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Internalization of a construct

26 September, 2007

Internalization of a construct

It’s ages since I’ve written anything substantive, but today I felt rather impelled to do so. That was a few hours ago, and I’m bloody tired now, so please add elegance and erudition as necessary. This afternoon, I was doing prep for tomorrow’s historiography and methods class — always a thrill, as I’ve never actually taken a class in historiography, although the economic history seminar I took in grad school was largely historiography. And, of course, one does pick up a lot of historiography along the way. Still, I’ve had to do a lot of catching up. This is one of the things that makes me glad that I’m at SLAC — I really do need to refine my upper-division teaching skills and develop some upper division courses. SLAC’s students can be pretty good, and most of the majors are pretty bright, but I’ve found that even the best sometimes are less prepared for discussions than I’d like. So I’ve been focusing on getting them to talk about the historiographic and methodological concepts they’ve been reading about and get them to relate them to things they already know from classes they’ve taken, rather than concentrating on exposing them to a more traditional ‘names, schools, and arguments’ kind of course. This means that I do a good bit of work on the fly, adding readings as we go to help reinforce the points I’ve tried to make and to help clarify things for them. We use Tosh for the main text, by the way.

Last week, one of our topics of discussion included the caveats of using constructs to explain history, and the students really seemed to be unsure — unlike when we talked about the tensions surrounding trying to maintain historical objectivity, when someone astutely pointed out that there was a difficult line to walk between remaining objective and falling prey to relativism. Anyway, back to the idea of constructs … you know where this was going, right? You probably knew when you saw the title of the post!

I decided last week to have them read the Brown article (the one in the AHR in 1974) I was re-reading it today and I realised something — it’s more than a seminal article. It’s part of me. I think I’ve read it about 4 times over the past 18 or so years. I know the arguments, even if I don’t always keep the major scholars straight. For example, I’ve been thinking that Maitland argued some things in a way he never did — that is, I somehow always want to argue that, if feudalism worked anywhere, it was in England after the conquest, and I thought that might have been Maitland — who argues the opposite, if anything!

But basically, I’ve been arguing that article for at least the last 15 years. I cite it all the time, but until tonight, I never realised how much I’d internalised Brown’s arguments — more than I have Reynolds’, as it happens. When people ask me about the f-word, I answer with Brown, where Brown = the entire history of arguments against the f-word. I know there are parts I don’t entirely agree with, but in terms of being able to argue the case, I can’t imagine doing it any other way — and I can’t always remember when I’m arguing a slightly different case. In some ways, I think this makes me particularly crap at historiography. Aren’t we supposed to know what Bloch said and what Ganshof said and what Brown said and what Reynolds said? I can place them all on a spectrum. I think one of the difficulties is that, except for Reynolds, everybody is still a bit vague. But I think the hardest part for me is that I’ve just taken all of this and synthesized it and turned it into a more coherent, if amalgamated, argument.

I think in some ways, this ability to synthesize and distill arguments is one of the things that makes me a decent teacher. On the other hand, I worry that it’s one of the things that makes scholarship difficult for me. Once I’ve read the same things, or sorts of things, a few times, I forget who said what. I think that part of it is because I have my own internal system going at all times, and so there’s a kind of unconscious selection system working to reconcile different arguments into the “best guess” mediated argument. But my internal system needs to be (re)trained to remember the actual arguments and who made them, I think. There needs to be a more conscious sense of acceptance or rejection of other scholars’ work; I need to not only be aware of what I know and how I know it, but much more articulate about why I accept some ideas more than others, and why I’ve synthesized information the way I have.

Overall, thinking about how much this one article has become part of my approach to my field has helped me to connect a little better one of the things I’ve been grappling with for years, and that I have to try to teach — why is history important? I’ve always argued that it’s less important for the facts, and more important for the kinds of approaches to sources and analysis we use. But reading “Tyranny of a Construct” again has also made me realise that, for me at least,there’s a kind of connection between how I handle information — subsuming it into my thought processes so that it’s as seamless as I can make it — and who I am. But is my life informed by history and historiography, or am I an historian because I don’t know any other way to be?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 September, 2007 3:52 pm

    Thanks for an interesting, reflective post! I think your tendency to take the best bits of every book and article, and muddle them together, is actually a great way to understand a historical period. After all, it means that you have weighed various approaches and made a critically-informed decision about which things to accept, how they fit together, and therefore how you think the logic of the culture “worked,” so to speak. That sets you up to assess new evidence, as it appears, with far greater sophistication than the scholar who can reel off everyone else’s already-published arguments, but never has integrated these ideas into a coherent view of her own. Your synthetic temperament ultimately is a strength, because it’s much more flexible than the “X said this; Y said that” version of medieval history.

  2. 26 September, 2007 5:21 pm

    Thanks! I hope that you are correct, but I do find it almost oppressive that I cannot build a virtual arsenal of supporting arguments when speaking to others. On the one hand, I think that I am often more able to bring to the table examples from primary sources than are some of my colleagues; on the other, the automatic synthesis makes it hard when to know that I have something new and interesting to say!

  3. 26 September, 2007 8:49 pm

    I love the notion of internalizing a construct. I took my first course in my field from Big Honcho in the field. I realize that his version — however flawed — is still my bedrock assumption about the period. I know its weaknesses, but it provides my basic narrative. And I can hear his voice talking about it, ten years after his death. It actually gives me insight into why some revisionist work is so nasty: it’s the only way to “kill” the father. I also agree with Squadratomagico that synthesis is helpful. Though there are times when it is useful to pull apart the different ideas.

  4. 26 September, 2007 10:54 pm

    I’m so glad that my own research is as far from my Doktorvater’s as he would allow. I really don’t have to worry about agreeing with him on everything, as long as I don’t take Walter Goffart’s side against him. And since LDW is right in the middle, subject-wise, I can always claim that he’s mediated my judgment!

  5. 26 September, 2007 11:51 pm

    Laughing at killing the father (or mother – I have to confess that if I had the chance truly to “revise” my Doktormater’s work I’d probably dance with glee! not a good quality, really…). I think synthesis is an important skill, but then it’s one of my strengths, too, and it’s something I’ve always associated with my teaching, too. I think being at a teaching-centered place kind of forces one to do this (if I were teaching graduate seminars on cultural history of X country in Y century, then dissecting the individual arguments would be important; but doing so in intro medieval survey is just pointless. I mean, it’s possible to incorporate historiography, sort of, but not to do that marshalling of supporting arguments. First years don’t care! And tackling primary sources is more relevant). But I also think we know what we need to know when we need to know it. You don’t need to recreate arguments to teach medieval survey. If you do need to do so for your research, you go back and figure it out. If it turns out that you don’t do it the same way that everyone else does, then that just makes your scholarship distinctive. (Time is also the enemy here; I could recite all kinds of different arguments on different topics when I did my Ph.D. exams, but that was a loooooooong time ago!)For me, it’s also largely the problem of keeping up with what people are saying. Every time I do a new JSTOR (or whatever) search for relevant stuff, I find MORE. So I can’t marshal the arguments just because people keep writing new ones!

  6. 27 September, 2007 1:37 am

    Yeah, I hate it when other people produce stuff! *g*

  7. 27 September, 2007 4:58 am

    I was talking to a colleague here about a similar idea — all the received ideas we have about the Black Death. Now, there’s tons of recent scholarship on this, including a small cottage industry of bubonic plague deniers, but also arguments over how bad it was, and whether those plague-free zones are just artefacts of record-keeping, and on and on. And, of course, the biggie: whether the plague Changed Everything.And when it comes right down to it, and you have 50 minutes to lecture, you tell them it was bubonic plague, that it killed one-third to one-half of the population, that some places were unaccountably unscathed, and that it changed (almost) everything. And the more you teach it, the harder it becomes to shake the thing that you know is a construct.Good post — I’m going to have to read it again tomorrow, when I have time to digest it better.

  8. 27 September, 2007 5:08 am

    And if you’re me, you show as many gross pictures of plague sufferers as you can. ;-)But yeah, I try to at least represent the plague-deniers (Samuel Cohn but NOT Norman Cantor), and I always raise the question, Did It Change Everything?, but since I’ve just told them how terrible it was and how many people died and all that, to then say, “and some people think it changed all of Europe, and some people think it don’t” just doesn’t have much of an impact.

  9. 27 September, 2007 11:32 pm

    Wonder if it’s the difference in field? I tend to footnote my conversations, whether the listener might care or not, I’ll find self stopping and pondering… where did I get that?. I do modern European… my way. Meaning I too synthesize, especially on the stuff that’s not my research stuff. Survey level, I try to avoid boring my audience w/he-said, she-said. Upper division, I bore them.I love doing my historiography class. I do it every second year, and it’s always fun. By the time I get the students (it’s required for majors) they know me and my approach. So we dive into the class as “history is all about constructs and the interpreters.”Enjoy yours.

  10. 19 October, 2007 10:36 am

    Frighteningly, I just read `Tyranny of a Construct’ for the first time the day before yesterday. I was raised on Reynolds, you see, and never got back to that important first step. It’s certainly easier to internalise than Fiefs and Vassals! That book always struck me as Susan saying the same thing seven times to make sure all the different fields she was rubbishing had had their turn. But Brown makes for a much faster appreciation of what the problems with the f-word are. (I’ve been arguing about the so-called transformation elsewhere with magistra if that might be of use. Also, you might like this supposed teaching aid I reconstructed from 2003-date scribbles last night… Though magistra would tell me it’s far too secular, and she may be right.)As for the synthesis, I know what you mean. The trouble is that when you’re dealing with people like Bloch and Duby and so on, it’s so hard to sum up what they said into soundbite. Like us, they spent lifetimes thinking about this stuff, and as Brown draws out for Duby, could be found saying some very different things over the course of their careers. So I do try and introduce them as particular views, but I’ve little confidence that I’m being fair by doing so; they’re mainly talking heads I can use to support particular points. So I’m not sure you need to worry too much; the ideas are the important things.I have no ambition to kill my Doktorvater, mainly because I genuinely have found his approach useful in understanding my subject, but I do wince when I find that I’m arguing my side of an argument with his arguments, and wonder whether I really should feel that way, or if it really is that important to be distinct.

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