Friday, January 21, 2011

What Historians Do

This will mainly be of interest only to historians and other academics.

It strikes me that there are two ways of conceiving what historians do. Most active, much-published historians see themselves as engaged in a conversation. They discuss and debate the past with other historians, mainly those who are their contemporaries. They take positions within this conversation, try to change its direction, strive to be relevant to what their peers are interested in. For many (but not all) historians this conversation is largely political, both in a philosophical sense and in the sense of contemporary party politics and university power struggles.

Other historians see themselves as engaged primarily in an encounter with the past. By reading old things, they try to understand what happened a long time ago. They like to imagine themselves working essentially alone, and they understand their work as a personal encounter with documents that often become dear to their hearts.

Now, obviously, even the most contemporary-minded historian has some contact with the past, and no scholar is so lonely that his work is not influenced by the ideas and trends of his day. But I find that keeping this distinction in mind explains much that happens among historians.

For example, I recently had an article rejected because I had not included sufficient discussion of contemporary scholarship that the editor considered relevant. I would have been much more miffed had I not instantly spotted the editor as one of those historians most engaged in history as a conversation; I had not located myself within any ongoing conversation, therefore what I said had no relevance. To me, nothing being said in the journals makes much difference to this particular piece of work, which grew very directly out of the eight months I spent in the Public Record Office reading medieval court rolls. The sense of medieval life I got from that reading was strikingly different from the sense I got from the major secondary works I read before going to London, most of them decades old. What I was trying to do was to explain in consecutive paragraphs a sense I got from the documents of what life was like in 14th-century England.

I don't bring this up to complain; there are plenty of historians who feel as I do about the contemporary conversation, and I am sure I could find someone who would be happy to publish my article if I tried harder. Or, if I wanted to stick with this journal, I could easily gin up some paragraphs on recent scholarship. I mention this because it was pondering the very different ways this editor and I see historians' work that helped me clarify how I feel about the contemporary academic scene.


David said...

Too right, as the Aussies say. As you're aware, sometimes the complaint that a scholar is not referring to the current scholarship is simply disingenuous rather than reflecting a principled belief in a profession-wide conversation. Sometimes the complainer is simply saying that the author hasn't referred to the complainer's own scholarship, or the complainer's students' or faction's. Sometimes it's a way of saying "this is simply bad" or "I disagree with this politically." No matter the motive, the complainer is obliged to point the author to the scholarship they should look at.

I would add that I think the conversationalists are of two types, which often scorn each other in such a way that their unity on the point of conversation becomes irrelevant. There are the Germanic professionals, who like to think of history as operating more or less like a science, where keeping up with the literature is a sacred duty. Then there are the campus radicals, who think it's got to be about contemporary politics (inside or outside the university, left or right). These two factions usually despise each other more than they despise the solitary aesthetes, whom they don't take very seriously. (I once remarked to a political activist colleague how much I was enjoying a particular document, and she simply looked at me in wonder and said, "Wow, you really are a nerd." She made clear that she didn't mean it as an insult, she simply couldn't imagine being one herself. I think she kind of envied me. For her, history was simply a way of helping the cause of labor in Colombia.)

Obviously I'm basically a historical aesthete myself, but I do sympathize a little with the complainer, in the sense that, if someone writes something about a fairly narrow topic, the others in the field might at least have the courtesy to read it. And, like you, I do find conversations with other historians very stimulating, if they're actually about history.

kathy said...

Good food for thought. I'm reviewing science papers for a conference and I'm constantly surprised at the lack of current context that is provided. Perhaps I shouldn't be.