Teaching Historiography

February 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

This semester I will teach our graduate historiography seminar for perhaps the last time. The course is one of the most difficult to teach in our department not only because it is required for all graduate students (so there is no self-selection process), but also because the course has an explicitly theoretical goal.  For most of our Master’s level students, this is their first class that touches on topics like historical epistemology, critical and social theory, and methodology (as in the study of method rather than method itself).  The course generally evokes two reactions.  Some like the opportunity to explore more abstract approaches to history; others resent the technical language, difficult texts, and disconnect from history as a discipline rooted in practice.

Readers of this blog know that I am interested in the idea of craft in academia. I’ve blogged on archaeology and craft, graduate education and craft, and most recently followed with interest the debate among digital humanists regarding the role of practical skills in the formation of this vital sub-discipline. For some reason, I have not discussed history and craft much even though I teach a class every semester for undergraduates called “The Historians’ Craft“.

Nowhere does the desire for history to articulate itself as craft come through more clearly. One of the standard critiques of the class is that it has too little to do with the practical practice of history.  The emphasis on the clear link between education and practice clearly echos the practical emphasis of craft training (see my comments on Herzfeld, for example) and suggests models of apprenticeship.  The goal of graduate training in history, for these students, is master of a set of technical skills rather than a self-conscious understanding of the philosophical, epistemological, and theoretical foundations for the field.  In fact, for some drinking too deeply of the abstract, theoretical discourse risks alienating history from its true social power as a field that DOES things, produces actual knowledge, and endows society with clear sense of place in time.  Time spent dissecting the epistemological grounds for historical knowledge not only detracts from the training needed actually TO DO history, but undermines the validity of the final product of historical work: new knowledge.

The call for craft, so to speak, captures a kind of impatient anti-intellectualism that has long existed around the fringes of fields like history that have struggled with sophisticated amateur practitioners and the limits to its own status as a profession.  Much of undergraduate education in history is geared toward doing.  Students take classes where faculty model historical thinking, write research papers where they the practical lessons of historical thought, and are assessed based on their ability to mimic key characteristics of the craft whether they are rooted in practice (style, use of evidence, proper citations) or so-called foundational knowledge (names, dates, places, events, causal links, et c.).  Any engagement with larger intellectual concerns is typically focused clearly on the production of history by means of methodology or relegated to the fringes of the curriculum (perhaps in a historiography class or as part of a larger “required” course).  In short, historians learn history through DOING history.

So, it is hardly a surprise that students struggle when confronted with a class that seems to care less about DOING history and more about understanding or even contemplating what it is that the historians does. In taking this approach, I try to place the work of the historian in an intellectual framework following the lead of 18th and 19th century thinkers and taking as a point of departure R. G. Collingwood’s wonderful, if flawed, efforts in his Idea of History. (Oxford 1946).  I am clear, however, that the philosophy of history or an emphasis on the intellectual underpinning of disciplinary practice need not always stand in direct opposition to the actual practice of historical knowledge production.  Unfortunately, this argument only convinces the choir; most students committed to historical work as craft production see my efforts as a kind of pedagogical sophistry (at best) or Socratic corruption at worse.

So teaching graduate historiography places me in the belly of the beast. The conflict between historical practice as common sensical, almost certainly universal, and subject to refinement through practice, and historical practice as a baffling contradiction requiring us to mediate between a intellectually elusive past and a problematic present.

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