The Historians Craft and the Craft of History

For the fifth year running, I am teaching one of our department’s two required classes (the other is our capstone history research class). I expect that the class was installed in the late 1950s or early 1960s and evolved from courses like Elwyn Robinson’s Introduction to Historical Research which recognized and developed an emphasis on a particular historical methodology.

Each year I ask the students to parse our the title of the class: The Historians’ Craft. We usually begin with the word “craft” and students usually struggle a bit to understand the baggage attached to that term. Most students recognize that the idea of craft denotes a specific skill which straddles the line between artistry and some notion of “useful” labor. Students typically mention carpentry as the best example of a craft in the modern world. We discussed the idea that a craftsperson imparts his or her personality in an object which they create and, as a result, this object is both functional and unique. As a general rule, students view craft objects as being higher quality and more “special” than mass produced objects even if they both serve the same function, although they will concede that our ability to apprehend the significance of a craft object depends, in part, on some critical training. For example, not everyone can recognize the value of a handmade piece of furniture or a tailored article of clothing. Craft requires an element of critical attention on the part of the viewer. 

This semester I pushed the students a bit more to consider the place of craft within the modern academy. We contrasted craft with industrial production and reflected on the influence of industrialized models of production on university life. This is not a new line of thinking in this blog or in the humanities (here, here, and here). As the core disciplines in the humanities have increasingly come to find themselves at odds with the administrative and pedagogical approaches that privilege efficiency, consistency, and standardization above all else in the Academy. Industrial approaches to learning have produced recent trends toward measured assessment, the willingness to see faculty as largely interchangeable parts whose value is dictated by the market, and views of success as the achievement of a set of a preconceived (typically economic) targets. 

The notion of craft, however, actively subverts many of these goals. (I was listening the Skip Spence’s brilliant album Oar while I write this post. Oar fails to conform to any standard of musical success. The musicianship is uneven, the recording is odd, it is neither low-fi or high-fi, and the lyrics do not always make sense, but it remains a brilliant album perhaps because of these things. The flaws, in all their eddying, frustrating, and almost random character, make this album special and unflinchingly intimate.) In fact, at least some key ideas of craft emerged in response and in resistance to industrial values. So maybe teaching a class called the Historians Craft these days is just a bit subversive.

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