Debating “Professional Boredom” in History

In his article “Professional Boredom” in the March 2012 issue of Perspectives on History, AHA President William Cronon discussed what it means to be a “professional historian” and advocated for history writing that’s engaging and accessible to a broad audience. His article generated numerous insightful responses and discussions online, and today we highlight a few.

  • Claire Potter articleMirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who Is the Smartest Historian of All?
    Claire B. Potter suggests that Cronon’s article on “Professional Boredom” and Tim Burke’s article on critique should be “required reading for all history departments” since they provide opportunities to start important conversations about the history profession.
  • Who Is This We?
    Blogger “Clio Bluestocking” responds to Cronon’s article by arguing that the term “boring” is subjective and that it’s important to write for a specific audience, rather than trying to reach everyone. She also wonders about Cronon’s intended audience—and who he means by “we.”
  • TL;DR for Historical Scholarship
    Timothy Burke begins his post by agreeing with Cronon about promoting more “communicative, readable scholarship,” but then goes on to point out that often you need the “boring,” or more specialized, work to build into a broader “exciting, engaging, communicative work.”
  • Ben Alpers articleHow—And for Whom—We Write
    Ben Alpers, at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s blog, responds both to Cronon’s article and to Claire Potter’s response (linked above), explaining why “the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.”
  • William Cronon on “Professional Boredom”
    Darin Hayton sums up Cronon’s points, and shares his enthusiasm for talking about history with an audience outside of academia. See Hayton’s post on sharing the history of science with fourth graders.

The Writing of History (1926)
1926 The Writing of HistoryLest we think debates on academic history writing is a new thing, look back at the 1926 AHA committee report on “The Writing of History,” which AHA Deputy Director Robert B. Townsend wrote about in his article “From the Archives: Why Can’t Historians Write?” in 2008.

In the preface of the report, John Spencer Bassett explains that an AHA committee was put together after a realization “that the writing of history in the United States was not in a satisfactory state.” Jean Jules Jusserand’s contribution to the report, “The Historian’s Work,” looks further back in time to insights on writing history from Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata in the second century AD, Roman philosopher Cicero in 55 BCE, and French philosopher Jean Bodin in 1566. The report is rounded out by Wilbur C. Abbott’s “The Influence of Graduate Instruction on Historical Writing,” Charles W. Colby’s “The Craftsmanship of the Historian,” and Bassett’s conclusion, “The Present State of History-Writing.”

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