18 October 2005 by Published in: General musings 5 comments

I am not a professional historian. In fact, I have never had a formal history class after tenth grade. With two majors and a minor, I didn’t have time to take any history classes in college. This means that I am entirely self-taught.

The fact that I am self-taught is actually a bit of a mixed blessing. On one hand, my mind is not cluttered with theory, and I have the ability to only focus on those things that interest me. On the other hand, it means that I have no formalized approach to the researching and writing of history. I am free to pick and choose what I want to work on, but it means that I am viewed by many–not all–academic historians as an amateur, one who is trying to horn in on their territory.

I can understand that. These folks make their living that way, and credibility is critical to their efforts. At the same time, I’m not looking to take their jobs, and my minimal book sales are such that they’re no threat to these professionals. However, just because I am untrained in the discipline doesn’t mean that I am incompetent or that I cannot do quality work. I like to think that I have earned my spurs (no pun intended) and that I have earned some respect. However, there are some academic historians who still tend to peer down their noses and be very condescending with the likes of me simply because I don’t have those three magic letters–P, H, and D–after my name.

Because of that, I tend to be very insecure about my work, and I likewise tend to be extremely touchy about the reactions to my work. I often feel the need to justify myself and to justify my work. It means that I can be unduly sensitive to legitimate criticism, and it means that I end up taking offense to things that probably were not intended to be offensive. I regret that a great deal.

I actually think that Rodney King had it quite right when he asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Ultimately, my goal is the same as the professionals: telling the stories of the men who suffered and died for what they believed in the best, most accurate, and most readable fashion that I can accomplish. I can only hope that I succeed.

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Comments

  1. Wed 19th Oct 2005 at 5:28 am

    Well written. It reminds me of a converstation I had with a friend of mine who is a PhD in Mathematics. He didn’t consider Law Studies real science, or worthy of a university degree uintil I explained to him that the methods used in law were scientific although the subject couldn’t necessary be scientific. (whatever ‘scientific’ means of course).

    I have noted that especially in the US great value is adhered to a (university) degree to claim expertise. In my country it’s not uncommon for university graduates in law studies end up as history teachers -even on university level.

    I would consider the fact that your book gained so much publicity as a great compliment. There’s a very nice (but rude) Dutch expression for it, but I will translate it for now as ‘there is no bad publicity’.

  2. Wed 19th Oct 2005 at 11:14 am

    Edwin,

    Thanks for your kind words. You are, of course, correct about there being no such thing as bad publicity in the sense that anything that focuses attention and sells books is a good thing. However, there is such a thing as bad publicity if you write a bad book and it gets crucified as a result.

    And thanks for reading.

    Eric

  3. Fri 21st Oct 2005 at 1:20 pm

    Eric,

    I did take a fair number of history courses (both undergrad and graduate) and never felt like I was given a “formalized approach” on how to research and write. I did have the opportunity to learn when my research and writing was bad (I wrote a weepy paper on the Soviet annexation of Latvia based only on Latvian sources – ooops!) The one advantage to my undergraduate coursework is that no one else saw the comments about how bad it was. The graduate courses I took, however, exposed my work to my classmates. I was working in a nuclear physics lab at the time and one comment I got was “for a physicist, you write great history”. How unfortunate that I’m not actually a physicist….

    I would think that the training provided in law school may actually better prepare one for writing history as it tends to force you to evaluate your witnesses, prepare to argue both sides of an issue and write extensively.

    Keep in mind that, for a lawyer, you’re not a bad physicist…. errr, I meant historian.

    Humbly submitted,
    Dave

  4. Terry Walbert
    Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 4:26 pm

    I left graduate school in 1974. Since then I have thought and learned a great deal about the nature of history by reading and also by listening to interviews with writers on forums such as C-SPAN’s Book TV and especially Book Notes.

  5. Terry Walbert
    Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 4:28 pm

    My last posting was a botched cut and paste job. Here is the complete text of what I wrote:

    I have an MA in history and one year toward a doctorate in history, although I work in Information Technology. As I told my dad once, one benefit of an advanced degree is that you’re not overly impressed with advanced degrees.

    Some of the best historians of the Civil War have been non-academics: Bruce Catton and Glen Tucker (reporters), Shelby Foote (novelist), and Kenneth P. Williams (mathematician). A PhD in history is good, but it’s not essential. Intellectual curiosity and an open mind are more important, in my opinion.

    I left graduate school in 1974. Since then I have thought and learned a great deal about the nature of history by reading and also by listening to interviews with writers on forums such as C-SPAN’s Book TV and especially Book Notes.

    One thing I have noticed about historians who are not academically trained is that they are sometimes unaware of what other historians have written on a subject. They sometimes think their conclusions are brand new, when in fact they are repeating interpretations that were once in vogue.

    An example is Thomas Fleming’s book on American entry into World War 1, where he claims that our participation was a big mistake. He seems to be unaware that this interpretation was the general wisdom in the 1920s and 1930s. Of course, this doesn’t invalidate Fleming’s conclusions, but they’re not so revolutionary either.

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