I’ve recently been involved in an off-blog e-mail exchange with someone who initially contacted me thinking I’m a historian. This is not the first time this has happened but this morning, while being snowed in for about the 5th time this winter, seems like a good time to explain why I am not in more detail. I have always tried very hard not to give this perception and have commented frequently that I am not, never have been, and likely never will be a historian. I’m going to try to rank my reasons in order of importance. 1
1. I cannot read source material in its original language. This is the elephant in the room. All I can read is translations. Not only that but any time you read a translation, you’re reading the translator’s interpretation of the source. I comment on sources a lot. I enjoy reading them and have reached the point where, rather than read multiple secondary sources and THEN read the primary/contemporary sources, I’d rather read the sources first, then find out what modern historians think about them. This is, I think, an important evolution in my knowledge of history, that I’m comfortable enough in my own assessments to do this. It is likely the one area which causes the most misconceptions that I may be a historian. I’m not. Unless I can read, assess, and interpret the earliest extant version of source material for myself, not through the eyes of others, I am not a historian. This is more than a rule for me; it’s a law. 2
2. I haven’t been trained. I think I’ve learned a fair amount on my own (not to say that others haven’t been kind enough to help me) but there’s a lot to be said for formal education. You are required to submit work to an authority who will return this to you after providing a critical assessment. You will need to hone your craft through a fairly rigorous review process. This is also a reason why advanced degrees matter. This isn’t as much of a go/no go criterion as number 1. I do think someone without a degree can become a historian. You can submit publications for review, work with historians on projects and observe and learn from their methods, etc. You certainly can learn a new language(or a very old one). It’s not a “you’re dead on the spot if you can’t do this” type of qualification like the inability to read sources but for me it’s pretty strong. I can read books on historical methodology and I’ll learn a lot. But without another party evaluating what I’ve done a big part of the process is missing.
3. I’m not paid for it. I think labels and titles have some importance (if I believed otherwise this post wouldn’t exist). Before I got myself a real job I used to be a horse trainer. I used to tell amateurs all the time that if they knew horses very well they could probably train their horse as well as I could, it just would take longer. I was riding 10 or more horses a day, doing this 12-14 hours/day six days a week. The sheer number of experiences I had with horses, each with his/her own little idiosyncrasies, meant I could figure out what was going on and what to do more quickly. What I could get done in 90 or 120 days would probably take them 6-8 months. If these amateurs chose to do this that didn’t make them horse trainers but people who trained a horse or two. There’s a difference between someone who derives his or her income from something and someone who does not. In this case one is a historian, the other (even if he/she can read sources and has been trained) is someone who does history. I will not get 100% agreement on this one, but I think the fact that someone believes that what you do has economic value means something. For me, if I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not a member of a profession.
When I started this post I thought I’d have a much longer list but once I began thinking on it I decided that just about everything I had fit under one of these categories. For example, part of being a historian is being a member of the profession which means you’re submitting material for publication, review, and critique. This actually fits under #2 (receiving assessments and critiques), at a different point in one’s career.
Also, I haven’t listed things which might make you a good vs a bad historian. The best example of this I can think of is professional development. I would say that a good historian tries to stay current. He or she will attend professional conferences, remain current on developments in his or her area(s) of expertise, etc. Someone who fails to do this does not necessarily cease to be a historian, he or she just likely isn’t a very good one.
I have reached the point where I think I can assess the validity of a historian’s argument and his/her methodology. I take some pride in this and it’s taken me a long time to reach this point. It’s a nice skill though I still have a lot to learn about it. But it doesn’t make me a historian.
1 By history I mean assessing the past using written source material (including inscriptions and art). Archaeologists are involved with studies all the time which they evaluate and interpret, frequently without a single textual piece of evidence. For me, while there’s a ton of overlap and members of each profession should at least be conversant with the others’ methods, this does not make an archaeologist a historian (though some people are both).
2 I don’t want to imply that a historian, in writing, must have personally read every single source on a topic to construct an argument, just that he or she must be able to go back to a source to assess it if they find another historian’s interpretation questionable.