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.


Professional v. Amateur: My Spin

Recent posts by Brooks Simpson, Eric Wittenberg, and J. David Petruzzi have got me thinking about this distinction between professional and amateur historians.  I may be wrong about this, but the Civil War may be the only sub-field of historical studies where this is an issue.  Three posts on this topic in a week suggests that something is in the air.  I actually don’t have much to say, but I wanted to take this opportunity to address both Eric’s question of another advanced degree and the above-mentioned distinction.  First, I agree entirely with Brooks’s carving of the terrain:

If there’s a meaningful difference, it is between academic historians (those housed in research or teaching institutions) and non-academic historians, and that difference is understood in part by how these people are funded, paid, and rewarded.

If the distinction does any work at all it is in allowing us to make practical distinctions rather than generalizations about the quality of the work produced by those on either side.  I’ve always considered myself to be an amateur/non-academic historian and a professional teacher.  I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.  I am paid and rewarded in this capacity and it provides me with a great deal of what goes into my own understanding of self.  I can imagine giving up my writing and research, but find it almost impossible to imagine myself outside the field of education.

I decided to pursue an M.A. degree in history at the University of Richmond in 2002 after I failed to gain entrance into a well-regarded PhD program.   My ego was a bit bruised and I am even willing to admit that it was over the superficial issue of having the “PhD” next to my name.  At that point I had already published a few book reviews in the Washington Times and North and South magazine along with a lengthy article in a local historical society journal.  Once I came out of my self-induced funk, however, I realized that the issue was not the rank but the additional opportunity that an advanced degree might offer me in terms of interaction and publishing.  I pursued the M.A. degree to get to a certain place where I could interact with people who share my specific interests and who actively pursue answers to specific questions that I care about.  If it turned out that an M.A. was not sufficient for my needs I might have gone back and taken the plunge.  As it turned out the M.A has allowed me to function in a way that I find rewarding on an intellectual level.

Whether my friends and other acquaintances that I’ve come into contact with through publishing and conferences consider me to be an academic/amateur or professional historian doesn’t matter much to me at all.  I too hope that my published work stands or falls on the merits of the research and the quality of the argument.


Remembering George Tindall

Some of you may be aware that historian George Tindall died last month at age 85.  Tindall spent his career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The Raleigh News & Observer recently included an article that included a few comments by Cliopatria founder Ralph Luker:

Tindall was regarded, along with the late C. Vann Woodward (a UNC-CH graduate) and John Hope Franklin of Duke University, as part of the holy trinity of 20th-century Southern historians.  “He, Franklin and Vann Woodward were the sources of a renaissance of Southern history that we are still benefiting from,” said Ralph Luker, a retired historian living in Atlanta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tindall, Woodward and Franklin took Southern history out of the magnolia-scented Lost Cause legends of the Civil War and administered the smelling salts of reality.  “All three insisted that Southern history had to be written in black and white,” [Ralph] Luker said. “Prior to their generation, Southern history had been written as a history of white people. That produced such a badly skewed and romantic vision of the South that we can look back on it with amusement and sadness.”

Tindall, a native of Greenville, S.C., taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 32 years before retiring in 1990. He was an elegant gentleman with a bow tie and a wry sense of humor who would sometimes ride his bicycle to class. The historians trained by Tindall are now the pillars of distinguished history departments across the South.  In his personal life, Tindall was ahead of his time. In the 1950s he made sure that dinners were held in hotels where white and black historians could eat together, and he sent his children to the first integrated day-care center in Chapel Hill.

His books are living legacies. His most famous, “The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945,” is an 807-page masterpiece published in 1967. It will likely remain the authoritative history of an era that saw the South pull itself out of rural poverty and wrestle with the great questions of race.

I have to admit that while I have a copy of The Emergence of the New South I’ve never actually read more than a few short sections.  A few days ago a post of mine which referenced a short essay by Mark Grimsley on recent interpretations of Sherman’s March led to a spirited discussion with a reader.  The reader’s comments implied that these revisions were authored by Northern historians who fail to sympathize with the suffering, destruction, rape, and pillage that Sherman’s hordes brought to Georgia.   Today Mark was kind enough to weigh in on the discussion by noting that he is a white southerner from North Carolina.  George Tindall grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and both the late C. Vann Woodward and Ed Ayers grew up in the South.  I could go on and on.

The important point to remember is that those most responsible for challenging the Lost Cause stories of the Civil War and the “Old South” are a product of the South.


The Crooked Road To Civil War

I am currently making my way through Nelson Lankford’s new book Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road To Civil War, 1861.  The book is essentially a micro-study of the days following Fort Sumter.  In some ways the book can be seen as a companion volume to his previous book Richmond Burning, which took a similar look at the final days of the Confederate capital.  [Click here for my H-Net review of this book.]  The first few chapters set the stage for the incident for Fort Sumter with chapters 6 through 17 focusing on the period between April 12 – 25.  For those of you already familiar with this period there is very little that is new.  What is impressive, however, is the extent to which Lankford is able to integrate recent scholarship on the secession winter and the Upper South by Daniel Crofts, William Freehling, Charles Dew, and William Link.  And he manages to do this within a narrative that is beautifully written.  There is nothing worse than reading books geared to the general public that are written by people who have no sense of the relevant historiography.  It makes for poor history and all too often it reinforces long-standing assumptions that can no longer be justified.  Yes, it turns out that good history is revisionist in the sense that we continually add to our understanding and in turn hopefully understand better.

Like his earlier study, Lankford relies heavily on contingency.  He places his reader in a narrative space where they can appreciate the role that perception played in the continually changing political shifts and subtle misperceptions in Virginia in the days leading up to and following Sumter.  In doing so Lankford reminds us that Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and even the establishment of the new Confederate government in February 1861 did not necessarily lead to war.   

This is the story of the unfolding of those events as Americans experienced them, not knowing the outcome any more than we can know the outcome of events in our own day before they happen.  Long-running discord over slavery and sectional rights prepared the way.  That antipathy long predated Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and all the other actors of 1861.  Perhaps by then the war could not have been avoided.  But the particular way that it began was in the hands of individuals, not impersonal, irresistible historical forces. (p. 7)

Lankford actually takes this one step further as he argues that even the bombardment at Sumter did not necessarily have to end in war:

"And the war came."  So Lincoln would famously reflect in his second inaugural address, tersely eliding complexities of cause and motive.  But that cryptic remark four years later conflated events terribly.  In April 1861, no one could see where the furious cannonade woud lead.  For several tumultuous weeks, in fact, many Americans still hoped and worked to avert a full-scale civil war.  For all the hostility, noise, and anger released in Charleston Harbor, the shape of the prospective disunion of the country, like Edmund Ruffin’s fate, still lay hidden in the unknowable future. (p. 83)

Lankford’s language clearly echoes recent work by Ed Ayers based on his Valley of the Shadow project. I highly recommend this book.  Even for those of you who are familiar with this time period I am confident that you will enjoy it.   


You’ve Been Warned

Tomorrow I start my spring elective course on women’s history.  I am very excited and also a bit nervous.  For the past four years I’ve offered slightly different versions of a course on the Civil War.  This year I wanted to try something new and give myself a little challenge because it’s important for teachers to see themselves as students every so often.  I have 11 girls registered for the course, but unfortunately no boys.  Right off the bat it looks like a case of gender construction at work: young men don’t take courses about women’s history.  While we lose valuable perspective in not having any boys in the class I am looking forward to the opportunity to think through questions about how assumptions about gender have changed and what it means to do women’s history.

I’ve ordered an excellent textbook that includes a nice collection of primary sources as well as Betty Friedan’s classic 1963 study The Feminine Mystique.  We are going to start off with some of the basics, including the distinction between sex/biology and gender construction and then we will jump right in and read the first chapter of Friedan and an examination of the "problem that has no name."  My guess is that most high school students are not introduced to a mature reading of women’s history especially if they are using even slightly outdated textbooks.  My AP students who are using Eric Foner’s new text are getting a heavy dose and he does an excellent job integrating this sub-theme into the broader narrative.  My regular survey courses use the most recent edition of the standard text The American Pageant originally authored by Thomas Bailey.  In the first few editions Bailey devoted 21 out of 1,000 pages to women and managed to mention only 48 by name.  Of those 48 seven were not American women and an additional six were mentioned only in the context of their relationships to presidents.  Eleanor Roosevelt was not mentioned at all along with Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams.  And when Bailey described women who demanded their right to control their own property, retain custody of their children or call for the right to vote he characterized them as a "belligerent bevy of female agitators" and "fiery females." (p. 366).  When it came to male "agitators" like Thomas Jefferson Bailey described him as a "brilliant writer" and reform President Woodrow Wilson as a "moving orator" and "idealist."   p. 115 and p. 730). 

One of the reasons I am so interested in gender/women’s history is that it has so much in common with the historiography of race and slavery.  Like African-American history, women’s history is relatively new and I suspect that this has much to do with the increase in the number of programs of study introduced into colleges and universities and the increase in the number of women and African-American scholars that have entered the job market since the mid-1960′s.  This also raises interesting questions about power and hierarchy.  It is not surprising that most Americans still have a distorted view of slavery and race given that most histories of the histories were written by white men up until relatively recently.  The same can be said about the place or absence of women in our collective memory.  My goal is to emphasize women as agents of change in American history by looking at both prominent individuals and the lives of ordinary women.  More importantly I want my students to see themselves as historically constructed around ideas of gender.  They are part of the ongoing story.  This class will hopefully give them the opportunity to step back and question the assumptions that have guided them thus far: What does it mean to be a woman at the beginning of the 21st century?

I love the fact that I still don’t know much about this subject.  On the one hand I get to guide the class through some interesting literature, but at the same time I am looking forward to having the students teaching me something new.  So, don’t be surprised if you see a post on this subject from time to time.