I’m a Historian, Not an Expert

I’ve only half-followed the recent Twitter dust-up between historians Thomas Kidd and John Fea and journalist Jonathan Merritt. You can get caught up to speed with this morning’s Anxious Bench post from John Turner. Throw in editor John Wilson (who rose to the historians’ defense), and you’ve got several of my favorite Johns/Jonathans sparring over what it meant to be evangelical in the 18th century — especially if you were an enslaved African American like poet Phillis Wheatley.

Kidd, The Great AwakeningAll of that is interesting, and pointing at some philosophical questions about doing the history of evangelicalism (as Fea explained this morning in part two of a new series on the topic). But I was actually more struck by a larger issue: the place of expertise in an age of Twitter.

Part of what bothered Fea most was what he took to be Merritt’s dismissive tone towards Kidd, who by any conventional definition is one of the leading historians of religion in 18th century America: the author of multiple acclaimed books on the subject, the holder of a newly endowed chair in history at a significant research university… in short, a bona fide expert on the very topic on which Merritt challenged him. And Kidd responded to the challenge by citing other experts on the subject, like Catherine Brekus and Bruce Hindmarsh. Like Kidd, Fea framed this episode an example of what Tom Nichols has called “the death of expertise.” Yes, we scholars can now end up debating our work not just with each other, but potentially anyone with a Twitter account.

“To what extent should non-academics defer to academic historians on matters of history?”, wondered Turner. He didn’t have a settled answer:

I love the massive prestige that comes with a Ph.D. and university position, but I also love the democratic nature of history. It’s not an esoteric discipline, though I think the education that one gets in graduate school is enormously helpful (was to me). But unlike quantum mechanics, for instance, ordinary people can engage in discussions about history. (I’m not suggesting John Fea in anyway believes otherwise — quite the contrary given his public engagement). Anyone can identify a historiographical argument and sift through evidence for and against it. But it works best to insert oneself into conversations after one has done a fair amount of that sifting.

Not just because I actually like everyone involved in this fracas, but because I’m clearly no expert on evangelicalism in the 18th century, I refrained from getting involved on Twitter. But thinking about it has forced me to admit again something I already knew, but rarely want to consider for long:

I’m not really an expert on anything.

Now, I’m a tenured professor at a university. (Not one as prestigious as Kidd’s or Turner’s — let alone my graduate alma mater — but a university with serious standards for appointment, tenure, and promotion.) I’ve published books and articles. (Not as many as Kidd, Turner, Fea, or my dissertation directors, but more than most professors at Bethel and most of its peers.) And if you were to ask my students — either at Bethel or at any of the churches where I often teach classes — they’d probably think that I’m an expert in any of the various fields I cover.

But I’m not. I’ve been blessed with a good memory and an ability to read a lot quickly. So give me some time to prepare, and I can write a lecture or blog post that sounds expert-y.

But I’m not an expert.

Nichols, Death of ExpertiseAs I admitted here a few years ago, I’m a dabbler. A liberally educated historical generalist who knows a little about a lot of things. In that way, I often feel kinship with journalists and editors, though I’m a professor.

But then consider the course I teach more than any other (three or four times a year, including summer). Christianity and Western Culture is a first-year Western Civ survey that stops its narrative in 1800, just before reaching the two centuries in European history on which I actually trained in grad school. Worse (for my standing as a supposed expert) and better (for students) yet, CWC integrates healthy doses of theology and philosophy, on which I’ve had no formal training. Fortunately, we do have actual philosophers and theologians on our teaching team — one of whom gives the course’s 18th century religion lecture, even though it includes a solid 10-15 minutes on Pietism, a topic on which I’m supposedly an expert.

I’m not. I cringed when I was introduced as such last month before an adult Sunday School class. Sure, I can mine Pietism’s history enough to discern a usable past for churches and Christian colleges, but I don’t have the language skills, relevant archival experience, or focused interest required to write a major academic history of Pietism.

And I’ve never wanted to take on such a project. I appreciate my departmental colleagues who dive deeply into the histories of census-taking and prostitution. But becoming an actual expert in Pietism or anything else would require me to spend less time doing the intellectual work that actually gives me joy.

See, I enjoy getting to teach everything from the Cold War to the Reformations, human rights to historical methodology. I enjoy being just a couple steps ahead of my students, whether they’re 18 or 81. I enjoy blogging about World War I one week and the apocalyptic nature of Advent another. I’ve even come to enjoy veering from writing a dissertation about education in occupied Germany to editing histories of Pietism to writing spiritual biographies of non-religious pilots.

I’m curious about all manner of topics, and I’m certain that you don’t have to be an expert to be a good teacher — or a good blogger, which I’ve always taken to be an extension of my teaching. (I do think I need to establish significant expertise on Charles Lindbergh before I dare to write a biography about him. Let’s call that a work in progress.) In fact, expertise can sometimes get in the way of good teaching and blogging, since it can (not must) make it harder to relate to 18-year olds, 81-year olds, and other people who don’t even know the right questions to ask, let alone their potential answers.

But the fact that I’ve spent half my life becoming a scholar of many things without ever becoming an expert in any of them does mean that I need to keep some things always in mind:

• I will probably never be cured of imposter syndrome.

• Even more than most historians, I need to hold any conclusion lightly, and perhaps issue a public mea culpa when I badly misunderstand or misstate something. (Not that experts don’t botch history. I’m just more likely to err.)

• I couldn’t teach or blog were it not for the work of actual experts like Kidd, Fea, Turner, Kristin Du Mez, and Tim Gloege (who help me understand evangelicalism) and Douglas Shantz, Jonathan Strom, Kate Carté Engel, Christian Collins Winn, and Jared Burkholder (who help me with Pietism and related movements).

• So finally, I should never mistake myself for Kevin Kruse and use Twitter to dunk on people who are less aware of their non-expertise, or even proud of it.