Friday, August 29, 2008

Whither labor history?

As Professor Bierce readies himself to celebrate the long weekend honoring the blue and pink-collar workers who make his life easier, he must ask (but not answer) this perplexing question. Whither labor history? The field, so hot in the 1970s and 1980s, seems to attract few of the best and brightest younger scholars. Is it that the generation of historians who came of age in the 1960s believed in the redemptive power of labor? Were those historians closer to the working-class than the pampered students who are increasingly the only who can afford today's exorbitant tuition bills, even at our best public universities? Or is labor history in need of an infusion of new methodologies, the analogue to the transformation wrought by the cultural turn in the once moribund field of diplomatic history? Your gossipy friend wonders. In any case, at a moment in our history when working-class issues have moved to the forefront of national politics, the field of labor history seems overdue for a revival.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eli rising

Edmund S. Morgan, David Brion Davis, Howard Lamar, C. Vann Woodward, David Montgomery, and Nancy Cott. These six accounted for nearly all of Yale’s Ph.D. degrees in American history in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Together their students redefined their respective fields. Collectively, it’s hard to imagine a more diverse, yet more influential group of historians. The soft-spoken but highly literary Morgan had only one peer in early American history, Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn. Davis practiced an erudite combination of cultural and intellectual history and trained a whole generation of scholars who went on to redefine nineteenth-century cultural historiography. Only Berkeley's Lawrence Levine was more influential. Lamar brought the history of the west to the east (something that Yale’s Ivy League peers still have not done). Woodward was possessed of an extraordinary mind that made him a magnet for talented graduate students, even if he had the reputation of being a less than engaged advisor. Montgomery was so charismatic that his disciples, now in their mid-careers, are collectively known at the Montgomeryites for their distinctive shop-floor centered labor histories. And even though Cott commuted to dreary New Haven from self-important Cambridge, she trained a veritable who’s who of women’s historians who defined a field and remain some of its most important practitioners.

When this stellar cast of characters retired (or in Cott’s case decamped to Harvard to run the Schlesinger Library), Yale faced the crisis that besets most major history departments at some point in their life cycle. It lost the great historians whose scholarship and mentorship defined the program. In the mid-1990s, when the contours of that crisis became clear, Yale, like many departments, did not have a deep bench of younger historians to take over. But Yale’s potentially tragic story had a different outcome. It struggled for a few years, but not for long, and then rebuilt itself into a department arguably as mighty as any in its past. And it managed to reconstitute itself despite its location decidedly outside the East Coast metropole. And it did so in the most effective way, by making smart junior hires and tenuring them from within, while also recruiting senior historians in their mid-careers. Some universities go after trophy hires, hoping that a senior scholar past his or her prime but remunerated lavishly will restore its luster or give it a gloss that it never had. That’s a strategy that almost always fails. By contrast, Yale went after the one-book wonders and two-book rising stars within its walls and extramurally.

By pursuing this strategy, Yale stands mostly alone. Of top-ranked departments, only Michigan, Penn, and Wisconsin have been as ambitious and successful with junior and mid-career hiring. By contrast, many other big departments lost their bearing when they lost their most prominent senior faculty. Harvard, long mired in dysfunctionality, struggled for years before reinventing itself. Chicago and Leland Stanford Junior University have quirkily half-rebuilt. Berkeley has never recovered from the loss of Leon Litwack and Larry Levine. And UCLA has hoarded its greatness in European and Asian history, while letting its American side languish (although its recruitment of Washington’s James Gregory is most promising).

The next department that will face a major crisis is mighty Columbia. The top-heavy department recently poached the most important immigration historian of her generation, Mae Ngai, from Chicago. It bolstered its otherwise non-existent strength in cultural history with Indiana’s Casey Blake. But still Columbia lacks a senior colonialist after a series of failed searches to replace Richard Bushman. And it must ponder an uncertain future with Eric Foner, Kenneth Jackson, and Alice Kessler-Harris all well into their sixties. The department’s best hope is that revered teacher and mentor Alan Brinkley may return to the classroom from his stint as Provost.

That leads us back to Yale. While most of its peers struggled, Yale aggressively rebuilt. After decades of sending its young talent packing, Yale’s history or American studies programs (the two overlap considerably) tenured colorful North Carolinian Glenda Gilmore, slightly too prolific Matthew Frye Jacobson, and one-book wonders Joanne Freeman, Stephen Pitti, Jonathan Scott Holloway, and Jennifer Klein. And it built its senior ranks selectively, hiring mid-career scholars with several books left in them, beginning with David Blight from Amherst in the wake of the publication of his field-defining book on the Civil War and memory. Just as impressively, Yale recruited two of the three top historians of sexuality in American history: Joanne Meyerowitz of Indiana and George Chauncey of Chicago (the third is Penn’s Kathy Peiss). Of them, Blight, Gilmore, and Chauncey have the best chance of filling the shoes of their esteemed predecessors. Much credit for Yale’s rebuilding must go to senior faculty like the erudite and marvelous Jon Butler, who refused to let a great department languish for too long.

Yale’s reconstruction strategy has been smarter than that of most of its colleagues. What Yale has learned is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It is arguable whether most of the young faculty Yale has tenured will ever singly be magnets for graduate students. Most of them, at least to date, do not have the star power of a Morgan, Cott, or Montgomery or books that are as field-defining. But in combination, the Yale department is truly formidable. If Professor Bierce has the good fortune this year of advising a smart undergraduate who is foolish enough to want to go to graduate school in history, he will encourage her to apply to Yale. (Professor Bierce’s next choices will be the subject of future postings).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Historians as public intellectuals

The history job market remains grim, the result of cutbacks in funding to many institutions of higher education, the triumph of the professions over such impractical arts as history, and the increasing exploitation of an army of mostly underpaid, exploited adjuncts to teach our undergraduates.

Many frustrated job seekers in the history profession choose alternative careers. Law schools attract some, business schools others. History-related, non-academic professions, among them historical societies and museums, have benefited greatly from the glut of history Ph.Ds.

But one of the more interesting phenomena worth comment is the rise of public intellectuals who trained as historians. Consider just these few exemplary cases. One of the most smashingly successful blogs, Talking Points Memo, is run by former Brown history graduate student Josh Marshall. Best-selling authors Thomas Frank and Rick Perlstein are both trained historians. Frank earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, whose press published his fine dissertation as The Conquest of Cool. Perlstein attended the American Culture program at the University of Michigan before writing path-breaking histories of conservativism that have much more panache than all but the very best academic books. I have already mentioned critic Chris Lehmann, a Lasch student. Matthew Dallek, the son of the presidential biographer Robert Dallek, has followed his father's footsteps into political history but has also served as a political speechwriter and political essayist. The new liberal intellectual journal Democracy is run by three editors who are all published historians and Beltway insiders. Andrei Cherney has just published a well-reviewed history of the Berlin Airlift. His co-editor, Kenneth Baer, wrote a well-regarded history of the Democratic Leadership Council after earning an Oxford Ph.D. Their colleague Clay Risen is soon publishing a history of the riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

Professor Bierce is pleased that historians are demonstrating their relevance outside of the cloistered precincts of the university. The best historians are masters of the art of narrative. It's a skill that translates well into the world of punditry and politics.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Alas, poor Emory

Emory, poor Emory. One of the South’s most ambitious private institutions (along with Duke, Rice, and Vanderbilt), Emory has vaunted into the ranks of top-tier universities. It has benefited from the inexplicable cachet of its rather dreary mother city Atlanta (whose police arrested the august don, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, for jaywalking during the 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association). In recent years, Emory has become a magnet for ambitious students from the Northeast, now the dominant presence in the student body, who couldn’t quite make it into Columbia, Penn, and Princeton, but who wouldn’t settle for Rutgers, Stony Brook, or UConn. It is, you could say, the NYU of the South.

But alas poor Emory. A magnet for bright students, it has also attracted scandal-prone historians, like metal-shavings, to it.

Emory’s woes began with the infamous Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, whose familial career of apostasy from the left along with an abiding love of authority in all of its embodiments, most notably the Roman Catholic Church, gave new meaning to the feminist notion of a woman in charge. Perhaps the late Fox-Genovese internalized a little too much of the mind of the master class, leading her to treat her female subordinates as maidservants. In 1996, Emory settled a harassment lawsuit brought against her and the university by Virginia Gould, one of her employees (unconfirmed reports suggest that the undisclosed settlement was nearly one million dollars). Much of the material, including the quite-interesting depositions, can be found in the newly opened EFG Papers at the Southern Historical Collections in Chapel Hill. For her conservative political correctness, Professor Fox-Genovese was honored by none other than President George W. Bush, who gave her the National Humanities Medal for her work as a "defender of reason and servant of faith."

And then Michael Bellesiles, the terminally sloppy historian who shot his career point blank in the temple and, in the process, gave the National Rifle Association a poster child for the supposed mendacity of the vast left-wing conspiracy against Americans' right-to-own as many Uzis as they can cram into their gun closets. In an unprecedented move, Columbia University revoked Bellesiles's Bancroft Prize.

Adding injury to insult, David Garrow, the formidable civil rights historian (then at Emory’s law school), was charged with assaulting a staff member. Garrow was suspended from his position for six months, after which he departed for good. The case dragged on for four years--and was finally settled in the spring of 2006. Though Professor Bierce has often wished that he could come to fisticuffs with certain petty administrators, he possesses that admirable restraint that has thus far protected him from criminal and civil charges of battery.

Emory has worked to redress its past sins, most notably by hiring some rather talented young historians. James Roark brings a gravitas to the department through his carefully researched studies of slavery. Leslie Harris recast the history of slavery and race by turning her attention to antebellum New York. Joseph Crespino revised the history of race and politics by turning his attention to Mississippi, though he made his fame at a most precocious age by bringing down fellow Mississippian Trent Lott, to the Great Happiness of all defenders of Truth and Justice. And overseeing the university's academic affairs is eminent Earl Lewis.

Will any of them join the ranks of evidence fabricators and alleged bureaucrat beaters, and grad student abusers? Professor Bierce believes not, and even more fervently hopes not, but does note that it will be a long time before Emory’s history department will emerge from the shadow of scandal and is able to compete with its many rivals North and South.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Professor Bierce’s Blue Monday

Your winged Messenger of all things gossipy is feeling particularly blue this Monday, for in the academic world, August (or September) depending on one’s home institution is indeed the cruelest month. The peace of College Town is now unsettled by the onslaught of boisterous undergraduates beginning the Season of Binge Drinking. The fall season jousting over that most precious of campus commodities, the well-located parking spot, has begun. Professor Bierce wishes that he could pedal to work, but like most of the residents of his most sprawling burg must rely on the horseless carriage. And the delightful hiatus of summer has now passed into history. Were it not a Monday afternoon, the good professor would pour himself a stiff bourbon, in part to balm the pain of a full day of meetings. But he will not besmirch his status on campus by joining the legion of tipplers that are turning this Ivory Tower into a live tableau of a Hogarth print.

On the topic of binge drinking, bottoms up to Southern historian and former Middlebury College president John McCardell. The hale fellow is leading efforts to lower the drinking age to 18. Joining McCardell's Amethyst Initiative, a nationwide effort to end America's two-decade long failed experiment in partial prohibition, are 128 college and university presidents. They, like good Professor Bierce, have seen the carnage wrought by undergraduates gone wild. Their solution is well-reasoned and eminently sensible, but it has already run afoul of the latter-day Puritans. But to them I can only say cheers!

Friday, August 22, 2008


University and college officials from sea to shining sea put great stock in the annual rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report. The occasional rankings of history graduate programs, the subject of a future post, are particularly dubious.

But the ranking of colleges and universities, as problematic as the exercise is, nonetheless are a North Star for those insecure high school students and their even more insecure helicopter parents, seeking to soothe their status anxieties and empty their wallets.

Here are the top twenty-five for those of you who cannot avert your eyes from such statistical piffle. Those historically-minded of my readers will note that many of the top universities, but not all of them, have strong history departments.

1. Harvard
2. Princeton
3. Yale
4. MIT
5. Leland Stanford Junior University
6. Penn
6. Cal Tech
8. Columbia
8. Duke
8. Chicago
11. Dartmouth
12. Northwestern
12. Washington (St Louis)
14. Cornell
15. Johns Hopkins
16. Brown
17. Rice
18. Emory
18. Notre Dame
18. Vanderbilt
21. Berkeley
22. Carnegie Mellon
23. Georgetown
23. Virginia
25. UCLA

Bierce as Wonkette

Your faithful Professor Bierce is reveling in his new-found status as the Wonkette of the history blogosphere, though he believes himself to be a rather wittier writer than the gossipy scribe of Washington. Alas, he is not possessed of Ms. Cox's luminous beauty.

A small bit of trivia for you Historians: the original Wonkette, Ana Maria Cox shares the connubial bed with a historian, the redoubtable Chris Lehmann, an erstwhile student of the late Christopher Lasch. Every great woman should share pillow talk with a historian.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A visit to Leland Stanford Junior University

Ambrose Bierce has never been a great fan of Leland Stanford Junior University, that institution whose name forever honors the son of the most repulsive $tealand £andford whose railroad “conducted the business … of promoting dyspepsia and disseminating death, hell, and the grave.”

But to my present happiness, old Leland's history department has itself been somewhat derailed, though not quite enough for my full satisfaction. Stanford is home to one of the greatest historians of his generation, the inestimable Richard White, as imaginative and supple a mind as one will ever meet. White's work defies easy categorization: he is a colonialist, a historian of the American west, a premier scholar of native American history, a biographer and experimenter with the art of narrative, and, arguably, the single most important influence on the new environmental history. Now the splendid Dr. White is turning to a topic near and dear to Professor Bierce's heart: the history of political economy and, indeed, corruption in the nineteenth century. White is also a mentor par excellence, someone whose legion of extraordinary University of Washington students now occupy positions of prominence at top universities including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Brown.

Stanford has benefited from the wages of White-ness, but in other respects it has suffered mightily. In February, the modest but brilliant George Frederickson, another of Stanford's mighties, sadly and unexpectedly passed on, a death as untimely but more devastating than that of young Leland more than a century ago. David Kennedy, another formidable historian, he of the Pulitzer and Bancroft, is nearing retirement, though still young he seems. Jack Rakove brings scholarly distincton to his department, should you be attracted to his sort of scholarly pursuit, but rather less by the way of collegiality. Clayborne Carson and Barton Bernstein both possess quite fine minds, but neither has entirely lived up to his youthful promise. Estelle Freedman has a rather small band of followers, having never quite become the nucleus of a group of young, revisionist historians as have some of her peers at comparable East Coast universities. And Al Camarillo, while a pioneer, has been surpassed in visibility and originality by many younger scholars, several themselves Stanford products.

Many universities laden with riches comparable to Leland Senior's ill-begotten bequest have endeavored to rebuild their troubled history departments. But Stanford has not quite succeeded. Its ranks of junior faculty are thin, though a few of its youngsters, like the delightfully-named and luminously intelligent Latin Americanist, Zephyr Frank, and the fine historian of French imperialism, J.P. Daughton, are scholars of great promise. But Stanford's efforts to attract rising stars like Kate Masur (now at Northwestern), the intellectual powerhouse Sven Beckert, and the ever-flirtaceous Walter Johnson, came to naught.

Alas for the memory of poor typhoid-strickened Leland Junior.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Glory Days

Paparazzi recently captured Scott Reynolds Nelson and The Boss discussing the discovery of the real John Henry.

You can hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring

Monday, August 18, 2008

Princeton follies: or fleas on a tiger's back

The History Department at Princeton, once great, has fallen onto troubled times. That’s not because of its stellar cast of European historians, ranging from the Renaissance Man Tony Grafton to the polymath Steve Kotkin, the erudite Brooklyn-born Russianist who also has a regular column in the business section of the New York Times. And it’s not the dearth of superb historians like Gyan Prakash or Jeremy Adelman who have written defining work in their respective subfields.

Rather Princeton’s woes are the result of the near-collapse of its American side. In the last several years, Princeton suffered great travails. Three prominent Americanists--John Murrin, Jim McPherson, and Nell Painter--have retired. Elizabeth Lunbeck decamped for the up-and-coming Vanderbilt, finally reunited with her husband Gary Gerstle (who, as the result of a prior Princeton folly, spent a decade and a half commuting to Catholic University and the University of Maryland). The last remaining senior Americanist of the feminine persuasion, Christine Stansell, left her husband (but contrary to popular rumor not her marriage) behind and headed to Chicago, a place attempting through a quirky set of hires to remedy its own travails in American history.

The remaining senior Americanists at Princeton include two revered mentors, Daniel Rodgers and Hendrik Hartog, but they alone are not enough to carry a whole program. Sean Wilentz, never much of a presence, had a tragic year. The audacity of his hope to be the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the Hillary Clinton administration was so unceremoniously dashed on the rocks of Obamamania, at least for the next four years.

Princeton has tried—and mostly failed—to rebuild. The roster of luminaries who have turned down Princeton would comprise one of the best American history departments in the country. Phil Morgan, Daniel Richter, Richard White, Walter Johnson, Stephanie McCurry, David Gutierrez, Robin Kelley, George Chauncey, Alan Brinkley, Tom Sugrue, and Lizabeth Cohen. And that’s probably not a complete list. Most tellingly, two senior Americanists, Morgan and McCurry each spent one year at Princeton before returning home, prodigal son and daughter, to their respective home institutions.

Princeton has not totally failed. Last year, Tera Hunter (whose second book we are eagerly awaiting) and Julian Zelizer (who is vying to be the next Michael Beschloss or Richard Norton Smith) joined the faculty. And Princeton tenured one of its own Americanists, Kevin Kruse, after a long string of ushering its junior faculty worthies to the door. A few younger scholars, their fate most uncertain, inhabit the ranks of junior faculty at Princeton, including the most promising Margot Canaday. But surely their sense of insecurity was heightened this spring, when Princeton, reverting to its old ways, sent the rather monastic Peter Silver packing, just as he picked up the Bancroft and a slew of other honors for his book. He joins many other young worthies who will not retire wearing the Orange and Black.

There are other plans afoot at Princeton this very moment, including ongoing efforts to replace the venerable McPherson, but I will save that delicious gossip for another day.

But let us say that it will be a long time before Princeton provides any serious competition in American history to its one-time peers: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Penn, Johns Hopkins, Chapel Hill, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Stanford.

Professor Bierce's blue Monday

As you may have surmised, Professor Bierce adamantly resists one of the banes of the modern American academy, viz working on the weekend. My apologies to those of you who have visited this humble blog on Saturday or on the Lord's Day. The life of the mind requires, indeed demands, the nurturing of more bodily pleasures on those two days that serve as a hiatus to the tyranny of the other five.

Fortunately college towns these days are bountifully provisioned with shops that purvey the essential brain-starter of the week, the essential antidote to Blue Monday, the black Ichor of life. So here I sit, soon to sate your voyeuristic desires while I sate my need to for an essential infusion. Yrs, AHB.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mystery in New Brunswick

A well-substantiated rumour has traveled far and wide to reach your interlocutor of all things great and small. It seems that Rutgers, New Brunswick is in a period of transition. After the departures of David Oshinsky (to Texas), Alice Kessler-Harris (to Columbia), and David Levering Lewis (to NYU) a few years ago, they are now facing the impending retirement of civil rights historian Steven Lawson. To lose four major twentieth century historians is trouble, though Rutgers has a deep bench with African American historian Deborah Gray White, urban historian Alison Isenberg, and especially women's and labor historian and all-around mentor Nancy Hewitt taking up the slack.

Rutgers brought in a star-studded cast of mid-career rising stars to try out for their still-unfilled twentieth-century generalist position. Any of them would have been impressive hires. Two one book wonders (with second books on the way) are still in the running, with offers (still being negotiated) in hand. One is MIT's Meg Jacobs, a historian of consumerism and high politics in the mid-twentieth century, and the other is UNC Charlotte's Heather Thompson, a historian of race and urban politics. Things are complicated--and the mystery of whether one or two or none will go to New Brunswick remains to be seen.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Texas tea

The University of Texas is one of those rare public universities that does well when everyone else is suffering. Black gold, Texas tea. Skyrocketing oil profits mean a bump up in Texas endowments, not to mention giving from petroleum-rich alums.

History at Texas is one of the beneficiaries. UT, already a strong department, is going on a binge. Its luxe quarters, in newly renovated Garrison Hall, will surely cause a twinge of jealously among those of us confined to tiny offices in crumbling, outdated buildings. In recent years, Texas has poached off hotshot Spanish colonial historian Jorge Canizares-Esguerra from SUNY and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Oshinsky from Rutgers. And it's home to two HNN Top Young Historians, Madeline Hsu and Mark Lawrence.

The latest to join the Texas constellation: Bancroft and MacArthur Genius Grant winner, Jacqueline Jones, formerly of Brandeis. She'll be donning her ten gallon hat in Austin any day.

Look out, Michael Phelps

Look out, Michael Phelps. Eric Rauchway is making a splash. Hold onto your gold.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The second most impolite conversation topic

Professor Bierce rather loathes the now old-fashioned tendency to reduce the culture and meaning of the past to mere statistics. He's quite pleased that ideas, culture, representation, and discourse have supplanted those tables that make us all glaze over. He is no cliometrician. But he does know that statistics can sometimes be useful. The American Historical Association recently produced a dry as dust report on history faculty salaries. Read it if you must. The good news: they are going up. The bad news: they aren't very good. History faculty at public universities earned an average of $61,062. Their private university counterparts made a whopping two grand more: $63,281. Wait a minute, why did we join this profession again? Oh, yes, our love of History.

You won't hear our colleagues crowing about their salaries over their microbrews at the AHA. But you can make some good guesses by watching who hops in the taxi for dinner and who schleps over to the fast food joint around the corner. But, oh!, such imprecision.

Fortunately, there are two sites that you can visit and get the full dish on at least some of our colleagues' salaries. Clio Be Blessed for state disclosure laws in Michigan and Virginia. Here's what you've always wanted to know but could never ask. I'll leave it up to you number crunchers to come up with the top ten. Click away--but please wash your hands afterward!

Professor Bierce's Raison d'etre

Greetings, fellow academics with too much time on your hands and too little knowledge of things petty and profound involving the Historical Profession. There is a sad lacuna in our knowledge of the triumphs, tribulations, and scandals involving our fellow scholars. Usually, in hushed tones in the corridors of overpriced Hiltons and Marriotts, at least every January, countless Historians gather to twitter about the follies and foibles of their fellows. On occasion, in nearby bars, inebriated devotees of the Goddess Clio (the few who stay up past 9:30 at night) engage in boisterous banter tearing down their betters or lamenting their great, yet Unfinished Magnum Opus.

Professor Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce, III, will offer an occasional service to you tattlers and tipplers. Gather here, in the virtual corridor, yes, gather here without the indignity of paying a quarter of your measly salary on an uncomfortable plane ride, an overheated hotel room, and a grossly-inflated $10 bottle of beer--all for the purposes of basking in the presence of a few thousand poorly-dressed, anxious, and utterly bored fellow historians. Come here for credible reporting without having to look at all of those crepe-sole shoes. No more tattered tweed, no more blue wool skirts.

Professor Bierce will comb the web for you. He promises to be as factual as the History News Network but more adventuresome. Whether spelunking around the bottom of a well, roaming the edge of the Great West, or hitching a ride in the belly of an early modern whale, he will venture far afield to the darkest corners of the Great Web of Information ever searching for the smoking gun.

But he will rely, above all, on your contributions. After all, gossip is a collective enterprise. It should be said that Professor Bierce is discriminating. He has his own History Standards. He will not reprint everything that comes his way, unless it is Good and True or too Good to Be True.