The intellectual value of being wrong

I’m off to a conference this week, and I’ve been thinking about some of the wacky papers I’ve given over the years.  I’ve always looked at conferences as opportunities to test out new ideas, and the best times I’ve had at conferences have been times when I’ve delivered a paper that offers a fresh–some would say dubious–new interpretation or argument.  After all, most conference papers are 10 pages long and should take no more than 20 minutes of the audience’s time–it’s not like we’re going to be able to clobber them with a truly convincing pile of evidence, so why not focus more on the specific interventions we’re making?

I once gave a conferece paper titled “Fields of Screams,” after an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon on an old episode of The Simpsons.  It was about borderlands warfare and masculinity, and although I discarded the specific argument in that paper it helped me work out some ideas about space and gender.  Recently, I’ve been having fun shocking people with Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” interpretive frame for understanding eighteenth-century Ursulines.  I’m not sure where this idea is going, but it’s fascinating to see some people react so strongly and so negatively to the use of the word “lesbian” to talk about the eighteenth century!  (Bennett’s lesbian-like women is in fact a very nuanced concept.  It’s not so much about a particular sexuality but more a critique of the heterocentricity of women’s history, and an argument about creating space for imagining women-centered women’s communities in the distant past.  Still, many people can’t get beyond their very fixed notions of what “lesbian” means.)

One of the things that I think was so desctructive of the controvery surrouding Michael Bellesiles’s book Arming America a decade ago is that it fed the popular notion that professional historians dig up allegedly objective facts and simply report them.  We do that–but anyone who has worked in an archive and thought for about 4 seconds about hir sources knows that there’s no such thing as an “objective fact.”  And furthermore, the art of history is in the assembly and interpretation of problematic individual facts.  I think it’s perfectly fine for historians to be wrong, and that it’s not evidence of professional misconduct to make an argument that the consensus of our peers judges incorrect. 

I like Bennett’s idea of experimenting with interpretations of history in “playful, wise, and careful ways.”  Why shouldn’t we?  What do the rest of you think?

28 thoughts on “The intellectual value of being wrong

  1. The further along in my career I get (and I think I’ve got about two-thirds left to go, depending on how you count), the more I’m coming to like the idea of rediscovering the fun in it. As graduate students and pre-tenure people, we strive to present unassailable stuff because we’re trying to prove ourselves. And after a while, it becomes a habit. But I think it’s good, at some point, to stop and remember that most of us got into our fields for ourselves, not for someone else.

    So some people will walk away grumbling from a speculative or revisionist argument. And others will be inspired. In the end, we have to go with what satisfies us at the moment — though always with the knowledge that (as you point out in your title) we may later discover we were wrong.


    Have fun at the Berks!


  2. I believe it is, in fact, necessary for historians to take the position that (other) historians are sometimes wrong. We build our (hopefully improved) interpretations of the past on the bedrock of preceding interpretations that we now understand as flawed, insufficiently nuanced or subtle, or just plain wrong. The sciences, of course, work exactly the same way: new interpretations of physical data nuance or reject older interpretations.

    We are all engaged in a vast collaborative enterprise to advance knowledge or understanding (or both) and even my wrong turns, I hope, will help someone else (or even me) move forward.


  3. While I (though very much a novice where the history of sexuality is concerned) would be one to react very strongly against using the word “lesbian” to describe 18th-century ways of thinking, living, and identifying, it is nevertheless encouraging to me to hear a real grown-up historian say that “it’s perfectly fine for historians to be wrong” (and indeed to question the value of the categories of “right” and “wrong” in history anyway). This is definitely a lesson that kids in my age group, who are coming to college out of a standardized-testing educational regime and graded on everything we do, need to hear–especially if we hope to transition from that environment to academia. The subjectivity and flexibility of historical argument-constructing is I think one of the hardest ideas for us to wrap our heads around. I suppose that includes the possibility that “lesbian-like” may be a descriptor that is anachronistic but still intellectually useful, though I think I (again, perhaps it’s a generational thing) would still find its modern identity-political resonances distracting.


  4. I find I like my historical voice in conference papers much more than articles/books — it is more true to myself, has a bit of a attempted humor and is more approachable, less pressure to be formal and serious. I do think the freedom of career maturity lets you be more creative.

    Though I have to say, having just watched Palin butcher the story of Paul Revere, there is a value to historical facts that are actually, uh, factual. Regardless of how you edit the wikipedia entry.


  5. Thanks, Notorious and Tom. I figured you’d be on board with scholarship as “wise play,” emphasis on the “play” sometimes!

    This is why I LOVE medeivalists: Tina Fey explains this in her book that you never contradict someone’s contribution to an improv skit–you always agree, and add your own twist/complication. And in my experience, the cool medievalists I know like Tom and Notorious are like good improv players–their response is always “YES, and. . . ” Medievalists are of necessity not hung up on evidence like modern historians are, and they’re also necessarily highly skeptical of the evidence they do have.

    And, token undergrad: on “lesbian-like” history, ask yourself–do you have the same scruples about using the word “marriage” to describe and represent normative heterosexuality in both the medieval and modern periods? Why is it that we use *some* words across historical eras and not others? (And I believe Bennett makes the point that “lesbian” is an 18th C word–I’m away from my library so I can’t check this for sure today, though.)


  6. There are two phrases that my Upper School students will learn by heart from the frequency they come out of my mouth. The first is “History is the process of leaving things out.” The second is “All the great historians were wrong…” (with the unspoken piece for which they are not ready, “but they were wrong in interesting ways.”)

    The former helps befuddled 9th and 10th graders make sense of fact a minute textbooks and puts the burden of “Do we have to know this” on them. It allows me to say, “Why should you know this? How can you use this as evidence of something? What argument can you make with it?”

    The latter helps kids float ideas in class. They are very much concerned with getting “the right” answer rather than a good, plausible answer. (In class, I tend to try to make sure that I ask questions with multiple answers such as “What’s a cause of the Civil War” with a follow-up of “Why is that a cause?” as opposed to “What are the causes of the Civil War” Remember I’m dealing with high school students so as token undergrad points out they are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that it is OK and sometimes productive to be wrong. This also sometimes gets announced as “The purpose of class discussion is to be wrong.” Because it’s better to be wrong in class than on the test.

    So I am totally on-board with modeling being wrong at the professional level.


  7. Historiann, apologies for dragging this off on a tangent, but on “lesbian”: the OED gives the first citation as 1870, though that doesn’t mean it’s right (it’s certainly wrong on “homosexual”). It makes a difference to me that although “marriage” as a legal and social concept, and its role in public life, has certainly changed significantly over the centuries, it predates that moment at the end of the 19th century when a lot of coinage of terms for sexual diagnostic categories and politicized identities was going on. But I’d like to think that if I were writing about marriage, I would try to do so in a way that didn’t privilege it as a normative kind of social relationship, nor assume that heterosexuality is any more of a transhistorical phenomenon than homosexuality is. At any rate, my interest has certainly been sufficiently piqued to actually do the reading and get Bennett’s book from the library. Thanks!


  8. Hah! Historiann, that’s probably the first time I’ve ever been called a “cool medievalist”! I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the last time, too.


  9. Western Dave–I think I might take a page out of your book to encourage class discussion. I like your point that it’s much lower-stakes to be wrong in class than on tests!

    token undergrad: Do read Bennett’s chapter on lesbian-like women. She writes, “ultimately, any noun is similarly inadequate, coarse, and contingent. ‘Housewife’ is, like ‘lesbian,’ a modern identity whose meanings cannot be readily transposed from the twenty-first century to the fifteenth. But we trust historians of housewifery and domesticity to manage the differences. Since no word has transparent meaning, now or in the past, surely we need not single out “lesbian” as a word that must be proscibed or even merely italicized,” 117. (From Google books.)

    We talk about “human rights” in historical periods before that term was invented. We write “disability studies” about periods before we recognized the disabled as a class of persons. The retrospective application of anachronisms happens all of the time. So why is it just *this* word that sets people’s brains a-buzzing?


  10. Excellent points that I struggle to keep in mind as I write exam papers! Following up on shaz, this also has me thinking about all of the hoopla surrounding Sarah Palin’s version of history. A WaPo column calls her out for failing to get the “facts” straight. It does not, unfortunately, call her out enough on the bigger issue: the failure to admit that she made a mistake when she appeared on “Fox News Sunday.” Let’s take risks that open us up to the possibility of making mistakes but fully own up to them when we realize that we didn’t know enough or our source base wasn’t comprehensive enough.

    I’ve also been struck by how quick some historians (e.g., some of my colleagues), who actually study the production of history and historical knowledge(!!), are to dismiss Palin’s accounts as false. Palin and her ilk seem to innately realize the political force of the production of historical knowledge. It’s a fascinating contemporary example for having students interrogate what they think history is.


  11. I think the best conference papers are the ones that open up questions rather than close them off. So the “lesbian-like” works for me. It sure gets the discussion going!

    I am not sure I think in terms of play, but I often think in terms of puzzles. How do the pieces fit together? And, of course, it’s cool to think about how people lived in the past!


  12. ohmigosh, this post is so spot-on for what I’m doing! I *just* taught Bennett’s article this morning and had such an interesting discussion with the students. I work on European nuns in an earlier period and her argument about “lesbian-like” has definitely made me see my work from a different analytical perspective.

    would love to talk to you more about this and your work on the Ursulines. I’m going to be at the Berks, too. Any chance we could have coffee? As the blog owner, do you have access to my email–if so, maybe you could email me?

    And sign me up for creative play and speculation–I can’t imagine writing and teaching history without it!


  13. I think conferences can be an opportunity for collaborative play. In that spirit I’m giving a “works in progress” paper at the Berks that reflects the very beginnings of a new project. I’m hoping for some good back and forth with the audience and commentator about different directions I can take it. Riskier than presenting something polished and published, but worth it! Plus presenting something truly new (look what I found in the archives!) often makes for a more lively presentation. Now I just need to figure out how to bring “lesbian-like” into my analysis…


  14. While I’m not a historian, I do work on sexuality in literature, and I do make very clear distinctions with students about understanding that we can’t just retroactively apply terms like “lesbian” to earlier historical periods. (The commonplace go-to for students is something along the lines of, “but Shakespeare was “gay” right?” Which, no, not in the way that we understand the term today, but then being a *person* wasn’t the same thing in the early modern period as being a *person* today, either. And there are similar misconceptions about identity in the Middle Ages – women were *free* then! – or even the mid-twentieth century – all women were oppressed housewives! So I do think it’s important to complicate, and when necessary to correct, those assumptions.)

    BUT, it seems to me that “lesbian-like” (although I haven’t read Bennett – I’m trusting that she’s great, though, based on your explanation 🙂 ) is a very careful and sensible way of articulating the fact that just because “lesbians” didn’t exist in the contemporary sense prior to the 19th century (and I personally wouldn’t be so particular as the OED date, as language moves more slowly than the way that people live), women’s communities did, and same-sex desire, affection, and sexual relationships *did.* It’s all about the situating. All of this is a long way of saying, I love that you’re shocking people with your “lesbian-like” reading of the Ursulines in the 18th century!

    And finally, if you can’t play in a conference paper, where exactly can you play as a scholar?


  15. I don’t get why there’d be controversy about applying the word lesbian back, any more than there is about periodisations like modern and medieval. Nobody in the middle ages though they were living in the middle (of what?), and it’s not as though somebody came out at new years 1600, ringing a bell and yelling “we’re modern now, put on pants!” Everything we say is a bit anachronistic. It’s important to be aware you’re doing it, but if we tried to write non-anachronistic history we’d find it impossible.


  16. I think conferences for academics can be equivalent to classes for students, in the sense that Western Dave describes them. Less risky to throw something out there and see if it sticks in those contexts than on the test/in an article. Plus, you can have really cool conversations with people afterward.

    Re: the term lesbian. Bennett traces it back to the 10th century (pg. 115; yes I have my copy here, no it’s never far away). I’ve stumbled on a nineteenth-twentieth century site that I think will benefit from applying the lesbian-like lens; I expect push-back and raised eyebrows, but I’ve been surprised before! I’d love to see those papers, H’Ann!

    Have an immensely satisfying and playful time at the Berks!


  17. I really like the idea of conference papers as play. It’s a much better approach then trimming an idea to its bare bones only to have people be all “what about [insert pet idea here]” If it’s set up as “I’m going to describe X and toy with interpretations A, B, and C” there’s a lot more room — and a hell of lot more fun — for interesting exchanges about your thinking.


  18. Scientific theories of the natural world are almost always wrong, in the sense that they are always incomplete and there are always details that later require revision. I would assume that historical theories are the same.


  19. If you’re not willing to risk being wrong in a conference paper, you’re going to be rudely awakened when you are accused of being wrong in a peer review. Plus, it’s fun to try new things, push the limits and see where you can get some new insights by moving beyond your comfort zone. Especially when you can actually talk to real live people who do stuff somewhat related to what you do.

    Isn’t a conference the best place to “try things out” and ask for feedback? That is, if people attend your session and actually have something to say about your paper. (Yes, there have been conference presentations I’ve been part of where the audience and the panel were pretty much equal in number.)

    Looking forward to the conference where I get to try something new and hopefully garner some helpful feedback. Also, drinks on Friday!


  20. I think history might be slightly different from the sciences (but maybe not) in that not all historians believe there was an objective past that can be found, but rather multiple pasts, reflecting the multiple subjectivities within each era. Plus, there are even historians, who see history as knowledge-making for the present/future, so that the truth of the past is, if not irrelevant, then less significant than the role of difference in the past in pushing us to think differently about the present/ to ‘think outside the box’/ to create new arts and culture (so we are using historical sources in many ways as inspiration in creating something new, like an artist, rather than engaging with past societies to find out about them). So, there is a whole section of the discipline for whom being wrong is just not the point, because you can’t be in art.

    And, while I wouldn’t say Bennett would quite see herself in the realm of making art; I imagine (not knowing her irl) she would see herself as somebody who is using the past to talk to contemporary problems and to rethink the present, as much as to understand the past.

    Changing topics- I think the disconcert with ‘lesbian’ comes from the Foucault/ Trumbach tradition of the ‘invention’ of modern sexual categories (straight as well as gay) in the 18thC, and a concern that such categories cannot be transferred backwards (unlike other categories which might have changed in meaning but were not ‘invented’). AND the political significance for the gay rights movement on this ‘invention’- in that it was used to challenge the idea that homosexuality has always been wrong/ taboo. Now, not everybody thinks Foucault/ Trumbach are right on the ‘invention’ idea, so such people may well argue there are lesbians in the past in a modernish sense (if not holding quite the same connotations, i.e. like there were women in the past and present). But, I think for Bennett, it’s about women-centred communities, which revolve around women and their intimate lives (and so asks us to think about women in relation to other women), rather than a world where their lives were defined by their relationships to men (and to some extent ‘patriarchy’ as performed in worlds where men dominated). What is perhaps most (or perhaps not at all surprising) is the resistance we have to the idea of female-centred communities in the past (perhaps apart from nuns, who are nicely locked away). Tis all about the men.


  21. Feminist Avatar: I think you’re right about the Foucaultian “invention” of modern sexualities, but I don’t think many of the people who object to “lesbian” nuns are Foucaultians at all! (My field is not known for its theoretical chops, IOW.) I really like Ruth Mazo Karras’s article in the Journal of Women’s History in 1999, “Prostitution as Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe,” in which she challenges the idea that there’s no such thing as sexual identities before 1700. It’s a very smart critique of the Foucault pronouncement, and an invitation for people working in earlier periods to think about the history of sexuality in their eras.

    And, like Digger, I was ROTFLMAO with Rustonite’s “We’re modern now, put on pants!” formulation. I will totes steal that for teaching.

    Thanks for all of your comments–unfortunately, I won’t be talking about lesbian Ursulines in the paper I’m giving, and the paper I will give is not nearly so interesting or daring as all that! The panel is about Native women’s history, and I’m talking about women’s leadership in the creation of Native Catholic communities, and many of my fellow panelists were pioneers in making these arguments.


  22. Ok, I have to pop in to say that Foucault doesn’t say that there is no such thing as sexual identity before 1700. What he says is that our modern idea of “sexuality” doesn’t exist. For Foucault, the notion that a sexuality is something we have has to do with the emergence of modern subjectivity, and it is linked to what he calls a scientia sexualis, or “science of sexuality” in which our sexuality is something that is “diagnosed” through medical (and medicalizing) discourses. Prior to the 18th c., sexual identity was organized, for Foucault, around the discourses of ars erotica, or the art of eros (think things like the kama sutra) and rather than “diagnosing” a sexuality that is essential to a person, Foucault says, the discourse of sexual identity was one of being “educated” into a sexual identity, with a master who instructs the acolyte in the “arts” of sex. (Foucault does only talk about this on like 3 pages of the History of Sexuality v. I, but it is there.)

    Now, whether one agrees with Foucault’s labeling of those discourses or describing of them, it’s important to note that he goes out of his way to critique the idea that anybody “invented” sexuality (or, for that matter, sex). That’s kind of the whole point of his theory of the repressive hypothesis.


  23. I was being a bit reductionist; but a lot of discussion in 18thC history at least is around the idea of the ‘invention’ of ‘modern sexuality’ (not sexuality per se), which is intrinsically tied to modern ideas of gender, a different biological system (a move from the humoral to nervous system of biology); and other categories of identity tied to an innate and individuated selfhood. And people immediately before this change are often seen to be worried less about sexual identities than sexual acts- so sodomy is a sin that can be committed by anybody (or at least any man), but is not an act associated with a particular identity category (gay). Women were viewed to have larger sexual appetites than men, but this was not because they signified as ‘straight’ or whatever (if there is an identity category here, it seems to be gender). And, this distinction between ‘acts’ and ‘identities’ was the line in sexuality studies for a while, and was popularised in the sort of mainstream history of sexuality. And can kind of be seen in how some modern churches cope with homosexuality- it is the act not the identity that is the sin, so its not a sin to be gay, but it is a sin to have same-sex sex.

    Now, identities are coming back into play in early modern history as we worry about whether, for example, people could be sodomites (ie an identity character of a group of ‘deviants’ who commit sodomy, but not necessarily equivalent to modern homosexuality); or in Mazo Karras’ work around the idea that certain women were defined by their sexual behaviour (prostitutes).


  24. I think history might be slightly different from the sciences (but maybe not) in that not all historians believe there was an objective past that can be found, but rather multiple pasts, reflecting the multiple subjectivities within each era.

    Well there is certainly a fact of the matter concerning actual events that did or didn’t occur and actions by individuals that were or were not performed. From a causality standpoint, however, I can see how you might conclude that there is no fact of the matter concerning *why* certain things happened.


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