On History 3/3: What does it mean to DO history?

When I’m doing history, what exactly am I doing? This is a problematic question for me, because the ideas I’m thinking about—embodied skill in the seventeenth century, the relationship of trade knowledge and natural philosophy, approaches to working common land—differ so vastly from the embodied experience of learning those ideas—sitting in a chair, typing on a laptop, reading many books, having the occasional conversation. How can this be? I think something’s wrong. I’m definitely not alone because Pamela Smith, a widely recognized historian of early modern science, art, and craft knowledge, recently made such a claim. Something’s wrong with supposing that graduate students working on the ‘mindful hand’ can simply image themselves into early modern workshops. There is very much that we can’t understand without visceral experience. Smith’s response to this issue of doing history is to focus on reconstruction, an approach that art historians have long taken to try to discover the means of production of art works, but an approach more rarely taken by historians. Smith worked on using sixteenth century ‘recipes’ for making metal casts of small creatures such as lizards and frogs. Her assumption going into the process was that knowledge of this craft was largely transmitted through experience in workshops, as many craftsmen were illiterate. Nonetheless, the experience of following the recipe led her to discover meanings in the live casting recipe which were only revealed in the visceral action of working through it’s instructions. Here’s the whole talk: The History of Science: Snakes, Lizards and Manuscripts.

Another role model for me comes from Joyce Chaplin, with whom I study a field in environmental history. Interest in Benjamin Franklin’s charts of the Gulf Stream led her to a SEA Semester trip as a visiting professor, where she tested replica sea gauges. Pamela Smith and Joyce Chaplin are both professional historians experimenting in reenactment, an approach which Professor Chaplin admits to be skeptical of. Here’s her account: Overboard: A historian's life at sea.

Both Pamela Smith and Joyce Chaplin’s responses integrate relatively well into existing academic systems. Smith made her live casts in the kitchen of her faculty housing while on a fellowship at Princeton. Chaplin’s experiential voyage slipped between residential academic semesters at Harvard. I started thinking about this question of doing history last summer (2014) when I was writing a syllabus for an undergraduate environmental history course to be taught on a semester-long wilderness expedition. That was in an setting where I was encouraged to plan my lessons through a template with two columns, one for ‘I’ll do’ and the other for ‘they’ll do.’ In experiential education, it becomes really difficult to evade the question of what we’re doing. My inclination, though, based on the prevailing example provided by the model of training graduate students, was to design a syllabus which involved students reading seminal works of environmental history, then discussing the works, making presentations, doing activities, etc. It was hard for me to imagine (and it still is) how to present a body of scholarship to students through a means other than reading or lecturing, and indeed how a historians themselves learn by other means. I should note here that I’m taking the ‘historian’ to be anybody ‘working on’ history (see On History 1/3). I think the experience of being a student and being a professional in history are more similar than in some other fields. This conflation of student and professional is also a reminder that the historian is always her own teacher. So, in what other ways can history be done?

One approach to doing history which is more common at elementary and high school levels is to engage with contemporary issues, through doing service learning, oral history, activism, etc., as a means of appreciating how those issues were the results of long historical trajectories. The ideal teacher would be a true believer in history, as Carradona describes it (see On History 2/3). The verbs here might be building, interviewing, campaigning, etc.

Another approach to this question is to consider the components of a historical sensibility, and to ask what we do when we become acquainted with that sensibility. We are trying to wrap our heads around something that is very unlike what we know. That’s what any student does when they learn, but it seems that that’s somehow more the essence of the project in history. After we do that, there are other skills that an historian can hone, but the first task, I think, is a willingness to encounter other ways of being. As David Lowenthal sees it, the past is a foreign country. Such willingness to enter into that country is described by the educators Barton and Levstik as ‘cognitive empathy.’ They describe the importance of empathy as an intellectual tool which allows a student of history to think through the feelings and perspectives of those in the past. Empathy can be divided into ‘cognitive’, which involves perspective recognition and is more rational, and ‘feeling’, which brings the student of history to the topic in the first place because they ‘care that’ something happened. Both of these senses of empathy can be cultivated through doing many different things in our world today, and many experiential learning courses are already designed to cultivate this sort of empathetic sensibility.

A third tack to doing history would be to ask, what is doing history like? Metaphors are very often used as a way into lessons in experiential settings. These lessons frequently have to do with leadership or community building, and with confronting aspects of ‘human nature’ which are crystallized in challenging situations. In light of Ortega y Gasset’s line in the last post (‘man, in a word, has not nature; what he has is history’), the use of metaphor could also point to historical contexts. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold naturalizes processes of doing history, education and art, through natural metaphors, ‘the saw works only across the years, which I must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character of the samples thus made visible without.’ What would it mean to backtrack from this metaphor, to find that the historian does not only visit archives, but the historian cultivates a sensibility of using details, perhaps external or discarded, to draw more central conclusions.

Tamar Herzog, with whom I’m studying a field in early modern Iberian history, thinks of the past as a jungle. In approaching the past, there are innumerable factors to take into account, but the challenge of writing history is that you have to choose what counts. For Herzog, the historian charts a path through the jungle. The historian is impelled to take into account what is directly proximate to the path, while being happy that many parts of the jungle exist but do not come into contact with the path. Here the historian is an adventurer, and the past is a tangled, sometimes arbitrary mess. That’s a condition that any bushwhacking student on a wilderness course could easily understand.

The main difference between Pamela Smith’s and Joyce Chaplin’s projects and the three approaches I outlined is that Smith and Chaplin aim to put themselves in the position of someone in history in one way or another, in a sort of historical reenactment. The other approaches are grounded in the contemporary world. I’m not preferencing either, nor am I sure which is more effective, but I think often students find history initially engaging when they can perceive some connection with or implication for their own lives. That sort of connection also guides historians’ choices of research topics. This is what Dewey terms ‘generative knowledge,’ knowledge that is worth understanding. And this is where my main question about doing history comes in.

In Experience and Education, Dewey asks, ‘How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?’ (23). His answer, later, is that ‘the way out of scholastic systems that made the past an end in itself is to make acquaintance with the past as a means of understanding the present’ (78). I found this so disagreeable when I first read it. Studying the past is often not an end in itself for a believer in history, but what if it is? What’s the difference between knowledge worth understanding and presentism? Is it not a case of localism and presentism to suggest that we are the ones who know what is worth knowing? Yes, perhaps each generation makes its history anew. But the thrilling challenge in empathy that history brings also requires us to get to know historical strangers.

This brings me back to the impulse to greet history in its own terms—by making sense of the words, texts, images, objects that remain. That often involves visiting such remnants in their homes indoors, in basements, or digitized on a computer. After a significant investment of time, it may involve a brief experiment at sea, or in a kitchen. Are being a student of history and an historian more different than I thought? Can other ways of doing history be more than appendages on existing ways of interacting with sources?

As promised, I have no definitive answers. I’m just looking forward to the moment when I realize that this conceptualization is all wrong.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949), p.16. Barton and Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (2009). David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (1999). Dewey, Experience and Education (1938).