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Undiplomatic History

Last week’s entry on Drew Erdmann ’88 and the History Department at Williams drew some interesting commentary, some of it quite ill-informed. Jeff Zeeman claimed that:

It’s interesting you mention KC Johnson, because he is an example of how Williams does it right: despite being a white male in a cannon field, he WAS (deservedly, based on what I heard of both teaching and scholarship) offered tenure, which he turned down to go to a research university in an urban environment — CUNY.

I knew enough about the history of the History Department at Williams to know that this was delusional, and not just because few if any serious academics would put “CUNY” and “research university” into the same sentence. But rather than pass on my usual mishmash of hearsay and rumors, I asked Professor KC Johnson for the real story. He wrote:

As you probably know, untenured faculty at Williams are reviewed in their third year for reappointment and then in their sixth year for tenure. I was reappointed, but my reappointment report faulted my scholarship for stressing the “politics of procedure” rather than the “politics of meaning.” At that point, my second book, a biography of former Alaska senator Ernest Gruening, was just about to be published, and I was beginning research for a book that will be published in a couple of weeks on Congress and the Cold War.

The “politics of procedure” comment essentially dismissed my scholarly accomplishments. I’m a historian of Congress, and all of my books have argued to some extent that understanding institutional and procedural history is critical to comprehending how the federal government approached foreign affairs in the 20th century. I could not have addressed the reappointment report’s criticism without fundamentally changing both my approach to history and the types of topics that I studied.

After I decided to leave Williams, I learned that the report had been primarily written by a department member who’s no longer at Williams, who was hostile to political and diplomatic history as subfields; and that the dean of faculty had in vain encouraged her to rewrite the report. In retropsect, there are a number of things I would have done differently had I known this at the time, but that’s water under the bridge.

As it was, after receiving the report I decided to go on the market and soon obtained an offer from Brooklyn. The BC department and administration expressed strong support for including political, diplomatic, and constitutional history–my three subfields–as part of an intellectually balanced History Department. I accepted the offer on the spot, even though the teaching load at BC is two courses heavier than Williams and the financial support for research is non-existent. (Within a year of my arrival, alas, the college had a new president and provost, and the former dept. chair who had strongly supported my hire had retired, creating a wholly new, and unwelcome, intellectual environment on campus.) When I informed the then-Williams chair (Dennis Dickerson) and dean of faculty (David Smith) of my decision, they were distressed; both said they would personally support my tenure if I remained. But I had already accepted the BC offer, and could not go back on my word. There was no firm offer of tenure from Williams–nor could there have been, procedurally — but I was given a much more positive message than in the reappointment report (unfortunately, too late).

I admit that I was naive about the state of the academy when I left Williams; I now recognize that the dismissal of American political and diplomatic history contained in the reappointment report reflected a broad national trend to exclude from History Departments pedagogical approaches (incorrectly) perceived as “traditional” or as focusing on “dead white men.” To give a typical example: The 21 scholars of U.S. history at UCLA include no historians of foreign relations, no legal historians, and no military historians. The history department’s two professors who describe their interests as political history confine their research to questions of class and gender. This fall, UCLA advertised for a tenure-track position in modern American history. The department made no pretense of seeking curricular balance, and instead asked for more of the same: a specialist in cultural, environmental, or labor history. I understand that at Williams, the History Department replaced me not with another historian of US political institutions or foreign relations but with a specialist on the American West. The college is fortunate that it has James McAllister on staff in polisci, who is first-rate in international relations; but, of course, political science and history are not the same discipline, and courses in the two fields provide students with differing experiences.

For what is quite possibly the finest liberal arts college in the country, such a staffing strategy is deeply unfortunate. Pedagogical and methodological diversity should represent the default setting of the discipline of History. Instead, there seems to have been a narrowing of the discipline’s scope. More important, I like to think of a basic Williams institutional mission as educating the next generation of the nation’s leaders — both in the professions and in public service. But how can a college claim to train a future democratic citizenry if its students don’t even have the opportunity to take courses from a specialist in the history of our political institutions and our interaction with the wider world?

How, indeed?

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#1 Comment By Jeff Zeeman On November 7, 2005 @ 9:13 am

Sorry for my misinformation. I read an article on line — I am sure you could find it easily — that stated that KC had turned down tenure at Williams to go to CUNY, but I should know better than believing anything I read. As for the rest of my comments, they were my memory of what someone who took classes with (and greatly admired) KC had told me they had learned, but my memory may be off or perhaps there was a miscommunication along the way …

#2 Comment By frank uible On November 7, 2005 @ 1:08 pm

All naive posters: Please note that people who take politics (whether macro or micro) seriously tend to fight dirty and then usually find ways to excuse themselves.

#3 Comment By Richard Dunn On November 7, 2005 @ 1:47 pm

Thanks for this post and the Drezner ones; it is really helpful to read information like this for those of us aspiring to academic positions. No one really explained what grad school was like, I mean, really like. Of course, the next step–assuming I finish with a degree (big assumption at the current state of my research)–is getting tenure, and snippets like this really help.
You have a lot of resources Dave, how about collecting tenure stories, hints, suggestions, etc for younger ephs in the pipeline?

#4 Comment By hwc On November 7, 2005 @ 2:00 pm

In fairness to Williams, this professor’s research does seem focused on areas of interest that are very well covered in political science courses.

On the broader picture, I’m probably as scornful of today’s ultra-PC academic enviroment as you can get short of being a sanctimonious Limbaugh/Bill Bennett disciple. However, I certainly see that higher education in the United States has been exclusively focused on the study of “dead white males”, and taught by white males, for a very long time. Furthermore, as we project the world today’s students will encounter during their lifetimes, such a narrow perspective could be quite limiting.

For example, it is unlikely that a Western-style democracy would be an a viable solution in Iraq or that a failure to understand the nuances of Islamic culture, from an Islamic viewpoint, would help in dealings with the Middle East as a whole. Or, substitute Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, or Latin America for the same result.

As a practical matter, the broadening of perspective in elite higher education is not only desireable, but essential for this generation of students and beyond. Because colleges were starting from ground zero, they have had a lot of catching up to do in providing a broader cultural component to the curriculum and the faculties.

In my four years at Williams, I had, count ’em, one professor who was not a white male. About as far from the beaten path as Williams strayed were the professors with extreme personalities: the professor who thought he was Karl Marx, the professor who thought he was James Joyce, etc. In thinking back, decades later, it was the one non-white male and the other professors who brought a different perspective (to the extent allowed at the time) who are most memorable. So, I don’t think it’s a negative for college students to encounter professors with unfamiliar perspectives.

#5 Comment By David On November 7, 2005 @ 2:18 pm

HWC writes:

I don’t think it’s a negative for college students to encounter professors with unfamiliar perspectives.

D’uh! Has anyone involved in this debate at Williams or on EphBlog asserted otherwise? Please build your strawwomen elsewhere. Moreover, the benefit of having a diplomatic historian (or a Republican) at Williams would include his “unfamiliar persective.”

As a practical matter, the broadening of perspective in elite higher education is not only desireable, but essential for this generation of students and beyond.

I am all for “broadening.” Do you think that it is a good thing that Williams has virtually no Replublican/Conservative/Libertarian/Federalist professors?

By the way, Professor Jim Wood — who studies the history of warfare — will be retiring soon. There is approximately zero chance that he will be replaced by a professor with a similar interest. Does that count as “broadening” in your view?

#6 Comment By DC On November 7, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

It’s interesting to read from fellow Ephs how these “most memorable” experiences seem to gravitate around exceptionally raced professors.

These remakrs might be significant if we try to examine the assumptions and biases of students coming to Williams. I will admit, albeit anonymously, that I was bowled over when I came to Williams and heard fantastic lectures from black women on the mathematics of economics. That’s not the traditional face of black women where I come from. Since I graduated in the early 2000’s I have often tried to parse out what made that experience so memorable. Most of the reasons are not things I’m proud discussing, like my somewhat racist upbringing. I realized the truly sheltered childhood I lead, so far from anything urban or more consciously racialized than professional baseball. Williams seems to predict the sort of change in its graduates that I underwent, and I am grateful for it. Living and working in Washington, DC, even in the conservative climate of today, I would probably feel uncomfortable if I did not have healthier mental images of black women than the stereotypes that chartacterized my education before I reached age 22.

Non-white, non-male professors are hired not merely to be poster children for race consciousness, and we are not supposed to judge them based on race. But the fact is we do both. The painful reality that emerges for me on rexamining my own experience is that for at least the next 25 years or so, Williams will benefit from this affirmative action, if only in how it changes white men like me. The whims of white men in America still rule the fates of many, and the college is smart in at least introducing us to the concept of non-racially based intelligence in a racially and gender diverse faculty.

I would be willing to be lead into another view of society, if I could feel certain that my smaller ignorances would not be dwarfed by unchallenged and greater prejudices. Clearly, I have been willing to be lead thus far. (That is to say, it is a rare man who can trump race consciousness in America — and an even rarer man who can get away with it).

#7 Comment By Another ’04 On November 7, 2005 @ 2:35 pm

Professor Wood is awesome — and surely the importance of his field is pretty well realized, no?

It is a sad day when you can feel so confident that Williams will sell us short, David. I wonder if this is worth a letter to the alumni mag, and maybe the class reps? For my info – what are you basing this prediction on?

#8 Comment By hwc On November 7, 2005 @ 5:13 pm

Do you think that it is a good thing that Williams has virtually no Replublican/Conservative/Libertarian/Federalist professors?

To be perfectly honest, I really don’t care. I view political affiliations by professors as little more than pop culture preferences. It’s not like day to day political discourse demonstrates any great philosophical underpinnings, driven as it is by the desire for “gotcha” partisanship, disingenuous soundbytes, and a joint effort by both parties to preserve the fundamental status quo.

Let me give you a concrete example. When I was at Williams, I tried to get all of my Political Science professors to drive down to Pittsfield with me to meet Jimmy Carter, who at the time was campaigning prior to the New Hampshire primary. They all dismissed my invitation in a way that basically said, “Thanks kid, but why would I want to waste my time going to meet some yahoo nobody…”

I drove down and got an opportunity to meet the next President of the United States. They didn’t. I can’t say that their political alliances, or even their inability to accurately gauge the political mood of the country undermined their ability to teach me how to learn about and analyse politics and government. Nor have the political preferences of my college professors had much of an impact on my own personal political views.

I think college students at a place like Williams are generally smart enough to recognize and filter whatever biases their professors may bring to the table. It’s probably a good thing there isn’t more partisan political “debate” on campus. We get enough of that in the daily news and it’s mostly quite tedious and predictable.

In my lifelong enjoyment of political biographies and current affairs literature, I’ve never noted any particular difference in how, for example, a Republican Secretary of State or a Democratic Secretary of State go about trying to analyze and react to the international crisis of the day.

One constant in American politics is that both parties have been more than willing to flip 180 degrees on issues over time, as political expedience dictates. For example, Hoover and FDR would probably roll over in their graves to know that Republican presidents of today preside over record budget deficits while the most recent Democratic president made balancing the federal budget a priority. Likewise, I’m sure Lincoln-era Republicans would have been shocked to learn that 100 years later, the Democrats were the party of black voting rights and the Republicans were putting together a coalition of white obstuctionists.

#9 Comment By Loweeel On November 7, 2005 @ 6:38 pm

Professor Wood’s World War II Tutorial was by far the best class I took at Williams, and not just because the massive amount of reading and writing required or the need to create and respond to hypotheticals from Prof. Wood and my tutorial partner prepared me so well for law school.

It was because we were dealing with facts — casualty figures and projections, dates, times, troop movements, technological innovations, detailed chronologies, piles upon piles of evidence. The class was actually connected to the material through its careful emphasis on sources.

The only other courses even close were Prof. Wood’s Warfare in European History class and Prof. Beaver’s History of Technology class.

It will be a very sad day indeed if Williams does not even attempt to hire a MILITARY historian (not a diplomatic historian, but a historian who can actually talk about technology and what happened in battles) to teach some of the History Department’s most popular upper-level offerings.

#10 Comment By frank uible On November 7, 2005 @ 7:41 pm

I am the offspring of a Socialist and a New Deal Democrat. In my childhood, debate about hard core politics was often served at breakfast and dinner. I can’t say that I learned anything new about politics while at Williams in the ’50s (I certainly didn’t seek it). I wonder whether I would have a similar experience if attending Williams as a young adult today. My current auditing of leadership, history and polisci courses at Williams does not provide a clear answer to the question since I have a hard time imagining what my state of political knowledge would be today if I were now of college age.

#11 Comment By hwc On November 8, 2005 @ 1:33 am


I think the ultimate test of a good college education is not that students learn about politics or government per se, but rather that the learn just one thing: that there are never any one-sided, easy solutions and no monopoly on “correct” answers. If a college student learns that virtually every problem in government or international relations is multifacted and complex, then the college is probably doing a good job.

#12 Comment By frank uible On November 8, 2005 @ 2:51 am

hwc: I knew that when first I arrived in Williamstown. I want my father’s money back – with interest. In return the College can have its sheepskin.