Posted under: American history
Good morning, friends! Today’s post is part II of GayProf‘s and my radical subversive plot to ruin American history! (Part I was over at Center of Gravitas yesterday.) Enjoy–and please leave your thoughts in the comments below:
Historiann: As a Coloradoan now, it’s interesting to note that there have been two articles published in The William and Mary Quarterlyin the past fifteen years urging the de-centering of “colonial America” from the Atlantic littoral and recognizing that there is an early American history west of the Appalachians, west of the Mississippi, and west of the Rocky Mountains (not to mention South of the Rio Grande and North of the St. Lawrence.) In “Why the West is Lost” (WMQ51:2, April 1994), James A. Hijiya decried the absence of western history from most American history textbooks, and the relentless focus on eastern history and Anglophone people. Claudio Saunt’s cartograms in “Go West: Mapping Early American Historiography” (WMQ 65:4, October 2008) illustrate the eastern bias of early American history, and he notes that much of this was probably due to the fact that colonial historians were and are still trained in eastern U.S. universities near lots of local archives and libraries with colonial records, making it easy to do local history and call it early America. (Saunt also says that if American historians bothered to learn Spanish, they’d find a wealth of records in Spain, Mexico City, and in western local archives, and I can assure you that there’s lots of exciting things to be found in French archival sources in Quebec. But, as we all know, it’s just pi$$ing up a rope to insist that American historians learn another language!)
<<GayProf rushes to read articles in the WMQ so he doesn’t sound tragically uninformed>>
I think it’s quite telling that Hijiya’s article spurred a lively, often defensive, sometimes congratulatory, and sometimes patronizing response from early Americanists and western historians later that year (“‘Why the West is Lost,’ Comments and Response,” WMQ 51:4, October 1994), while Saunt’s article has been greeted with silence. (So far, anyway.) This appears to be a trend I’ve observed in the historical profession in the past decade or so. Maybe because the debates over “the canon” and multiculturalism were sometimes overheated in the 1980s and 1990s, we all seem to have a policy of détante. No one will call us names or accuse us of ruining the historical profession these days–they’ll just ignore us. (We’ll see–on blogs, anything can happen!)
GayProf: I think that Hijiya’s point that adding “new” (read: nonwhite) material will mean making cuts in other things that we talk about in class. Maybe the U.S. Civil War doesn’t need two weeks after all? At least, not if that means that the U.S.-Mexican War can have more that 15 minutes (if even that!). And that 15 minutes usually sets it up as a prologue to the Civil War.
Historiann: I think Hijiya was right to say that adding something means subtracting something else. We all make choices every day about what to include and what to leave out. If we emphasize some themes or ideas at the expense of others one semester, we may lean the other way the next semester. That’s life, right?
GayProf: And we all make cuts. Sometimes one lecture runs too long and we therefore edit the next lecture to keep the class on schedule. I have been thinking of adding a clause to my syllabi that says, “This history has been edited from its original run. It has been shortened to fit the time allotted and reformatted to fit this screen.”
Historiann: It concerns me that Saunt, like Hijiya since 1994, may be destined to remain a vox clamantis in deserto. When I started graduate school twenty years ago, “diversity” on graduate syllabi in early American courses was a regional approach to the English colonization of the Americas (“New England,” “The Middle Colonies,” “The Chesapeake,” “The Lower South,” and “The Caribbean”) supplemented by the Mod Squad: one week on “women,” one week on “Indians,” one week on “slavery,” which meant books that focused on enslaved African American people. (And yes–all of the “women” books and articles were about white women, and the books on Indians and African Americans focused exclusively on men.) That’s not at all how I teach courses in my own field–I’m much more prone to select books thematically than to worry about “coverage” of particular geographies. But, I’m afraid that many of my colleagues remain imprisioned in their monolingualism, and that the historiography still reflects that.
(There’s an old joke about orthopedic surgeons that goes something like this: “How do you keep a secret from an orthopod?,” and the punchline is, “publish it!” I guess we could write the same joke about American historians, with the punchline being, “publish it in any language but English!”)
GayProf: Currently one of the graduate programs where I am a faculty member has no (zero (0)) language requirements for Ph.D. students. That still leaves me with chills. Even if their ultimate research won’t be in another language, don’t we expect that they be broad enough to at least engage a bit with something other than English? Anything other than English? French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Esperanto … Something? Heck, even Klingon would at least show some effort.
Historiann: This is shocking to me! I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am. My program required reading knowledge of two other languages, and one could take a course in computers in the social sciences and have that count as a “language.” (Yeah—how helpful is your BASIC or FORTRAN now, friends?)
GayProf: Are you saying you don’t use the “GOSUB 20” command almost daily? I mean that’s more useful than being able to ask where a bathroom is in Russian.
Historiann: Believe me, I’m not bragging: it took me two tries to pass my French translation test! But I’m so grateful I did, because it meant that I had another tool for research, a tool that I’ve only dusted off and sharpened in the past few years, but a useful tool nonetheless. This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with an older grad student when I was a tragically naïve first-year grad student. He was blathering on about how to get through the foreign language requirements of our program with as little effort as possible, when I asked, “Shouldn’t a Ph.D. indicate that the holder is an educated person? And how can one consider oneself educated without knowledge of at least one other language?” The older grad said confidently, “Historiann, that’s terribly noble of you, but I’m a modern U.S. Historian, so there’s no need for me to do research in any other languages.”
Do you think that kind of thinking has anything to do with the marginalization of Latino/a history in U.S. history? (When bilingualism is outlawed, only outlaws will be bilingual.)
GayProf: Well, the U.S. is really unique among industrialized nations in taking pride in being so monolingual. In the 2004 election, most of the Democratic presidential candidates were monolingual but feigned sorrow over the fact (rather than, you know, learning another language)). We don’t even require our chief diplomat to know other languages! I’d like to see a day when Lt. Uhura is made the Secretary of State. She totally nailed Klingon in Star Trek VI.
I am sure Older Grad Student never considered the power implications of being a modern U.S. historian who didn’t bother with any other languages. It keeps in place the idea that there is a central “core” to the nation, and that core is implicitly Anglophone (and Anglo!)
This isn’t to say I am whiz at foreign languages, either. Quite the contrary! English has always been my primary language and my abilities in Spanish are shockingly limited (Trust me). Still, it doesn’t require that much effort to learn some basic grammar rules. Once you have done that, you can start sifting through documents with your trusty dictionary at your side. By not making it a requirement, it oddly upholds the mystique and supposed impossibility of learning other languages.
Historiann: That’s a fascinating point–I hadn’t considered that before. Language really ropes off the U.S. historians and ties ‘em up good. I have to say that I’ve been skeptical of the calls for “transnational histories” by U.S. historians–how transnational is it really, when the conferences are being held in the U.S. in English, and when it’s all being written in English-language journals and books? This strikes me as hegemony, not international collaboration.
Well, folks–thanks for reading. Join us tomorrow back at Center of Gravitas for the thrilling conclusion!
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