Beyond the monograph: New forms of historical scholarship

The American Historical Association (AHA) announced earlier this month that, subject to post hoc peer review, newspaper opinion essays, magazine articles, textbooks, museum exhibitions and catalogues, media appearances and podcasts could be included in hiring, promotion or tenure review portfolios.

“Traditionally, in most academic institutions, for hiring, tenure and promotion, what counted as scholarship was peer reviewed. In essence that meant articles in academic journals and books that were peer reviewed by publishers.

“What we wanted to do was suggest that there are many kinds of scholarly work that require research, that require expertise that also need to be recognised as valid works of professional scholarship by professional historians,” says James Grossman, executive director of the AHA.

The vote to approve “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship (2023)” was a moment of agreement at the AHA’s annual convention, held from 5 to 8 January. As reported by Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times on 8 January, the conference hardly lived up to Philadelphia’s moniker: the “City of Brotherly Love”.

Rather, it was riven by debates. The AHA’s outgoing president, James H Sweet, was at the centre of one when he decried the “trend toward presentism”, in an address coyly titled “Is History History?” Or, has history become a vehicle in which scholars of every period focus on “contemporary issues”, including gender and race, which, he said, leads to a “predictable sameness” and loss of specificity.

Sweet triggered a strong reaction that, Schuessler reported, divided along racial and generational fault lines, with the younger historians, many of whom are employed on short-term contracts instead of the coveted tenure track, seeing Sweet as being out of touch and privileged.

Many black scholars saw Sweet’s words “as an attack on the inherently political traditions of black studies”, writes Schuessler.

Rashauna Johnson, a professor of the 19th-century African diaspora at the University of Chicago, reminded the conference that black history arose to counter dominant racist narratives in both the world and academia.

“To tell different stories, that aren’t rooted in histories of anti-blackness, requires that black people have had to by default take up the cause of justice, and think of the cause of justice as deeply tied to the work of history,” Schuessler reports Johnson saying.

The historians were assembled, incidentally, not far from where the great African American scholar WEB Dubois, widely regarded as the founder of African American history, gathered the materials for his path-breaking study, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899.

The monograph

Chartered in 1889 by the US Congress, while separate from the Smithsonian Institution, the AHA reported to the secretary of the Smithsonian and took as its goal vis-à-vis historical knowledge the broader aim of the Smithsonian: “The increase and diffusion of knowledge”.

As was the case with other subjects like chemistry and English, in the late 1800s, the profession became more professional, with university trained and employed historians replacing amateurs.

The increase and diffusion of knowledge came to be seen as taking place through refereed articles, papers at professional conferences and books. But, not just any book. Writing in the 16 December 2020 issue of Perspectives on History (the AHA’s newsletter), Grossman noted that for professional historians the “most valued coin of the realm [was] … a particular kind of book known only in academia and scholarly publishing as a ‘monograph’.” (A monograph is a book on a single specialised topic, for example, Pioneers of Capitalism: The Netherlands 1000-1800 by Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden (2022, Princeton University Press).

The AHA does not have, as the American Chemical Society does, for example, the power to mandate what counts in hiring, tenure and promotion. Rather, the AHA’s imprimatur is persuasive in that it strongly influences what products colleges and universities consider when making decisions about hiring, tenure and promotion.

We are not telling anyone that they have to do anything, Grossman told University World News. We are asking history departments, universities and other institutions to consider a wider definition of what constitutes scholarship because we think the traditional one is too restrictive.

“Expert witness Congressional testimony,” he says, “requires careful research, presentation and writing. So, there’s a written product that can be peer reviewed afterwards.”

AHA is “genre agnostic”, says Grossman. Accordingly, textbooks, reference books, museum exhibits and digital products, such as a museum catalogue, should not be considered lesser forms of scholarship. The same goes for book reviews of historical books.

After declaring that there “are many ways to be a historian”, the Ad Hoc Committee’s report addressed what could have been the elephant in the room: the appearance of watering down the standards of the profession.

The AHA called on colleges and universities (and other institutions that employ historians) to apply and adapt existing methods and theories of evaluation to a wider range of intellectual products than the traditional peer reviewed book, article or conference paper.

“Candidates can be required to write short memos putting such words [eg, an appearance as an expert witness in court] into historiographical context as part of their portfolio, adapting customary expectations of clarity, originality and significance to the relevant genre.” These submissions would then be sent to experts for post hoc peer review.

Post hoc peer review system

The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) has been working with an expanded definition of what products count as scholarship for the purposes of tenure and promotion to full professor since 2014, Professor Kevin Schultz, chair of the UIC’s department of history, told me.

“We had an incredibly talented collection of scholars who were coming up through the ranks who were producing historical knowledge in different kinds of formats, including museum exhibitions, collections of edited volumes and a large number of articles in both popular and academic journals. We wanted to account for these creative expressions,” he answered when I asked what precipitated the change from relying on refereed articles or a monograph.

The mechanics of the system now in place required the development of criteria for post hoc peer review. If, for example, I were a history professor at UIC and I were applying for tenure, I could submit my book, The Battle of the St Lawrence: The Second World War in Canada, as part of my portfolio. However, since its publisher, HarperCollins Canada, is not, like the Naval Institute Press, a peer reviewed publisher, it would have to be sent for post hoc review.

Among the questions the reviewers would look at are its factual accuracy and reviews, especially in such journals as Canadian Military History. The reviewers would also take into account the book’s national and international recognition.

Links to presentism

While the inclusion of expert court testimony or testimony before legislative bodies as scholarship that counts for hiring, tenure or promotion predates by several years the debate about presentism Sweet pointed to, it is not unrelated to it, Grossman averred.

“One of the conversations we have is about the work historians do. Why do we do the work we do? How do we ask the questions we ask?

“Obviously, if you submit 25 op-eds and say that is the equivalent of an article, what you’re doing is you are submitting materials that are driven by questions that are rooted in present day controversies. Obviously, expert witness testimony exists only when you’re dealing with issues rooted in present controversies.

“Nobody wants you to be a witness if nothing has anything to do with anything right now.”