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Am I a Historian?

The question “am I a historian?” first bothered me after reading a blog post written by colleague Jason Heppler, in which he writes:

I am a young historian — heck, I barely even qualify for that title when I have no book to my name and don’t hold a PhD yet. But as a researcher very early in my career…

In fairness to Jason, I talked with him about it and he backs off of calling himself a historian in this post as more of a rhetorical device. However, when Sara Mayeux did the essentially the same thing, tweeting

I’m definitely looking forward to finishing my PhD so I can answer any & all questions asked of me with, “As a historian…” #NewtGingrich

I wondered if these comments represent something more than a rhetorical device. Despite the fact I think of myself as a historian, I’ve never introduced myself in those terms. I’m always a graduate student in history. Obviously, I believe there is value in earning a Ph.D., but why is that a marker of becoming a historian? Perhaps it’s a product of the professionalization of history. But then am I an amateur historian? I’ve been paid to do history, which I think disqualifies me as an amateur (unless we use the college football standard of amateur).

While this question could spin off a timely conversation about labor law and grad students as students vs grad students as university employees, I am questioning my historian-ness in relation to what to call my research. If I write a seminar paper, it’s a school project. Until it’s published that is. Then it’s scholarship. What if I completed a digital history project in a seminar? It’s a school project, but it’s already “published” online. What is different from a graduate student putting a research project online and a professor putting a research project online aside from the weight of an established name and a Ph.D.

Not to be misconstrued, I am not equating my digital work with the Valley of the Shadow or other projects and I applaud the people experimenting with ways to publish, peer review, and evaluate digital scholarship. However, there is yet a firm infrastructure for evaluating and publishing digital scholarship and before scholars basically replicate existing print structures in digital format, we must interrogate our methods and underlying beliefs. Is the status driven nature of academia good for history moving forward? There is a large disconnect between the discipline of history and the history most people encounter (popular/public/amateur/history written by journalists/any synonym for not written by and for “professionals”). How can we redefine scholarship to close this gap? I’d start by encouraging everyone to be a historian. Loosening academics’ attachment to that word may help people will move away from a conception of history as “names and dates” and towards history as a central part of understanding and improving society.

Published in Academia Digital Humanities