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NaBloPoMo 25 — dinner and big cats

26 November, 2010

NaBloPoMo 25 — dinner and big cats

So I am at a friend’s/adopted sister’s for Thanksgiving. Me, her, and her husband. And the cats. One is rather large .. 27 lbs and about 3 feet long, not including his tail. The other is also not small, but only in a normal not-small-cat kind of way. He’s also very orange. We’ve been talking about life, and teaching, and departmental politics. One of the nice things is that both of them are modernists who sometimes do American history. So they can offer sensible opinions of what normal methodology is for people in their fields. This has been really helpful, both in validating my feelings that all of the people in my department don’t mean the same thing when we use the same words (for example, in my world, document analysis almost always requires a close reading of the text, as well as demonstrating an understanding of the context; in theirs, it’s far more about context, and close readings are optional at best). It’s also been very helpful for my understanding where some of my Americanist colleagues are coming from. Apparently, when Americanists go to conferences, they don’t really quiz each other on the use of evidence the way medievalists often do. For me, this is a little weird. I mean, if I went to a panel on Merovingian bishops, I’d expect to hear references to Gregory or maybe Venantius, or… you get the idea. There’s a general sort of corpus of narrative history that most of us are at least vaguely familiar with, and we examine the use of those sources as much as anything else, I think. But apparently, this isn’t true in all subfields. This explains a lot to me about some of my department’s dynamics. It also means I need to re-think some of the ways I teach the methods course, so that the students working with the Americanists will have a better idea of what they need to do on their theses…

ETA: It’s interesting that my friend described my approach to what I think of as documents or sources as more akin to a literary approach to texts: very old-fashioned; something that might have been acceptable 40 years ago, but would never be published today. In fact, she intimated, it was like the approach of lit people, where everything is reduced to a text, and context occasionally is missed out. For my part, I said I thought that the other approach was clearly good for synthesis and focusing on context, but the actual primary source evidence seemed to be getting short shrift. In some ways, it seems to me that it’s the difference between starting with the primary sources and working outward and starting with a question and the scholarship in working inward. There should be a conversation between the two, obviously, and I doubt I will ever be convinced that the old-fashioned approach is therefore less worthy (in part because I will still always have the attitude of someone who is expected to have more tools in her toolbox to start with, but is also big enough to allow for more tools). But it is probably good to get the perspective of someone else, because this really plays into ideas of academic rigor and assessment.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 November, 2010 3:41 pm

    I see what you're getting at here. As an early modernist, my approach to documents is more akin to yours. We have a limited pool of source material so we'd best know it through and through.I think something that many modernists forget is that while they have a wealth of sources (often overkill if you look through the huge archival finding guides!), we have the opposite problem. Our sources are relatively few and since others have likely gone over much of the same materials, we have to dive deep in order to extract something new.I like your comparison of the methods, though. Are we the Baconians while they are working in the style of Descartes? An intriguing contrast!

  2. 26 November, 2010 7:35 pm

    Some of that is very subdiscipline specific. I remember going to a Merovingian (I think) panel once (friend of mine from grad school was presenting – he worked with Eminent Early Medievalist at my school who also has a son who's an early medievalist), and Eminent Early Medievalist made some comment along the lines of, "Well, of course we all know that chapter 7, clause 42 of [whatever cartulary was under discussion] has to say about that," and everyone in the audience nodded knowlingly. Now, maybe not everyone did know what he was talking about (and I'm making up "chapter/clause" – it was something like that, I don't remember now what), but there was an expectation not just that people would be aware of the source, but would actually know its contents. And I've really never run across that in a late medieval session, unless it was a lit session dedicated to a specific work (in which the assumption was that if you showed up, you were somewhat familiar with the work). There are definitely expectations about what people will/won't know, but some of it's also the nature of the sources – late medievalists (for England, at least) have so many more archival sources (tax records, court records, manorial records, all that kind of thing) that you can't expect people to know the contents of each one, or have the same kinds of conversations about them (that is, someone who does late medieval England may not know inside-out the sources that I knew).I guess I also don't think that approaches can/should be neatly divided between starting with the sources and working out, or starting with scholarship/question and working in – I think both are extremes and ideally, everyone does both in conversation with each other at the same time, not either/or.

  3. 26 November, 2010 7:37 pm

    (Which is to say much more briefly: I don't think the differences are purely about being medievalist v. a modernist, but are also just due to ideological differences about what/how historians do.)

  4. 26 November, 2010 10:23 pm

    I think that's probably a better picture, NewK. At the same time, I am sort of thinking…wait, I do both of these, so why don't you? Also, I can totally see that session! And I sort of oversimplified. Nobody except about six people would be likely to talk in detail about the individual documents in any given Early Medieval cartulary, but I think it's safe to say that we can all pretty much discuss Gregory or Venantius or Sidonius Appolinaris or Salic Law, just as the Anglo-Saxonists could all be expected to chime in on Bede and Gildas and the A/S Chronicle — and we'd all have at least passing knowledge of all of those, plus a bunch of other stuff — Dhouda's letter, the bit in (I think) Abbo of Fleury on Charles the Simple and Rollo the Gangler…I go between being source- and question-driven, or inside-out and outside in all the time. My point is really that you need to know both, IMO, to be a decent historian, and my own ideas of how we teach would privilege the focus on sources if we had to teach only one skill set. We don't, thank goodness, but I have a hard time getting my head around the idea that anyone could really say they have learnt to do history unless they *had* learned to use primary sources to come up with a thesis…

  5. 27 November, 2010 12:06 am

    I think the other thing operating here is that modernists don't see their sources as problematic in and of themselves — i.e. some kind of different document that needs to be understood. THey are just their sources. So it's not that they don't pay attention to them, but the issues of genre, assumptions, etc. that you need to be aware of are less significant.

  6. 29 November, 2010 3:56 am

    I can't believe there are cats who teach any kind of history at all. I can't even get mine to talk about life and departmental politics. Maybe they're just not big enough or orange enough.

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