History of the Department
The project was undertaken largely
to satisfy my service obligations to the department. I prepared the first chapter over the course
of the 2006-7 academic year and completed chapters two and three in the summer
of 2007. Owing to my research and teaching
obligations each chapter shows the signs of haste and is a working draft. Copies of this text circulated among my
colleagues, but they are in no way responsible for the content, and they have
not properly endured the scrutiny of individuals like Gordon Iseminger,
Playford Thorson, and Jerome Tweton who were in the department during some of
the period covered by this history.
Consequently, I expect that there will be numerous sins of omission and
inevitably the occasional sin of commission as I struggled with the fragmentary
records preserved in the university archives.
In addition to flaws in content, is will be regrettably obvious that I
have neglected to follow the example of the best kind of modern history which
captures the personalities of the main characters in the narrative; for long
stretches this history reads like the worst kind of prosopography, where
individuals fade away behind an endless litany of credentials, accomplishments,
and dissertation advisors.
Much of the mechanical or institutional nature of my history derives
from the reality that I am not an expert on history of the University, the
state, or the developments within academia or the discipline over the course of
the 20th century. Numerous
names, events, and historical developments sent me scrambling for my copy of
Robinson’s, History of North Dakota,
L. Veysey’s, The Emergence of the
P. Novick’s, That Noble Dream: The "objectivity Question" and the American
and above all, L. Geiger’s History of the
University of the Northern Plains.
The shadow of works with both their
compelling and their problematic assertions looms large behind all my
Whatever the faults in my research and analysis (and with apologies to
Elwyn Robinson) there do appear, quite distinctly several “Themes in the
History of the Department of History”.
Most of these themes have come to light only with the benefit of
hindsight and, consequently, are not as prominent in my chapters as they
perhaps could have been. In the interest
of transparency, it must also be said that these themes may have resonated in
my sources largely on account of their presence in the contemporary
1. Lack of Resources. Hardily a report of the department
lacked a cry for more resources.
The requested resources might be earmarked for the library, for the
seminar room, faculty salaries, office space, or even equipment. With the understanding that no
department is likely to claim itself well-funded and that administrators
are more likely to provide grease for a squeaky wheel, the is almost no
question that the study of history ranked low on the University’s list of
priority even from its earliest days.
2. High Turn Over of
Faculty. Closely related to the first theme, the turn over of faculty both
junior in rank and occasionally senior in rank is a constant factor in the
departmental discourse. It is clear
that the typically high quality of junior faculty made it possible for
them to move on to better positions at typically more research oriented
universities (often in warmer climes).
It is also clear that the departmental culture has not always been
a happy one with faculty leaving because they perceived the opportunities
to be limited at the University or the environment to be damaging to their
career or even health.
Administration and Perceived Neglect.
The third theme is closely tied to the previous two, yet
nevertheless deserving of its own place. The clashes between the department and
the administration have occasionally be sensational (as in the clash
between President Kane and Orin G. Libby), but what is perhaps more
striking is the constant attitude of distrust and at times out-and-out
dislike for members of the University administration. In some instances this distrust, such as
between Libby and Kane or between Dean William Bek and Clarence Perkins or
between various members of the department and Bonner Witmer, appears to be
mutual, but far more striking is the almost total lack of attention from
the administration on the Department.
Perhaps by the Tweton Era (post 1965) the attitudes in the
department began to change as the late 1960 and early 1970s were
particularly productive times for the department.
While my first three themes are largely negative in character, the next
three are more positive. They tend to
reflect the profound sense of commitment felt by many of the scholars who have
chosen to make their careers (or even just part of their careers) at the
4. Regional focus: From the
time of Libby, if not earlier, the department has focused a large part of
its energies on regional and local history. This is characterized by both
institutional developments in the department and the intellectual
predilections of its individual members, and is most visible in the
development of the Orin G. Libby Manuscripts collection, the department’s
intermittent commitment to the North Dakota Quarterly (and its
predecessors), and the seeming inevitability for its faculty members to be
drawn into writing local history.
5. A Department of Great
Men: Libby, Robinson, Wilkins, and Tweton.
The identity of the department for long stretches in its history
was closely tied to its “great men.” Until the 1990s, the department heads
have always been male and even now the majority of members of the
department are male. This trend
follows larger trends in not only in American academic, but also in the
field of history. The veneration of
these Great Men, Libby and Robinson, and the tendency to see their
personalities as essentially synonymous with the department itself, is
perhaps a trait more idiosyncratic to our department. While there is no denying the importance
of these individuals, their exceptional place in the department’s history
needs to be balanced against more general trends in the history of the
field, the university, and the department as well.
6. Balance between teaching
and research. Finally, the
department has always explicitly sought to balance its emphasis between
teaching and research. The
department held a consistent reputation as a productive department
beginning in the 19th century despite its relative isolation
for traditional scholarly resources and the overwhelming emphasis at the University
through most of that time on teaching.
This balance, which has characterized the field of history in
general, developed in the department owing to a very high level of
professional engagement throughout its history. Members of the department regularly
attended regional and national conferences, produced peer reviewed
scholarship for a discipline-wide audience, and generally kept abreast of
trends in pedagogy.
introduction, like most of history, is provisional and will undoubtedly be
modified. Please feel free to send along
comments on this chapter or any of the other chapters on this site to firstname.lastname@example.org.