Book Review: Marshall T. Poe, How to Read a History Book: The Hidden History of History (Zero Books, 2018)

There have been a rash of history books recently with incorrect titles. Sam Weinburg’s Why Study History when its Already on Your Phone has very little to do with justifying learning of history in the age of the smart phone, and Alex Rosenburg’s  How History Gets it Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addictions to Stories should be called  “History is Always Wrong, Sometimes.”

Add to this list a new book by Marshall Poe, How to Read a History Book: The Hidden History of History,  which really isn’t so much about how to read a history book and really isn’t about the hidden history of history.  This book is actually about something more interesting: the nature of academic history in the United States.  I read it as an anthropological commentary on the structure of academic history departments and the history job market. It is a story that is familiar to the thousands of people out there who have trudged through years of history grad school.

Most of the book is written as an account of a fictional composite historian, Elizabeth Ranke, as she works her way from an aspiring undergraduate history major to history grad school, and nine years (!) later, into a faculty position teaching history.  Professional academic historians will recognize the story all too well, and Poe has done well to capture the competitive, stressful, confusing, depressing yet exciting experience of becoming a historian. At the same time, professional academic historians won’t learn much from this story that they don’t already know. So, the proper audience for this book, I would think, is undergraduates who aspire to enter grad school in history. If I would have read this book at twenty-two instead of thirty-six, I would have found it much more useful.

Yet, there are elements of this book that I found marvelous and elements that highlight troubles worthy of discussion by the larger academic history community.

First, the marvelous. Poe is cynical and comedic when describing this strange academic world of history. His fictional Elizabeth Ranke attends the prestigious “Hornblower University” (where, I assume, everyone is willing to toot their own horns).  There, Ranke spends a full year reading the French philosopher “Darridont”.  She eventually wins a “Pittlebutt Dissertation Write-Up Grant” and writes a book for “Panderbilt University Press.”  Poe describes epigraphs in books (one of my pet-peeves) as sometimes “impossible to figure out as they bear no relationship at all to anything in the book – literary scholars like this kind of thing.”(81)  Only on page 68 of this 134 page book does Poe begin to focus on how to read a history book. He suggests that there is a template for how people write. This is not an actual printed template that is available to read somewhere, but more like a mental structure that is learned in leading history departments. His view of the academic publishing market is depressing. Books are not to be sold. Nor are they to be read. Academic books are signals to gain jobs. If anyone wants to write a popular book, they should write one about battleships with big guns on the cover.

What seems to have missed the attention of other online reviewers of this book is that Poe is alleging widespread corruption in the history discipline. In the book publishing world, he says, peer-reviewers are commonly hand-picked. Blurbs on the back of books are a form of “log-rolling” in which well-placed elites scratch each other’s backs.

But it is corruption in the hiring process that is the most troubling part of Poe’s tale.

Poe states that history department search committees look at essentially only three categories when hiring a new colleague. (1) Did the candidate go to a prestigious school?  (2) What is the title of the candidate’s dissertation.  (3) What is the race and gender of the candidate.  Notice, that there is little attention given to whether these candidates actually know anything, have published anything, or have written anything worth reading or thinking about. Historical scholarship suffers when history scholars are placed into jobs not based on their abilities as writers and teachers, but on the above criteria.

Let’s explore the problematic nature of these search criteria and what Poe has to say about them. First, candidates from prestigious schools have always had an advantage on the job market, and perhaps it should be so.  These candidates are better trained, better prepared, better connected, and have been better funded, so they probably have written better dissertations and will turn out to be better historians than candidates from weaker schools. So far, no problem. This hiring bias seems natural and unavoidable. But of course it is the depth of the bias here that is important. Poe suggests that this is the first and most important criteria of the search. If program prestige is used to sort people into categories, that is one thing, but if it is used (as it appears to be) to establish a near absolute barrier for candidates from weaker schools, that is another thing, and a real problem at that. As Poe tells it, dissertation advisors do more than write letters of support. They also trade favors to get elite candidates placed in top jobs.

Now, the second criteria might also be reasonable. Search committees are looking for candidates to teach particular things, and what better than the title of the candidate’s dissertation to indicate what they are capable of teaching?  But, like with books with incorrect titles, so many dissertations might be titled incorrectly in an attempt to game the job market. The first and second criteria – school prestige and dissertation title – also go hand in hand in many ways. Professors from prestigious schools set the tone of current debates and establish trends, so their students are more likely to write dissertations with trendy topics. Graduate students at prestigious universities might also be more aware of the importance of a dissertation title. Poe says that in elite history programs, it is common for grad students and their advisors to have a sit-down talk about their dissertation title. In my six years of grad school in the history department at Florida State, I don’t recall hearing any discussion about the importance of a dissertation title, only about the importance of the topic. Search committees don’t have time to read all that much, so they save their efforts by hiring someone whose first book has a good title  (“goodness” potentially defined as anything from popular appeal, department “fit”, or political or ideological agreeableness.)

Now, the third criteria of gender and race bias in history department hiring is stated as if it is the most obvious fact of the world. There are some who claim that hiring by race and gender does not happen in academia, or perhaps only in rare cases. And there are others who admit that it is a common theme, but who disagree about whether it is ethical and justified or not.  What I find interesting about Poe’s presentation of this topic is not only that he states it as an obvious fact, but that he describes some of the incentive structure behind the decisions to hire on the grounds of race and gender.  It may be the case, for example, that a department search committee evaluates candidates without considering their race and gender (as is required by U.S. employment law). But if the narrowed down pool of candidates does not include enough female or minority representation, a committee member or department chair might complain and the committee will adjust the pool accordingly. Then, when the search committee has identified its top two or three candidates, they might work with a dean to try to hire the top candidate AND the runner-up candidate if that person fits a desired race or gender category. All of this illegal. Perhaps it should be, but it is.

A few of my own experiences, and a few anecdotes I’ve heard seem to confirm Poe’s suspicions about biases in search committees, but there is no data on this, and it seems difficult to confirm. I want to believe that all of these things don’t go on in history academia: log-rolling, favor trading, gender and race discrimination, undue prestige bias, and the like, but I’m worried that they do.

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