A Recent History of History

By Ted Farmer, professor emeritus

The fall 1999 issue of our department's annual newsletter featured a photo of six "senior colleagues" gathered in the Ford Room. I was in that photo. I took it as a gentle hint that it was time we should be moving on. Now, more than 10 years later, I have just participated in the retirement celebration of my 43 years of service in the Department of History and I am grateful for this opportunity to offer a few observations and reflections.

FarmerTed_2010.jpgIt was different back then
The first thing that comes to mind is how very different today's department is from the one I joined in 1968. I could begin with the way I was hired--by letter. There was no campus interview. I was a graduate student working on my dissertation in Taiwan. I did have a chance to meet and talk with Romeyn Taylor, the first Chinese history specialist in the department, who was in Taiwan on a sabbatical. But our conversations were mostly about our research interests in the Ming Dynasty and certainly did not constitute a formal interview process.

When the white male faculty convened in the Ford Room there was so much cigarette and pipe smoke that you could hardly breathe. There was a good deal of tension in the atmosphere as well. The front office, under the strict control of Marlowe, the department secretary, was not a pleasant place to be unless you were a very senior member of the faculty.

The faculty was deeply divided between a more conservative European wing and a more liberal American wing. Those like myself, who belonged to neither camp, were referred to dismissively as "feathers." The great men of that time included Harold Deutsch, who had created a successful undergraduate curriculum of courses about World War II that enrolled hundreds of students, and Tom Jones, a Regents Professor of ancient history who commanded the largest body of graduate students. Thanks to his expertise in ancient languages, Jones had worked at code breaking during the war; he kept classified materials in a safe in his office and offered graduate instruction in cryptography on the side. Information about salaries, tenure, promotion, and appointments was closely held by the full professors who made all the decisions and felt no need to justify their actions to junior colleagues.

There was tension, too, about the direction of the department. This manifested itself in the struggles to control the most precious resource available to us: new position money. The 1960s were a time of growth and the way forward was unclear. The old guard tended to like things the way they were and viewed vacancies as opportunities to replace retirees with new recruits who did the same thing; usually the national history of one of the great powers. There was a vague apprehension that the discipline might be headed (mistakenly) in some other direction, perhaps toward some kind of quantifiable history, what later became known as "Cliometrics."

As an idealistic and imprudent assistant professor, I had my own ideas along these lines--to me it was obvious that we needed more Asian history. But how to do that? Lacking any influence or many allies I sought to persuade colleagues of the correctness of my views. My solution was to open up questions of priorities to public discussion. This was not something I could openly advocate as a junior member so I asked David Noble to introduce the proposition on my behalf. It went absolutely nowhere. David was a popular teacher with a towering international reputation but he was neither comfortable nor successful in the give and take of departmental politics and eventually moved to the American studies department.

A revolution develops
Despite my frustrations, the department was on the cusp of a major transformation in both its governance and its composition. Change in governance came in the form a peaceful constitutional revolution. Stuart Hoyt, who had succeeded Harold Deutsch as chairman of the department, was an ardent student of English legal history and liked the idea of constitutional reform so he let the revolution go forward. Junior faculty members were dissatisfied with the undemocratic way decisions were made and demanded change. In the transition period David Keift and I were selected to sit in with the full professors on the promotion meetings. It was an eye opening experience. What we witnessed was outright horse trading between the Europeanists and the Americanists--"If you promote A then we will promote B"--with no reference whatsoever to the person's qualifications.

We had heard that the political science department used a committee system to recommend pay increases. Frank Sorauf, a respected and trusted member of that department, was invited to explain what they did. After his presentation, we adopted a far more radical set of procedures. Not just merit, but tenure, promotion, and hiring were all opened to participation and voting by members at all ranks. Information about salaries and merit recommendations was openly shared. Even where the college constitution required votes only of those senior in rank for tenure and promotion, the departmental constitution now required a separate vote of all ranks. Lest a discrepancy occur between the two sets of ballots, the chair was required to report both votes to the faculty. The political empowerment of junior faculty, which some had predicted would lead to a decline in standards, had just the opposite effect. Standards rose as favoritism and bargaining declined dramatically.

Another major element in the transformation of the department was the move of Sue Cave, later Sue Haskins, to the front office. For some years Sue had worked in the Graduate Studies Office and typed manuscripts on the side. After she took over the front office she proved to be a masterful administrator. Year by year the administration of the department's affairs became smoother, the hiring and assignment of staff more professional, and the atmosphere more collegial. Her fairness and concern for every individual helped to create a sense of community. The History Department became known as one of the best places in CLA to work.

Struggling to diversify
The diversification of the department's composition had begun before I came to Minnesota. The changes mirrored what was happening in other parts of American life. I believe that Hyman Berman and Josef Altholz were the first Jewish members of the faculty. When Romeyn Taylor was hired the position was first offered to a Chinese scholar who turned it down. The same thing happened when I was hired. In neither case do I know the motives of those two persons who declined to join our faculty. But it would not have been easy to be the first non-white member of the department. Even as white males, Romeyn and I often found ourselves referred to as "exotics" and, when talking in the hall, might be accused by those passing by of hatching an "oriental conspiracy." Such remarks, while offered in jest, served to convey the message that we were isolates and what we studied was marginal.

In response to the civil rights movement, we voted to set aside four positions in the graduate program for African American students. Al Jones, who taught U.S. history, made a tour of black colleges in the South to recruit students. Some of those recruits are today leading figures in African American history. The civil rights movement could cut both ways, however. Allan Spear, who had written an important book, Black Chicago, found it increasingly uncomfortable to teach African American history as a white instructor. Marginalized in the historical profession, he ran for the state legislature where he became the president of the senate. He was one of the first gay legislators to come out of the closet. His experiences are recounted in his autobiography, Crossing the Barriers, which was posthumously published by the University of Minnesota Press last year.

The first black person to join the faculty was Lansine Kaba, an aristocratic African with a French education. The first American Indian was Roger Buffalohead; he did not stay long. In a very competitive job market it was hard to hire and keep African American historians.

The arrival of women faculty
The most important change, I think, in making the department more diverse, more open, and more welcoming was the arrival of women members in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a great story to be told about how women worked together to support each other and change the culture of the department. I am not the person to tell that story but I can make a few observations. It was not all sunshine and roses. Carol Gold, an assistant professor who had the temerity to suggest that smoking be prohibited in department meetings, got her wish. But the next year she was brought up early for promotion and denied tenure. Sara Evans was one of the pioneers of the new field of women's history. She and her colleagues worked to create a women's studies department at the undergraduate level and the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies, at the graduate level. This entailed building connections and alliances across departments and disciplines in ways that transformed the culture of the college as well as the department. But Sara did not stop at that level; she was involved in heroic efforts at the university level to fight discrimination and bring about pay equity. These were local battles in what were larger national and international struggles. Sara went on to become department chair and a Regents Professor in the course of her career.

The introduction of women's studies was one of a number of changes that opened up the department and the profession to new approaches. Over time, women's studies broadened out into gender studies. African American studies got a foothold at Minnesota after a group of students staged a sit-in in Morrill Hall. Comparable political action was not a possibility for other minority groups but American Indian studies, Chicano studies, and Asian American studies came along in due course, each adding a new element and new connections to our department.

History expands
Many other developments grew from the old European and U.S. core constituencies. Demography is a good example. What started under Steve Ruggles as a center to foster U.S. population studies using census data, has blossomed into the Minnesota Population Center, a university-level institute that includes the whole world within its compass. Thanks to some unplanned hires, the medieval section of the department expanded and came to play a leading role in the Center for Medieval Studies, one of the most active interdisciplinary communities in the college. Jim Tracy, a specialist on the Netherlands, came up with the idea of a Center for Early Modern History that has linked colleagues across the department and the college and, through its conferences, established a global presence. Outside the department Allen Isaacman created the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, which spans all the colleges in the university and links to other universities both domestically and internationally. The list goes on.

Asianists like me
My own training was not in a history department but in graduate programs in East Asian regional studies and history and Far Eastern languages. In the history department in Minnesota I interacted most closely with other Asianists--Romeyn Taylor in Chinese history, Byron Marshall in Japanese history, David Kopf and David Lelyveld in South Asian history. I have written elsewhere about how our interaction and collaboration on a comparative survey course on the history of civilizations in Asia transformed me into a dedicated comparativist (See "How comparison led me to World History and Globalization" online in The Middle Ground Journal). During my first three decades at Minnesota, I expended an enormous amount of time and effort to reproduce the kind of area studies I had experienced as a graduate student. This included forming an East Asian studies major; participating in and chairing an East Asian studies department; organizing an East Asian master's program; serving as director of graduate studies for Chinese, East Asian studies, Japanese, and Russian area studies; acting as the last director of the Institute for International Studies; and working outside the University on the Midwest China Center. Suffice it to say that none of those institutions or programs survived. At some point in the 1980s it dawned on me that I was wasting my time: the University of Minnesota was not congenial to area studies in the form that existed elsewhere, and the College of Liberal Arts was partial to disciplinary departments. While I was struggling to promote East Asian area studies in a hostile environment, the History Department and the history profession were undergoing a transformation away from the "silos" of national history to embrace a range of new perspectives. Happily for me, I belonged to this unit which had become one of the largest, most cosmopolitan, and best run departments in the college.

Looking back, I marvel at my own good fortune in Chinese history. As an undergraduate I fled the biological sciences (and chemistry labs) for history and philosophy. Looking for something different, foreign, and far away, I chose a course on China from the catalogue. I got hooked. When I took up the study of China in the mid-1950's Americans could not go there. In graduate school at Harvard, I picked a dissertation topic on the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in part because it was so little studied. How slim were the chances that I would land a job at a university with another Ming specialist (Romeyn Taylor) or that the college would hire a third Ming specialist (Ann Waltner)? In the 1970s I started the journal Ming Studies that gave me and the department added visibility in the field of Chinese history both here and abroad. Ming history turned out to be a growth field and the journal soon spawned a Society for Ming Studies as well as a Ming Studies Research Series published in the department and now housed in the Center for Early Modern History.

I was 40 before I got to mainland China for the first time. It was 1975 and the Cultural Revolution still made any meaningful scholarship there unthinkable. Within five years, Mao was gone and China opened up to the west. Again I was lucky: the University of Minnesota had some of the strongest China ties of any school in North America. Before long there were more than a thousand mainland Chinese on our campus and being from the U of M provided entree to any institution in China. By the sheerest chance, it turned out that the person in charge of the Ming History Section of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing had written her dissertation at Peking University on the same topic as my dissertation and first book. Needless to say, I found a warm welcome there. And although I always believed that China would one day resume its former role as one of the leading societies on earth, I had no idea that it would happen in my lifetime. Who could have predicted that the stultified and paranoid People's Republic of China I first visited in 1975 would undergo the most rapid industrialization and economic development in human history? It was also my luck to be linked to a country with one of the world's greatest culinary traditions and a country in which students are taught to honor their teachers. There is much to like about the study of China.

Finally, a global home
My last two decades of teaching were colored by the way globalization was transforming our world. At the end of the 1980s I proposed that the department offer a course on world history. A team of faculty members spent a year planning the course, and I spent two summers in workshops devoted to shaping its curriculum and selecting teaching materials. Once the course was launched, I taught in all three quarters of the year-long survey; when we went to semesters at the turn of the century, I spun off the third quarter as a one semester course on global history of the information age. Along the way I had the opportunity to co-teach in this course with Wim Phillips, Romeyn Taylor, Stuart Schwartz, Lary May, Sara Evans, Bob McCaa, Tom Wolfe, Pat McNamara, and Carol Hakim. After decades of searching for an academic home I had found it where I had begun - in the Department of History.

March 2011

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This page contains a single entry by Kelly O'Brien published on November 7, 2011 10:09 AM.

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