24 January 2007 by Published in: General musings 7 comments

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.  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 the body of knowledge.  I couldn’t agree with that more.  Ultimately, when push comes to shove, the work ought to be able to stand on its own and speak for itself.  I hope that when my time comes, people will be able to say that my work met those criteria.  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 their careers.  I have one particular friend who is an academic historian who has so much going on in his life–two teenaged daughters and trying to get tenure at his school–that getting anything from him is like pulling teeth.  I don’t resent that–in fact, I understand it and am sympathetic to it. 

The whole “publish or perish” thing that faces a lot of academic historians has to be a tough row to hoe.  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.  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.  Here’s his take: In the end, I think the distinction between “professionals” and “amateurs” in the field is important to only a very small segment.  Most folks don’t think about such a distinction, probably never heard of it, and don’t care one way or the other.  When it comes to books and articles, folks will read what interests them and ignore what doesn’t, regardless of who the author is or his/her credentials.  The reader’s level of familiarity with the subject, and reviews, will allow them to assess the writing’s value and scholarship.  I also tend to agree with this as well.

Finally, Kevin Levin has also addressed this question on his blog today.  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.  I too hope that my published work stands or falls on the merits of the research and the quality of the argument.”  I agree. 

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.  It’s important to me for my work and me 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. 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.  I think it’s time to get over it and move on.

In the end, I think that Brooks, Kevin, and J. D. have said pretty much the same thing in different ways.  They’re right–there’s no reason to go looking for a fight when there’s not a fight to be had.  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


  1. Michael C. Hardy
    Thu 25th Jan 2007 at 11:25 am

    Eric – I enjoy your thoughts very much. The professional vs. amateur historian is a topic that I have debated with a couple of people who are in the system. I made the decision a long time ago not to pursue that Ph.D and instead to devote my time just to writing. What benefit would a Ph.D have granted me? Would I be one of those “military” historians who could not find a job? Would I be stuck in some university some place teaching World Civ., having so many papers to grade or classes to prep for that I would not have time to write? Would I tolerate the inter-department politics or would it be a further distraction? My wife, who is an “academic,” teaches English full time. She loves teaching and prefers her community college with its non-traditional students and warm atmosphere to the competitive, cutthroat university environment, but she still struggles to find time to write in the midst of research papers, committee meetings, and emails.

    No thanks! And, if a small group pf narrow-minded, degree-obsessed people don’t want to buy my books because I don’t have a Ph.D, good. There are lots of people, people whose ancestors fought in the war that I write about, who do.


  2. Thu 25th Jan 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I think Eric and Brooks are exactly right. As a publisher (and longstanding student of the war) I know firsthand that having a Ph.D. does not guarantee anything–let alone that the recipient can research well and write prose suitable for publication. In fact, I can categorically state that “amateur” historians penned some of the best titles we have published over the years. In fact, I prefer working with “amateurs.” They tend to be easier to collaborate with and have a less fragile ego. By and large, they are also better writers. I know there are exceptions (Brooks, Richard McMurry, and Steven Woodworth come readily to mind). However, I have received many raw manuscripts from noted Ph.D. holders. It became obvious quickly that they had had the luxury of outstanding editors at different presses.

  3. Gary King
    Mon 29th Jan 2007 at 8:15 pm

    I agree with both of you. As a reader of Civil War books and articles, i.e., the target audience, I really don’t care if the author has a Ph.D or not. Assuming the material is well researched, I care about the author’s conclusions and point of view more than his or her academic credentials. I like honesty, discipline and objectivity. What I don’t like is smacking down $25 for three hundred pages of politically correct baloney. If it’s fiction, then anything goes. But historiography demands that the author rise above personal beliefs and partylines to present a sound paper that can withstand the strongest criticism. What I want out from both prefessional and amatuer historians is the truth. If I pick up a book, or an article that is more concerned about hurting someone’s feelings, or advancing a certain agenda, than presenting a sound analysis of the facts – it’s No Sale!, Ph.D or not.

  4. Tue 30th Jan 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Eric–good thoughts, and good to have the links to others’ views on this as well. One article I found very well done that touches on this subject–not from the amateur’s point of view, but from the academic’s–is from SLATE. It is entitled “That Barnes and Noble Dream,” by David Greenberg, and is a play on words of the title of Peter Novick’s 1988 book entitled “That Noble Dream,” which is a study of objectivity in the history profession. “That Barnes and Noble Dream” is an argument that academic historians resent popular historians because their books sell so well, make them look bad, and get all the limelight in the media every time a TV show or radio needs a talking head. It is available on line at http://www.slate.com/id/2118854/entry/2118924/. Note the difference here too–popular vs. amatuer historians. Are they the same? I say no. The true definition of an academic historian is one who is in the academy, which today means one who does a lot of research and produces articles and books about it. Oh yeah, and teaches. The teaching part is VERY much second fiddle at many, many schools this day and age, except the small liberal arts colleges, so-called commuter schools, and branch campuses of larger state institutions. The fact that faculty are rewarded for excellent research, bringing in huge grants, etc. by getting out of teaching should tell you something about where teaching is in the grand scheme of things. Now, turning to non-academics, I like to differentiate between amatuers and popular historians. The former, if we use the original definition of the word, is someone who loves history and/or “does” history in what ever form (teaching or writing) for the love of it (it ain’t the money, I can safely say). Thus a professional historian or teacher canbe an amatuer of they love what they do. Unfort., today we think of amateur as somebody who is not quite good enough, or professional. But is an amateur historian always a popular one? What, for example, is David McCullough? He is not an academic to be sure. His books are popular to say the least, but he does not teach. What is he? How about Barbara Tuchman? Or D.S. Freeman–not an academic, but was he an “amatuer.?
    Maybe we should use the term scholarly rather than academic to denote historians who do the research, write well, and have an interpretation. To further confuse things, some academics write popular histories, or at least, non-academic works. Witness Gordon Wood’s short book of a few years back on the American Revolution, or Mark Grimsley’s battlefield guides of Shiloh and Gettysburg. What is more problematic for me is the so-called “popular” historian. As Greenberg states in his SLATE piece, “many people see the dilemma as simply a matter of professors versus journalists, or professionals versus amateurs. But that dichotomy isn’t very useful. There are academic historians with Ph.D.s, such as the late Stephen Ambrose, who write best sellers and blanket the media but command little scholarly respect.”
    What is more problematic for me is the so-called “popular” historian. My opinion is that this type of writer (yes, writer, not really a researcher at all) culls material from many secondary works, throws in a letter or two he or she found in an anthology, and tells a story that has been told many times before and gives us nothing new. I write many book reviews for academic journals, and at times they ask me to review a “popular” title if it is about something the journal deals with. It does not take long to figure out if the bookis scholarly, or if it is a popular title designed to go right into B&N or an historic site’s bookstore/giftshop. I have noticed a trend as well in publishing popular histories that make me very gunshy about buying/reading a titles. If on the cover the subtitle says “the remarkable true story of…” or “the untold story of…” it almost always HAS been told before, and the new book adds zero to the body of knowledge.
    OK–I have probably gone in circles here, but I do recommend Greenberg’s article at SLATE.

  5. N.A. Winkler
    Fri 02nd Mar 2007 at 1:10 am

    I’ve seen you a while back at the Columbus CWRT and bought one of your books and enjoyed it, although I’m more into political history. I think anyone who is interested at all in the 1860-1870 period must be familiar with the war and what the soldiers went through. There can be no plausible dicotomy between military history and other history. As for the “amateur” business, I agree with what you’ve said here and I can understand how you feel.

    The scary thing about not having the credentials is getting published. The peer-review process used by university presses is a very valuable tool for the author. But when they want to know up front “who” you are, and you don’t have the right initials after your name, you’re sunk before you can begin. If you go to a trade publisher, from what I hear, the manuscript doesn’t get a real vetting. A conscientious author wants to know how to improve his work. If he’s been reading everything on his subject and can demonstrate his writing ability, he ought to have a chance to have his work exposed to subject specialists. Or am I worried for nothing?

    OK, it’s obvious that I have a manuscript in the works, and I don’t have a degree in history. I have a master’s in another discipline. With all the work I’m putting into it, I feel the need for someone knowledgeable to tell me what’s wrong with it. I’m concerned that an “amateur’s” work cannot speak for itself at a university press if none will even look at it. Are there knowledgeable editors in trade publishing houses that can find experts in the political history of the CW-Reconstruction era to read a manuscript, or is this only a university press kind of thing?

  6. James Heberling
    Thu 12th Jul 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Do you know of any online Public History certificate or degree programs and do you think a certificate in Public History would give amature historians like me creditability?

Add comment


Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress