Race-Class-Gender in History Dissertations

Inside Higher Ed features a somewhat odd analysis about a study by the AHA comparing words in the titles of dissertations that appeared between 1920 and 1960 with those that appeared in the last 20 years. According to IHE‘s Scott Jaschik, “For the recent titles, some of the analysis may challenge conventional wisdom about the state of the disciplines. There has been much discussion in recent years from some historians who say that issues of race, class and gender have come to dominate history, at the expense of traditional studies of politics and war. But the new AHA study found that ‘war’ appeared in 11 percent of dissertation titles and ‘politics’ appeared in 7.6 percent of titles. By contrast ‘women’ and ‘gender’ appeared in 7.8 percent of the titles, and ‘race,’ ‘ethnic’ and ‘ethnicity’ appeared in only 4.5 percent of the titles.”

As Jaschik points out, the statistics are clearly meaningful in one respect: the decline of dissertations with France or England in the title suggests a geographic shift away from Western Europe.

Regarding subdisciplines, however, these statistics say little if anything. First, while it’s quite true that the race/class/gender paradigm extends everywhere geographically, its focus has been on history of the United States. (It’s hard to imagine, for instance, issues of “race” appearing with much frequency in the historiography of China.) While all large and many small universities make U.S. history hires that are specific to the subfield/discipline, few schools do so for any topics outside of the United States. Analyzing the percentage of dissertations about Burmese history that contain the word “race” in the title tells us little about the historiography of the United States.

Second, analyzing titles can’t approach the issue of “re-visioning”–the attempt through a “new” U.S. political history to make the field more congenial to the race/class/gender paradigm, the efforts of some to transform the domestic element of U.S. foreign relations into an outgrowth of gender or cultural studies. Such dissertations could very well have titles that would appear like “traditional” diplomatic or political history but content that was the reverse.

Finally, can a connection made between specific word choices in a title and the dissertation’s subfield. For instance, a dissertation whose title includes the word “war” might well be a standard military history. Or it could be a social history of rural New Mexico whose author decided to spice up her title by referencing the movie Milagro Beanfield War. Similarly, a dissertation with the word “politics” in the title might in fact, be a non-“revisioned” political history. But few of the works of U.S. political history on my bookshelf actually contain the word “politics.” Without knowing precisely what type of “politics” (if any) these dissertations explore, what can be said?

Perhaps, in light of the high level of public attention directed toward the NAS study at Texas, there’s an attempt to downplay the profession’s assault on traditional pedagogies?

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “Race-Class-Gender in History Dissertations”

  1. On the contrary, it should be easy to imagine issues of “race” appearing with in the historiography of China. Just look at their treatment of Tibet today, or recent hostility directed against the Japanese and other neighbors. In fact, one problem with American focus on “race” is the assumption that whites are necessarily the only bad guys. This attitude seems to demonstrate at once self-loathing and ignorance about foreign cultures.

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