From the OAH President: "Professors—I Need Your Help!"

From the OAH President
Patricia Limerick

Patricia Limerick is the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians. This is her inaugural column which appeared in the May 2014 issue of OAH Outlook, the membership newsletter of the OAH. 

I am eager to do what I can to deepen public appreciation of you and your work. To pull this off, I need your help—which I will beg for a few paragraphs from here.

On February 15, 2014, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof started his column by using sixteen words to flatter academics, and then using eleven words to wound and dismiss them. "Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors," he said. And then he moved in for the kill: "but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates."

Traditionally and conventionally, the first stage in reacting to Kristof's column is to go on the defensive. When he says, "To be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant," scholars are supposed to respond, "That's not fair! You should not have said that!"

We're going to skip that stage. If we go on the defensive and instantly dismiss claims such as the one Kristof makes, we give aid, comfort, and affirmation to our critics, effectively proving the point that we are thin-skinned, prickly, and ill-suited for the world of public conversation.

Let's not do that. Our approach in 2014 is going to be quite different—and dramatically more productive. In our first move, we will surprise Kristof by earnestly thanking him for his kind recognition of the resources of intelligence and insight scholars hold. The headline for his column, after all, was "Professors, We Need You!"

In our second step, we surrender defensiveness (we will genuinely feel better without it!) and acknowledge that Kristof offers observations worth taking to heart. When he writes, "Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience," it is really not tenable to respond, "There is not an ounce of evidence to support that claim!"

"A related problem," he writes, "is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose." There, again, it would not be entirely workable to say that he made that up from whole cloth. Or, to put this another way, it probably will not advance our cause to say that Kristof performs and reproduces neoliberal and hegemonic discourse by undervaluing the linguistic, cultural, and theoretical turn of historicizing experience.

And now, in our triumphant third step, we tell Kristof, in a kindly tone that stops well short of reproach or smarminess, that he has fallen behind the times and not kept up with the world around him. Surely, as a journalist, he does not want to be rushing to get "yesterday's news" into print; on the contrary, he will want to acknowledge that he has fallen far behind in tracking and noting new trends.

Kristof, in other words, labors—and writes—in darkness when it comes to a grounded knowledge of the everyday lives of hundreds of historians working in multiple institutions, locales, and enterprises.

So let's help the poor fellow out. And here's where I need your help.

I need to hear from historians employed at universities and colleges who travel back and forth across the borders of the academic world.

Public historians, do not race to your laptops! I am very aware of your important roles in the world, and with a year as OAH President, I will get to celebrating you soon. But Kristof's column took aim at professors, and indeed, the caricature of academics who do not venture out of their ivory towers burdens us with our weakest flank.

If you are a historian based in academia and also engaged in the world beyond the borders of your campus, please write me. Tell me who you are, what your field is, what you teach, what you write about, and what sort of activity—working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.—you engage in outside your university or college. If you involve your students in these enterprises, all the better—please let me know about how you may have, for instance, hitched up the writing and research assignments in your class to the public benefit.

Years ago, I ran into a very academically qualified historian at an airport. "You're in town for research?" I said to him, thinking I was declaring the obvious. "Actually," he said, "I'm here working with a tribe on a water rights case."

I know that there are hundreds of OAH members who have similar stories. I also know that I cannot patrol the concourses of airports looking for them.

"I write this in sorrow," Kristof ended his column, "for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses."

We now have the opportunity to relieve his "sorrow" and to deepen his admiration for "the wisdom found on"—and actually transported and distributed far from—"university campuses."

If you will help me out by writing and telling me about your work, you will position me to bring enlightenment and encouragement to the folks who, like Kristof, characterize us without knowing us.

OAH President Patricia Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West and a professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. Readers may contact Limerick at Photo courtesy of Honey Lindberg.

Posted: May 21, 2014
Tagged: News of the Organization, Around the Profession