William Cronon on Historians and Teaching

William CrononI’ve enjoyed William Cronon‘s tenure as much as that of any prior president of the American Historical Association (AHA), not least because he’s used the platform so effectively to encourage his fellow historians to rethink their role in the digital age and to take advantage of its possibilities (even Wikipedia). So it was good to see him on Twitter this morning providing a link to his final presidential column in the AHA newsletter Perspectives, entitled “And Gladly Teach.” (I think the full text is available to all; apologies if it’s limited to AHA members with a password…)

He begins with an observation about the question that initiates most small talk at gatherings of academic historians, “So… what are you working on now?”

We all know what is expected for the answer: a report on our latest research. What new documents have we been discovering? What new methods are we using? What new questions are we asking? What new article are we about to publish? What new book are we working on?

Without denigrating the genuine thrill that accompanies what Ernest Boyer called “the scholarship of discovery” (he follows the first question with a nice reflection on how we’re drawn to “the new”), Cronon nonetheless finds that response quite odd:

But there’s nonetheless something a little strange—and arguably a little pernicious—in assuming that the only answer to “what are you working on now?” that would interest our colleagues is a research report. The work of historians encompasses myriad other activities, and very few of us are paid mainly to do research.

Chief among those “other activities,” for the vast majority of us, is teaching. Why don’t we assume that’s what our colleagues are inquiring after? Cronon (rightly, I think) suspects that we’ve been socialized into a (pernicious, as he’d say) set of assumptions about status or class in the academy:

Yet somehow we rarely start our answer to the question “what are you working on now?” by referring to our courses or our students. Even those of us who might be so inclined know this isn’t the answer that’s expected of us, and feel a little apologetic when the best and most accurate response we can offer is indeed about our teaching. So rather than talk about the work and activities that fill most of our days, we anxiously offer up the research we wish we had more time to do and the writing we wish we could finish. Within the complex hierarchies of the academy, in which the research universities implicitly rule the roost and where professional status more often than not correlates inversely with teaching loads, to talk about one’s work as a teacher seems almost déclassé.

I’d encourage you to read the full essay for Cronon’s apology for teaching as an integral component of the historian’s profession (or, as I’m calling it at present in a promotion essay, vocation), but here’s the most important paragraph, recentering teaching (or, more broadly, what he’ll be calling “storytelling” in his forthcoming presidential address at the January 2013 meeting of the AHA) for our present age:

Especially in a digital age, when the boundaries between professional and public knowledge are eroding in so many ways and when it is becoming ever more important to translate expertise into new media that reach new audiences, our skills as teachers have never been more important. Earlier on, I warned in these columns against the consequences of what I called the “professional boredom” that all too easily arises when members of a disciplinary guild speak mainly to each other. In such contexts, because they can assume so much shared knowledge and because their competition with other professionals encourages them to the outer limits of their fields, they are often tempted to express themselves in the narrowest and most technical ways, so that only other experts can understand what they say. Historians do this less than many other professionals because of our preference for storytelling and ordinary language, but our most inaccessible work still happens when we write only for each other. To escape that fate—to produce first-rate history that reaches audiences far beyond the boundaries of our own discipline—there are few better places to refine our craft than in the classroom with bright, inexperienced students eager for learning if only we can show them why it matters.

3 thoughts on “William Cronon on Historians and Teaching

  1. Good stuff. Honestly, escaping back to the small, teaching-centered Christian liberal-arts college after several years in a “publish-or-perish” graduate program has been all kinds of healthy for me. Sure, I’d like more release time to work on the book I’m writing, but ultimately, the fact that my professional fate lives and dies in the classroom, not in the editorial-selection processes of university-press journals, makes me quite happy.

    1. That’s been my experience as well, Nathan. I’m sensing a bit more pressure to amp up research, but whenever that sensation grows too acute, one of our administrators says something to reassure me that teaching, mentoring, and service are highly valued. I wonder if that’s more or less true in a Christian liberal arts college than in schools of that type without such faith commitments…

      1. I think it’s more broadly a function of a school’s self-conception than its faith commitment. I could imagine a Christian school dedicated to Marsden’s “Evangelical Scholarship” dream which emphasized research uber alles, and I could imagine a secular school more interested in teaching undergrads than in journal articles.

        In my own case, EC is all about teaching, and there’s no sign that it’s going to start staking its reputation on publication. Many of us do write because we enjoy writing, but folks around here consider, just for an example, the Christian Humanist Podcast a valid intellectual outlet, not something that’s a “hobby” as opposed to the “real work” of landing an article in the Journal of Advanced Subjunctive Studies. I much prefer this environment, where teaching is king, to UGA, where the big-time professors regarded teaching undergrads, much less (gasp!) freshmen, as a punishment for failure to perform.

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