The Not-So-Good Doctor: A Cautionary Tale

It is one of the favorite memes of certain folks to focus on “academic historians” and to ruminate on their qualities, motives, effectiveness, and so on. In contrast, it is one of the arguments of this blog that it’s not the credentials or the identity of the historian that counts, but the quality of the work that matters. There are good academically-trained historians, and there are those whose academic training seems to have gone to waste, because they are not good historians.

In support of that notion, I present the case of one professionally-trained historian. I’ll call this person “the good doctor.” The good doctor is a native of the South, attended undergraduate and graduate school in the South, and taught at a school in the upper South. He currently resides in the South.

The good doctor is not a widely-published historian. It’s hard to find evidence of his scholarly footprint in the world of published scholarship. Were it not for the marvels of the internet, very few of us would have ever heard of him (as it is, most of you have never heard of him … until now).

The good doctor has been an active member of several internet discussion groups. He’s offered his two cents in H-South, a network of (largely) professional historians. At present, however, he presides over a now nearly moribund discussion forum. So he believes in engaging with a larger public, even if that public isn’t very large any more.

The good doctor asked the following question a few days ago:

I’m not interested in the question of black confederates.  What I am interested in is the question, why would anybody devote attetion to discrediting those who claim there were black confederates?

Now, one of the first things I tell students is that it’s important to ask the right questions. Let’s stipulate that this is the right question. Next, of course, I’d direct my inquiry to people who could answer that question. Otherwise, we’d just have people chatting about what they believe motivates other people, and in the process telling us more about themselves than about anything else (Connie Chastain is quite skilled at this). So it would seem to be in this case.

The good doctor’s query attracted precisely one respondent (we’ll call this person “the student”), who observed:

… I have no doubt some slaves did volunteer to help the war effort.  (You can always find somebody who will do almost anything) 

My only question is — why does anybody care ?

Note that the student asks a different question. He’s not interested only in the motives of those who would discredit the Black Confederate Myth, as folks used to call it: he’d like to know who cares about the presence of African Americans in the ranks of the Confederate army, period. A careful reader would observe the shift in the inquiry.

The good doctor’s response offers a clue as to his real interest in raising the question:

I assume you mean, why would anybody care enough about the matter to argue about it?  And I take it that your assumption is like mine: the number would have been too small to draw much of a conclusion. 

From literary scholar E. D. Hirsch I picked up this point.  People who  study things have two different motives, the scholarly motive and the existential motive.   

Scholarly motive:  the search for truth, curiosity about differing viewpoints that already exist, and so on. This is the kind of motive that people usually give. 

Existential motive:  something about the scholar, from outside the scholarly world, that motivates him to take up this topic.  We all have existential reasons for taking up a subject: to glorify and ancestor, to give a more favorable view of somebody we like, for a statesman or a commander to defend his reputation. 

I suspect the answer to your question lies in the domain of existential motives, especially in relation to feelings about ‘the South’.

In short, according to the good doctor, one’s views on the import of the presence of African Americans serving as Confederate soldiers is best explained by one’s attitudes toward “the South.” In fact, the good doctor has long been interested in the attitudes of northerners (of unspecified race) toward “the South.” For years in cyberspace he endeavored to pass off the ideas of others on this question as his own, a form of intellectual plagiarism that transcends merely the lazy act of cut and paste. He no longer does this. That’s a good thing.

Exactly how one’s attitudes about “the South” shape one’s interest in this question under discussion is left unexplored. Why, then, would one make such an assertion?

As to why the good doctor is concerned about this question … in other words, in discovering what his existential motive might be … well, now, that may be interesting (or not). However, this is separate from the issue of African Americans in Confederate service and what that tells us about a number of subjects. The good doctor commits the old mistake of reducing all historical inquiry to the motives and needs of the person conducting the investigation … which, ironically, opens himself to the same sort of inquiry. As to why we need to know the motives of people participating in this discussion or how they are linked to their region of origin … well, the good doctor fails to tell us. Doubtless this is the sort of thing that gives academics a bad name.

The good doctor’s class of one then offered the following observation:

Its an odd coincidence that you posted this yesterday. Before yesterday I had never given this subject of black CSA soldiers any thought. But I am reading a book called “New Mind of the South” (by Tracy Thompson). And she mentions that the subject is a controversy and gives the below url as her source. 

Beyond that I still don’t know anything. I suppose the Lost Cause enthusiasts would like to think the slaves loved old Master enough to fight and die for him. Those same folks think that the only reason Old Master indulged in slavery was because he loved his servants so much. He couldn’t stand the thoughts of losing their love 🙂 Me ? I have my doubts.

BTW, that author, Tracy Thompson, is a fellow Georgian. Raised in Red Oak GA.

This is amusing as an instance of a student not listening to the teacher. The student is interested in looking into why some people (“Lost Cause enthusiasts”) believe there were black Confederate soldiers than in why people challenge that notion, and reflects upon the motivations of the advocates. The student also believes that it’s important to know where Ms. Thompson grew up. Why? That’s not clear.

The link in question recalls the controversy over a fourth-grade textbook once adopted (and now rejected) in Virginia public schools that asserted that a substantial number of African Americans served as soldiers under Stonewall Jackson.

In his response, the good doctor betrays his own simplistic understanding of existential motive (while failing to apply it to his own interest). First, he observes:

Some time ago I did a little google-checking.  The author of the textbook in question lives in New York state, and the publisher was IIRC a New England firm.  The author has written textbooks for grade school classes on several subjects. 

The person mentioned who called attention to the book’s problems with black confederates is a Wm & Mary (Virginia) professor.  All this is IIRC. 

This observation muddles the good doctor’s inquiry a great deal. If one’s attitudes toward the Black Confederate Myth are shaped by where one comes from, then what is one to make of the fact that a New York writer embraced the notion in a book published by a New England publisher? How does that reflect their existential motivation? Isn’t that what the good doctor wants to understand?

Indeed, is the good doctor able to follow his own line of inquiry? It does not seem that this is the case.

Somewhat more pathetic is the notion that it’s important for the good doctor to know where the historian who challenged this teaches. In this case, the historian in question was born in Maryland and was educated in Connecticut. She now teaches in Virginia. So what? Anyone who knows something about the profession knows that the majority of people teach somewhere other than where they were born. I’ve taught full-time in South Carolina and Arizona. If you don’t know where I was born, you haven’t been reading this blog very carefully, or you haven’t read it for very long. Here’s a hint. Another hint. A third hint.

In short, one can ask whether where one teaches has any bearing on this whole issue, especially as one often teaches at an institution that is located somewhere else from where one was born or grew up.

The good doctor then turns with suspicion to Tracy Thompson:

Is T. Thompson trying to explain the South to non-southeners? Can you tell anything about the audience she’d like to reach? 

Does she describe her own relationship to “being southern”.  Is she “no longer a southerner”?  Is she cagey or evasive about her own relation to “being southern”?  

This muddleheaded analysis overlooks the fact that the good doctor has already decoupled the relationship between what someone believes about the Black Confederate Myth and where one comes from. In short, the good doctor is not listening to himself. This may not be a bad idea.

As for Tracy Thompson, a quick perusal of her blog reveals her to be a proud southerner … but basic research seems beyond the good doctor. So does personal contact, for when the student asks the good doctor to contact Thompson via her blog, the good doctor ignores the suggestion. Better to speculate about her than to deal with her directly. After all, isn’t that one thing people love to do? Don’t they like to display that bent of mind in their discussions in cyberspace? Do these speculations tell us more about the person under discussion, or about the people engaged in the discussion? You tell me.

At this point, the whole line of inquiry unravels, thanks to the introduction of Thompson’s book.. The student becomes distracted by Thompson’s use of the word “imported” when she says that sweet potatoes were brought to North America from Africa (others offer a different explanation about how sweet potatoes came to North America involving Native Americans, but the student is more interested in mocking word choice than in finding out what the truth is, much in the style of the good doctor).  The good doctor throws in an observation about that compelling issue. Meanwhile, the good doctor embarks upon a now-familiar ramble into what interests him about one might call “the South as Other,” in the words of Vernon Burton: nowadays the good doctor is careful to attribute ideas to others, something that was not always the case. In the process, the original inquiry vanishes altogether, because, after all, it appears that all that the original inquiry was designed to do was to bring his audience of one to the same place yet again, that of the good doctor’s particular hobby horse.

However, we’ll let the good doctor have the last laugh. Curious about Thompson, he queries: “Can you think of anything she’s written that ought to be taken seriously?” Ah, irony.

There’s a good deal one can learn from the above discussion, with all its twists and turns resulting in a tangled mess. It’s a telling case of an academic whose reasoning is so clouded that even he cannot follow it. For me, however, in the context of recent polls and discussions, it reminds me that the attainment of an advanced degree in itself is not much of a guarantee of anything. I don’t know why people are so obsessed about this matter, especially those who are not in the possession of such a degree. Just worry about the work, and the rest will take care of itself.

10 thoughts on “The Not-So-Good Doctor: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Michael Confoy April 29, 2013 / 6:19 am

    I have to admit that this is all too convoluted for me to follow. I can say that while an advanced degree is not a requirement to learn how to write well, in order to earn an MBA I had to learn to produce quality writing. As far as the textbook in Virginia, both Virginia and the publisher have beefed up their review processes. After Virginia threatened to drop the publisher, the publisher placed an open process in place to assure customers that effective quality controls are now in place.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 29, 2013 / 9:29 am

      Believe me when I say that convoluted thought is a trait of the good doctor.

  2. Andy Hall April 29, 2013 / 10:48 am

    I looked up the Good Doctor and noted two things. First, he’s been retired and out of the classroom for well over a decade, so it seems unlikely that he’s even around colleagues who are actively pursuing original scholarship day-in and day-out. His publication record is sparse, as noted, but he spent the last 30+ years of his career at an institution that’s not well known, and may not push original research i the first place.

    The other thing is that, in another thread, the Good Doctor notes that the history of the South is not his own professional academic focus, and it’s something he’s gotten interested in via Internet forums. Not a great place to (in effect) start one’s education, especially when one has skills to approach the subject in a more deliberate and structured way.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 29, 2013 / 2:25 pm

      In short, his training accounts for very, very little. The mere possession of advanced degrees doesn’t assure us of very much. But it does tell us something about the world of internet discussion groups, perhaps.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 1, 2013 / 12:00 am

      Speaking of those who can’t do, preach … here’s the good doctor on books:

      I know this is hard to believe, but professors who write books are doing the best they can. A few of them are good writers who can carry you along by the force of their prose. But most are trying to report what they learned in their research. To appreciate them requires a tolerance for their literary failings, and a willingness to read for knowledge.

      There is something annoying about a book that seems harder and more boring that it ought to be, something that seems almost insulting to the reader. The key I think is to read well-recommended books whose contents you want to know, even if the writing is pedestrian.

      This from a person who, doing the best he could, could not compose a book of his own. Maybe he was sparing us the annoyance of reading it.

  3. Eric A. Jacobson April 29, 2013 / 12:56 pm

    I’m not very good with hints. Were you born in Boston?? 🙂

      • Michael Confoy April 29, 2013 / 6:48 pm

        As long as they keep looking up in the standings and see bird drops coming down from an orange and black bird.

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