From the President

Diffusion as Dilution?

History and the Book

James H. Sweet | Jan 24, 2022

James H. Sweet

For nearly 150 years, the gold standard for research in the historical discipline has been the single-authored monograph, a long-form, book-length study based on extensive original research. Most history departments at research universities expect their tenure-track faculty to produce at least one such monograph that makes a novel contribution to knowledge. These studies can often take more than 10 years to complete, if measured from their conception as PhD projects to the final publication of the book. Researching and writing books takes time.

Eight years ago, when I became chair at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, our department was having difficulty conveying to university administration the importance of the published book as the primary measure for achieving tenure and promotion. For most professors in our college, journal articles were the coin of the realm; book production was viewed as tedious and unfamiliar. To underscore the uphill battle we faced, my colleague Bill Cronon shared an anecdotal conversation he had with a scientist colleague. When Cronon mentioned this requirement, the scientist was incredulous: “Historians write books!? I haven’t read a book in years!”

While our colleague surely was not representative of all scientists, his openness about his own meager reading habits demonstrated the diminishing value of the book even among some academics. In order to make clear to our administration why the book mattered, we crafted language similar to that outlined above, which now introduces nearly all our tenure cases. Historians now need to make the case for the standards of our discipline and the distinct intellectual advantages that our work brings to academia and the broader intellectual world.

In subsequent years, the terrain has shifted even further. The shrinking pool of tenure-track positions, alongside trends toward diversifying graduate student career paths, calls into question the efficacy of the traditional dissertation as the product of a history PhD and, by extension, the book as the measure for tenure. When the PhD was understood as an exclusive pathway to the professoriate, and the professoriate alone, the dissertation made sense. Today, the history PhD is just as likely to lead to non-tenure-track teaching positions or jobs in museums, libraries, or NGOs, raising important questions about whether the traditional dissertation should continue as the primary and preferred standard for attaining the degree.

Beyond market forces, trends in the diffusion of historical knowledge have quickened the de-emphasis on the book. As Lara Putnam noted in 2016, the proliferation of digital archives has deeply influenced historical research. With digital libraries and archives at our fingertips, historians no longer need to spend long periods of time in the places of our research. For many, “the archive” now resides in a digital space that almost anyone can explore and interpret, prompting historians to share their analyses on websites and social media. These analyses are more fragmented than they would appear in a book, but the individual fragments can be more easily accessible and digestible. Harnessing such digital fragments and making them legible online fosters a kind of expertise very different from that which comes from the tactile handling of documents and artifacts, the mastery of bureaucracies that govern archives, and living and breathing the air of the descendants of our historical subjects, whether in Banjul, Boston, Bahia, or Beijing. In this way, the rite of passage of traveling to archives for months or years, collecting sources, and then reporting one’s findings is slowly declining—and for good reasons. If one can write an acceptable dissertation using online archives, mastering the digital fragments, why bear the cost and inconvenience of traveling for extended periods to pursue other source materials? Perhaps more importantly, why should funders underwrite research that can be conducted online?

The scientist was incredulous: “Historians write books!?”

The concerns Putnam raised not only still stand; they have become more pressing: in the past few years, the online ecosystem has continued to transform in ways that further erode long-form analysis. When Putnam published in 2016, Donald Trump was not yet president, Twitter was entering a new heyday, and COVID-19 was still three years away. Trump’s commitment to historical disinformation inspired many historians to take a more active role in public life. They wrote op-eds, published blog posts, and offered disciplinary expertise, especially on social media and digital platforms. Meanwhile, AHA advocacy statements increased almost fivefold and were disseminated online and shared widely on social media. The diffusion of historians’ expertise in combating historical deception was not only necessary politically; it was a boon for historians with the talent to synthesize and distill historical arguments in sharp, pithy fashion that resonated with a broader public.

As the number of worldwide daily users on Twitter nearly doubled between 2016 and 2021, the rewards for becoming Twitter famous were manifold: politically engaged historians could influence public debate by harnessing disciplinary expertise. If a riposte could be articulated in 280 characters or fewer, historians could gain new audiences for their ideas, as well as build new intellectual networks to support their professional advancement and help market their “brand.” The results are clear: #twitterstorians have been some of the most important public advocates for the discipline over the past five years. Sharp, evidence-based historical engagement on social media seems indispensable for the discipline’s future survival.

Nevertheless, these modes of fragmented communication and analysis run counter to deep historical research and long-form writing. The pace at which historians could potentially post online would foreclose the possibility of researching and writing high-quality books. There simply isn’t enough time in the day. But why take years researching and writing for an academic audience when you can instantaneously project your knowledge to thousands of people and potentially influence public policy? The rewards are incredibly seductive.

History departments now consider “public visibility” in hiring and promotion decisions more than ever before. Yet we really have no criteria to measure these contributions, let alone a formula for balancing the critical imperative of diffusing knowledge with the continuing demands for new knowledge production. As we articulate disciplinary standards to administrators and others, should the single-authored monograph (or its digital equivalents) continue to be the standard, or should we consider smaller chunks of original knowledge, distributed by tweet, blog, or online media outlet, to be cumulative equivalents to the book? Or are these worthy complements?

I believe the book is the anchor of historians in academia.

This question was already becoming salient before 2020; then came COVID. Archives and libraries closed their doors. Travel restrictions prevented scholars from conducting field research. And funding for faculty and graduate student research evaporated. For two years, most academic historians have been trapped in a state of suspended animation with regard to their research. Zooming through the various stages of quarantine, scholars isolated themselves in front of their computers. Mercifully, many libraries and archives responded by making material freely available online. But this trend again amplifies the problems Putnam identified five years ago. Never have there been fewer means and less incentive to travel for research. Additionally, the isolation and political rancor of the last two years have only reinforced the impetus toward social media as an intellectual gathering place. In between virtual meetings, historians continue online conversations with colleagues, critics, and trolls.

The last five years have taken a toll on our collective psyches and the ways we conduct our professional lives, especially in our teaching. But we also need to take stock of the ways the world has come to bear on our research and writing. The rapid digitization of collections in libraries and archives, followed by political and global health crises, have inexorably transformed how we conduct and share our research. Whether this is a permanent inflection point toward some new, expanded way of defining historical scholarship remains to be seen. At the very least, we should consider the consequences of these changes for a generation of assistant professors, contingent faculty, and graduate students for whom the deeply researched, long-form book increasingly seems unattainable and perhaps even superfluous.

To be clear, I believe the book is the anchor of historians in academia. The odyssey of researching and writing a monograph endows us with the expertise and gravitas that define us as historians. Absent this high standard, we lose intellectual authority and political credibility. Indeed, without it, I fear we run the risk of becoming the same as the trolls and amateur hacks who challenge our expertise. At the same time, the discipline demands robust public engagement, now more than ever. And we must find meaningful ways to reward the work of colleagues who carry this heavy burden. How we balance these two imperatives will define our future.

James H. Sweet is president of the AHA.

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