Historians: What Do We Do Well?

I bought tea and cookies for a “senior” faculty person from another department yesterday, using the treats to lure him into a conversation about my career.  We had a lovely conversation, and though he did not offer to create a new tenure-track line for me (darn!), he offered some good suggestions, including ideas for finding work in places I hadn’t really considered.  More on that another time.  He also asked an important and challenging question:

“What is that you, as a historian, do well that you can offer to people who aren’t historians?”

It’s important for obvious reasons: (a) history teaching gigs are as rare as good beer in Utah*, so it’d be smart to focus on a more broadly useful skill set rather than labeling myself as a historian, (b) disciplines are stupid; if we’re interested in the pursuit of truth, we should use whatever methods lead us there, and (c) disciplines are anachronistic, a relic of the late-19/early 20th century.

It’s also a challenging question: what, exactly, do we do well?**  That is: what skills should historians possess that others might not have developed?  For graduate students locked inside their discipline for six years, this is a particularly difficult question; we’ve been trained/trained ourselves to speak with an ever-smaller circle of people with similar interests.  We get so far along that when asked what we do, we mumble something stupid about our dissertations and then roll our eyes when the honest listener expresses confusion with our gibberish.  And when we’re done, we head out on to the job market, where exactly no one gives two shits about our dissertations.

And so: some reflection on what historians should do well.  I ask, beg, and implore you ideas and reading suggestions.

  • Tell good stories.  Interesting, informative, engaging, comprehensive, relevant stories.  That’s what history is, after all: stories about the past.  My friends in chemistry may know their way around the lab and the path to giant piles of grant money, but we historians should be able to tell stories that keep butts on the edges of seats.  And that’s important, because stories are how we understand and make sense of the world.  Which is another thing we do…
  • Make sense of the past.  The past is weird, man.  People wore funny clothes and said crazy things and did all sorts of nutty stuff.  Historians should be able to get into the heads of those people and explain their world views and motivations.  At the same time, we can get out of those heads, and look at all of the other things driving people to do what they did.***
  • Make sense of the present.  We are here now because of where those weird people took us back then.  Want to understand race relations today?  Figure out the last two hundred years of American history.  Same thing goes with everything–look back to figure out where you are now.  Go ahead, call me a presentist.  I’ll call you totally irrelevant.  And then we’ll spit on each other.
  • Offer suggestions for the future.  Yeah, I said it: we should provide some prescriptions for what ails us.  We’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t in different contexts.  We have an obligation to make sure that understanding is part of relevant debates and discussions today.  People get smarter with age because they pay attention to and learn lessons from their experience.  My Gramps knows not to overdo it on the wine because he’s made a fool of himself in the past; I have yet to learn such a lesson.  Why shouldn’t we historians help others from making asses of themselves and the world?
  • Find stuff.  I think we often take this for granted, but historians are awfully good and tracking down obscure shit.  Fuel consumption between 1960 and 1977?  Here you go.  Songs sung by migrant workers during the Dust Bowl?  No problem.  Hopes and dreams of a Native American woman married to a French fur trapper?  Well…that might take me some time, but if I can’t find her words, I can help reconstruct her world and make some pretty good guesses on her life.  This is more than just go-for work; this is thinking about different points and methods of access to the past.  And the present, for that matter.

That’s a start, anyway.  I look forward to your suggestions, and I’ll keep working on it myself.


*I could be wrong about this, never having been to Utah.  But I lack folksy sayings, so I’m making them up as I go.

** I like the ring of this.  Sounds like a 50s song : “DO-wee-DO-well, DO-wee-DO-well…”

*** I’m talking about false consciousness, y’all.  It’s REAL.

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