Professional v. Amateur: A Quick Follow Up

It’s 2:30am here in Charlottesville, I am awake and dealing with some back pain and a cold.  I went around the horn and reread the posts dealing with this silly little distinction and had a few additional thoughts that I thought I might share.  The one piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing is the extent to which this distinction serves to reinforce assumptions about the motivations of the individual "historian."  I recently changed the subheading of my blog back to "Reflections of a High School History Teacher" so that my readers would understand that I am not an academic/college professor.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but many of the comments on my blog are premised on the assumption that because I research topics that fall into categories that are more closely aligned with academic interests and publish in places that are identified with college professors that I must be one myself.  It’s even worse for someone who specializes in the history of the South and the Confederacy.  I am automatically stuck with labels that connect me with the Ivory Tower not because of where I work, but because of the questions I ask.   

A few people have pointed to the supposed "snubs" that have been leveled in their direction by academics, but my experience suggests that the overwhelming bias (bordering often on paranoia) comes from those who rush to politicize what some  historians do.  Part of my problem – which I assume is unique – is that while I identify myself as an amateur I don’t have much in common with what we would probably describe as the interests of the  amateur historian.  I assume we can  all agree that most "amateur historians" are interested in strictly military aspects of the Civil War while "academic historians" tend to focus on questions about economics, politics, culture, and to the extent that the battlefield fits in it does so in a way that connects with one of these categories.  Of course I am stretching things a bit here, but just to make a point. 

In a way I envy historians like Eric and J.D as they don’t have to worry about being described as a revisionist or neo-liberal historian or even worse.  They are not accused of trying to "tear down" the heritage of this country or "tarnish the good names" of historical figures.  Only in Civil War circles can the idea of revision come to mean something negative as if I wake up in the morning with a personal vendetta as opposed to a curiosity that drives me to challenge and better my understanding of the past.   There is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in Civil War circles which I suspect has little to do with historical interests and everything to do with politics.  No need to address that issue here.  The defensiveness and/or insecurity of some of my readers is disturbing to say the least. I suspect that most – if not all – have never read a single word of my published work; and why would they have to if they start off on the assumption that I am an "academic" who is bent on tearing down everything that is good and sacred.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but it’s time to go back to bed.

7 thoughts on “Professional v. Amateur: A Quick Follow Up

  1. elektratig

    Kevin,

    Trubba not! I suspect that you’re seeing and reacting to a non-representative sample. I don’t pretend to have my hand on the pulse of Civil War buffery, but from what I can tell the “anything-but-slavery” group is a pretty small one. People who disagree with a post are more likely to write registering their disagreement. After all, if one reads a post and agrees, one really has nothing to say.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin

    I am definitely not relying on my experiences blogging as a sufficient indicator of this sentiment. It’s part of a general trend which seems to automatically reduce scholarship to the political without ever engaging in discussion about the content of the argument. The Civil War seems to me to be the clearest example of this trend. Just check out some of the other blogs which assume a defensive posture concerning the “moral” or “sacred” qualities of certain people or their position as some kind of christian ideal. I think there is a great deal of animosity directed at academic historians who concentrate on the Civil War because they ask questions.

    Reply
  3. John Maass

    Kevin: As always, I enjoy your blog, but must take a different stance than yours (assuming I am reading you correctly) that “only in Civil War circles can the idea of revision come to mean something negative.” I’d say that is strongly not the case. I see it written about all kinds of historians, of every stripe. It is a “catch all” phrase, tossed about (like you say) by those who object to the debunking of myths or the revisiting of events/causes/effects/people, and the meaning of change over time. If history is done properly, by so-called amateurs or by professionals/academics, it is always revisionist, because the scholarship should revise our understanding of the past, shed new light on it, revisit it. If it is just a rehash of events (like much of military history is, hence its “bad name” in academic circles) then it is simply that, a rehash, not scholarship. In short, I think we agree, I am just pointing out that the the idea that revision means something negative is not limited to Civil War studies.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin

    Hi John, — I could have worded things more clearly. We are actually in full agreement. Perhaps I should have said that these criticisms are more prevalent in Civil War circles.

    Reply

Join the Conversation