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Hysteriography Historiography

In this last unit of the course, I’m hoping to expand my students’ sense of who “does” history. We’re looking at people who construct historical narratives, who make historical interpretations, and who profess history – people who work as historical professionals, no matter what their professional training. My goal is for them to see that history is an expansive tent, full of rich complicated arguments and that it’s a lifelong endeavor with many career paths. We will talk about historiography, film, public history, professional ethics, and history on the internet. The only trouble with this section of the course, I’m finding, is that I could teach an entire semester on the topics I’m only giving one week to. This is such a whirlwind introduction, I worry that it doesn’t allow the kind of immersion that sparks real interest. Sigh. Deeper topics would mean fewer topics, and I feel like these are all essential.

Historiography: honestly, we do so little of this at the undergraduate level in our institution that it’s the goal of the methods course to introduce students to this concept at a very basic level. We don’t do this in the survey courses at all. The 200 and 300-level courses are all content based. Our curriculum is organized around (as many are, I’m sure) the idea of regional diversity, not necessarily methodological diversity or around historical processes. We don’t have a standalone historiography course, perhaps in part because there’s skepticism that anyone would voluntarily take such a thing if that’s what it were called. Williams, in Historian’s Toolbox, remarks offhandedly that all history papers should have a historiographical section. This becomes reflexive for grad students and academics, but I realized I had never made that expectation explicit in any of the papers I regularly assign. I got partway through our class discussion about what historiography is and how to research the historiography of a topic, and was seeing puzzled faces so I stopped in the middle and asked my class: “Have you seen this before? Or is this new?” And they all said: this is new to us.

To model what it might look like, I chose an article that I thought was foundational, a classic if you will, and proposed this to my students:

You’re looking not just for the content of the article, which I hope you’ll find both interesting and provocative, but (mainly) at how she positions her work as new and ground-breaking. Note that she discusses, critiques, builds upon and challenges previous work of other historians, and how she suggests some areas for future research. Her article is foundational to the field of women’s studies and has, itself, been revised, critiqued, and built upon many times since its publication.

The article was Joan Scott, “Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” On our discussion day we talked about reading strategies for scholarly texts (a review of the predatory reading advice I used earlier in the semester), and then we discussed our way through the entire article. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s specialized. Yes, it does not yield up its meaning on one read-through. That’s the point. It’s not intended to be widely accessible; it’s part of a conversation among scholars and this is how they argue.

Here’s the secret I wanted to convey, a secret which my students have a hard time believing at first. Scholarship only *sounds* polite on paper, but under that jargon is fangs and claws. It’s a clever code. I try to tell them that history is viciously Oedipal, always slaying the fathers. We never try to confirm someone else’s results (maybe science doesn’t do that either, so scientists: correct me, but isn’t science on some level about reproducible results?). We try to plug gaps but often first must create the gaps by cutting holes in the existing scholarship. Revisionism is the name of the game, not reproduction, and we make no apology for that. On the contrary:

Contemptuously: “You… You… Revisionist!”
Smugly: “Why, thank you.”

Welcome backstage, it’s rather more like a mosh pit than you had probably imagined.

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One thought on “Hysteriography Historiography

  1. Joe Shelby

    A LOT of science is just confirming results, and it is often the case that studies that confirm results tend not do get a lot of attention while studies that maybe kinda sorta just *might* contradict some tiny little bit of some great master (be it Einstein or Darwin) get a truckload of attention. Attention also tends to be placed more loudly on studies that support a particular minority public policy, giving weight to the minority view and allowing them to play the “well, Galileo was right” card for political attention. So a hundred studies can show how poverty is the key factor in poor school performance and all get ignored, while one study might make a connection between a parent in jail and poor performance (and totally ignore the larger poverty variable that likely contributed to the parent in jail in the first place) and make page 5 of the paper and a 30 second blurb on The Today Show.

    Ditto studies on autism-vaccination, where it took the one-two punch of a half-dozen studies being published in a months time PLUS the revelations (which anybody really following the situation knew about for *years*) of the conflicts of interest in the original British researcher’s position, to finally get the media to actually openly say, “you know, maybe this autism-vaccination connection is bunk after all.”

    So too, any study that “contradicts Darwin” (even though we know Darwin was wrong on a LOT of details, particularly in human evolution because of the lack of evidence available) gets a ton of attention as if it makes Darwin wrong about everything, while it really does very little to contradict the prevailing fact of Evolution by Natural Selection at the genetic level as we understand it today.

    Tiktaalic got the attention it got not because it was a strikingly original find, as it merely showed that scientists using Darwinistic means could determine exactly where (in location) and when (in strata depth) to find this intermediary. So it wasn’t any invalidation that got attention, but rather by the timing – a study comes and shows very clearly how Darwin works right in the middle of the trial about an anti-Darwin position being “taught” (I use that term loosely, as teaching was the last thing I would call that 2-sentence statement) in schools.

    The real greats of the contemporary physics world (Hawking, Feynman, etc) never set out nor became famous for contradicting Einstein or Young or Heisenberg.

    The idea that long-term research is important, even if it does just strengthen the certainty of what we know, is something being lost in the current age of corporate sponsorship more focused on the D side of R&D. In the computer/software industry, we’re in the same situation as companies prefer to direct research towards something definitively patentable (and these days, often without actually producing a product – get the patent and then sue the first guy who (not knowing about the patent) also comes up with the same idea and makes a successful product out of it).

    So yeah, most studies confirm the status quo, and get very little attention for it, and usually have to struggle to get the money to continue as grant-providers tend to want some “bang” for their buck.

    In that, I suppose history is little different. 🙂

    disclaimer: i’m not (really) a scientist, just a software designer/engineer with a physics background. I have, however, been following the blogs of scientists who write about such matters for more than 5 years.

Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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