but there are also such current NPS historians as John Hennessy, Chris Calkins, Jeff Patrick, and Ted Alexander. Anyone who does not consider these folks professional historians either is ignorant of what they do or truly out to lunch. Will Greene at Pamplin Park, Richard Sommers and Art Bergeron at Carlisle, and John Coski at the Museum of the Confederacy are some other examples of professional historians who are not teaching at a college or university. So does that make Billy Bob collecting bayonets in his basement with an eye on making money off them a professional historian? If not, then, what is the separator? I believe that is the common thread to what professional historians do, and that is the public service component. (Man, now I am starting to sound like Samuel Huntington; must be the whole clash of civilizations undertone.) It is John, Ed, Chris, Jeff, etc.’s job to study the past and then take what they have gleaned from their study and make it accessible to the public audience at their institutions. This is the same basic task a college or university professor undertakes in his job, albeit in different forms. A college professor uses a lecture or seminar to educate; the folks above use an exhibit, archives, or battlefield tour. Where does writing fit into this? I’ll try to figure out my thoughts on this over the weekend.

Comments (3) to “More Form and Function, Objectives and Audience”

  1. Ethan, Brooks, et. al.

    Alas, another lousy Grossman interception. In an effort to avoid watching an Irsay hoist the Lombardi trophy–speaking as an old Baltimore Colts fan here–please allow me to add some thoughts on this issue of professionalism.

    I’ve followed the discussion with interest, both as a Ph.D and as someone training new Ph.Ds. After some thought, I’ve concluded that what ultimately makes a historian a professional is professional behavior. In terms of those behaviors, I’d list the following:

    1. A solid background in world and American history, which will provide context and perspective. I’m reminded of a Mark Grimsley assertion I’m always quoting, to paraphrase, that anyone who knows about the Thirty Years War would never spend endless hours asserting that W. T. Sherman was Satan incarnate in Georgia.

    2. Extensive research in primary sources, including unpublished sources. The Civil War shelf at my local Books-A-Million is full of books written by folks who never bothered to visit an archive.

    3. A willingness to undergo and accept mentor and peer review, from manuscript to publisher to reviews.

    4. A willingness to present history to others, in print or verbally–Ethan’s “public service component.”

    5. At least the devotion of significant hours per week to studying history, if history is not the primary occupation.

    6. A reasonable commitment to objectivity. I don’t believe that history is a science or that total, detached objectivity is possible, but I also don’t believe that history written simply to accomplish some larger political or personal objective is going to be very good.

    7. A willingness to reach conclusions that challenge accepted and comfortable interpretations if that’s what the sources really indicate.

    8. Use of the proper scholarly apparatus, ie, endnotes, to aid other researchers and to keep us honest as well.

    One learns all of these in doctoral study, but clearly that’s not the only way to do it. Based on these eight points, all the excellent authors without doctorates mentioned in this discussion would qualify easily as professional.

    Alas, the game is over. Rest in peace, Johnny U.


  2. So does a part of you die everytime you see a Mayflower moving truck driving by as well? I have to say, though, that I lost whatever sympathy (and being a Redskin fan, it was never very much) I had for Baltimore after you guys stole the Browns from Cleveland. Art Monk not making the Hall of Fame again–now THAT’S a travesty!

  3. Ethan:

    I’m even more pathetic than that. After the Colts left, I eventually embraced–the Browns. Closest I could come to the old Colts. So of course they moved too, and I can’t support the Ravens either. At least Modell let Cleveland keep the name.

    On a different topic, I have to tell you, we were talking about revisionism and biography in my seminar today, and one of my students said, “gee, the next thing you know, someone will be rehabilitating McClellan!” I just pointed to your name on the reading list.