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What is a 'Professional Historian'?

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by Bee, Feb 28, 2017.

  1. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    Inquiring minds want to know: what requirements, accomplishments, credentials, accrediting, occupation, allow for one to call his or herself a 'professional historian'. In many occupations, such as law & medicine, one must pass a battery of tests before he/she can hang her shingle. It seems customary in history discussion groups, that when one does not agree with what an author has written, one might pull the 'but he/she is not a teaching academic, university press published, peer-reviewed, card-carrying-lettered-PhD-revered- history god.'

    What is a professional historian and who gets to call himself/herself one?

    EDIT:

    It seems that the profession can be further broken down into categories:

    1. Academic historian
    2. Public historian
    3. Independent historian (what's that?)
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2017

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  3. John Winn

    John Winn Captain

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    I'll risk offering an opinion.

    As to a professional historian I'd say anybody who makes a living - or at least earns some revenue - from his/her knowledge of some history. I've known several locals who don't have degrees in history but have studied the local history for decades, dug up original sources, interviewed people, and even conducted archeological studies and are, hands-down, the experts on local history. I also have some books by people who turned their hobby into an obsession and eventually knew more than anybody else about the history of one thing and I'd call them professional historians too (but only of that one thing). So, for me, it's not necessarily a formal academic thing and persons without degrees can, sometimes, legitimately call themselves historians. We've got some of those here as members.

    That said, I generally do think of historians as persons with academic credentials in their field. But, you know, having a degree can just mean you paid to be directed in your studies and to be given a piece of paper that says you did so and fulfilled some requirements. If one is reasonably intelligent and generally educated then it's possible to do such study independently and be just as knowledgeable as the person who got the degree (or more so if one narrows the subject of the research). It's harder and probably takes longer but it can be done. So even if one doesn't make money at it in some way - and thus isn't a "professional" - I think it's legitimate for a person to call themselves an historian if one has done the research and reading.

    OK, y'all can now tell me why I'm wrong and which logical fallacy I've committed. But it's my opinion and I'm sticking with it (probably two logical fallacies now).
     
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  4. Joshism

    Joshism First Sergeant

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    Academic historian is a history professor at an accredited university. Open and shut case.

    A professional public historian is anyone who works for a historical site, historical society, museum, battlefield, etc in an interpretive capacity. My job title is Historian and Collections Manager for a non-profit historical society so I am a public historian.

    An independent historian researches, writes, and/or speaks about history but has another day job or is retired and is not officially affiliated with any specific historical organization nor is a university professor. All our lawyer-historian-authors like Eric Wittenberg are independent historians. In the next county from me the two most prominent local historians have written many books and articles, give talks, and volunteer with a small local history museum but are unpaid except for book sales and usually act on their own behalf rather than on behalf of any organization (fortunately they are friends, not competitors).
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2017
  5. jgoodguy

    jgoodguy Brigadier General Moderator Forum Host

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    I am a lay historian chasing whatever looks interesting
     
  6. Tennessee_Mountainman

    Tennessee_Mountainman Sergeant

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    Professional: relating to or connected with a profession.
    Profession: a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

    I don't know if your question is literal, but professional wouldn't be the word... The real question would be the sector and degree the "historian" has studied...

    "A historian is a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time."

    A historian in the Native American history sector could have the knowledge of an 8th grade student on the American Civil War era...
     
  7. Blessmag

    Blessmag Captain

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    and you do know what Ph.D. stands for?

    Piled higher and deeper.

    I consider myself an amateur historian. Yes, I wrote two regimental histories and working on a 3rd book, but not professional since my profession is Accounting.

    My future daughter in law has a Masters Degree in Public History from Okla. State Univ. and she states that is for preparation for being able to run a museum or history center.
     
  8. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    I used the term "professional historian" because it was claimed that Gordon Rhea was not a professional historian. I honestly do not know how to interpret the statement, so I threw it out there for anyone to comment. I am not sure if it is meant as a cut, a claim, a truth, or an insult. I guess you can say that I cannot even answer your question as to whether my question is literal!
     
  9. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    I like the way you made the right distinctions here. It is a very well-stated and totally in accordance with my own understanding of these terms.

    I would considers preservationists, architects who specialize in historic sites, and entertainment industry specialists in the independent historian category.
     
  10. Joshism

    Joshism First Sergeant

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    To my knowledge Rhea is a lawyer first and thus an independent historian. He may not be an academic, but his level of research and quality of writing is such I would expect most Civil War academic historians hold his work in high regard.

    To dismiss good independent historian because they don't have History PhDs throws out a huge swath of excellent historians for no good reason.

    It should be noted that the beloved Bruce Catton was a journalist not an academic historian.
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2017
  11. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    I agree that a lot of very astute people are dismissed simply because of academic credentials, which saddens me. As others pointed out, great research and historical inquiry is being conducted by people who know how to ask questions about the what/who/why, but also know how to consider potential answers. As we all know well, a given event can have dozens of views and interpretations. To have the vision to sift through these different views, to assess credibility of sources, and to analyze the meaning of them....it's an incredible gift that requires sophistication of thought and inquiry, which can come from places other than ivy-covered halls.

    Just my 2 cents, plus a few sour grapes that I never did pursue that history degree.
    Adam
     
  12. JohnW.

    JohnW. Sergeant Major

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    Here is a definition (not mine) of historian along with some other info:

    A historian is a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time.

    A historian is a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Wikipedia
    Median pay (annual): 55,800 USD (2015)
    Median pay (hourly): 26.83 USD (2015)
    Entry level education: Master's degree
    Projected 10-year growth: 2% (2014)
    Number of jobs: 3,500 (2014)

    You must really have to love history because the pay sucks. I consider myself an amateur historian. No pay, just a labor of love. :inlove::smile:
     
  13. Tennessee_Mountainman

    Tennessee_Mountainman Sergeant

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    Yeah, see that's why I'm discouraged from directly pursuing a career as a historian. However, is that a 27 dollar an hour I see there? That actually looks really good, but I'd imagine you wouldn't be employed very often and that's why the annual pay is quite low.
     
  14. E_just_E

    E_just_E 1st Lieutenant Forum Host

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    I'll give you a slightly different take:

    I like the Merriam Webster Definition of Historian as a basis:

    1: a student or writer of history; especially one who produces a scholarly synthesis
    2: a writer or compiler of a chronicle

    My definition of a "professional" (or add another adjective of that type like "academic", "professor" etc; and it is 99% self-attributed) is that of a "Self description of Historian who does number 2 above (i.e. compiles a chronicle) when publicly asked why he/she does not do number 1 above (a scholarly synthesis").

    The only adjective in front of the word "Historian" that makes sense as a modifier IMHO is "accidental"; the rest are excuses by people who are doing not that great a work :wink:
     
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  15. War Horse

    War Horse Captain Forum Host Silver Patron Trivia Game Winner Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017 Member of the Year

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    Many very convincing definitions of what a true historian is. I believe a true historian takes the time necessary to search out facts using first hand accounts and real evidence. Drawing to a conclusion from those sources tirerlessly persued. Someone who is not closed mined to feel he's the only one who has the answers. Take many acidemic historians for example. Their PHD title and there professorship at some university brings arrogance that only the acidemic has the true hold on the title historian. Yet they often subscribe to a philosophy simply because it's the now accepted conclusion amongst their peers. Give me the guy who sets out with an open mind who through due diligence either proves or shatters an accepted conclusion. We are constantly learning of new evidence that changes the accepted conclusion. That's the guy I want to read. Regardless of his title, Acidemic, professional or independent. A real historian does all the leg work just like all the rest, the difference is they allow the evidence to lead them to the conclusion not the conclusion leading them to the evidence. That's my opinion for what it's worth.
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2017
  16. JohnW.

    JohnW. Sergeant Major

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    Very well said!!! :smile:
     
  17. Eric Wittenberg

    Eric Wittenberg 2nd Lieutenant

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    I am somewhat hesitant to delve into this discussion for the simple reason that I don't particularly like to blow my own horn. But I think that this is an important enough discussion that I feel that I should weigh in.

    I am not a professional historian. The most accurate description I can come up with for myself is as an amateur historian. I have neither a graduate degree in history, nor is history my full-time job. The truth is that I have not had a formal history class since the 9th grade--my college majors were political science and economics. My master's degree is in international affairs, and I have a law degree. When it comes to the study of history, and researching it, I am 100% self-taught. But my legal training translates very well into historical work--they both require the same diligence of research, the same logical thought processes, and the same attention to detail.

    Because of this, there are many academic historians who look down their noses at me. I'm beneath them because I don't have the fancy letters after my last name, or so they think. I had this discussion with Brooks Simpson last week when we were together in Phoenix. Brooks is rare on a lot of levels: he treats me as an equal, based on the quality of my work and not on my academic credentials or lack thereof, he understands that many professors are wretched writers, and that those who are good writers are often bad speakers, and vice versa, and most professors are atrocious tour guides. Brooks is an excellent writer, an excellent speaker, and he's great on a battlefield. He's one of the few academic historians that I know who do all of those things really well.

    Some of us do all of those things well, and some don't. Gordon Rhea surely comes to mind--he's a fabulous writer, and, like me, he's an old trial lawyer, so he knows how to tell a story. He's great on a battlefield. I know, because I've done a number of tours with him. Jeff Wert's another. Jeff is a retired high school teacher. He doesn't have an advanced degree in history, but he's one of my favorite writers, he's really good giving a lecture, and he's one of my favorite people to lead a battlefield tour with.

    At the same time, one need not be a professor to be a horrible, boring speaker. And there are lots of people who think that they know how to lead a battlefield tour, but are just awful out there. And as a former legal writing instructor, I can tell you that I have seen and endured some unbelievably bad writing in my life. These things are God-given talents. Either you have them, or you don't. None of it is dependent upon having fancy letters after your last name.

    I used to get really bent out of shape over the disparate treatment by the academics, and I admit that I occasionally still do get offended--I was terribly disrespected by an academic historian a few months back, and I remain really angry about it (Brooks knows all about it and thinks I have every right to be offended and angry about it; we discussed it at length at dinner last week). But I've learned that many of them are jealous of the fact that people actually buy and read my books, that they view me as a threat, and that it's their problem and not mine. Life is much more pleasant and less stressful knowing those things.

    In the end, I just do my work and hope that it speaks for itself. I have high standards for myself, and I will not permit something to be published with my name on it that doesn't meet those high standards. In the end, I allow my work to speak for me. How others perceive me as an amateur historian is not my problem, nor is there anything I can do about career choices made in the early 1980's.
     
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  18. Tennessee_Mountainman

    Tennessee_Mountainman Sergeant

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    I can tell you many of those "historians" who look down their noses at you are just jealous that you are self-taught. It's a rare quality in my opinion to self-teach yourself, which is harder than having a formal education at a college.
     
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  19. War Horse

    War Horse Captain Forum Host Silver Patron Trivia Game Winner Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017 Member of the Year

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    You do it very well, very well indeed!
     
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  20. Eric Wittenberg

    Eric Wittenberg 2nd Lieutenant

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    I think that there might be something to this; they have to justify in their own minds the money spent on getting those fancy degrees, and they have to justify their own existence. That does make some sense.
     
  21. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    Dear Eric,

    I am truly honored that you have put yourself out there and taken the time to respond to my thread. To the trifecta of myself, @War Horse , @peter T, you are our historian. Your work speaks volumes. In fact, methinks that you are overqualified by means of talent, research expertise, writing skills, choice of material, curb appeal -- you name it -- to be labeled an amateur. If there were Historian Olympics, you would be DQ'd -- amateurs only, please :smile: It is because of you that I was willing to travel 2,400 miles to Gettysburg. You and Brooks are quite a pair, except that you guys have no taste in hockey teams :D
     

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