July 22, 2009

Historiography

I'm taking my first grad-level class this semester. It's "HIS 545 - Britain 1642 - 1815", a seminar with five students. Three are secondary school teachers working on getting their Master's during the summer, one is a grad student, and then there's myself, who gained approval to take it for undergraduate credit.

The most interesting thing is the change of emphasis. To summarize the professor's explanation, "Undergraduates study history. Graduates study historiography." It is taken for granted that you can read some primary or secondary sources on any period and figure out some approximation of what happened; what we're looking at for this class is how that understood approximation has changed over time.

I come at it from a background with more math and science than most history majors. I have come to believe that history is a model, in the way that scientists use the word. It is necessary to construct a model because there is too much to learn directly- even the history of, say, myself, would take someone else my full lifetime to learn; one has to leave out almost everything, and keep only juicy bits to construct a narrative explaining what happened at some past time and place.

The models used change, and that is the process of historiography. For instance, before the 1980s, few bothered to look at the influence of women on the American Revolution. Before the 1940s, few bothered to look at the influence of the urban poor on that same series of events. Now, the trend is to consider that there weren't 13 British colonies in the Americas, there were more than 30. Why did the rest of them stay loyal? It's not like the people living on Bermuda had more civil liberties than the Virginians.

Looking at things historiographically rather than historically is the key switch, and it's a difficult one to make. Every week we read a book, discuss it, and write a response paper on it. My weekly papers are, right now, mashed-together Frankenstein's monsters, as I try to work out not just what the authors say happened, but why they chose to frame things in the way they did, and what they chose to exlude.

This week we're reading a very traditionally Marxist history, and it makes me grind my teeth. Marxist history focuses on the lower classes of society, which were oft neglected in past history-writing. But the authors of this book are misusing statistics in a way that annoys the hell out of me. Plus, Marxist history in general still believes in determanistic history, the whole inevitable revolution thing. Thus the entire concept is in opposition to both free will and historical contingency. (Historical contingency is the idea that things didn't end up the way they did from predestination, that different decisions could lead to changes in history.) The way I see it, if one does not believe in free will and historical contingency, then the study of history is pointless mental masturbation.

Note that there's now a schism going on; there are now marxist historians with a "small m". Historians of that school are concerned with the role of working classes, but reject the "big M" Marxist view of the inevitable path of human societal destiny. I intend to suggest in class that the "little m's" are just social historians focused on the lower classes, and I predict that the prof will chuckle and tell me that such a comment is a great way to start an argument in a faculty party.

 

[The course book list is in the extended entry, for those of you that feel a desire to learn irrelevant details. We're reading the fourth book right now.]

Books assigned for the class:

  • Russell: The Causes of the English Civil War (ISBN 9780198221418)
  • Harris: Revolution (ISBN 9780141016528)
  • Colley: Britons (ISBN 9780300107593)
  • Linebaugh/ Redicker: The Many-Headed Hydra (ISBN 9781859844205)
  • O'Connell: Irish Politics and Social Conflict in the Age of the American Revolution (ISBN 9780812220100)
  • Semmel: Napoleon and the British (ISBN 9780300090017)

Also, this really isn't my first grad level class. I was in the graduate chorus during my University 1.0 phase, but while that was technically and artistically challenging, it wasn't intellectually challenging.

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