AHA Online

Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating the Discipline?

Vanessa Varin, March 2013

A new report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) charging that American history survey courses at two Texas universities are too focused on race, class, and gender came under fire from historians, who used the web and social media to respond to the report in real time.

Elaine Carey, AHA vice president, Teaching Division, and AHA Executive Director James Grossman reacted to the report in an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education (and in Perspectives on History, February 2013), where they critiqued the methodology used to support the findings in the report. AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz agreed, writing on AHA Today, "It looked only at assigned readings, not at classes as a whole; it ignored the very significant institutional support that the Univ. of Texas department gives to precisely those areas, such as military and diplomatic history, that they are charged with ignoring; and it arbitrarily assigns readings to just some of the multiple categories in which they fit." On social media, Historian Adam Arenson tweeted that the report was based upon a "superficial syllabus reading," while Joseph Adelman seconded that point in his own blog post on Publick Occurrences 2.0.

Responding specifically to the NAS's critique of U.S. history reading assignments, Adelman contended, "A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don't exist and don't matter." Adelman's point about the centrality of these categories in historical analysis was seconded by Cara Burnidge, who tweeted: "For me (#gwu alum) it's indisputable that embracing hist complexity was vastly more compelling and rigorous than summary approach."

Many historians pointed out the problem with treating political, economic, and military history as discrete subjects of analysis. In response to NAS's proposed categorization of readings, AHA Deputy Director Robert Townsend tweeted, "Still puzzling over NAS's classification scheme. Apostles of Disunion is about race, but 'Letter from a Birmingham' jail isn't?" Indeed, Grossman and Carey specifically referenced this point, arguing "In the authors' zeal to pigeonhole the faculty and the scholarship under review, they confuse 'topics' with the useful concepts that enable historians to weave a more nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change."

Offering an alternative perspective, Samuel Goldman for the American Conservative critiqued Carey and Grossman's support for scholars who "broaden and deepen" their approach to a subject, and argued "most college students lack the knowledge even to begin developing the 'nuanced and comprehensive view of the past and the dynamics of historical change' with which Grossman and Carey credit social history." Carey and Grossman responded to Goldman's piece, agreeing that fewer students have an adequate knowledge of history when they arrive at college, but reiterated their original point that history teachers must serve a central role in "determining history curricula."

The AHA is interested in hearing all sides of this debate, and welcome comments from any historians willing to engage with this report and share their thoughts, either on the AHA Today blog, or any of our social media spaces.

Fleeing the Alternative Career Ghetto: Facebook Followers Debate Need for Graduate Curriculum Reform

In response to a piece on the AHA Today blog highlighting an article from historian and alternative career advocate Alexandra Lord's call for graduate curriculum reform, the AHA Facebook space became a center for debate about the current state of graduate training. In response to the query, "Should alternative career training be more significant portion of history PhD programs" Melissa Amateis Marsh commented, "YES. We don't all want to be in higher education." Javier Cha pointed out, "Maybe to make 'alternative' careers less stigmatized, we should drop 'alternative' from what is actually, well, career training." Related to more particular gaps in training, Jessica Neptune commented, "Being on the market now, I'd say the single most useful skill set for research positions outside of academia (for those who might want to go in that direction) would be more quantitative training, especially statistical and data analysis software training. This could be useful to historical scholarship as well." What do you think about the current state of graduate career training? Join the discussion on the AHA Facebook page.

Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.