Historians and the Mobility Question

Barbara Weinstein, February 2007

Barbara WeinsteinAs a graduate student the last thing I worried about was immobility. Having chosen to study Latin American history, and then specifically Brazilian history, I did have to fret about securing funding and visas, but if those hurdles could be cleared, I could not imagine that any other barriers would stand between me and my sources—not to mention the political, linguistic, and cultural context into which I longed to plunge myself. But other barriers did appear, and they have forced me to ponder the logistics of a scholarly life that assumes a considerable degree of mobility, whether it is for traveling abroad to consult archives or collaborate with overseas colleagues, or even for traveling beyond one's own university campus to spend time in residence at other academic centers.

The "mobility question" isn't peculiar to the historical profession. All of academia, starting with the job market, presumes a certain degree of physical mobility. But among scholars in the humanities and social sciences, we historians—with our dependence on archival sources most of which can only be accessed in situ, even in the age of the internet—have a special need for mobility (exceeded, perhaps, only by anthropologists and other scholars engaged in ethnographic research). Unlike scientists who must stick close to their labs, or demographers who can work with a data set from anywhere in the comfort of their study, historians have to travel to collect oral histories, or conduct research in far-flung archives and libraries, and routinely need to spend many months, even years, in a specific location consulting the available documentation. Plus our work process often involves a degree of separation between research and writing that makes a fellowship at a residential center—which also means packing up and moving—highly compatible with the historian's craft, at least as ideally conceived.

It is interesting, then, that I cannot recall a single conversation during graduate school, either with my professors or my peers, about the impact that this need for mobility might have on our lives, or how unexpected twists and turns in our future might limit our mobility and hence our ability to conduct historical research in the conventional way. I suppose it's a good thing that none of my mentors felt that they should advise me to avoid entangling alliances or refrain from having children. On the other hand, the lack of attention to the "mobility question" probably reflected the enduring assumption, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that the typical academic was a head of household whose spouse and children would readily move to a new location whenever his or her (really "his") career required it.

In any case, at the time, far from regarding the need to be mobile as a problem, I found the mobility required by my chosen area of specialization highly appealing. At the risk of evoking the ghost of Orientalism, I admit that the very idea of spending a substantial portion of my life in another location, in a different cultural setting, speaking a language other than English, was highly seductive.1 Moreover, far from seeing this mobility as potentially hampered by a partner and children, I imagined my future family as a sort of transnational household, with the children eventually becoming fluent in Portuguese and culturally comfortable in any number of different environments. In truth, the one summer I did spend in São Paulo with my husband and two very small children proved to be somewhat less than idyllic, but even then I assumed that it was only a matter of time before it became second nature to spend a semester or year in Brazil, or at a residential center for advanced study in the United States where my sociologist husband and I could devote ourselves to our scholarly work.

Soon after that first (and as it turns out, last) family trip to Brazil, we became concerned about our son's increasingly withdrawn behavior and took him to be tested. The eventual diagnosis was autism. A child with a serious disability alters a family's life in hundreds of ways; in my case, among many other things, it shattered my fantasy of a mobile, transcultural family unit. Of course, at the time that was the least of my worries. Still, at some point I had to re-evaluate and re-think almost every aspect of my career, including whether I could ever again spend enough time in Brazil to do serious archival research. And even within an English-language environment, given the challenges of arranging special educational programs and much-needed therapy for my son, any geographic move seemed fraught with difficulty. It thus became unlikely that I would be applying to be a fellow at the National Humanities Center or the Institute for Advanced Study anytime in the near future.

The transformation of my personal situation from one that allowed considerable mobility to one of almost complete immobility was, perhaps, unusually dramatic, but it was by no means unique. Indeed, once I started pondering what my son's autism meant for my scholarly life, I became acutely aware of the numerous friends and colleagues of mine in academia who were similarly immobilized. After a while I formed the impression that it was the exceptional academic who could count on going abroad for research whenever she or he wanted to start a new book project, or could easily relocate to spend a year as a fellow at a residential center when entering the writing phase of a major project. And while women, according to my highly anecdotal evidence, were somewhat more likely to be immobilized by familial obligations than men, many of my male colleagues were similarly constrained.

That makes it all the more remarkable that there is still so little open discussion of the limits that personal obligations place on scholarly endeavors. I cannot remember ever reading, even in a discreetly placed footnote, an acknowledgement that a certain collection of documents wasn't consulted because the historian/author couldn't get away from his/her family long enough to visit that particular archive, or that a certain question wasn't addressed because it would involve research that would be logistically impossible, given the author's personal circumstances. Yet surely there are hundreds of books and articles by historians that bear the imprint of our complicated personal lives. Even in this era when the first person singular has become a regular presence in historical writing, we still stubbornly adhere to the convention that intellectual decisions are motivated by purely scholarly concerns, not personal considerations, fearful that to admit otherwise would be to tarnish one's academic reputation.

This reluctance to acknowledge what we know to be true—that most historians do not enjoy boundless mobility and that these limits are reflected in our work—has allowed a major trend to emerge in academic life without much critical discussion of its thornier implications. I refer to the proliferation of residential fellowships and independent centers for advanced study. Four years ago, W. Robert Connor, former president and director of the National Humanities Center, published a piece in the Chronicle Review in which he declared that such centers represented a "third stage" of knowledge creation and a new kind of academic community that was urgently needed to orient scholarly production in fresh and innovative directions. Arguing that these centers had moved well beyond just providing individual faculty with time to focus on their own scholarly work, Connor emphasized the intense intellectual and interdisciplinary exchange that these centers foster, and their unique capacity to promote new ideas.2 Although the point of his essay was to demonstrate the value of the centers for advanced study, not to note their drawbacks, I was still taken aback by the absence of any reference to the large numbers of scholars that would be excluded from this crucial intellectual community.

This silence prompted me to write a letter in response, which appeared in a subsequent issue of the Chronicle Review. I readily acknowledged the considerable intellectual appeal of the centers Connor had described in his article, but wondered how many academics could uproot their household for an entire year. Perhaps, I concluded, scholars with immobilizing spousal, child-care or parental obligations should simply resign themselves to being excluded from this splendid new world of knowledge creation or hope that the "breakthrough moments in their careers" occurred at some point in their life cycle when they might have greater geographic mobility.

The trend Connor identified and applauded in 2003 has intensified in recent years. Not only have a number of new centers appeared over the last decade, but the American Council of Learned Societies has created the Burkhardt Fellowship for recently tenured faculty that specifically requires full-time residence at a library or center for advanced study. According to ACLS Vice-President Steven Wheatley, the council "included this requirement... on the theory that this was a cohort that especially could benefit from sustained interaction with colleagues from different disciplines and different institutions. Experience shows that many fellows gain that benefit. At the same time, we realize—both from general experience and from negotiating placements for our Burkhardt Fellows—that family circumstances make relocation difficult in many cases and well-nigh impossible in some others."

Let me say that I strongly agree with most of Connor's arguments, and with the logic that led the ACLS to create the Burkhardt Fellowships. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to work in departments where colleagues take an interest in each other's work and engage in lively intellectual exchange can surely benefit from a year in a very different, more intense, and deliberately interdisciplinary scholarly environment. I've noticed (somewhat enviously) that colleagues who have spent a year at such a center or institute almost unfailingly describe the experience in glowing terms, and not simply because it provided relief from teaching and committee assignments. In addition, at a time when political considerations regrettably intervene in the refereeing process for certain fellowships, it is reassuring that these centers enjoy the kind of autonomy that shields them from unwanted intervention in the selection of fellows.

My intention here is not to argue for fewer residential centers, and even less to propose that scholars studying places like Brazil be exempt from the need to travel abroad. Rather, I am simply proposing that we stop pretending that the "mobility question" doesn't exist. Whether it be in the context of a mentoring relationship, or a discussion of the conditions to be attached to a new fellowship, or the designation of residential centers as the key site for new knowledge creation, it seems wise to maintain some awareness of the relatively small number of historians who can change locations at the drop of a hat (or the granting of a fellowship). I also do not pretend to have "solutions" to the problem of immobility, though I think a degree of flexibility in the conditions attached to funding of every sort is the fundamental step toward addressing this problem. Fortunately, there are still several fellowships—the Guggenheim, the NEH, the ACLS (all except the Burkhardt)—that are completely portable. They do not require that the bearer be in any particular location. Other fellowships that do require relocation, such as the Fulbright awards granted by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, have become more flexible about time requirements, with stays of three or four months now standard for some of the lectureships. Certain centers for advanced study quietly encourage applications from dual-academic households. The multiweek seminars sponsored by the National History Center, most notably on the theme of decolonization, offer a venue for intense intellectual exchange that does not required prolonged absences from one's home institution.

At the risk of turning this article into an advice column, I might also describe my own personal "solutions" to the mobility problem. One has been to substitute more frequent, shorter solo trips to Brazil for the intermittent longer stays. Another has been to think realistically about what types of projects I can take on. Recently, in choosing between two possible research topics, I carefully considered how many of the sources in each case would be print materials that I could access through interlibrary loan, and whether the primary sources in Brazilian archives would be relatively well organized. I opted for the project that I regarded as more feasible in light of my personal circumstances. And then there are the new technological tools, such as scanning and digital photography. These strategies, of course, do not entirely compensate for a lack of mobility. Even satellite TV and the internet cannot replace the experience of spending a semester or year abroad, cultivating lasting friendships, and soaking up the latest political and cultural developments in the society one has chosen to study.

As for the challenges of getting a write-up fellowship, especially with so much of the funding now dependent upon a year's residence in a center for advanced study, here perhaps the proliferation of such centers and institutes will be part of the solution. With more and more universities creating their own such centers, an increasing number of historians can hope to spend a year at a location that lies within commuting distance of their home. But given the highly decentralized geography of North American academia, such a quantitative solution ultimately seems inadequate for addressing the problem. Rather, some structural adjustments are more likely to redress the real inequities in access to these centers and institutes. With that in mind, I'll close with the final paragraph of the letter I wrote in response to Robert Connor's essay in the Chronicle Review3:

I would like to think that there are other and better options than excluding interesting and active scholars whose lives do not lend themselves to full-time residence elsewhere, but these options would require de-emphasizing the exclusively residential character of these communities. It would also mean extending their "adaptability and flexibility" to the real-world needs of their potential applicant pool. Why not have a core of scholars in residence—scholars who are in a phase of their life and career when it is feasible to install themselves in another location for the entire academic year—and others who would not be in residence but would visit regularly to participate in seminars, or spend a week each month at the center? This is just one alternative scenario; I can imagine many variations that would both permit a sense of scholarly community and not arbitrarily exclude academics doing stimulating and original research who are eliminated from the competition for reasons that have nothing to do with scholarly interest or merit. These days most scholars would agree that there is no single formula for community—a successful community can take many forms. One would hope that this premise could be extended to our own communities.

—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.


1. Elsewhere I have discussed the issues raised by my decision to study Brazilian history rather than, say, the history of Jewish immigrant women. "Buddy, Can You Spare a Paradigm?: Reflections on Generational Shifts and Latin American History," The Americas 57:4 (April 2001), pp. 453–466.

2 "Why We Need Independent Centers for Advanced Study," The Chronicle of Higher Education/The Chronicle Review, Jan. 17, 2003, p. B10.

3 A part of this paragraph appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2003, B18.