On History 1/3: What does it mean to work on history?

It seems to me that history should be important, and it seems that it should be worthwhile to learn and to impart. Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, wrote ‘there is more in us than we know.’ A friend told me that their student once misquoted to ‘there’s something inside me and I don’t know what it is.’ I think sometimes that feels more apt. I study history and I variously feel privileged, bored, intrigued, confused, in awe, and hopeless. But I most always feel that there’s something inside me that believes in history, and I don’t know what it is. I’m going to split this question in three posts: (1) When I’m doing history, what am I working on? (2) What does it mean to believe in history? and (3) What does it mean to DO history? I promise no definitive answers. So first, when I’m doing history, what am I working on?

I attend ROUNDS at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with Steve Seidel, a gathering of education practitioners for three hours on the first Saturday of each month. Half of the session is spent looking closely at a single piece of student work, and the protocol involves sharing speculations on ‘what is the student working on?’ At the first session I attended, I noticed that the protocol could be used to pick apart any text, or piece of work. But to my surprise some of the approaches that the educators were using seemed quite problematic to me as an historian.

At this gathering, we listened to a musical composition by a high school student. People suggested that the student was ‘working on’ melancholy, or on directing a string ensemble, or specific composition techniques. The liberating aspect of the question ‘what is the student working on?’ as compared to a question which intellectual historians often ask, ‘what is the author doing?’ is that there is no hierarchy of answers. The project is partly personal, partly academic, partly pragmatic (eg. working on getting a good grade in class). On the other hand, the question assumes progress; working on something suggests trying to get better at something. One teacher suggested that in order to evaluate student work, we must assume that the student is working on something, and therefore more broadly that humans in general do have things that they are working on. The teacher was seeing it in part as her role to endow the text with a coherence that it may not have. Such an act of setting out to find coherences in a text, or in the body of work of an author, is enticing but does not necessarily represent good historical practice.

Nonetheless, if we take a broader view beyond the historical individual or artifact, seeking out coherence (via explanation) surprisingly seems to be precisely what historians are working on. More simply, it seems that in order for the task of studying history to be worthwhile, we assume that the past has some meaning. We assume that things happen because other things happened, and that those reasons are discoverable and useful to know. So one thing historians work on is discovering meaning.

Perhaps the idea of finding meaning is simpler if broken down. I write my papers by reading and taking notes, and following up on citations for other things to read, and read and read until either there’s nothing else relevant, or I feel things coming together, or I run out of time. Then I go through all my notes and make a ‘plan’ which is almost as long as the paper itself, where I divide the notes by theme so they can speak to other notes and ideas of the same theme. These themes usually turn into sections of an essay. Some subheadings go into the essay graveyard of fascinating or futile topics which bear no relation to anything else, and that’s a document called ‘essay extra’, of which there are many. In this approach, I hope the dangerously ahistorical ‘imposing coherence’ could be better thought of as facilitating a conversation between ideas, events, people, places, which need to speak to each other, or which other historians should know did speak to each other. A second task historians work on, then, is facilitating conversations.

Third, it seems that the simplest and most fundamental work of a historian is that of recovery. By recovery I mean the discovery of something that was obviously already known to someone in the past, so it’s not really the discovery of something new. It’s my impression that recovery is more often the task of archaeologists, museum curators, archivists, librarians, very lucky historians etc., than of normal historians in this day and age.

It’s important to me that ‘what are historians working on’ be a question that addresses history itself, and not history as a means of working on expository writing, or debate skills, or civic engagement, or empathy, however valid those offshoots are. What else are historians working on?