Bleg: Introduction to Historical Practice

Help me!

Howdy, friends:  today’s post is a transparent cry for help!  I’m teaching historiography again to our incoming graduate students.  (“Historiography” is the obscurantist term we use for a course that’s meant to be something like “introduction to historical practice.”  I think we should just change the name to the latter term and stop intimidating our graduate students.)  I’ve organized the course around an exploration of various scandals or ethical controversies in the practice of history recently, and I need your advice before I submit my book orders for the fall semester.

First, I’d like your suggestions for a memoir or reflexive book by a historian.  In the fall of 2011, the last time I taught the course, I used Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran:  A History of Stories (1998; 2003), a book about White’s attempts to research the stories his mother told about her family and girlhood in Ireland.  It was very good, but almost too subtle for my purposes.  We also read the following week Debra Gray White’s Telling Histories:  Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008), which I will keep on the syllabus this time around because I found it incredibly effective and moving series of essays written from the margins rather than the center of the profession.

One book I’m considering in place of the White book is Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Historians’ Paradox (2008), which I haven’t read.  We will also be reading his Past Imperfect:  Facts, Fiction, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004) which I used last time and thought was an incredibly readable and clear history of the American historical profession (unlike, say, Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream of 1988, which I found incredibly dated almost upon publication as well as a turgid doorstop of a book.)  I’m just starting The Historians’ Paradox now, and I wonder if there might not be too much overlap between it and Past Imperfect.  However, I really like Hoffer’s lively and frank voice as a writer, and find that my students really appreciate it, too.  Your thoughts?

I could also perhaps instead follow the family history and/or the biography elements of White’s book by assigning Julie Wheelwright’s Esther:  The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright (2011), which is about both Esther Wheelwright and the way the legend of Esther was remembered by the Wheelwright family into the twenty-first century.  (Julie is an indirect descendant of Esther, who lived from 1696 to 1780.  She was born an Anglo-American child in Maine, abducted in war by the Wabanaki and likely adopted by them from ages 7 to 12, and then became a student and eventually a choir nun in the Ursuline convent in Quebec, where she remained the rest of her life.  Regular readers here will remember that she is also the subject of the book I’m working to finish, and Julie and I were longtime collaborators on our Esther projects.)  Then again, I’ve been meaning to read Lois Banner’s Marilyn:  The Passion and the Paradox (2012), and she has written very perceptively on the relationship of biographer and subject as well.  What do you think?

Second, I’d like to assign another book on public history.  Jennifer Fish Kashay, one of the public historians in my department, suggested last time around that I use Shelley Ruth Butler’s Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa (1999; 2007), which is a fascinating exploration of the total $hitstorm that resulted from an exhibition on colonialism in Africa mounted by the Royal Ontario Museum in 1989-90.  The exhibition’s postmodern take on the subject was interpreted by many community members and museum stakeholders (many of whom were people of color) as patronizing towards Africans, rather than critical of the colonial enterprize, which is what the (white) curator intended.  I will assign that book again, but in a M.A. program populated by public history concentrators, I think another book on public history issues or controversies is important.  (I’ve considered all of the stuff on the Enola Gay-Smithsonian controversy of 1994-95, but most of our students are already familiar with it–I’d like to find something new.)  Do you have any ideas for me?

Here’s the rest of the reading list I think I’ll use, excluding individual book chapters or journal articles, FYI.  Although most of the history scandals we covered last time around involved U.S. historians writing American history (with the exception of the ROM controversy described above), I am eager to hear any ideas you have outside of U.S. or European history.  (Unfortunately, most of the non-U.S. history is in a unit I called “Tools of the Trade:  Footnotes, Seminars, and Archives,” in which we read the books by Grafton, Smith, and Burton described below).

  1. Michael Bellesiles, Arming America:  The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000), either the Knopf original hardcover or paper editions or the 2003 Soft Skull Press edition.
  2. Antoinette Burton, Archive Stories:  Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (2006)
  3. Shelley Ruth Butler, Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa (1999; 2007)
  4. Anthony Grafton, The Footnote:  A Curious History (1997)
  5. Peter Hoffer, Past Imperfect:  Facts, Fiction, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004)
  6. Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History:  Men, Women, & Historical Practice, 2nd edition (2000)
  7. Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble:  Plagiarism, Politics, and Fraud in the Ivory Tower (2005)
  8. Deborah Gray White, Telling Histories:  Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008)
  9. Your suggestions welcome here!

42 thoughts on “Bleg: Introduction to Historical Practice

  1. This is more of an idea about “historiography” (n.b. I am not a historian). I don’t know if you are a Hilary Mantel fan, but she’s a really reflective interviewee, and I remember reading an interview with her (about how she moved from fiction to historical fiction) and she talked about reading everything she could about the French Revolution and realizing one day, “there isn’t any more, from here if I want more I’ll just have to make it up”. And that’s how she began writing her first HF book.

    Not in the sense that she had read EVERY piece of literature pertaining to the FR, but in the sense that, some things are simply not known and unknowable about fascinating parts of the past, but if you are deeply interested, you desperately WANT to know (and often have strong intuitions about relationships/ characters/ events).

    Mantel is clear that what she is doing is fiction, but the feeling that she describes probably is part of what draws historians into the field and some over to the “dark side” (hf presented as history).

    Uselessly, I can’t remember where I read this — I’ve read several interviews with her and her memoir, it may have been anywhere!


  2. Sounds like a great course.

    Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea is a fascinating combination of large-scale history with other sorts of narratives. I’ve used it successfully in an undergraduate historiography course. For narratives, I have used a number of the chapters in the old MARHO volume, Visions of History, and a couple of the Haskins lectures posted on the ACLS website–especially, in each case, the Natalie Zemon Davis chapters.


  3. Hitler Diaries! I’m not sure if there’s a decent scholarly treatment of this somewhere – there’s a really old book on it by Robert Harris (I’ve never read it), but even a couple of good journalistic articles on it could get some good conversation going. The 30th anniversary of the hoax was last month, so there’s been lots of good coverage recently.


  4. I have always wanted to use Josephine Tey’s *Daughter of Time,* which I adore, in such a class. (Now updated with news of the discovery of the body!) Not exactly what you are looking for, but an interesting way to change the beat in a class like this. Maybe?


  5. I’m not a historian, but this sounds like a fantastic course. I love the Grafton footnote book!

    A while back, I read a book called *The Combing of History* and it was really interesting, especially the title chapter (though I also really liked the chapter on midwest American Indian burials).


  6. Two suggestions–on the family history front, I liked Stedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. It’s short, but I really took away the question of how to tell stories that don’t fit into conventional narratives. On the public history front, another Smithsonian scandal you could go with is Truettner’s West as America. It’s an exhibition catalogue and has some interesting scholarship in itself (and shows how historians can use images), but the uproar over the show is a good lesson in how what scholars take as new, interesting scholarship doesn’t always work on the walls of a museum. The journal American Art published a follow up article with viewer responses from their comment book.


  7. In the reflexive slot, what about Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother? And for a public history controversy, something involving NAGPRA, perhaps. Patricia Rubertone’s Grave Undertakings, if you don’t mind that she’s not a historian. Or more generally, Devon Mihesuah’s Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians.


  8. Marc Bloc, _Strange Defeat_ is a reflexive memoir about his experiences in the Battle of France in 1940. He turns his historian’s eye on himself, the French Military and French Society. Its heartbreaking and exasperating (Bloc had no sympathy for the left and puts a great deal of blame in the communists and the SFIO). It was published posthumously, after the War since Bloc was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

    The trick with teaching the book would be to get the students to analyze the parallels and contradictions between Bloc’s methods as a scholar of the Annales school and his burning need to analyze his nation’s greatest crisis. It would be all to easy to get caught up in debates about whether Bloc was right about this point or that, instead focusing on his method.


  9. Geoff Eley’s _A Crooked Line_ is a good account of the major sea changes in historiography between about 1950 and the present. Very accessible too!

    Another scandal that is always fun to read about is the planned Disney theme park in Northern Virginia. I think Troulliot discusses it in a chapter of _Silencing the Past_.


  10. I echo Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s _Silencing the Past_ – the Disney theme park bit is in the conclusion, but it’s all good fodder for discussion. Class discussion on the Columbus chapter has been stellar.


  11. John Elliott has a new intellectual biography called “History in the Making.” It’s a bit dry, but the chapters do provide interesting reflections on the practice of history – being prepared, hitting roadblocks, changing course, etc.


  12. I’d give another vote for Steedman, A landscape for good woman. I also enjoyed Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of memory and imagination, which is a similar idea, but uses a lot of photography and so is also useful for exploring photos as a historical medium.


  13. I think Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale holds up very well for exposing what it is historians actually do. One chapter would suffice. Plus there’s the companion website where you can look at the actual diary, so it fits with a public history discussion and a digital humanities discussion. (I didn’t see a digital history section, but I’m not well versed in that literature. A twitter beg would probably help.

    On oral history and memory I think Allesandro Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli (in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories) holds up very well. I’ve used it in class with my honors 1960s course (seniors in high school) and we read it together, paragraph by paragraph. Grad students should be able to handle it on their own. I’ve just started his more recent book They Say in Harlan County (as in just looked at the introduction) but he’s the master of the form and the introduction is compelling as all hell. He compares (oral) history writing to various musical and film forms as well as quilting. It’s got a ton of theoretical and ethical issues (should oral historians have to go in front of human subject committees?, what happens to the texts? should the interviewed have a right of transcript revision? etc. etc.).


  14. To follow Western Dave, Portelli’s The Order Has Beeb Carried Out is terrific because he deals both with the way people remember an event, and the way the event is remembered.

    So many good books to read!


  15. Well, friends, you’ve blown me away with your thoughtful and fascinating suggestions! Keep them coming, although I’m already going to have to discipline myself not to just start at the top and read through every title you’ve put on the list.


  16. In a similar class a couple of years ago, I read Carlo Ginzburg’s _The Cheese and the Worms_ and Natalie Zemon Davis’s _The Return of Martin Guerre_ as examples of biography and micro-history. While both of these books are still commonly assigned, I think, they’re older books, from the 1980s. The slight dated-ness of the books really helped us understand how the times affected the way the books were written, which was something that was harder to understand in more current monographs.


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  18. Not about scandal, per se, unless bending the truth in the service of personal survival is scandalous, but Natalie Davis’s _Fiction in the Archives_ offers an interesting perspective on what we do, what once-living people did, and then what they did about it. And, per Western Dave’s suggestion about Marc Bloc, I was teaching a course of this sort a few years ago and wanted to invite/(i.e., make) some novitiates join me in diving into a subject that neither they nor I knew very much about, and to see what was going on there. So I used E.P. Thompson’s confessional introduction to _Whigs and Hunters_. But, knowing that our students could be pretty finicky about strange terrains, and wanting to know more biographically about Thompson, I discovered a review of his _The Heavy Dancers: Writings on Wars_, [1985] in which he discussed his experiences as the commander of a tank unit in Italy in WW II. c.f. the chapter/essay “The Liberation of Perugia.”

    Thompson drove a tank?!? For our M.A. students, service in a “tank unit” would be a stronger recommendation than a chair at Oxford. Back when I was being urged to read Thompson (Tony Grafton’s invocation of MARHO shimmers here), there was no “Good War,” and Thompson’s military experience was not exactly a visible part of his profile in the graduate student lounge. Anyway, I can’t even exactly remember how that little seminar went. But Thompson’s clever trope from _Whigs and Hunters_ about parachuting into a clearing in the forests of the past, lighting your only match, and hoping you can figure something out before it *goes* out, continues to be a part of my rhetorical introduction to the research experience. It’s almost like the anti-historiography!


  19. When I teach grad methods, I always work through “Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods” by Miles Fairburn. It’s a great guide for students on working their way through weaknesses and strengths in methods and arguments, not just for social historians. Fairburn also profiles a host of interesting and often somewhat flawed historical monographs in each chapter that illustrate his points.

    A couple of chapters each week at the start of the term, set alongside other relevant readings or activities (say, an interesting example of quantitative history alongside Fairburn’s middle chapters which tackle this), result in more lively and articulate discussion than I formerly experienced.


  20. Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago, 2007) is quite good, covers a lot. The book is informed, but not overtaken, by the author’s strong background in the history of philosophy and philosophical problems in historical practice.


  21. Everyone who got here first did a great job: I might also pair Bill Cronon’s recent “Storytelling” with an older classic of narrative history: John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive or Laurl Ulrich’s Midwifes Tale.


  22. May I suggest *Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources*, ed. by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry Katz, and Betsy Perry (U of Ill Press, 2010) – there are 12 chapters, 8 of which are not on the U.S. Some are more reflexive than others, but several include some personal history about the experience of doing history, embedded in the history and the report on doing research.

    And an older and more politically-oriented collection of women historians writing about their personal and career histories, *Voices of Women Historians: the Personal, the Political, the Professional*, ed. Eileen Boris and Nupur Chaudhuri(Indiana UP 1999).

    You also might have a look at the very interesting *History, Historians, and Autobiography*, by Jeremy D. Popkin (University of Chicago Press, 2005) for an interesting overview and analysis of historians writing about becoming historians and doing history. It includes lots of ideas for a memoir to use in class.


  23. A charmingly-idiosyncratic sketch of one kind of historical “practice” common in the old days, apparently–although it’s impossible to miss the smug and unreflective sexism that was still welcome in academic print as late as the mid-1970s–is the introduction to Richard Cobb’s _Paris and its Provinces, 1792-1802_ (OUP, 1974). My first sponsored research trip, while enjoyable enough in its own way, went differently–funded partly by the “Government Transportation Request”; one of the greatest bureaucratic devices ever reduced to computer punch card form. But a lot less eat, drink, and be merry, unless I’m forgetting.


  24. i have a suspicion that some of the titles already mentioned touch on this. Being useless at history, I can only guess. But I wanted to put in a plug for any work that takes a good square look at the Great Forgetting. As a non-historian, and one of the reasons I had no interest in the topic as an angry youngling, most of what historians write about seems like 1% of what matters. That goes up into the dozens of percent when the types of perspectives I hear about here are included. But there’s still that vast silence occupying much of the space. Learning to see what’s been made invisible is probably what young historians do.


  25. “Learning to see what’s been made invisible is probably what young historians do.” Wow, quixote–for someone who is not a historian, you’re pretty darn smart! That’s what I like to do in this class, exactly.

    Kathie: I *have* been looking at the Nupur Chauduri titles you mention, and I saw that one of your essays is included in the archives book! At the WAWH, there was an excellent roundtable devoted to that book, and more broadly to the relationship between historians and archivists–our different goals in spite of shared values. That session has inspired me to invite the Baa Ram U. archivist to read the archives book/s along with the class & join in the conversation about the book in class.


  26. Sorry, late to the party,.While it’s old it is still pretty powerful. Jonathan Spence’s Death of Woman Wang, where he has almost no information about the eponymous Wang, and yet manages to write a biography of her from a slim court case. And it is about pre-modern China.
    If you do your the Return of Martin Guerre, I’d also use the forum from the AHR with Roger Finley.


  27. This may be of interest to few of you beyond Janice, but: One book I’m considering in part is Donald Wright’s The Professionalization of History in English Canada, which includes a terrific chapter on how masculinization was a systematic part of professionalization. It shows more concretely than Bonnie Smith’s book how women’s exclusion first from history honors societies, then from many grad programs, and then from job opportunities worked to reinforce this boundary. It also offers a nice implicit rebuttal to Peter Hoffer’s claim that (white) women’s history and (white) women were incorportated unproblematically into the American historical profession. Hoffer writes as though the feminist challenge of the 1960s permitted the American profession to correct an oversight, which it did cheerfully.

    OTOH, where did Canadian grad advisors send their very few women students who managed to earn Ph.D.s at Toronto and McGill? To the U.S., where there were more jobs to begin with, and where women’s colleges and some state unis were more open to hiring women.


  28. In terms of seeing the invisible, what about Judith Bennett’s *History Matters*? She analyzes the workings of patriarchy in a way that can be generalized to other large and protean historical dynamics, while also demonstrating how historians can incorporate feminism and other passionate beliefs into their work.


  29. When I taught a similar course, I assigned some of the ACLS “Life of Learning” lectures by historians. You can find them here:

    I think I started the semester with a handful of these lectures, and I thought they were fascinating glimpses at how some historians ended up doing the kind of work they did.

    I used Hoffer’s Past Imperfect, which terrified the graduate students!


  30. How about something by Sherman Alexie on how history gets rewritten? As a writer myself, I believe he’s the best “interview” in literature. Any video on him is worth watching.


  31. don’t know of a book, but the Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman case from S. Africa/UK would be good for public history…i’ve only seen the documentaries.

    sounds like an amazing class!


  32. It’s pretty old, but I still recommend David Hackett Fischer’s early work “Historians’ Fallacies” as the funniest book about historiography ever written. It has been accused, I think, of discouraging beginners by listing so many ways to go wrong in history — but it did not have that effect on me.


  33. Gerald Vizenor’s The People Named the Chippewa would be an interesting way of including alternative narrative strategies of history telling. One chapter might do the trick.


  34. Historiann, would you be willing to share your syllabus and reading list when you are done drafting it?

    Our department is going through a series of changes and we are probably going to overhaul the curriculum for the capstone and historiography class. We need some alternate models, and something titled “Introduction to Historical Practice” seems to make more sense for our undergrads than Historiography.


  35. A few wide-ranging suggestions that could be worth exploring:

    Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives- Blouin/Rosenberg

    The Scrapbook in American Life- ed. Tucker, Ott, Buckler

    Community Archives: the shaping of memory- ed. Bastian and Alexander

    Archives and Justice: a South African Perspective- Verne Harris

    or maybe selections from

    Archives and the Public Good- ed. Cox and Wallace

    Currents of Archival Thinking- ed. Eastwood and MacNeil


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