From the Noteworthy column in the April 1995 Perspectives
A Dialog in the Discipline and Beyond
Sandria B. Freitag and Jean Quataert, April 1995
Last October the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) held a special conference on the internationalization of scholarship. The conference allowed the ACLS and its member societies to discuss the current state of international scholarship and to consider new ways to promote the internationalization of scholarship in the future. Those invited to the conference represented the range of scholarly activity supported by the ACLS, including area studies, discipline-specific scholarly societies, and Fulbright scholars resident in the United States.
To prepare for the conference participants were asked to address, from the perspective of their own scholarly society and discipline, three interrelated issues that are central to an international scholarly enterprise: collaborative research beyond national borders; education and training in comparative, global, or interdisciplinary work; and the scholarly infrastructure (including, for instance, library resources and issues surrounding the transformation of scholarship through electronic media). Each participating society prepared a report for the conference, and invited speakers made presentations detailing specific issues.
Audience response made it clear that most of those attending the conference understood that the stakes in the debate over the future of international scholarship are very high indeed. On campuses the disciplines are perpetuated by the departmental infrastructure used to organize undergraduate and graduate training and by research support. Area studies and other cross-disciplinary approaches have always been stepchildren in this infrastructure; they flourished in past decades largely because of federal and private foundation funding prompted by Cold War priorities. With the end of the Cold War, funding for area studies is no longer assured. Stanley J. Heginbotham, vice president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), recently published an article in Items, the SSRC newsletter, asserting that current funding realities point to the need to abandon the area studies focus—which he characterized as a relic of the Cold War—and to create a new scholarly approach attuned to short-term policy solutions to international problems.
Many of those who attended the ACLS conference, unlike Heginbotham, continue to believe in the efficacy of the area studies rubric for organizing interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. But it is clear that in a post Cold War America we are faced with fundamental questions about the relevance of and need to fund extradisciplinary forms of training. These questions underscore not only the ongoing debate over the relationship between the disciplines and area studies, but also the unresolved ambiguity re garding the relationship between campuses and scholarly societies.
The conversations that took place at the conference highlighted the fact that the work of learned societies takes place with little reference to what actually happens at individual campuses, where future scholars are educated and trained. Colleagues at universities and colleges grapple daily with pedagogic and resource issues that reflect a heightened awareness of the need for more broadly based international education. On their part, learned societies support conferences and international exchanges; their officers lobby for money, arrange for digitalization of source materials, and work to uncover and safeguard archives.
In an effort to bridge the gap between campus and scholarly society—and to open a dialogue in the discipline of history around questions of international education, training, and scholarship—we address here four broad questions from our distinct perspectives, juxtaposing the views and experiences of an officer of the American Historical Association (Sandria Freitag) and of a campus faculty member (Jean Quataert of the State University of New York at Binghamton). We offer our own assessments of many of the changes affecting the discipline of history today and, at the same time, demonstrate the benefits for campus and AHA of establishing closer contacts and an ongoing exchange of ideas. In the process, we hope to illuminate the underlying questions posed by the ACLS conference on internationalizing scholarship.
1. Briefly, how do you see the state of the historical profession today?
Quataert: The issues facing historians today are multiple. There is a real tension in the increasing subspecialization of the profession on the one hand and an extraordinary explosion of information (a real "crisis of knowledge") on the other. Over the last 30 years or so, the number of subspecialties that are now legitimate parts of the discipline has multiplied almost geometrically; we continue to be well trained analytically and conceptually, but in increasingly narrow subfields. At the same time, I am overwhelmed by the amount of publications even in our smaller specialties. The Internet can take me into most catalogs of major libraries around the world at any time, night or day, and I barely can keep up with work being done in my own field of modern German women's history, let alone in comparative women's or modern European history. There are no "definitive" studies anymore; it is even hard to establish the reading list for one's own specialty, not to mention a field as broad as modern European history or its wider regional context, such as the Atlantic community in the 18th century. In the classroom, we are faced with students who come to graduate school full of enthusiasm and commitment, but often lacking in a rigorous grounding in the "basics of history": a sense of chronological ordering; a recognition of the complexities of time; an understanding of causality and agency; an ability to place events in their interpretive and historiographical contexts.
This "crisis of knowledge" is forcing us out of our ivory tower. It is more and more imperative that we reach out to colleagues and draw on their knowledge, that we share bibliographies or collectively discuss, for example, the texts to be included in a required historiography course. My colleagues and I at Binghamton University have begun to discuss the most fundamental questions facing the training of graduate students: what is it, ultimately, that students need to know—as German and European historians or as Americanists with a specialty in culture or women's history? This discussion inexorably pushes us to think about our own scholarly trajectory and also about the infrastructure needed to support our own and our graduate students' research and writing.
Developing ways to link history faculty at campuses like Binghamton University more closely with the learned societies would indeed bring to decision making the expertise drawn from the day-to-day praxis of graduate research and training. How can campus experience help determine what is regarded as fundable research projects by granting agencies; how can it enter into the discussions over historical "significance," which play such an important role in determining the archival collections around the globe to be digitized?
Freitag: Reviewing the evolution of the historical profession for the background paper requested by the ACLS proved very revealing. Doing history in the United States has always been an international activity: Americans have, for example, based their approach to academic organization, research support, and publishing on European models. Innovations from these models that have emerged over the last few decades reveal both the strengths and the challenges the discipline now faces. Strengths include the very fact that innovation can be fostered (e.g., historians often find answers to new questions about the past by pioneering new methods of analysis—from quantitative analysis to the analysis of popular culture—for new kinds of source materials) because underlying the new are consistent and shared understandings of "rigor" and related tests of validity to which innovative interpretations and methods are subjected. Much has been made (both as a positive and as a negative) of the "new history" that has emerged over the last two decades; few commentators have explicitly recognized that not all of this scholarship has survived the tests of rigor to which it has been submitted. The core of the scholarship that has survived has been integrated into our general understandings of the past because it remains intellectually compelling after the initial blush of trendiness has faded.
A related strength is history's capacity to welcome innovations pioneered in other disciplines—a characteristic more strongly in evidence today than ever before. It is not only that as historians we have judiciously applied aspects of textual deconstruction or intertextual readings of primary sources (or, more recently, begun analyzing visual evidence in ways that call as much on visual anthropology as on art history). It is also that we adapt and test these methods through our shared concepts of rigor, so that even as we work across disciplines we strengthen and perpetuate the discipline of history itself. Of course, as Jean has noted, these strengths bring their own complexities—not least the explosion of knowledge for which we feel responsible.
What this evolution really suggests is that it has never been possible to practice the discipline isolated on a campus. In some respects, this is the greatest challenge, because creating the occasions (and finding the money!) to foster intellectual exchange beyond campus boundaries is what perpetuates the shared understandings about the discipline, as well as the intellectual expansions and innovations that keep it alive. And the extent to which scholarly societies must carry the burden of "creating the occasions" has been growing exponentially. We not only continue to hold conferences, provide research fellowships, and facilitate international exchanges, but increasingly we must take on the tasks of publishing research results (as academic presses retreat from their commitment to the monograph because it is no longer economically viable) and of building bridges between scholars, the general public, and K–12 teachers (as the federal commitment through institutions like the National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH] is imperiled).
We cannot succeed in these tasks, however, without close collaboration with scholars who explore at the practical level on their campuses the limits and potential of the discipline for teaching and research. Indeed, I am struck by the extent to which the association has had to invent parallels to the bounded communities fostered naturally on campuses, for this is the way that the AHA's divisions, standing committees, and ad hoc task forces work—they bring together scholars representing diverse constituencies to create shared structures and guidelines for action. Making this process of connection explicit in the next few years should enable us to focus much more productive attention on the intellectual collaborations that will enable us to succeed.
2. How could we begin to rethink the relationship of the discipline of history to area studies and interdisciplinary and comparative work?
Quataert: Many of us trained in the late 1960s and earlier settled comfortably into an interpretive framework shaped by notions of distinct "civilizations," within which lay our specific political specialties. We placed our particular inquiry into this political context and addressed the dominant historiographical issues in the field. For modern times, the framework is the state—we specialize in the history of the United States, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, or Japan, even if we focus on such themes as women's history, race issues, labor, or family life. This dominant approach to history did not preclude comparative or interdisciplinary work, which has its own traditions and historiography. Moreover, it coexisted with the emergence of world history as a distinct field, an inquiry into global connections in and over time.
But I believe something new is going on right now. In our effort to rethink the nature of graduate education and training, we are seeking to bring an international or comparative perspective closer to the center of the curriculum. The pressure to do so comes from a variety of sources. It partly has to do with the nature of our present; there has been an intensification of communication ties that now inform us, on a half-hourly basis if we wish, of events everywhere in the world. Closer to home, recently hired younger colleagues come with new agendas and new concerns about graduate education. Some are trained very broadly, in an African American history, for example, that links together Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. This interregional, comparative, and often interdisciplinary training is having a snowball effect, as young faculty educate their own students in new methods and questions. To give another example, other colleagues are weighing options, whether to teach France as part of a wider 18th-century regional conception of history or France as nation-state focusing on the 18th century to the end of the Fifth Republic. My own graduate students, too, are choosing topics that push beyond traditional national boundaries.
There is no simple or self-evident definition of what an "international" perspective involves (as was clear from the spirited discussions at the conference). For some topics and issues, it may mean moving out of our bounded geographic or state frameworks altogether; but it might also involve retaining that historic entity—France, for example—but setting it in the wider context of connections and interactions with non-European areas and peoples. What I see pushing the change on my campus is an intellectual vibrancy involving new sets of questions about these broader contexts that challenge older conceptual tools and ways of speaking about the past.
Freitag: The excitement Jean so ably characterizes actually presents an interesting dilemma for scholarly associations, especially those that are discipline-based. The new intellectual ferment, finding outlets as it does in new courses and conceptualizations of academic programs, places societies betwixt and between. What kinds of activities make the most sense for organizations like the AHA to place as high priorities, to help foster this excitement and facilitate moving in new and integrative directions vis-a-vis the disciplines and area studies? Several possibilities emerge when we examine the nexus of history to area studies, of interdisciplinary and comparative work.
Perhaps most important is the need to form coalitions to protect existing sources of support for foundational research. The academy's institutional infrastructure (fostered by a partnership that has universities rewarding faculty contributions to research but relying on outside funding to support that research) will disappear if funding agencies withdraw their underwriting of individual research. (The impact of this change was delineated at the conference through discussion of how best to make the case to funders for area studies, but the crisis applies as well to individual humanists, who risk losing more than 84 percent of the grants they now receive if the NEH disappears, and to social scientists as their integration into science support is questioned by congressional supporters of "hard science" research). Equally important, the ripple effect of reduced research support will be felt, soon enough, in graduate training and undergraduate education as well, for it is the creation of new knowledge that shapes the felt need and specific directions underlying curricular change. These effects extend beyond particular campuses, and even beyond specific disciplines, to affect intellectual life as a whole. Without new coalitions among the various scholarly actors, we cannot hope to succeed in protecting the production of new knowledge.
Scholarly associations can play a special role in helping to create new modes of teaching, research, and scholarly communication that extend beyond university walls. The potential for innovation is embedded, especially, in the new electronic technologies with which we are all experimenting these days. While associations will not be the only or perhaps even the most prominent of the players on these new fields, we do have certain characteristics that allow us to make real contributions— especially our ongoing relationships with funding agencies (which often view us as agents of quality control); our ability to identify and bring together key participants from a variety of constituencies; and our capacity to focus discipline-wide resources on emerging issues (the pedagogical and substantive challenges around the emergence of world history being one case in point).
Finally, the need for scholars to forge new links to the general public and to K–12 educators suggests an area of potential expansion for scholarly societies. Making such connections is increasingly important for both intellectual and political reasons: the reliance of a democracy on an informed public demands a citizenry capable of asking critical and insightful questions of its sources of information. The tenor of contemporary political debates, which seem to rely more and more heavily on belief rather than knowledge or information is, I believe, linked to the ever-more obvious attempts to discredit scholarly enterprise by those with specific political agendas. Unless scholars work together to reach general audiences directly, we run a serious risk of losing public support entirely, and of losing credibility for the intellectual enterprise in which we are engaged. Individual scholars will need to become engaged in this task personally, but there will also be increasing demand for collectivities of scholars to work with the public, and for this, scholarly associations are well placed.
3. What are the barriers to training scholars and promoting research in these broadly based areas of inquiry?
Quataert: Barriers multiply when each subspecialty is taken into account. But a number of general issues can be raised. One is the structure of the academy itself, a point which hardly needs much commentary. Given the power of the disciplines anchored in departments, faculty doing interdisciplinary work—who are not in separate departments of area or cultural studies—must struggle to win the respect and recognition of their colleagues, particularly for critical tenure, promotion, and merit decisions. The other side of the coin is area studies. Self- consciously interdisciplinary and sensitive to cultural differences and historically specific contexts, area studies provide a fount of material for comparisons; indeed, they are one of the intellectual foundations for truly comparative and international scholarly undertakings. However, work in areas studies has too often been focused on the region, losing sight of the compelling intellectual debates and issues in the disciplines; some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States still sacrifice knowledge of the discipline for knowledge of a body of facts about a region.
Yet there is hope that the barriers separating the disciplines from area studies are weakening. For example, a growing number of history departments see the hiring of area specialists as central to their educational mission. In turn, more area specialists are asking questions that connect their region of interest to the broader discipline. This trend is showing up in the academic job market. Many colleges are calling for history faculty able to teach fields outside their U.S. or European specialty, although job announcements still are weighted toward national and continental expertise. Granting agencies, for their part, pose an obstacle to some types of interdisciplinary and comparative work, and they now have their own problems in justifying their role to an increasingly hostile Congress. Funding in this country was originally tied to national interests. It was therefore easier during the Cold War to justify area and comparative studies for political and security reasons. These older arguments are no longer persuasive.
Yet many of the earlier funding categories are still in place, which makes it hard for graduate students or faculty doing other kinds of interdisciplinary and cross-national work to look competitive when applying to funders. Under what category would a comparative study of German and French language policy in the Cameroons from 1889 to 1939 be funded? Money is the structural reality under which we operate, and we, as faculty have little control over the categories funding agencies rely upon. Funds are scarce now in higher education, and different campuses need to think about pooling resources (for language training through interactive television, for example, or for library acquisitions). This step requires closer coordination between the campus, the AHA, and the funding agency than has occurred in the past.
Freitag: The barriers Jean has identified obviously operate beyond the campus confines, and she has suggested some of the ways that the AHA, with other associations, can begin to intervene. Another approach, related to the efforts described in the discussion of question number 2, emerges when we think about building bridges to the public and to nonspecialists, or to those who specialize in other disciplines or other regions of the world. In this approach, we work together on building frameworks within which to connect work on different epochs and areas, and to cross boundaries that have been artificially constructed. As scholars, the very act of presenting our work so that it makes sense to others can, from this viewpoint, become a way to break down unnecessary or outmoded barriers.
Similarly, in their dealings with funding agencies, scholarly associations can consistently send messages about the new intellectual configurations that characterize internationally focused interdisciplinary or cross- disciplinary scholarly work. Since we often serve as peer-review and quality-control agents, our use of such rubrics should help legitimize and extend the use of new frameworks for support and evaluation purposes.
But perhaps the most important contribution scholarly societies can make is to exercise real intellectual leadership in defining the current and future crossroads on which area studies, the discipline of history, and other multidisciplinary innovations can converge. How might associations like the AHA play a leadership role in this respect? Two strategies come to mind. First, we ought to approach similar societies—especially the area studies associations and the directors of federally funded campus area studies centers—to forge new alliances around mutually defined scholarly goals (these would, I anticipate, reflect the actions I listed under question number 2). Second, within our own house, we ought to initiate discipline- wide discussions about the shape of our intellectual future. How will we do history in the 21st century? As we begin to answer that question— identifying new methodological and analytical trajectories, new constituencies and audiences, and new ways to connect to these audiences— we will be able to identify the terrain on which we want to meet area studies and related scholars.
4. What kinds of changes are necessary to bring about a new historical sensibility?
Quataert: Building on Sandy's point, I would argue that two fundamental changes must take place to make the new international and comparative perspective more central to our discipline. The first requires a fundamental reevaluation of what history is all about—a willingness to put wider regional contexts and contacts at the center of debate; to bring into discussion more fully comparative approaches and perspectives; and to draw on the work of other disciplines for methods, approaches, concepts, and theories. This conceptual reformulation, in turn, must be institutionalized in concrete ways. On campuses, for instance, these priorities have to become part of job descriptions and find their way into criteria for tenure decisions. Beyond campuses, they must shape funding oppor tunities and underpin the work of international conferences.
The second point is related to this suggestion. Scholarship must reach a stage where the contributions, which come out of area studies and the distinct regional perspectives of the area's historians, are fully incorporated into the general discipline of history here in the United States. The questions we ask from the new perspective must be generated not only from the areas that traditionally have dominated the discipline—Europe and North America—but from all areas, and these questions must become part of the collective "tool kit" that historians can draw on.
Freitag: How, then, might a scholarly society help to create this new "tool kit"? We are exploring a number of new initiatives as I write; I will list them here to convey to our members not only specific activities we want to pursue, but also our more general openness to new approaches and opportunities to foster discussion within our discipline and among historians and others.
We will serve, for instance, as cosponsors of an American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) biennial conference on the preparation of graduate students in the 21st century, scheduled to take place in Denver on November 8 through 11, 1995. History will be one of the disciplines featured in this conference, which will focus especially on the role of the academic department in graduate student preparation. We hope to encourage teams from specific campuses to attend (to include gradu ate program directors, faculty members, and graduate students); we will also facilitate discipline-focused sessions that will enable us to open out discussions about how we will "do" history in the 21st century beyond the AHA's own committee and division structures.
In addition, Renate Bridenthal (City Univ. of New York) and Pat Manning (Northeastern Univ.), the cochairs of the AHA's 1996 annual meeting, have been working on a conference independent of the annual meeting program on the nexus between area studies and history. Titled "Globalizing Regional Histories," this project would bring together scholars whose innovative research on particular areas has contributed to significant new directions being taken in history. We hope this conference will give rise to a coordinated publications program among the journals of the involved societies, as well as to other teaching and research materials that could be distributed to a variety of audiences.
We also are exploring several different electronic projects (whether these projects will be Internet-based or stand-alone products, such as CD-ROMs, has yet to be determined) on teaching world history. The uncharted territory in terms of both pedagogy and the intellectual framework needed to teach world history effectively poses real challenges with which scholars must still grapple. Part of the attraction of our preliminary explorations in this arena emerges from the different benefits we could realize through cooperation with different potential partners.
Finally, each of the AHA's divisions and standing committees will begin thinking about how best to foster broad discussions in the field regarding how we will "do" history in the 21st century. Once preliminary conversations have taken place within the AHA's institutional infrastructure, we hope to expand the discussion beyond our current membership—through H-Net and our affiliated societies, for instance. The outcome of such discussions should be identification of new intellectual trajectories, new audiences, and new linkages through which to pursue historical scholarship in the future. These will inevitably be situated within the larger global context in which we must operate to succeed in the future.
—Jean Quataert is professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She is also the AHA delegate to the International Committee of Historical Sciences. Sandria Freitag is executive director of the AHA.