The Shape of Academic History, Part I: Geography

I used to open my introductory course on pre-modern European history (c.400-1789) with an image that I have come to think of as “History Goes Boom.” It’s evidently from the cover of a History Book Club magazine or catalogue, though when or where it was issued is more than I’ve been able to figure out from the relatively lo-res versions I’ve stumbled across online. Here it is:History goes boom

The lower foreground shows Union troops confronting Texans in a Civil War battle taking place, unconventionally, beneath the serene gaze of some gargantuan ancient Egyptian statues — who face an almost equally outsized and nonchalant George Washington, propped on a cannon as if awaiting his martini. Above, a squadron of what look to be World War II-era B-17s passes.

Students just starting their undergraduate studies can get quite a lot from this picture about a certain vision of history, and the discussions around it don’t always go the same way. But certain emphases invariably stand out: the prominence of military conflict and heroic political-cum-military leaders; the centrality of national symbols and narratives; the sense of decisive moments (again, typically wars) and great periods — in effect, history as a kind of highlight reel of masculine power and blood-soaked nationhood. These emphases in turn reveal the gaps: the absence from history, as here imagined, not only of women and non-military men but of ordinary life, of economy or society or environment or, indeed, context, of any action outside a Western tradition beginning with Egyptian wisdom and culminating in the American Century. And, of course, the absence of most of what went on in the thousands of intervening years.

The point is not to indict the History Book Club of anachronism or ignorance. It is rather to indicate that any selection of historical events or facts or bits of evidence always implies a set of decisions or beliefs about what does and doesn’t matter, historically — about who has a capital-H History and who does not; who belongs, who is important, and who can be ignored. And, of course, the answers we give to these questions, as in the cover, tend to suggest a lot not only about what we think history is but also about who we think we are. As does the fact that, in 21st-century Canada, a course in pre-modern European history may well be required of history majors while indigenous history, if it is even available as an elective, is usually not. The beauty of the cover — like that of the History Channel (where “Ancient Aliens” shares real estate with “Hitler’s Dream Vacation“) — is that it makes the dubiety of these decisions obvious even to comparatively untrained eyes.

The obvious contrast with such visions or outlets is with academic or professional history, which — say what you will about it — does not generally suffer either from quite the same dependence on heroic or monstrous world-historical figures or from an exclusive focus on war and high politics. Historians certainly have their fads. But their expertise divides them into a large number of fields (economic, social, cultural, political, intellectual; gender, science, empire, race, religion, environment, and so on) each with its own subdivisions, methodologies and theoretical orientations. Precisely because of this oft-lamented specialization, it is exceedingly rare for any new approach (whether cliometrics or critical theory) to sweep across the entire profession at once. The absence of common methodologies or models may differentiate history from other disciplines — as does its incessant borrowing from them — and it can look like a weakness. But it acts as a check on hubris and a reminder not just that every interpretation is subject to revision but also that any given subject can be approached in radically different ways.

That said, historians, in the aggregate if not unanimously, evince preferences of their own. They lean toward hiring people whose work and interests resemble or complement theirs — either in subject matter or in approach — or fill what they perceive to be important gaps in their departments or programs. But what constitutes an important gap? Historians generally don’t restrict their sense of what matters to George Washington and Hitler, but they do more or less consciously hold criteria of importance (or relevance, or — invariably presumptive rather than empirically established — student interest) that enable them to distinguish candidates working on important or interesting or promising questions from those studying things just because they are there. Ideally, these preferences are clearly and transparently articulated when decisions need to be made. In practice….

I wanted to see what Canadian history departments look like in terms of areas of specialization and, still more, periods of specialization. Unable to locate current statistics, I looked at the department websites of twenty-five Canadian comprehensive universities listed in the US News rankings from 2016 — not every Canadian history department, but probably all those with a substantial number of full-time faculty.[1] I looked at full-time, permanent faculty, as far as I could identify them (most departments have terrible websites) — 701 in all. I categorized each in terms of one or more geographical areas of focus, as their webpages, statements, or publication record indicated. Following most departments’ practice of cutting the non-Anglo-American world into large chunks, these areas were Canada, US, Latin America/Caribbean, Britain/Ireland, Western Europe, East/Central Europe, Mediterranean/Middle East, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia/Pacific. The results are tabulated here.

In contrast to Luke Clossey’s 2013 study, which I only saw once I’d already embarked on this exercise, mine was a very unscientific and hasty survey. The geographical assignments are especially problematic; I did not develop a consistent way of handling scholars of transnational and global topics (a small but significant number), or historians of empire, who sometimes linked their expertise with the colonies, sometimes with the mother country, and sometimes both. Nor did my categories always make sense for scholars of indigenous history, which probably warrants a separate rubric. It is at best a very loose description of what most people in most Canadian history departments seem to work on, judging from their websites. Still, a few points do seem reasonably clear.

First, and least surprising, Canadian history leads the way. (If not here, where else?) Nearly 1/3 of the historians included — 225 of the 701 — identified themselves as working principally or wholly on Canadian history. With the significant exceptions of Toronto (the largest department in the country, by far) and Alberta — both dominated instead by Western Europe — Canadianists were also the single largest group in every individual department.

Behind Canada, though, nearly a quarter of the full-time historians (162) counted work on Western Europe, over a tenth (77) on Britain and/or Ireland, and 39 on East/Central Europe, including Russia — meaning that altogether, it is probable that even more full-time historians at these Canadian universities work on Europe, broadly defined, than on Canada. I can’t say exactly how many more, though, since I assigned some historians to multiple geographical fields; simply adding the numbers would involve at least some double-counting.

Surprisingly, to me at least, only 99 historians (18 of them at Toronto) were identifiable as specialists in American history — and this includes a number of people, including scholars of indigenous history, who also work on Canada. If the slight predominance of European over Canadian history can be read as a legacy of Empire, or perhaps of professionalization, the relative paucity of Americanists seems surprising given our dependence on the giant to the south — and the source of many of our PhDs. I don’t necessarily think that the number needs to be bigger, I’m just surprised that it’s not.

With the exception of the Mediterranean/Middle East — which includes many of the 30-odd classicists not exiled to departments of their own — no other geographical category makes up much more than 5% of the full-time, permanent history professoriate at these 25 universities. Latin America/Caribbean and East Asian history are the next best represented, with a little under four dozen specialists each. There are under three dozen Africanists — excluding North Africa and the Mediterranean. By my admittedly inexpert count, there are just 22 full-time South Asianists — and a dozen universities (nearly half those examined) don’t have even one. I counted seven specialists in Southeast Asian history, three of whom are at Toronto.

Again, this was by no stretch a scientific survey. My judgment of specialization was sometimes simplified by self-identification, but sometimes depended on a quick scan of publication titles. It is open to question in many cases. Moreover, there was a substantial number of historians whose transnational interests placed them in more than one geographical category. The largest group of these were almost certainly “North Americanists” whose interests cross the Canada-US border, or “Atlanticists” interested in the British or other empires; but there were others, too. Still, the small number of historians with a clear focus on non-Western history that I found, and the strength of and proportions between Canadian, European and US history, all look close to what Clossey found a few years ago. To that extent, at least, his conclusion still apparently stands: “Canadian history looms large in our departmental curricula, and the histories of other places, especially non-western places, are typically shuffled off into a corner.”

Among other things, this suggests that the nativist rants of John Pepall and other would-be patriotic critics are missing an obvious truth about Canadian “university history”: it is still, overwhelmingly, concerned with the places (if perhaps not the questions) they insist are neglected: Canada, Europe, and “the West”. What historians have to say about these things is not always to the critics’ liking, certainly; the range of approaches they use and of topics they consider have both broadened immeasurably, and so much the better. Still my rudimentary observation suggests that the nation and its Western relations still, to a great extent, organize the teaching and research of history in Canada at the university level. Given the extensive and established academic arguments for transnational, global, “big”, and other supra-national histories, this may surprise; given the significance to national life of indigenous and non-Western histories, it is not necessarily good news.

Unlike Clossey, though, I was also — indeed primarily — interested in the distribution of temporal specializations, periods of study rather than places. Although in some respects the story there looks related, I think some of the implications for what history means, what it is becoming, and whose interests it serves, are distinct, and worth talking about. I’ll do that next time.

[To be continued.]


[1] In the order ranked: Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta, Université de Montréal, McMaster, Ottawa, Calgary, Western, Waterloo, Laval, Simon Fraser, Victoria, Queen’s, Manitoba, Dalhousie, York, Guelph, Saskatchewan, Carleton, Université de Québec à Montréal, Sherbrooke, Regina, Concordia, Memorial.


One thought on “The Shape of Academic History, Part I: Geography

  1. Pingback: The Rule of the 20th Century (The Shape of Academic History, Part II) | memorious

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