Who Is a Historian?

Kathleen Sheldon, April 2000

To the Editor:

I have noticed lately that many of the historians I know picture themselves at the margins of the profession. As a historian of Africa, a former part-time lecturer, and currently an independent scholar, I have become accustomed to viewing myself on the margins. I am constantly asked "Where are you teaching?"—and then feel I must justify my work as a historian who is not teaching. Some of my friends teaching in two-year community colleges have felt that they have been marginalized by historians at four-year universities. The letter from a part-time lecturer, published anonymously in the March 2000 Perspectives, is painful testimony to the marginalization that many part-timers feel. But I was surprised when an acquaintance who has a published book and who is currently a visiting professor at a major university, told me "I'm not really a historian," because she had been involved in other pursuits for a number of years. And Annette Atkin's column in the January 2000 Perspectives, where she introduced herself, also included comments regarding her perception that because she has focused on teaching rather than research she has felt marginalized among historians. And this is someone who has real employment as a historian!

I think it is time for all us to adopt a more inclusive view—if a person does any variety of research, writing, or teaching on any historical topic, that person is a historian. This requires a change in attitude not only from tenured professors in universities and from our professional organizations, but also from those of us who do history simply because we love the research, the writing, and the teaching, and who continue to do that work no matter what our official position or employment situation.

—Kathleen Sheldon
Santa Monica, Calif.