Notes for a Young Historian: Part 1 of 3

This July has had an odd rhythm. I’ve been working as a security guard for many mornings this month at Oxbridge Academic Programs, one of the many summer programs that bring a deluge of international teenagers and English-learners to Oxford over the summer. It’s a great job – the girls are supremely well-behaved, not much happens, and I have several hours every morning sans Internet to work on my writing, which goes quite well. Other days, I’ve managed to make it down to the British Library, where I’ve been looking for books that are hard to find at Oxford, like David Schneer’s Through Soviet Jewish Eyes. The BL, as it’s called, also has several old versions of Afghanistan’s Five-Year Plans, the development guidelines they used from the 1950s to the 1970s when planning their economic goals – part of a modern economic program that many former colonial nations across Asia used after World War II with the assistance of American consulting firms as part of their efforts to modernize economically.

In addition to writing quite a bit these days, too, I’ve been in the process of planning my summer research trips – the one to Berlin, where I’ll be looking at files of the Stasi at the BStU; the other to the University of Nebraska, Omaha, which has the fantastic Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection. In Berlin, I’ll be looking at how Eastern Bloc security agencies consulted with the Afghan KhAD (Khedamat-e Eta’alat-e Dawlati, or Government Intelligence Service) to build up a KGB-style clone organization, while in Omaha, I’ll be going on a copying binge to grab as much material as possible there. They have many, many hours of interviews with refugees, mujahideen commanders, and intellectuals, many books published in Kabul and Peshawar, as well as the files of Arthur Paul, an American economic advisor to the Afghan government in the 1960s. His experiences and diaries, when juxtaposed with those of Eastern European and other American advisors like Robert Nathan who spent much time in the country, can, I hope, give us a rich picture of earlier attempts to foist different visions of “development” on Afghanistan. There are also Persian classes at the wonderful Sprach- und Kulturbörse of the Technical University Berlin. Between everything, it’s a blur of sitting around at the Corpus security job, Persian stuff, and writing – not bad, but I’m also looking to squeeze in a weekend trip to a place in Germany I’ve been wanting to visit for a while in there.

My hopeful vacation spot for this August ... let's hope I've earned it

One of the most interesting moments this month, however, came when I was spending an evening overnight in London – after a long day of reading at the BL but before a second day of work at the National Archives, looking at Foreign Office materials on Afghanistan from the 1960s. Without revealing the person’s identity, I had arranged to have dinner with a professor I know – a distinguished scholar at a major research university in the United States.

While we spent a good portion of the conversation covering some of the usual catch-up topics – what are you working on, here’s the latest article, which US political party seems more hellbent on destroying the country, etc. – we gradually transitioned to a more substantial conversation about the future of the study of history in the United States, at least at the university level. While I’ve been more than privileged in my studies and life thus far, with the support of great organizations and foundations committed to international studies and good scholarship like the Fulbright-Kommission and the Rhodes Trust, even spoiled little me can fret about my future sometimes. While I’m happy with the options I’ve given myself, and while I think I’ve been able to pursue good scholarship while also leaving doors open, I’ve simply seen too many cases of people left out in the cold to lose the edge. Too often, I’ve seen people permanently stuck in a cycle of post-doctoral fellowships and adjunct professorships, both of which are on the rise as part of a larger trend in short-term employment in the academy. While short-term employment might work for professions more oriented towards the market, it becomes difficult to live on these short-term salaries, or raise a family on one, if your main academic interest can’t be spun off into a consultancy. I could go on at length, but authors like William Deresiewicz have already written eloquently on the problems of the higher education industry today.

All of this raises the question: what does someone like the professor I’m describing do if he has freshmen and sophomores – many of whom are talented, intelligent students, often from minority or poorer socioeconomic backgrounds – coming to him and telling him that they want to study history? Part of the dilemma here, of course, is not just what the anxious, navel-gazing scholar-cum-writer like myself should do in his or her individual case. The bigger issue, hopefully, is how the United States (or the Anglophone world?) can maintain a system that is capable of producing good, interesting writing on places, peoples, and moments from the past, but also one that’s economically sustainable in the sense that smart people will want to work as historians, and that students won’t be deterred from going into the field if it’s what they really want to do. In other words, what can one do as a young scholar or writer to find a place for him or herself, and to contribute to a culture that both creates, reads, and uses history to make informed decisions about the present – or at least make less stupid ones than it would without it?

In the best tradition of American list-making, here’s what we came up with:

1. National history is over. But … 

The first tip we came up with is that it’s imperative to focus on, if not international history, then histories with a focus on exchange, movement, or intercourse between different regions. In order to understand why this is important, it might be worthwhile to dive into the history of historiography for a moment.

The professional activity of writing history has, of course, its own history. We’re all familiar with authors like Thucydides, Livy, and Herodotus, who wrote histories of Persia, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the Western World – to say nothing of Muslim historians or later scholars. But the discipline of history as we know it in the United States, to oversimplify, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, often on models that were consciously stolen from German universities, which were world-leading at the time. As scholars like Louis Menand have written, American universities prior to the post-Civil War era were often more professional and less academic than they are today. Students could straight-up study law or medicine, much the same way they can in Europe today. History professors, where they existed, were expected to teach a wide range of courses, and the concept of research fueling new courses was unknown. Institutions like Johns Hopkins University and American educational reformers like Charles William Eliot, the President of Harvard in the late 19th century, created new research universities where faculty would focus on their own research, which would be the basis for seminars. To oversimplify again, this fueled the creation of new history chairs and seminars patterned on the German model.

Edith Whorton is one of my favorite authors, but for someone who went on a lot of Grand Tours, she might not have viewed Europe synthetically enough

One coincidence of this system was that American higher education became really, really good at a time when the world still thought in terms of nations. While people like Edith Wharton or the New York social élite went on Grand Tours of Europe, there really was a difference between the countries of Europe. Something called “European history” existed in the abstract sense, sure, but between multiple European wars, and the fact that “Turkey” had only recently been the Ottoman Empire, and that Russia was now something called the Soviet Union, it might have been difficult to think of western Eurasia as having much unity as an analytic concept. The reverse problem – amalgamation rather than fragmentation might have been the problem when people thought about “the Orient.” Europeans and Americans could think about nationalism (which also fueled, unsurprisingly, national histories) when it was directed against the revived Russian Empire dominating Eastern Europe, which is one reason why Eastern European Studies today, as some have identified, remains often overly focused on the national question. But what was the difference between Marathis and Hindus? Sure, Bombay was cosmopolitan, but how did it relate to its hinterlands? South Asia comprised a bewildering away of Pashtun-, Urdu-, Tamil-, Bengali-, Hindi-, and other language speakers, but it was easier to think of “India” as one unit rather than a mosaic of civilizations. The same applies to Russia, or China. Rather than viewing the Eurasian space as a Napoleon cake of “layers of cultures and civilizations that we call Russia,” when the Russian Empire or USSR existed, it was easier to view the thing as one unified construction.

Don't worry, Poland - I still love you, even if you've inspired some navel-gazing histories

For better or worse, we live in a post-imperial age today, and one in which Europe can trade with itself and others not fight. But many of our models for approaching the study of the past still remain stuck in this strange mix of nationalism on the one hand (when you’re talking about Europe), and a kind of imperialism on the other when you’re talking about non-European cultures. Eastern Europe, as I noted above, is probably the worst example of this. Because countries like Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia had a native intelligentsia, high rates of literacy, and were ruled by Moscow for much of the 20th century in a move that upset the global balance of power in a way that Jakarta controlling East Timor, for example, did not, many Eastern European countries have been the focus of attention of, to put it crassly, how the ___ nation is special and its traditions were oppressed by Russia / the Soviet Union. Most scholars are more sophisticated than to put it exactly this way, but if you buy this basic line of thinking, you end up with a literature that results in inward-looking studies of native intelligentsias, intellectuals, or traditions.

One book like this is fine – the forementioned Timothy Snyder wrote his Oxford D.Phil. on Kazimierz Kelles-Kraus, a significant early 20th century Polish Marxist intellectual. But he branched out to work on more regional, if not international topics, which is to be applauded. When we stay within the confines of just Polish history, or even just German, or just Russian history, it becomes much harder to speak to well-educated, intelligent audiences who may not be that interested in the particular nation that struck your fancy. I would be utterly unsurprised if university administrations are unwilling to support non-endowed national history positions in the future, particularly in the wake of a higher education bubble.

The answer to this all for the young student, I think, is to think creatively and find the problems (and languages) that will allow you to write regional (say, Polish-Russian for Eastern Europe as opposed to just Poland, or Punjabi-Hindustani for modern South Asia as opposed to India) or international (German-Japanese for World War II, or Ottoman-Portugese for the Age of Exploration). As the risk of making a sweeping statement, we appear to be living in an age when more and more of the problems that really interest people are transnational: global health, terrorism, interconnectivity of economic systems, dramatically improved communication possibilities with the Internet, interconnected food markets, etc. If this is going to be one of the basic ways that people look at the world we live in, why not go with the flow and find histories that seek to find the present that we thought was new in the past?

And if you think this requires mastering 8,000 languages and learning how to connect India with, say, Brazil, fret not. There are more prosaic ways of finding the regional or transnational approach. The professor I spoke with, for example, underscored how in recent years many scholars of 16th and 17th-century European history have turned their attention to the presence of Muslims all across Europe during that time period. This isn’t just interesting for scholars, too.  Demonstrating to audiences audiences how the Battle of Vienna did not “keep Muslims out” of Europe but was just one episode in Muslim-European interaction could do something to encourage present “native” Europeans and European Muslims to think more creatively about coexistence, rather than writing manifestos that rival my own for prolixness and killing people. Similarly, this same professor emphasized how recent work in Judaic Studies has moved that discipline away from the manuscript-driven obscurantism it can revel in at times, to a more dynamic historiography that highlights the role that Jews played as intermediaries in a surprisingly connected early modern Europe. It’s these stories of connection with a human touch that I find interest audiences most today. Why not go with it?

Europe: Turk-free since ... oh, crap

The one problem I hear often from other graduate students, and well-intentioned professors on this point is simply that most current professors were themselves trained in the national paradigm. Working on Central Asia, especially in international context, as I do somewhat dilletantishly, is a great example of this. There are, I’ve found, plenty of scholars, like Jo-Ann Gross of TCNJ, or Margaret Mills of the Ohio State University, who are fantastic scholars of Afghanistan. Russian studies is an exceptionally rich field with no shortage of scholars who write on the Tsarist, Soviet, and other periods. Iran and South Asia, not a problem, either. But trying to write an international story, like I am right now with some of my dissertation chapters, in a way that integrates the history of, say, Afghanistan in with that of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran, all at the same period is challenging, even with the best of advisors. Needless to say, it’s not an issue of intelligence or want of curiosity; rather, the problem is an administrative one. Journals, departments, and fields often create faculty positions or intellectual mafias that often invent regions wholesale, create faculty positions for the history of those regions, and make it difficult for scholars with an alternative perspective – say, “Turko-Persia” instead of the” Middle East” – as a useful paradigm to get ahead.

While taking Persian courses at Oxford, for example, I was perplexed by the reactions I got from other students (almost all of whom were doing “Middle Eastern Studies”) when I told them that one of my main academic interests was Russia and the Soviet Union. They had almost all studied Arabic or Hindustani before taking the course, and I think they found it hard to accept that there was an alternative way to look at Central Eurasia than from the given Middle East (Arab-Iranian) or South Asian (India-Pakistan-Iran) perspective. Throw in the fact that I wanted to find a way to mix German in there, and they really thought I was a dilettante. Which may be true — but still, I worry about an academic training that seems to encourage people to find walls between regions rather than letting their curiosity find the ties that link the places together.

So that’s tip #1. The tiny, navel-gazing national histories that worked for a dissertation or a job in the past are, the professor and I agreed on over dinner near the BL, just not going to get it done today. They’re not dynamic, not exciting, not wide-reaching enough. And if you can’t get even other historically-minded individuals interested in your history of Cluj, Transylvania, how will you engage broader audiences? Writing more regional or international history is going to be hard work: more languages, more BS with lousy foreign archives, more trips to Omaha rather than Omaha Beach (although I’m actually excited for my first trip to the Midwest). But in an age when the value of the humanities is being questioned, and Americans don’t know their own history very well, you’re going to have to get creative.

In future posts, I’ll get on to tip #2 – finding ways to make technology work for you, as well as tip #3 — remembering that history can be a training and an analytical tool, but that it doesn’t have to be the basis for a monastic lifestyle.

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One thought on “Notes for a Young Historian: Part 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: Euromachs Blog » Blog Archive » Web Readings Weekly Roundup (2nd August)

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