Does history matter, Part II? What historians bring to the table

From the frying pan into the fire!

Although as I explained yesterday I feel somewhat alienated from my discipline, there are things that historians bring to the table that no one else does.  This is by no means the dernier cri–it’s a document that I invite you all to critique and add to.  It’s about time for me to add another page to this blog for disheartened historians young and old to remind us of what it is we can do and why what we do is important.  Let’s call it “Why Historians Matter” although again, that’s just a suggestion.  I’m certainly open to catchier titles–and ones that don’t appear to plagiarize Judith Bennett quite so much!

So far, I’ve tried to focus on the key elements of historical research (collection, analysis, and evaluation) and one aspect of teaching history (citizenship).   Continue reading

Does history matter? Part I

UPDATED BELOW

Grab a cup and join me!

That’s the question for today:  what are we historians doing, and does it matter?  I wonder if it’s possible that 20 years after earning my Ph.D. that I might have chosen the wrong academic discipline.  Most historians are way too methodologically conservative for me.  Why has it taken me half a career to figure this out?  Is it history, or is it me?

I always preferred history to literature.  I always took at least one English literature course per semester in college, and toyed for a time with majoring in English, but I never got the hang of writing a literature paper.  You historians can probably guess the kinds of papers I wrote for my English classes, papers that explored the historical context of whichever text or author I was supposed to be writing about instead of the text itself!  I worked with loads of lit students in graduate courses in cultural theory, which were a big deal in the early 1990s at Penn.  I appreciated its insights for history, but was a bit dazed at the thought of applying the ideas just to one or two “texts,” instead of loads of “primary sources.” Continue reading

Women and fashion: can’t win for losing, turn of the 19th century-style

I’ve been inspired by the recent coverage of the fall 2017 collections during New York and Paris fashion weeks to think about the many ways fashion is deployed as a critique of women’s vanity.  Here are a couple of brilliant prints I came across recently that are great to consider together.  First, we have “The Inconvenience of Dress” (1786), which mocks the late-1780s demand for “false rumps” or “cork bums” to fill out the rear portion of women’s skirts.  The poor dear needs help from a false rump because she can’t get consume enough calories to build her own, given the fashion for generous neckerchiefs in women’s wear in this period, too.  Aye, but “Who’ll not starve to lead the Fashion?” as the ditty below asks:

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Quick, someone at a liberal arts college do something the Wall Street Journal can b!tch about endlessly

Do I look like a dangerous leftist to you?

. . . because they can’t complain endlessly about the “illiberal arts” majors at Middlebury College, can they? Or can they?  The amount of ink they have spilled over the shut-down of white nationalist Charles Murray‘s talk there is pretty impressive, considering the shambling embarrassment of a presidential administration and the inability of the governing party to agree on much of anything.  I guess there’s always the antics of a few pissed off students at an elite, private liberal arts college in Vermont, population 2,500 students, to induce panic in the ruling classes.

It’s kind of cute that they seem so fearful of us!  If only we faculty were the diabolically powerful leftist Svengalis that they imagine we are.  Most of us are just desperate to wean our students from fragment sentences, the bizarre use of the word “off” these days (“Based off of. . . ”  What???  What is a “base?”  Is a “base” something you put stuff ON, or OFF OF? Yegads, people.), and to inculcate an appreciation of the subjunctive tense as well as to pass on a little discipline-specific knowledge.  (Just a little!) Continue reading

Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! A member of a Monstrous Regiment of Women pipes up a tune & smokes it.

Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), by John Singleton Copley, 1763.  In her correspondence with Abigail Smith Adams and John Adams, Warren called herself “Marcia,” and Adams signed herself “Portia.”

Do women historians exist?  If we exist, do men historians know it?  Going by the antics of the editors of the Journal of the American Revolution, the answer to both questions is an entirely nonsensical no! Which you must admit is pretty hilarious, especially considering that the very first historian of the American Revolution (yes, that one!) was, in fact, a lady!  It’s true!  Mercy Otis Warren’s Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., 1805) is widely recognized as the first, and for probably more than a century the only authoritative history of the American Revolution.

For a historical subfield invented by a woman, you’d think there would be a little more remembering of the ladies happening in this list of the “100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time.”  You’d think that, but you’d be so very wrong.  Tragically wrong, in fact.  Of the 114 separate books they list, there are only 11 by women, and one co-authored by a woman.  And of those 11 single-authored books by women, fully three are by the great Pauline Maier, so the list includes only ten women historians in all.  TEN women, and eleven and a half books.  Take that, Marcia!   Continue reading