Crisis, History, and Graduate Historiography

For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching our required graduate courses here in the history department at the University of North Dakota. I’ve post my graduate historiography reading list to the blog fairly regularly and written a bit about what I do in the introduction to historical methods class, which is less of a methods course and more of a sweeping survey of graduate education and a chance to introduce the new graduate students to my colleagues in the department. 

One of the themes throughout both courses is the “crisis in the humanities.” On the one hand, I have tried to demonstrate that discourse of crisis in the humanities is well over a century old and may, in fact, reflect certain basic incompatibilities between the structure of higher education and most (generally older) traditions of humanistic practices. In particular, the fragmented industrial design of the “modern” university runs counter to certain tendencies in the humanities toward synthesis, integration, and totalizing approaches to our world. The emphasis on skills at the modern university is challenging for humanists who tend to be ratter more agnostic toward any particular skill set and averse to methodology more broadly. The desire for universities to produce economically useful individuals finds little traction among scholars and students of the humanities who look beyond the economy for meaning. In other words, the persistent sense of crisis among humanists is baked into the poor fit in the university itself.

As a result, we should always acknowledge it, but avoid allowing the sense of crisis to undermine what it is that we do as scholars and students of the humanities. I tend to see our place within the university as an opportunity to offer sustained dissent and to resist pressures to take extraordinary actions that might undermine the basic integrity of the humanities project. For example, I don’t mind if students learn particular skills in my classes, but I refuse to articulate what I do as a skill-based discipline. Likewise, I don’t mind if my class or research has a massive impact on students or my field (it seems unlikely to happen though), but my goal is to grind away at small problems in a deliberate incremental way.

This is all well and good, on the one hand.

On the other hand, we learned last week that our graduate program almost certainly will be defunded for the foreseeable future. This is a bummer on many levels. It hurts existing students in our program the most, of course, but it also damages the university’s reputation as offering a strong base in the liberal arts. It worries me and my colleagues because it speaks to a lack of commitment to the humanities on campus, and a shift from a funded and supported graduate program to one based on unpaid overloads. 

It also undermines my claim that the humanities have always been in crisis because it makes the crisis real and personal to our students. 

So I played along and told them that I was willing to trash the current syllabus and revise the class to accommodate their (and our shared) sense of crisis, but they had to propose an alternative. After floating quite a few ideas – almost all of them intriguing – two major ideas came to the top. First, they clearly wanted more of a grounding in “classical” historiography. That is, they wanted to read some Herodotus, Thucydides, and other ancient authors, rather than spending so much time considering the historiography of the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the entire class was American historians (more or less), I found this both heartwarming and a bit troubling. Was this a retreat from scholarship that was immediately relevant to our discipline today and a retreat to the comfortable and conservative confines of familiar faces? This is not to suggest that we can’t learn a tremendous amount from reading Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus carefully, but what specifically do they hope to take away? Do they hope to find a context for the suddenly very real 21st century crisis in the humanities?

The second, response was that in the place of an individual paper at the end of the semester, they’d prefer to write a kind of manifesto that articulates the value of graduate education in History at UND. I’m going to suggest that they do this in a public way and solicit comments from folks in our program and outside the program. So, stay tuned.   

 

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