Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tilting at Strawmen

I am not certain with whom Arizona State University historian Stephen Pyne is arguing in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His basic point is that we need to teach history graduate students how to write well, and particularly how to write books. Yeah, thanks Doc. It might be a good idea to teach them to think clearly and to read closely too. But here is the thing: I do not see any evidence that we are not doing this as a profession.

There is an old canard out there that says that academic historians do not write well. And it has been repeated so often, not so much by folks like Pyne, who ought to know better, but by journalists who usually don't know what the fuck they are talking about. I read more academic history than any journalist. I would say that the hit-to-miss ratio is no worse than it is for columnists or reporters, or even for journalists writing books, for whom the writing really ought to be key since they are trying to sell to a non-specialist audience. And this is the key issue -- I am not certain what these critics mean by "bad writing." Sometimes it is actually ok for historians to write to other historians. All specialized writing is not bad, especially when that writing is geared toward specialists. And there is a huge number of very well written books that are no less well written because they do not make it big and end up selling primarily to other academics.

When I work I do so surrounded by piles of papers and documents and books and cd's and all sorts of other junk. I am going to pull out the smallest book pile next to me, without paring it, without even looking at any of the books. Ok, here is what I have: Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty, a book destined to win a number of awards and deservedly so, largely because of the force of the argument and certainly because of the felicity of the writing. Sugrue is a professional historian. He teaches at Penn; Peniel Joseph's Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour. It was reviewed everywhere. I reviewed it for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Virtually every review commented on the high quality of the writing. Joseph is a professional historian. He teaches at Brandeis; Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie. Again: Reviewed everywhere, widely praised, largely for the writing. Profesional historian. Yale; Two collections of essays, Freedom North and Groundwork, both edited by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard. Aimed mostly toward other historians. Like most essay collections the quality of the writing is uneven, but some of them are very good, and those that are not serve another purpose.

This is just a tiny slice of books, all interconnected because they touch upon a theme I am addressing in one small section of one chapter of a book I am writing. I could have pulled from a pile of books on South Africa in the 1980s or 1940s, another on sports and society, and another on race in the US in the 1940s. Putting forward that historians don't write well is a serial idiocy that has gone unchallenged for so long that the assertion has somehow become sufficient. Well it is not. I received an MA from one school, a PhD from another, and basically in between the two (I had started my first quarter at my PhD program first) was enrolled in a graduate program in South Africa for the purposes of a year-long fellowship. At all three of those schools, writing well was emphasized, writing clearly, even if not spectacularly, was a base-line expectation. Perhaps I was just lucky. But I suspect that the assertion of the absence of attention to writing lacks even the rudimentary evidence that a first-year MA student knows is required for an argument.


Jim said...

Some of the worst writing I have ever seen has come from individuals with advanced degrees in English! And let's not even talk about their research.

dcat said...

Eh. Too much of a generalization for me. Lots of English scholarship is geared toward other English professors that's not only within their rights, but ought to be expected. I just do not want them trying to impose their disciplinary standards on the rest of us.