Publication Date

August 31, 2021

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

Two articles in the May issue of Perspectives demonstrate the confusion that continues to hover over how historians define themselves and their practice. In “Terminal Does Not Mean Dead: Why the History MA Deserves Our Attention,” Lauren Braun-Strumfels and Tim Herbert argue that terminal MA students do not receive the respect they deserve as historians. In “The Business of Applied History: What Brand Historians Do,” Caroline Morris and Jack Fiorini share their stories of leaving academia behind to embrace the business of “doing applied history.”

As to the first article, readers are left with the irony that the AHA is not defining well the “purpose, scope, and impact” of the MA completer, while the authors urge the “profession” to accept terminal MA graduates as “historians.” Braun-Strumfels, who holds a history faculty position, and Herbert, who is a PhD candidate and high school teacher, further argue that the quantity of MA completers teaching in the field constitutes a major rationale for embracing them as central to the field. They note that history programs should link “the path to a terminal MA” to the work of historians. Should, of course, denotes that this may not be occurring, but then again, the authors complain that one really does not know what is going on in the training of MA history completers.

The second article, on applied history, pushes one to wonder what history PhD students are learning. Morris and Fiorini have become “brand historians.” Permit me to think out loud here—was Robert H. Ferrell a brand historian as he wrote and edited 14 books on President Harry Truman and more on other presidents and on American diplomacy? Perhaps. But the question of expertise, familiarity with the archives, and continuous exploration of secondary literature and new findings on the topic to contextualize and pursue a balanced perspective on the past all come to mind, differentiating what is expected of historians in and out of academic settings. The words of Morris and Fiorini provide the sort of grist that one can consider when distinguishing among different types of historians or what they might be expected to produce.

The emphasis in the work world of Morris and Fiorini appears to be explicitly biased: content over context; use of archival assistants over the historians’ own selection and familiarity with the relevant archives; history consultant over history professor; exclusivity versus open access to archival sources; niche over broad-expanse perspectives; preparing “briefs for CEOs to use” versus providing explanations that contain nuance, complexity, irony—a sort of argument that chases truth but does not necessarily present itself as the truth.

Morris and Fiorini boast of “the satisfaction of having roles that make use of [their] skills and contribute to the public good.” Just what are those skills? What are the end goals of historians? What is the public good that they serve? What makes them historians?

All this is to say that the work of historians as described by Braun-Strumfels and Herbert or Morris and Fiorini is as muddled as ever into the 21st century.


The AHA considers all four authors of the articles mentioned above to be historians. If your field is history—no matter your specialization or profession—the AHA is a place for you.

Douglas A. Dixon
Austin, Texas

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.