“Don’t Know Much About History”:
What Counts as Historical Work in Television Studies

by: Aniko Bodroghkozy / University of Virginia

What counts as television history? This was a question that animated the roundtable I proposed at the first Flow conference this past October and it's a question that continues to gnaw at me. Television studies in general, and Flow in particular, tend to be rather preoccupied with the contemporary. When's the last time you read an article in Flow that engaged historically with some aspect of television in the past? It's not surprising, I suppose, considering the present-mindedness of the medium we study. The roundtable topic I submitted was the only one that explored questions of history and I frankly did not expect a large turnout. However, our room was packed solid with conferees, so I'm starting to believe that the historical study of television isn't as much the unfashionable niche area within the field as I was beginning to think it was.

Some of the debate and discussion got me thinking about how I would want to define what rigorous academic study of this medium, its audiences, its industries, and its contexts in the past should encompass. Perhaps one shouldn't even attempt to define (and thereby perhaps proscribe) what counts as studies in television history. But I'm willing to weigh in because I think it's important if we want our scholarship to be taken seriously outside our growing, but still young, field. I think it's important that more traditionally credentialed historians (you know: those tweedy folks who populate history departments) accept that what we do does, in fact, conform to the craft of history. I'd at least like to get recognition from cultural and social historians. To me, this suggests the primacy of archival research. I raise this issue because there was some stimulating discussion during the roundtable about whether one needs to engage in archival research in order to do historical work. Well, I'm willing to go out on a limb and stake my vast reputation in the field on the assertion that, yes, ladies and gentlemen, some form of rigorous mucking in the archives (or at least in libraries with holdings of primary documents such as archived newspapers and journals) is a prerequisite for historical research. Symptomatic readings of televisual texts and close readings are all well and good and often necessary to any historical inquiry, but, as panelist Elena Levine pointed out during the discussion, one needs to account for historical context. How does an historian reconstruct context? Archival research. Why not limit oneself to studies of television texts from the past? Well, one can do that, certainly. Just don't call it historical work. It's textual analysis and can be an entirely worthy form of television criticism. I doubt our colleagues in history departments would recognize such work, though.

So who cares whether historians (who tend to be rather conservative, traditional, and suspicious of popular culture) recognize the importance of studying television historically? Why can't we as television scholars just blaze new scholarly trails, deconstruct and redefine traditional paradigms, and in general do what makes sense to us for our objects of study? My answer may have something to do with the fact that I teach at an institution that fetishizes its traditions and isn't known for being on the scholarly cutting edge. As with the Ivy League (to which my institution aspires), the most prestigious universities in this country don't tend to embrace newer areas of scholarship easily or quickly. Only recently has film studies managed to establish any form of beachhead in some of the Ivies. Television studies has a much longer way to go. And maybe we shouldn't care whether television studies is accepted by the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales. However, the Ivies and the wannabee Ivies are the institutions that bestow legitimacy to emergent fields. One of the reasons I managed to get hired and tenured at a wannabee (public) Ivy is because my scholarship was seen as acceptable historical work by historians who sat on my hiring and tenuring committees. The institution may have been a tad worried about the television studies part (film studies raises far fewer anxieties here) but because faculty and deans could confidently assert that, yes indeed, she is an historian and Mr. Jefferson, Our Founder, would recognize that as a legitimate field of study at his University, things went well for me.

I raise this bit of autobiography only to suggest that we do need to be thinking institutionally when we consider how we define not only our field but also what counts as rigorous scholarly work. I'll leave it to others to explore what that would mean for narrative, aesthetic, industry, audience ethnography, and other modes of analysis of television and media. But I'm pretty confident about what counts as rigorous television history. If I go to the endnotes and works cited sections and don't see evidence that the author has examined collected papers, newspapers and journals, or other primary documents of whatever era of the past is under examination, it's not history.

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