Internalization of a construct
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?