My University of Wisconsin colleague, the historian Bill Cronon has a recent essay that asks why, if history is so interesting to the public, “professional” historians are so boring: “Professional Boredom”
And yet: in this act of gathering to talk with those who share our passions, professional historiansagain, like all professionalsrun the risk of failing to notice the absence of those who don't feel welcome in the conversation. Although one of the great virtues of history among academic disciplines has been its relative openness to scholars trained in other fields, it still unavoidably has some of the attributes of a guild. Professional historians keep track of each other's work, compete with each other in complex status hierarchies, belong to social networks that require great effort to join, and engage in critical dialogues that often grow ever more technical and self-referential the more vigorous (and sometimes pedantic) they become. Before long, even colleagues with PhDs in other disciplines have no idea what we're talking about or why it matters. Worse still, because history involves so many subfields dealing with so many times and places, even most of our colleagues in history share this confusion more than we're typically willing to admit.
His essay concludes with the message that “professionals” should welcome bloggers, documentary writers, trade book writers and others who make history more interesting to people.
Anthropology could benefit from the same conversation.