The myth of neutral history is just that: a myth. If it actually existed, no one would want to read it. Every historian brings to their subject-matter a raft of experience, opinions, attitudes and assumptions that inform their perceptions, and influence both the issues they find interesting, and the questions they bring to their material. History is an attempt to discern the patterns that underlie the surviving traces of the past, not a bloodless chronicle of patternless events, and the interpretation of the records of the past demands personal gifts like imagination and empathy.—Eamon Duffy, “‘The Stripping of the Altars,’ 30 Years On,” abridged introduction to the new edition, Catholic Herald, March 30, 2022
Contradictions, however, are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting [historical] evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without cross-currents. … No age is tidy or made of whole cloth.—Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, xxiii
“Remember the Roots of Our Discipline”
In a distracted world …, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past as this organization has traditionally understood that activity, what is the future of history? There are many answers to this question, of course, and it is the job of the American Historical Association—and all of us—to offer those answers as effectively as we can to defend in public the continuing importance of history both in the United States and in the wider world. But for me, there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. …
[T]he undergraduate classroom, far more than the graduate seminar, is where we take the results of our monographic research and place them in a much larger interpretive frame where we can show our students—and, by extension, our non-professional readers and ourselves—the larger meanings of our work. Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation. But no one else will ever know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we have learned into the older and more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. This is where we join other historical storytellers—journalists, novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all the other historical disciplines—to keep asking what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.—William Cronon, “Storytelling” (presidential address to the American Historical Association), New Orleans, 2013
History the Aggressor
From the recipient’s point of view, the past is intrusive. It can be soothing, but not for very long and only at the cost of ignoring its terrible misery and destruction. The history that presents us these quandaries is not merely a propaedeutic to metaphysics. We find that it is history the aggressor. Apart from our fantasies about history, we fight history. We fight over it, and we fight against its influence. In order to be inspired by it—that is, by what past actors have done—we have to fight a way through the difficulties of temporal distance, through the complexities of their circumstances, and through feelings about our own freedom or independence. In this sense, historical experience, whether it comes from disciplinary research or from other ways of engagement, is a battle. And, in turn, by battling with the past we intrude into it. Aggressor history rouses our counter-attack strategy of intrusion into the past. As much as we ‘love’ and enjoy history, it is absolutely necessary to realize that we fight its awful burden. It attacks with its puzzles and invades with its unending causality; we defend with research or data, we counter-attack with theory. The motive for those who hate history and reject the past is deep down close to the motive for those who study and cultivate it.
— Bennett Gilbert, A Personalist Philosophy of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 28
First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week
When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.
The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.
I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.
Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.
These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.
Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in all of my courses last week as my autumn semester started:
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