From The Future of the Discipline column in the December 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
The Future of the Discipline: The Prospects of the Present
Lynn Hunt, December 2012
The separation of the past from the future is less clear-cut than is sometimes assumed. We only dig up the nuggets left to us by the past if something in the present moves us to find a shovel. It could be anything—fury about discrimination, determination to locate the sources of an international conflict, nostalgia for the good old days, even an obsession with a particular object—but the feeling motivating the search for the past is always felt in the present. Moreover, even while that feeling is coming to our minds in the present, it is already filled with expectations for the future. We get a shovel because we hope that something will turn up. The present, however evanescent, is still thick with projections backward and forward that help us get our bearings. Not surprisingly, therefore, the essays on the future of history in this issue focus on what is happening right now that seems to point forward, not always happily forward, but forward nonetheless.
How did the essays on "The Future of History" come to appear in these pages? Pillarisetti Sudhir approached me on behalf of the editorial board of Perspectives to help organize this special issue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the AHA newsletter. I then asked a variety of historians to contribute their thoughts, and Sudhir and the board also came up with suggestions. We could not possibly cover all the terrain turned over by some 15,000 historians. To those who agreed to share their views we offered nothing in the way of trail maps. They had to find their own way and come up with pay dirt in some 1200 words. Thus the essays truly speak for themselves, especially as none of the contributors saw anyone else's piece. This way of proceeding seemed appropriate because our idea was to hear as many different voices as possible, and difference, after all, covers a lot of different kinds of difference when you are talking about the history we research, write, read and teach today.
Readers will be the best judges of what separates or unites the several views expressed here and of the subjects that should have been but were not included. Nonetheless, given my role in this venture, I cannot just pass the buck on to the contributors. What was I thinking? My first (and really only) instinct was to ask interesting people to share their thoughts about the future of history. They were not necessarily historians I know personally, though of course I felt somewhat more comfortable importuning people already known to me. Most of the contributors chose to talk about content rather than form; they focus on scholarship, especially the concerns of their various fields of inquiry, rather than the structure of the profession, though some do that instead. Both matter. There is no content without form and no form without content. There would be much less scholarly content without a profession of historians who teach, research, write, publish, do peer reviews of proposed publications, edit publications, sit on tenure review committees, and try to influence the future through committees or divisions of the AHA. Conversely, without the prospect of scholarship, we would worry much less about the future of the profession.
It turns out that the content is doing much better than the form. A mosaic of glittering vibrancy emerges from the essays about directions in historical research. Fields once deemed passé have been revived and nothing previously au courant has since slipped into oblivion. Rich veins are being uncovered in once familiar places and in totally unexpected settings, in the present of the heavens and the earth's far distant past, in far-flung sites across the globe and in locales around the corner, in microhistories and macrohistories, in connected histories and histories of disconnection too. There is no next big thing. The digging is turning up so many promising streaks and layers that no one seems to mind that a new gold rush has yet to be declared.
Close study is not required to notice that one research trend stands out by the sheer number of times it is mentioned in the essays: transnational history. This could have been accidental, but it is not; I confess that it was on my mind, though I do not think I am alone in this. In my own department at UCLA many of our recent hires have turned out to be scholars, junior and senior, who work transnationally. Even I, as someone who has resolutely focused on one nation-state, could hardly fail to get the drift. Like other innovative approaches before it, transnational history promises to offer not just fresh perspectives on the past but truer accounts of it: it puts Africa and Asia back into the study of African and Asian Americans, the influence of competing empires back into the history of the early United States, the colonized back into the study of imperialism, diasporic peoples back into the study of trade networks, and so on. It also offers a way to make sense of globalization, whether by contesting the notion or breaking it down into manageable components. But let us not exaggerate: as the essays show, transnational history is not the only game in town. Things are hopping everywhere.
The vitality of scholarship makes the buckling structure of the profession all the more dispiriting. The sky has been falling for so long that you might think we had closed our ears to such predictions, but no, things have actually managed to get worse in ways we never imagined. The job market keeps failing to improve, even as more and more high school students go on to colleges and universities, borrowing more and more money to chase their dreams. If they attend public institutions, they find themselves unable to take the courses they need because of budget cutbacks or they take them from adjuncts paid pittances to keep alive their own hopes of a life in the profession. If they graduate with history degrees and want to pursue graduate study in history, they find the number of places shrinking and cannot fail to notice an increasing disparity between the few rich private universities and the many squeezed public ones. No matter which route a graduate student takes, the competition at the end will be horrific because jobs are few. Public universities are downsizing their humanities faculties, and those who have held history faculty positions for many years, whether private or public sector, are not giving them up in the numbers that might have been expected. The skyrocketing costs of digital access and the emergence of online learning pose yet other challenges even while the online environment for research, publication, and teaching also opens up new prospects. The solutions to these myriad problems will not come easily or soon, but at least the AHA gives us a gathering place in which we can discuss, collect, and disseminate information, and where possible, intervene.
The prospects of the present are therefore mixed, yet even as we confront new challenges, as we always will, hope keeps hurdling over the obstacles. It is energized by a combination of enduring and emerging enthusiasms: history matters to people all over the world, scholars and teachers of history are endlessly inventive about ways to convey its significance, students are eager to learn what history might mean to them, and the increasing intensity of international communication, however intermittent or inequitably distributed, promises as yet unimagined treasures for the future.
Lynn Hunt is the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was president of the AHA for 2002. Among her most recent books are Measuring Time, Making History, and (with Margaret Jacob and Wijnand Mjinhardt) The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard's Religious Ceremonies of the World.
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