New book asks historians how they became historians





How do historians become historians? That's the question answered in the essays of Becoming Historians, just published by the University of Chicago Press. Among those contributing -- senior scholars in the field today -- are Joan Wallach Scott, Linda Gordon, David A. Hollinger and the two co-editors of the volume, James M. Banner Jr. and John R. Gillis. Banner, co-founder of the National History Center and historian-in-residence at American University; and Gillis, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, responded to questions about the book.

Q: What was your goal in collecting these essays?

JG: Historians write about others, rarely about themselves. Despite the importance of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, they have not yet sat for their group portrait. We thought it time that that a start was made in recording the experiences of a group that was instrumental in bringing forth so many new fields -- social history, women's history, black, labor, public, and global history. We were aware that a small collection like this one could never do full justice to the subject, but it was important to start somewhere.

JB: While wishing to provide the outline of the lives, careers, and work of a single generation of historians -- ­our own -- ­we also wished some historians to set down their lives of learning (to adapt the title of annual ACLS lectures, which have long interested and affected both of us). We also hoped to offer some perspectives on the endeavors of members of a generation whose professional experiences had begun to go beyond the borders of the academy as well as respond directly to public issues that pushed historians into new areas of inquiry and action. But then, too, we wanted aspiring historians to get a glimpse of the diversity of choices they could make, the role of chance as well as deliberation in a career, and the many joys of lives as historians.

Q: How did you decide whom to ask to contribute?

JG: Between the two of us, we have a reasonably large base of acquaintances, mainly in American and European hiistory but also in the global field. We tried to be inclusive with respect to background and field. Of course, we are painfully aware of how many voices we have excluded, but we trust that others will follow in our footsteps, filling in the gaps and rectifying our oversights.

JB: Diversity was the key, always hard to achieve with a small number. Also, we excluded those historians known to us to have written autobiographically before. And to avoid too much overlap, we didn’t invite as participants those who’d been fellow graduate students or our immediate colleagues. Fortunately, very few declined our invitation to participate. Most welcomed the chance to undertake this form of life and career review....


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