Teaching Historiography

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.

Digital Humanities and Craft

I’ve been fascinated by the recent debates centering on the nature of digital humanities. While the debate has gone on for years, the most recent round of posts (some of which are summarized by Geoffrey Rockwell here) were spurred by an MLA panel on the history and future of digital humanities.

One of the most interesting (although unsurprising) developments from this discussion is that several scholars have argued that digital humanities has a strong connection with craft. In some ways, this attitude is a response to the critique that Digital Humanities lacks theoretical development and, by implicit extension, the sophistication associated with other areas of the “pure humanities”.  In a recent response to this attitude Geoffrey Rockwell has gone so far to suggest that digital humanities is “under theorized the way carpentry and computer science are”.  It is unfair to reduce his entire critique to this simple observation, but others (like Alan Liu) have developed this observation in a more critical direction.

Part of the impulse behind the association of digital humanities with craft derives from the long-standing perspective that associated being a digital humanist with coding or, more broadly, building things.  This is consistent with larger directions in the digital discourse which emphasize the making of things, and has overlap with the larger DIY movement through such projects as the DIY book scanner and other more intentionally subversive gestures toward industrialized, manufactured, commodified reality.

The notion of craft and DIY has a strange relationship with the institutional expectations of the modern university. Universities developed to accommodate the needs of an industrializing world and disciplinary boundaries and academic professionalism emerged hand-in-hand with an interest in creating a specialized educational process that paralleled industrialized production.  In short, the modern, western university as an institution  stood in contrast to older models of learning rooted in apprenticeship and craft production. On the one hand, this availed the modern university to the mantle of progress which held the industry represented a far more democratic approach to society. Goods would be more freely available, and the dignity of work accessible to even the least skilled in the labor pool.  Craft production in contrast was understood to be more socially constrained and, in general, to represent a less efficient, fair means of organizing labor.  Of course, all parties did not agree on this dichotomy.

So arguments that have focused on the craft nature of digital humanities not only share something with more radical conceptions of higher education that emphasize craft, but also, ironically, allude to more conservative traditions of knowledge production.  While craft can claim for itself an anti-modern mantle of authenticity, it is also a form of productive organization that depends heavily upon access to informal social networks.  These networks tend to have less institutional structure and rely less heavily on expertise and and more on personal relationships. So, ironically, the rhetoric of craft alludes to exactly the kind of exclusivity that William Pannapacker decried in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post.

There is another angle to the rhetoric of craft, however. Archaeology has interestingly enough occasionally seen craft as a way to articulate its peculiar approach to knowledge production; anthropology has also made use of this metaphor.  Movements like Punk Archaeology embrace the DIY movement’s efforts to resist the commodification of both knowledge itself and experience or process of knowledge production.  In contrast to claims that these perspectives are “under theorized” DIY, punk, craft, and other subversive anti-industrial, anti-institutional, and anti-establishment perspectives tend to derive from the most highly theorized corners of the discipline.  There is, of course, an element of dissimulation here. By embracing craft, punk, “doing” and “making” scholars intentionally create a dichotomy between those who produce things and those who, for lack of a better word, “think”.  The former becomes the mantle for active resistance to institutional expectations; the latter, passive, quiet acquiescence.

The willingness to structure the debate in this way, demonstrates a certain sophistication in how a certain group of digital humanists (or at least their caricatures) are willing to articulate their craft theoretically.  Moreover, it provides a useful case study for how our efforts to articulate assumptions about knowledge production implies attitudes toward social organization, access to expertise, and ultimately the structure of the academy, the classroom, and the lab.