Monday, April 26, 2010

Working at History

As a whole, academic historians of the Civil War do not double as re-enactors.  There seems to be a wide variety of reasons for this--differences in cultural background, approach to history, etc.--but I do actually play in a "Vintage Baseball" club (the Chesapeake and Potomac) that plays according to 1860s rules (the most important involving no gloves, but a softer glove, and outs on one bounce).  That's me to the left playing second base and waiting to receive a throw.  However, as I put it to a reporter: "Baseball, for me, is mostly fun. Otherwise, it would be like work."  Thus, while being a huge Dodgers fan, I really know very little about the historic origins of baseball as a game, and this ignorance is deliberate, because, well, as I said, I don't want baseball to be work, and studying the past is quite literally my day job. Some of my teammates, of course, take things more seriously.

While studying and teaching history is a great gig, like any other form of employment, there's a fair amount of drudge work.  Perhaps the most dreary is grading, a necessary but important part of teaching.  But every good academic historian has spent his or her fair share of time nosing through archival material, and I sometimes think we over-romanticize the process--the supposed thrill of finding documents, discovering the past, blah, blah.  Or perhaps I've just become overly cynical.  Nevertheless, some of this research involves drudgery, and I sometimes think historians should actually emphasize that more--that doing good history involves countless dead ends, wasted effort, mind-numbing attempts to decipher bad handwriting, etc.  This is hardly manual labor, of course, but I certainly think historians have more than their fair share in the humanities of thankless combing through piles of "stuff"--I've met economists and political scientists who actually have said outright that they draw on historical research and respect it, in part because they would never want to put in the time looking at microfilm reels, sneezing over dusty manuscripts, etc.  But that really is one of the strengths of the field--that we don't construct grand models, and actually *know* things at a high level of resolution--not to be too harsh on my fellow scholars in those disciplines, which have their own strengths--namely that they're sometimes better at seeing the forest, instead of focusing on the trees like us.

But while "popular" history, particularly in the case of work on the American Civil War, frequently rests on a strong foundation of research (I think especially of the work of Stephen Sears), bad popular history's usual vice stems from, to put it bluntly, a lack of work in the necessary sources.  Popular historians usually write better than their counterparts, and are sometimes just smarter, but when popular history is bad, it tends to be from too little time with the sources, and too little time looking at what other historians have already produced, which comes down to not enough work.

Now, being smart obviously helps, but from my own anecdotal impression, the real genius academics in the humanities tend not to be historians--they instead to be folks who can learn absurdly difficult languages, literature professors who have vast amounts of poetry and prose bouncing around in their heads, or philosophers who deal with really abstruse concepts.  But historians do tend to be more practical and level headed, and I think that's because our discipline puts a strong premium on disciplined work in primary sources, and eccentric genius is simply less valuable--and frequently too impatient for truly succeeding at the craft of history.  The nice side-effect of this is that historians tend to be not as utterly hopeless at things like administrative tasks, or just being sensible human beings; I do not think history as a whole, for example, has gone through the debilitating and schismatic theoretical fights that have afflicted disciplines like anthropology and the study of literature.  For example, as a graduate student, my impression of  the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, which I rather sardonically saw as the People magazine of college professors, always seemed to focus more on professors of literature, because as far as I could tell, they always had the preposterous tales of ludicrous faculty infighting and bickering, as opposed to more staid historians, who were just too dull to be covered very much in such a publication.  The downside of all this is that fewer historians are genuine geniuses.  Although, compared to the general population, I'm sure most academic historians come off as pretty strange and hapless people when it comes to practical pursuits, who nevertheless possess abstruse and specialized forms of knowledge that somehow suit us to teach young people.

Nevertheless, when I read good history at least, I always think of all the work that went into it, and I think that's part of the almost earthy appeal of the discipline.

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