Over at the excellent group blog Civil Warriors, and citing my ruminations about whether to obtain an advanced degree in military history, Brooks Simpson has chimed in with a very thoughtful and well-stated analysis of the sticky question of amateur vs. professional historians.
I think that Brooks has it exactly right.Â It shouldn’t be about degrees and professional designations, but rather about whether one produces quality work, based on solid research, that adds to understanding and to theÂ body of knowledge.Â I couldn’t agree with that more.Â Ultimately, whenÂ push comes to shove,Â the work ought to be able to stand on its own and speak for itself.Â I hope that when my time comes, people will be able to say that my work met those criteria.Â If it has, then it doesn’t matter whether I had a Ph.D. in history or a law degree.
Brooks also points out quite correctly that there are any number of academic historians who can’t write to save their lives, and who simply don’t produce much over the course of theirÂ careers.Â I have one particular friend who is an academic historianÂ who has so much going onÂ in his life–two teenaged daughters and trying to get tenure at his school–that getting anything from him is like pulling teeth.Â I don’t resent that–in fact, I understand it and am sympathetic to it.Â
The whole “publish or perish” thing that faces a lot of academic historians has to be a tough row to hoe.Â I guess I’m fortunate to have the time and motivation to do this work and NOT have my professional life at stake as to whether I get something published or not.Â For me, the very fact that I am not an academic historian gives me the freedom to work at my own pace and to focus only on those things that interest me, as opposed to writing for some dry, dusty academic journal because it’s what’s expected of me as part of my job requirements.
J. D. Petruzzi has also tackled this issue on his blog today.Â Here’sÂ his take: In the end, I think the distinction between â€œprofessionalsâ€ and â€œamateursâ€ in the field is important to only a very small segment.Â Most folks donâ€™t think about such a distinction, probably never heard of it, and donâ€™t care one way or the other.Â When it comes to books and articles, folks will read what interests them and ignore what doesnâ€™t, regardless of who the author is or his/her credentials.Â The readerâ€™s level of familiarity with the subject, and reviews, will allow them to assess the writingâ€™s value and scholarship.Â I also tend to agree with this as well.
Finally, Kevin Levin has also addressed this question on his blog today.Â Kevin candidly points out that he’s faced many of the same demons that have plagued me about this question, and draws precisely the same conclusion I have: Whether my friends and other acquaintances that I’ve come into contact with through publishing and conferences consider me to be an academic/amateur or professional historian doesn’t matter much to me at all.Â I too hope that my published work stands or falls on the merits of the research and the quality of the argument.”Â I agree.Â
I will be the first to admit that my insecurity and bristling about being labeled an amateur has everything to do with my own personal foibles and very little to do with the opinions of others.Â It’s important to me for my work and meÂ to be taken seriously and to have the respect of those whom I consider to be peers, and I tend to be a little thin-skinned about this particular issue because it plays to my own insecurities.Â There have been some academic historians who have turned up their snoots at my work, and that has offended me to no end and has caused a great deal of the insecurity that drives this particular bogeyman for me.Â I think it’s time to get over it and move on.
In the end, I think thatÂ Brooks, Kevin,Â and J. D. have said pretty much the same thing in different ways.Â They’re right–there’s no reason to go looking for a fight when there’s not a fight to be had.Â Ultimately, it’s all about the work and letting the work stand on its own merits, and I have to remind myself of that from time to time.Scridb filter