And Gladly Teach

William Cronon, December 2012

"So...what are you working on now?"

Few questions are asked among academic historians more frequently than this one. Whether in cocktail parties, at conferences like the AHA annual meeting, or during stray encounters in libraries and archives, it constitutes the segue into serious conversation after the preliminary niceties of "Hi, how's it going?" are out of the way. "What are you working on now?" signals an eagerness on the part of the would-be conversationalists to turn to the subjects they really care about—the findings and arguments and insights that they regard as the heart of their shared profession.

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? The recurrence of the adjective "new" in these questions is an obvious reason we're drawn to this topic, since we all feel a thrill of excitement at the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unexpected. We like to think about things we haven't thought about before, and we like even more to think that things we have thought about before may not quite be what we imagined. We like also to be at the cutting edge, to be among the first to know new things so that we ourselves can talk about them in subsequent conversations when colleagues and students ask what's going on in our field. And we all rightly believe that, at its best, scholarly research is a crucial domain in which our discipline grows and transforms itself in ways that keep it vibrantly alive. We surely are not wrong to be interested in each other's research or to want to discuss it with colleagues who understand it better than anyone else in our lives.

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. We read countless books and articles about other people's research in order to stay abreast of our fields. We serve on one committee after another to share in the governance of the institutions that employ us. We write a never-ending stream of recommendations, reports, evaluations, and reviews. We share expert knowledge in response to requests for consultation. And, of course, we teach. Indeed, for those of us employed by universities and colleges and schools—and not a few institutions of public history as well—this is the work more than any other that justifies our employment and underwrites our paychecks.

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.

Worse still, we too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain "I just can't find enough time for my work"—implying that teaching isn't part of that work and in fact competes with the "real" work of research. When my father was a graduate student in the 1950s, a senior professor took him aside and encouraged him to develop strategies for protecting as much time as possible for his scholarship. To avoid too much service, this faculty member said, one should "cultivate a dignified incompetence," so that one would never be asked twice to serve on a committee. As for teaching, he said, it was like "building castles in the sand." No one who really mattered ever knew what one did in the classroom; it contributed nothing to one's professional reputation; and unlike a book, one had nothing to show for oneself when it was over. Teaching, in other words, deserved as little time as possible.

I hope none of my readers are quite so jaded as this man about their work as teachers. Most of us, I'm pretty sure, believe that history is an essential part of any broad-based curriculum whether at the K–12 or baccalaureate levels, especially if the goal is a liberal education. Indeed, I suspect most of us would be willing to argue that our discipline remains indispensable for the practice of informed citizenship in the modern world. My experience has been that historians on average are among the better teachers in the schools I know best, perhaps because our discipline remains unabashed in its affection for storytelling and because the stories we like to tell are generally about making connections that help students understand the larger contexts that render those connections ever more meaningful. Because our discipline has not enjoyed the immense flow of grant money that seduces our colleagues in the sciences away from the classroom, even the most senior and distinguished members of our guild regularly stand in front of undergraduate classrooms, and support their graduate students with teaching as well. And I hope many of us share the belief that the people "who really matter" in judging our teaching are not our colleagues but the ones we meet each time we enter a classroom: the students we hope to instruct and inpire. So although we may not talk about our teaching as if it were "what we're working on now," we still take it seriously and remain committed to its importance.

It is in this spirit that I wish to offer the following claim. 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.

I will have much more to say about this topic in my AHA presidential address, which is simply entitled "Storytelling," but in this essay on teaching I want to emphasize what a gift it is that so much of what we do—what so many of us are working on now—is explaining ourselves to people who know far less about our subject than we do. Our students require us to come back from the outer edges of our discipline to show them the core assumptions without which we would never find those edges. They force us to pay attention not just to our narrow specialties, but to the much larger swaths of history in which our subfields are embedded, thereby creating opportunities for synthesis and interconnection and serendipitous insight that might otherwise never occur. They remind us how valuable it is to distill and simplify and signpost so as to break complicated ideas into more manageable parts which, when reassembled, create much more solid understandings than would otherwise be possible. Perhaps most of all, they bless us with their confusion and boredom, instantly revealing to us—if only we have the courage to look in the mirror and recognize our own responsibility for what they are feeling—the places where something we've said or done is in fact confusing and boring. By repeatedly reminding ourselves of the things our students do not know, and then joining them in the journeys of discovery that reveal those unknown things time and time again with each new class, we re-experience how wondrously strange and exciting and valuable the past can be if only we look at it aright. Just so do we reenact both for them and for us the experience of that clerk of Oxenford of whom Chaucer famously wrote: "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."

William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.