Coffee at Tim Hortons with Bill Cronon

When I got home today the latest issue of Perspectives on History, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association (AHA) was shoved into my mailbox along with a Tim Hortons coupon flyer and a Hannaford grocery store circular.  I almost didn’t notice Perspectives hiding amongst the junk mail.  Ever since Bill Cronon became president of AHA I have taken to reading the “From the President” section, something I rarely did before.  His last few entries have been of interest to me. Judging by the number of blog entries and comments out there on “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age” “Loving History, ” “Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World” and “Professional Boredom,” it seems others are also interested in what he has to say.  So, I decided to take Perspectives and my coupon flyer to Tim Hortons to read, drink coffee and eat a free Canadian maple doughnut (by the way, if there are no Tim Hortons where you live….move).

In his latest Perspectives piece, “Breaking Apart, Putting Together” Cronon asks, “Analysis or synthesis: which should we prefer?” Is it “better” to focus on “tightly bounded” topics by asking “small unasked questions” or should historians “range widely” and ask big questions.  Obviously Cronon recognizes that this is a somewhat simplistic either/or version of a very complicated historical question.  Take source material for example, if one is writing on a “the tightly bounded” topic, source material is often quite specialized, maybe even one newly discovered document.  Perhaps the entire piece of writing revolves around some small piece of an already bounded topic.  In histories that “range widely” the source base can be quite diverse or many of those “tightly bounded” pieces are strung together in new ways.  Again, the either/or quality here is distracting but the overall question is, I think, legitimate.

Cronon argues that both small and big, bounded and widely ranging are important yet the discipline and the profession of history rotate on a bias that favors “analysis over synthesis and depth over breadth.” Dissertations, theses, monographs etc. in academic history operate in the analysis/depth category.  We historians deconstruct, critique and focus in.  Cronon also observes that the very structure of history education moves from the large survey (breadth), to the smaller, focused, upper level course, to the narrow graduate seminar, to you and your adviser having a 7 year conversation about the meaning of “is.”  Roughly speaking: big to small and synthesis to analysis.  I could’t help but think as I read his observation that many historians, sadly, dismiss those big surveys…they constitute the teaching load…right? The burden that one bears so that the “real” job of history can be done on the other end.

Cronon goes on in the piece to focus in on graduate training and the structure of monograph writing.  If you are lucky enough to get a job then chances are the dissertation will be rewritten 110 times so it gets published and you get tenure.  It likely won’t be a synthesis (although this is changing).  It will be something much more “tightly bounded.”  Is this model one we can sustain into the future? “We would do well to ask whether the analytical models of the 19th-century German university are still the best path to the kind of history that the world now seeks. How best to do that without losing the rigor we cherish is among the unanswered questions we need to ponder” Cronon writes.

I think the majority of historians zoom in and out and are constantly balancing breadth and depth in writing and teaching.  Those big survey classes that I love teaching are all about breadth but I do build in small discussions where we attempt to do a bit more depth.  I guess my dissertation had more depth that breadth…we broke up after I graduated and are not really on speaking terms.  I wrote a book chapter recently which was all breadth, some depth.  It had to be this format as the chapter was designed as a survey. I guess ultimately depth and breadth are moving targets; your research question dictates the amount of each necessary to answer the question posed.  In addition, the form that answer takes (monograph, class lecture, blog post, tweet, email to your Mom) determines the level of breadth and depth necessary to fully answer the question posed.

This brings us, I think, to a point Cronon alludes to: what we as historians value.  He notes that those synthetic lectures to the public or even teaching big surveys to undergrads or teaching high school history has “never carried anything like the status that monographic publication does.” I would add to this list of undervalued endeavors: work in digital history and work that combines disciplines or, dare I say it, ventures across the boundaries into other subject areas.  This overvaluing of the monograph at the expense of other modes of communicating rigorous scholarship is troubling in a world where publishing (or rather not publishing) monographs is an issue.  In fact it is such an issue that about ten pages into the very same Perspectives you will find “AHA Professional Division Issues Statement on Online Publication of Dissertations.”  If you graduated recently you were presented with a series of forms that provided options for dissertation publication.  Some universities now require electronic publication of theses and dissertations.  Back in the day (the most synthetic of all history phrases) a hard bound copy of your dissertation or a microfilm version could be requested through interlibrary loan.  Today, some university libraries have dissertations and theses available online.  Why would a publisher sink money into publishing a manuscript that is already available free online? Now, I don’t think this will single-handedly kill the monograph but it does speak to the fact that the world around us is shifting.  It is harder to find a job but it is also harder to publish that “tightly bounded” dissertation/monograph if that is your goal.

When my coffee cup was empty I contemplated getting another.  I was just about to go up to the counter when a gaggle of senior citizens sauntered in and started discussing (loudly) how many Timbits came in a box as they got in a very long line. The decision was made for me; time to go home.  As I drove through Old Town I decided that ultimately I agree with Cronon.  You can’t have a strong focused analytic piece without contextualizing it in some larger trajectory and a grand narrative is lifeless and overblown without some deep, rigorous analysis. I think that by and large historians try very hard to situate “tightly bounded” studies in contexts that “range widely.”  If we appear narrow and lose our students, readers, and one another it is because we are not communicating effectively.  When an historian communicates effectively to audiences (young/old, academic/public, big/small) the contribution should be recognized and valued; it should count.  Monographs are certainly important and still a necessary vehicle to communicate “tightly bounded” scholarship. But their reach is limited.  Maybe monographs shouldn’t be the gold standard as they were in the late 19th and early 20th century. AAAAAAAAr4/_poRCqYWaxQ/s1600/TimHorton%2Bcup_ph

But what then? Should public lectures be the standard? How about creative engaging survey courses? Maybe op-ed pieces or blog posts? Maybe we don’t need one standard, maybe a portfolio of work that engages various audiences could be assessed.  Maybe some requirement for a mix of “tightly bounded” and widely ranging scholarship.   Or maybe we should do a better job of explaining to ourselves and others that past, present and future exist in all historical study and that focused analysis and broad synthesis are not always on opposite ends of a spectrum.  Our subfields and specialties are not isolated and remote, they are connected, they overlap and they are vibrant, living spaces.  Synthesis and analysis must always go together.  Maybe more communication through varied channels would encourage discussion of this issue. There are dangers to being too narrow and to being too broad.  The easiest (and usually least useful) critique one scholar can make of another’s work is: She/he is too broad/narrow in this book/article.    I spent many hours as a grad student deconstructing and pulling apart articles and books most of which were narrowly focused to begin with. I don’t recall every constructing or putting together. If you break something apart and don’t (or can’t) put it back together…it is called trash.  We need to start thinking a bit differently, I think, about the place of and importance of synthesis in research.

2 thoughts on “Coffee at Tim Hortons with Bill Cronon

  1. “Synthesis and analysis must always go together.” […] “I spent many hours as a grad student deconstructing and pulling apart articles and books most of which were narrowly focused to begin with. I don’t recall every constructing or putting together. If you break something apart and don’t (or can’t) put it back together…it is called trash. We need to start thinking a bit differently, I think, about the place of and importance of synthesis in research.” In my opinion, if historians want to start to think differently about the issue of synthesis and analysis, then they are going to have to turn to philosophy and literary theory. Yet, from what I can tell, such a turn is not going to happen any time soon, especially after the glut of theory in the 1990s and early 2000s. The paradigm of the humanities remains the deconstruction of presence, even if many of us are so uncomfortable with the consequences (endless critique, endless parsing, exhaustion of critical faculties). Cronon, at least from that most recent piece in _Perspectives_, doesn’t really offer any philosophical insights that may transform the writing of history. There are thinkers/academics out there, however, who have tried to address this issue, though historians don’t seem to be listening.


  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: May 24th, 2012 | American Historical Association

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