doomed to distraction

Category: not even past (Page 2 of 2)

Writing, relevance, Father’s Day books, and the humanities

I read several pieces online yesterday, and saw a few Twitter conversations, and they all went into the same pot in my mind and stewed together. Like all stews, they’re better the next day, so I thought I’d put a few words down.

The things that I read and thought about were Jonathan Wilson’s piece What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?, L.D. Burnett’s short post on the advice we receive on writing, and (3) here:

It struck me that all three had something to say about how and why historians communicate with various publics. Burnett talks about the way writing as a craft is framed, and the plague of style guides, which led us to a conversation about authorial voice that really  made me think about the scholarly voice – and scholarly voices – that are given space not only in the academy but in the wider world.* Thomas and Wilson’s comments, in turn, made me realize how utilitarian our talk of “relevance” often is, and how that is connected to the question of voice(s). I think the crux of Wilson’s argument – the part that really helped these thoughts crystallize – can be found in this passage.

First, as the arts of citizenship, the liberal arts may be the arts of politics (whether broadly or narrowly defined). That is, we may undertake liberal scholarship to persuade, to warn, to channel or impede power, or to define a community….Alternatively, therefore, some branches of the liberal arts may be understood more critically as the “humanities” in a newer sense: they are the arts of flourishing (or surviving) as a human person rather than the arts of citizenship per se.

I would argue that all historians have to do hard work to be relevant, but I’d also argue that utilitarian relevance – which seems more in line with Wilson’s first concept – is much easier to communicate in our society than the humanistic relevance of the second. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my friends in foreign policy and history of science in the 20th century find it easier to place articles in public outlets than my friends who are medievalists. Articulating and defending the value of work on 6th century history seems harder not because what people in the 6th century did is irrelevant to us, but because its relevance falls in this more humanistic sphere.

While I’m not sure I count as an Early Americanist, they’re the group with which I most often identify because “19th century proper” doesn’t ever seem to be a category. [Seriously, my dissertation dates are 1820-1890, presenting and publishing is sometimes a bit hard.] As Wilson notes, they’re a group that gets looked to for this first kind of contribution – helping us understand “the arts of citizenship” and the country’s founding myths. They’re also the scholars most likely, as Wilson point out, to be able to publish “trade books that people will want to buy.”  Walk into any bookstore right now and look at the Father’s Day setup. Anything you see on that table, I guarantee you, falls much more into Wilson’s first category than his second, which just reinforces that that first category is the history that is relevant.  It speaks to citizenship and therefore by definition or practice circumscribes the boundaries of historical relevance; it means we get individual citizens and then groups – “women,” “slaves,” “Indians.”

But if we include Wilson’s second conception of history’s contribution to the liberal arts – the arts of flourishing and merely surviving – we expand the definition of what is relevant, and therefore expand our own obligation to make that argument.  I’m pretty sure that the arts of surviving and flourishing are actually still things many of us are concerned with, but to make the argument that we should care about those arts requires swimming against the social/political/economic currents of our society. Making the argument that thinking about how people lived, loved, and just got by in the past is one that all supporters of relevance should be thinking about.

Or to put it another way, if you write about a topic that you think you could one day easily see on the Father’s Day table at Barnes & Noble, think about whether the definition of relevance that would allow your book to appear there would exclude the work of many of your peers.  If yes, and if you think that’s a problem, maybe we need to work on not just making an argument that history is relevant, but also making Wilson’s (harder? braver? bolder? riskier?) argument about how history is relevant.

*Strunk & White would not approve of this sentence’s structure.



Thoughts on Continuity

I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Source: Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?” | the way of improvement leads home

John Fea’s great piece and the comments on it have crystallized something for me that I think is important to reflect on, both for teaching and living. Fea asks the pointed question quoted above, relating it to a recent debate over whether or not Jefferson was a Christian, which he admits brings a theological rubric into a historical space. He wonders whether

the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

The comment that really resonated with me came from Ann Little, who noted that historians of women, gender, and sexuality often emphasize continuity over change.  Fea noted that the same could be said for historians of race.

The reason all of this struck a chord with me is my recent experience teaching history of sexuality in the U.S. for the first time. I’ll do a longer post on that class and its issues at some point this summer, but I think it’s fair to say issues of continuity and change were at the heart of it, not just by design, but by the assumptions student brought to the class.  Again, I’m going to expand upon this as I rethink both that class and my history of women class, but I think that it’s important to note a realization that many people (particularly women) had as they got to the end of the semester in history of sexuality.

Everyone coming to the class had assumed a narrative of “progress,” which I’d work to disrupt, as Little suggests, by pointing out continuities and explicitly rejecting the “repression to liberation” model in the structure of the course readings. For many students, who’d come to the class thinking it would pretty much cover the 1960s to the present, when progress happened, studying “backwards” periods was deeply frustrating. Many came to see continuities across time, or at least moderated their ideas of how much “progress” had been made.

The one thing many students came to argue, by the end of the semester, was that the most important continuity across time was the idea that women were inherently untrustworthy – to the point of that they could generally be assumed to be liars – and could especially not be trusted to know or admit to their own desires. Early on, my students read a chapter from Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, and there was the universal uproar over how horrible and backwards the 17th and 18th century conception of rape was. Reading primary sources from Ephraim Wheeler’s rape trial didn’t do much to change that view. But as the semester proceeded, students noted that they kept finding the assertion’s of Block’s subjects brought up over and over again – that women were manipulators, that they secretly wanted it, that women of certain classes and racial backgrounds really can’t be raped, that if a given woman hadn’t wanted it she would have fought harder or killed herself rather than be raped.

Not everyone in the class gave the same weight to this continuity. The women in the class, for the most part, attended to the discourse around rape and, more fundamentally, women’s inherent (un)trustworthiness, and men, for the most part, pointed to the changing laws surrounding rape as an indication that American society now saw rape as a serious crime and was willing to believe women and prosecute men.

For the students who saw this continuity, it helped them understand so much about their own lives and the conversations they hear about women in public life. Often, people say history helps us understand how we got to where we are, a statement which seems to suggest that change is what historians seek to understand. For my students, realization of this continuity, and the weight it seemed to place on so many of them, helped them understand how we got to where we are in a very different way.


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