The Panorama Roundtable That Wasn’t

Will Mackintosh, Johann Neem, and Jessica Roney
Photo of an easel with the blank canvas overlook the seashore.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

In a recent Panorama essay, Tamara Plakins Thornton reminded us that as historians we should identify and name absences in the archive and seek to explain them. We must not only record and explain what appears in our sources, but also what does not. She called such silences “a puzzle every historian relishes: a dog that didn’t bark.” In the spirit of Thornton’s excavation of absence, we want to share with you the story of a Panorama roundtable that never came together so that we might consider the implications of our silence.

Among the many kinds of pieces The Panorama publishes, we usually post “companion” pieces to the scholarship published in the print JER. Sometimes they consist of further reflections from the authors of the print pieces, and sometimes they are written by other scholars reacting to what appeared in the JER. Our idea for the Panorama companion for our recent forum “The Material Conditions of Historians’ Labor” to ask thoughtful historians from the broader world of “history institutions”—museums, libraries, research centers, historical societies—to reflect on the forum and to share some of the strategies that they have been implementing (or even just dreaming about implementing) to respond to the crisis in the production of scholarship in our field.

Some of the big questions that we hoped to explore included: How have the changing material conditions in which historians labor affected our contributors’ ability to shepherd the production of new scholarship? What strategies have they undertaken to address these changes? What are some compromises they have made with the world as it is, and what do they think their tradeoffs are? What advice would they have for us, as the editorial team of the JER, as we attempt to adapt to the climate that’s changing around us?

When we solicit companion pieces, not every potential author responds to our solicitation, and not every author who writes back says yes. But by far the majority do. So when our emails requesting responses to our forum were universally declined, it was a highly unusual outcome. The reasons proffered varied. Some were strapped for time, but most wrote to say apologetically that they didn’t feel free to share whatever thoughts they might have because of their institutional position or institutional affiliations. There was a sense that discretion was the better part of valor, at least on this subject, at least at this moment.

Why? In part, we think, it is because of how difficult the problems are. The entire system of scholarly production takes for granted the existence of tenure-track professors. Fellowships are oriented around timelines that work for professors. Universities subsidize research leaves and professors’ salaries. Indeed, tenure-line professors can take leave to pursue research opportunities knowing that their positions are secure and awaiting their return; adjunct professors and those whose work outside universities cannot. People also may not have wanted to write because, put baldly, those who lead scholarly institutions don’t have good answers either, or at least not ones that they’re willing to discuss in public yet. And however good their intentions, given their comparatively limited resources, institutions singly or collectively simply cannot fill the role universities and state funding once played.

As editors, we learned a lot from the contributors to the JER forum. Their honesty challenged us. The basic premise of the forum was quite simple: if we lose the scholarly insights of historians who are now working outside of tenure-line positions, our field will be weaker. In other words, the crisis affects all of us, even those at the top of the academic hierarchy. What we have not yet figured out is how to bring more historians into the JER in ways that work for us and for them. For now, the dog is not barking. Yet we plan to continue our work as we learn more. Please stay tuned—we’ll be seeking your advice soon.

19 May 2023

About the Authors

Will Mackintosh is associate professor of history at the University of Mary Washington.

Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University.

Jessica Roney is associate professor of history at Temple University.

Recent Contributions to the JER

Mackintosh, Neem, and Roney, Preface: The Material Conditions of Historians’ Labor (Winter 2022)

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