Friday, November 9, 2012

Blog CXXXIV (134): Eight Questions: Middle East History

Will Hanley is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Florida State University. He studied at the Universities of Saskatchewan, Toronto, and Oxford before taking his doctorate in history at Princeton (2007). He is completing work on a book about the emergence of nationality as a social and legal category in Alexandria between 1880 and 1914. During the 2012-13 academic year, as a Rechtskulturen fellow in Berlin, he is studying the broader institutional history of justice in Egypt between 1875 and 1950. He serves as Associate Editor (Book Reviews, Non-Americas) of the Law and History Review. He is also developing an NEH-funded digital tool (called Prosop) to help historians to collect and organize large volumes of demographic data.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of the field of Middle East history, at least in the North American context, is the sustained interest in the region over the last decade due to the September 11 attacks and the wars that followed. It is a bittersweet fact that scholars of the Middle East living in the United States benefit from this violence, through increased hiring, student enrollments, readership, and public interest in our work. I would say that historians in the field have worked hard to honor that interest with work that is responsible to the past and to the present.

What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Two big issues facing historians of the Middle East have their source in current events. First, in the context of American debates over the region, it is challenging to convert our historical expertise into useful knowledge. Audiences and even the media are interested in what we know, but their interest is not sustained if we talk to them the way we talk to other historians. Learning to speak in two or more registers is a real challenge, and one that we must typically learn outside of the classrooms of our graduate programs. 
The second issue facing the field concerns the history of the last half century. The authoritarian regimes that governed (and still govern) the states of the Middle East create practical challenges for researchers. Access to state archives is difficult and often impossible, especially for material from the post-colonial period, and historians face roadblocks when pursuing particularly controversial topics. As a result, we have fewer studies of recent history than one might wish, and those that appear typically employ ingenious work-around research techniques. There are few signs that these conditions will change in the wake of the 2012 uprisings. 
In the profession as a whole, I think that the tyranny of quantity poses a real challenge. This is true of publishing—it seems almost impossible to keep up with new books and articles—as well as research itself. The widespread use of digital cameras in archives and the digitization of print material means that historians often have too much worthwhile material at hand. Information technology can offer some solutions here. Although historians currently have few opportunities to learn or develop tools to automate some parts of our research, I believe that we will have no choice but to manage our data digitally.

What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The website Jadaliyya, which began publishing serious writing about the Middle East late in 2010, has become one of the key sites of scholarly exchange for historians and others working in the field. Obviously the political upheavals of the last two years created conditions favorable to the success of this project. But the editors and contributors to Jadaliyya have done a remarkable job in sustaining a high quality and quantity of timely and profound writing. The site offers a model of history writing engaged with the present day and integrated with other disciplines: politics, economics, the arts. 
Jadaliyya is not the only such initiative. The Ottoman History Podcast offers dozens of engaging discussions of Middle East history, as well as a fascinating website, with a lot of quirky original documents as well. The project is an initiative of graduate students, mostly from Georgetown. Their scholarly communication is an example for those of us who already have jobs. 
As far as traditional scholarship is concerned, I am most excited by scholarship that situates the Middle East in the mainstream of world history. Until quite recently, much of the historiography of the Middle East was quite isolated, even exceptionalist. Most historians of the field focused narrowly on a single state, city, or region of the Middle East. They did this for good reasons: the start-up costs in language learning and research networking are daunting, and coverage of regions and periods was quite incomplete. As the field has matured, however, its research focus has widened. The historiography of the Ottoman empire has been particularly important in this regard. As the vast complexity of its centuries becomes better articulated, it is clear that narrower histories are incomplete. And so research projects ranging across the lands and languages of Africa, Asia, and Europe, as well as the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, have become common. This research builds on the foundational narrow studies of previous generations.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching offers the opportunity to practice communicating historical knowledge in a variety of registers. The public mission of Middle East historians can be confusing and frustrating, but it is important, and teaching helps us to learn how to do this work. Many students of Middle East history have special motivation for the undertaking, and contact with them is especially rewarding.

What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
It can be useful to direct scholarship to those outside the field of Middle East history. For reasons I mentioned above, I think that this is a sound choice in intellectual terms. It also makes sense professionally. Most history departments have only one Middle East historian, and it can be useful to engage with the wider world by publishing in less specialized venues.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
As far as the particular demands of Middle East history are concerned, the resources of the graduate school are an important consideration. Those schools with a critical mass of scholars (and students) in the languages and literatures of the Middle East, as well as the study of its religions, are often those with the most to offer students of Middle East history. Supplemental interdisciplinary study with area specialists contributes to well-rounded historical training. It is no coincidence that these schools usually offer the best funding and the best reputation. Research in this field typically entails extended time in the region, which in turn requires special institutional and family support.

What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I agree with the most frequent piece of advice appearing on this site: language work is the key to success in Middle East history. You can never be good enough at any of the languages of the region. I will add, however, that this language fetish can also be a drawback: sometimes scholars whose language skills are merely good enough feel that they lack a warrant to conduct serious research. As the Middle East becomes integrated into the mainstream of world history, I hope that historians of France (for example) whose Arabic is “good enough” will feel welcome to use Arabic sources; Middle Eastern historians whose French is “good enough” certainly use French sources. So, make your language skills good enough, and better. 
I would also advise undergrads to learn a programming language or two.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
This is a difficult question to answer if the new Ph.D. has not already been prepared for this possibility. The demand for Middle East historians has been relatively strong, but few of us win the sort of jobs that our grad school advisors have. For some, this means preparing for work as a historian who does a lot of teaching and not much research. But the profession is making great strides in diversifying the professional imagination of graduate students and their advisors to look further afield (see Grafton and Grossman’s “No More Plan B.”) Almost every graduate of my department’s MA program in Historical Administration and Public History finds work as a historian, but not in a history department. 
The traditional chestnut that historians have superior “analytical skills” is correct. I would like to see us add another: that historians have a superior ability to communicate information. Of course, neither is true of every historian. But as scholarly publication changes, and the discipline moves away from the single author monograph tradition, we need to learn to communicate in new ways. The general public does not have much interest in reading our monographs, and we would do well to become experts in other formats, such as the emerging medium called data visualization. Many programmers get history wrong, but they can reach a wide audience because they can communicate. Historians with technological skills could do this work right.

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