Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historicist ≠ historian

I'm now more than halfway through my Folger seminar, and though, as noted, it's kicking my ass, it's also been terrific. This particular seminar skews young, with faculty accounting for only two of the ten participants (or, as I prefer to call them, "seminarians"), but it's an energetic and exciting group, well-balanced in terms of disciplinary background: five historians, four literature scholars, one philosopher. And even within those groups there's a lot of diversity: we range from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, working on different genres and kinds of documents, with a gender historian, an archivist, and a musicologist in the mix.

It's surprising how rarely I see the thought processes of people in different disciplines, even those in closely allied fields. I read a lot of historiography, but I read it in the service of my own work. This means that I focus on the bigger-picture stuff rather than dwelling on, say, how the data were collected or what the author's methods or assumptions might be. (And of course, any published work, to the extent that it foregrounds a narrative or an argument, at least partly obscures the process of its research. If you're not trained in the relevant field, it's easy not to think about how the sausage gets made.)

Now, this exposure doesn't mean that I'm going to start crunching the data in baptismal records or churchwardens' reports or whatever. I hope now, as I always have, that some of my work might be useful to historians, but even when I think I've made a minor historical discovery (as in this essay), it's always done in pursuit of a literary argument. And since I'm not writing for historians, I can't predict which parts they'll find interesting.

Still, having a better sense of how historians attack a particular problem and becoming more conversant in their disciplinary debates has been tremendously useful. And thinking harder about someone else's disciplinary norms has made me more conscious of my own--of what we mean by literary scholarship: how we mount arguments, what counts as evidence, and what the payoff should be.

As for the benefits of this seminar for my own work--well, I'm early enough in this book project that I can't yet fully ascertain how it will influence its shape, though I have faith that it will: most of the things we learn disappear soon afterwards, or seem to, with only the occasional fact or detail surfacing as needed. In reality, the process of learning continues, like a subterranean stream moving steadily beneath the surface. I have a hard time pinpointing what I "learned" in many of my graduate seminars beyond the specific texts I read or the papers I wrote. But they produced habits of thought, assumptions, value systems--what kind of things are worth looking at, what kind of questions are worth asking--that shape my scholarly method today.

It's a different experience, though, than the last faculty research seminar I participated in, which came toward the end of my first book project. In that case, when a particular discussion reoriented my thinking, I knew it as it was happening, and each time it felt like a bomb going off. This time I'm just accreting small revelations and minute changes to my thinking, which are like brief flashes of light at the edge of my field of vision. What do they signal? Are they important? Will they add up to something?

That's as time will try.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

That sounds super cool!!

bndc said...

I couldn't agree with you more! I'm often a little jealous...and a little relieved...that I am not a historian.

I'm not sure if you are flying in and out of DC on the same day for the seminar, but Justin and I would love to see you if convenient.

Tiruncula said...

This is so interesting. Between my master's and PhD in philological fields, I audited a seminar in legal history and it was revelatory in some similar ways, in that it made me aware of the extent of my own acculturation in my field, even at so early a stage of training. I was particularly struck at how these lawyers – lawyers! – took the evidentiary value of early modern documents like transcripts and reports at face value and began the argument from there. I can imagine how useful it would have been to go back and engage with a cross-disciplinary group at a later stage of my career.

And, different topic. This also reminds me of a longstanding peeve about "interdisciplinarity" as theorized by literary scholars. I.e., I became convinced some time ago that expanding one's range of sources without examining one's disciplinary assumptions simply doesn't count, and interdisciplinarity can only really be achieved when two or more differently-acculturated live humans come together to collaborate.

Susan said...

Coming at the dialogue as I do from the other side, I totally agree with you: there are literary scholars whose work I love, but I realize that their bedrock assumptions (and questions) are fundamentally different from mine. And I know that when I work with literary sources -- as I have done extensively in the book I am finishing now -- that I read them *as a historian*, placing them in the service of a historical argument.

But I also think it's interesting to consider how conversations affect an argument at different points in the process.

Flavia said...


"expanding one's range of sources without examining one's disciplinary assumptions simply doesn't count": this is such a good way of putting it! And I think those of us who deal primarily with texts--and there are a lot of us, in very different fields--can have an especially hard time remembering that the approaches that feel obvious and natural to us have limitations when it comes to different kinds and categories of texts. (I presume we're usually much more modest about our ability to understand how, say, a scientific phenomenon operates.)


Flying in Fri a.m. and out Sat a.m., but there might be a Fri eve still free! Let's email. (And I may be back in June w/Cosimo.)