Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thinking Historically

As Valerie Peck mentioned in her email, the Craft of Research textbook is now available for purchase at Outside the Lines.

A couple of reminders as you settle into your studies: if you have not done so already, please meet with your supervisor to discuss your programme; and please email the professors with whom you'll be taking a cross-listed graduate courses or working as teaching assistant. I hope to see all of you at tomorrow's meet & greet reception, which will start 3:30 in the Lord Dalhousie Pub.

For Monday's seminar, we will focus on introductory concepts, the most basic of which is the definition(s) of history. The readings and links I've posted already contain some useful concepts, but I'd like to throw out two working definitions, both of which are decidedly old-fashioned and open to debate.

The first is from David Hackett Fischer — one of the crankiest historians I’ve ever read, but also one of the most engaging. In Historians' Fallacies, Fischer stated, "A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open-ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm." Fischer was certainly naive in his belief that there is somehow a body of unproblematic facts that can be simply arranged to make history, but he makes some points worth pondering: anyone can write history; history starts with questions; and historians select evidence to explain what happened in the past.

The second is from E.H. Carr. In What is History, Carr asserted, "history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his [sic] facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." If we overlook Carr’s sexism and his simplistic notion of facts, his insight remains as relevant today as it was two generations ago: historiography — the writing of history — is a never-ending process, a dialogue between the living and the dead. As one writer once put it, life is a near-death experience.

On Monday, we can start with these two unfashionable definitions and work from there. I'm looking forward to hearing your views on the required readings. In our discussion, I will be raising some basic problems for the seminar to mull over: the law of selection; the burden of positive proof; the danger of presentism; and the role of probability.


Regan said...

As per the class discussion today, I will repeat: Texts and authors which supply a great number of "facts" or evidence about a particular subject, have been found to be less credible than those which cite fewer pieces of information. It seems that when the point they are trying to make is less tenable or even fictious, authors will compound the evidence in favor of their point to convince the reader of its veracity . An author writing on more tenable ground will have less pieces of evidence, as they are more confident in their subject, and the reader's acceptance of their work. Although I lack the reference,or memory to when and where I heard this, and more importantly the nature or repute of this study, I find it makes an interesting point and one worth discussion. As historians you would think the more sources the better, or would you?

Jerry Bannister said...

Interesting question, Charlene. Here is more food for thought, courtesty of James Surowiecki, the author of _Wisdom of Crowds_: "As social scientists have long recognized, we prefer confident statements of fact to probabilistic statements, even when we know that the confidence is illusory." Keep in mind that he wrote this in 2006, two years before such skepticism became fashionable.

On another note, Elspeth reports that the textbook is available at Outside the Lines for $22, taxes included, which means that it may not be more expensive than other copies available at the SUB.

I encourage you to purchase your copy at Outside the Lines, an independent, locally-owned bookstore that's worth supporting.