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The Borders of "Acceptable" Historical Method and Perspective


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Now that I'm into my third year, I'm increasingly confident that the framework in which I view historical narratives is sound and worthwhile. However, I've simultaneously realized that the framework that I value is not a framework that I find others tend to value.

Has anyone else encountered a similar situation? I feel as if I'm constantly required to defend my methodological approaches to my work. It's somewhat tiresome. 

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I have colleagues whose primary method is historical linguistics, and they get tired of explaining to fellow historians how they do what they do and why it should be considered history. A large part of their work involves explaining and defending their methodology to non-specialists. But such is the price of getting to do the work you want. 

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20 minutes ago, AfricanusCrowther said:

I have colleagues whose primary method is historical linguistics, and they get tired of explaining to fellow historians how they do what they do and why it should be considered history. A large part of their work involves explaining and defending their methodology to non-specialists. But such is the price of getting to do the work you want. 

That is precisely the sort of situation I'm faced with regularly.

Professor A: "What do you want to write about for your final paper in the course?"
Me: "I want to write about X, Y, and Z." 
Professor A: "But that's useless, and it doesn't tell us anything."
Me: "Yes it does, let me try to explain it..."

Then I'm forced to both explain it in person and spend a significant portion of my paper defending my work, to which I'll likely be criticized for spending far too long describing my work.

I think I'm just going to have to sort of adopt a benign apathy to the criticisms and tally forth with the work I want to do.

Edited by Neist
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Can you give a concrete example? You say 'method/perspective', but it sounds like the pushback you're getting is over the "so what". 

The broader problem is that no matter how confident you are in your own outlook, if the general reaction to what you're attempting is negative, you're going to have substantial problems on the job market where no one will wait around for the explanation. Plus, it sounds to me like the people you're talking to don't find your explanations satisfactory in any case. 

I should note that this can be more of a problem of framing and phrasing than of approach - it took me a solid hour of describing what I wanted to do for my dissertation to my adviser to have her go "ah, yes, that will go somewhere." When you strike on a description that resonates with others, it's important to remember and use it elsewhere. 

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4 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

Can you give a concrete example? You say 'method/perspective', but it sounds like the pushback you're getting is over the "so what". 

The broader problem is that no matter how confident you are in your own outlook, if the general reaction to what you're attempting is negative, you're going to have substantial problems on the job market where no one will wait around for the explanation. Plus, it sounds to me like the people you're talking to don't find your explanations satisfactory in any case. 

I should note that this can be more of a problem of framing and phrasing than of approach - it took me a solid hour of describing what I wanted to do for my dissertation to my adviser to have her go "ah, yes, that will go somewhere." When you strike on a description that resonates with others, it's important to remember and use it elsewhere. 

Eh, well, the most general issue I encounter as I perceive it is that I'm a book historian who is more interested in the "message" than the "messenger". I consider books as cultural artifacts and believe they can be and should at least be considered important materially distinct from those who have created them, just in the same way that a magazine advertisement of a woman in the 1950s smoking a cigarette while cooking a meal is historically interesting beyond as to who created that advertisement. I see books as potentials of what could be known, not as evidence of what a person conceived as being known or worthy of being known. It's a subtle distinction, but a lot of the critiques I receive about my work, while valid, presuppose a different approach than that which I'm attempting to formulate (the specific method of my work is somewhat novel, and while known historians have used it, I'm plowing untowed ground). 

In short, I foresee having to dedicate more space in my dissertation than preferable defending the methodological framework I'm developing. Perhaps an entire chapter.

I'm not concerned with the job market because I'm nearly sure I won't work in a history department. I had a reasonably long professional career in libraries before attending graduate school, and the program I'm attending rewards an MLIS along with my history degree. That and job prospects in the history of science are beyond dismal. 

I think what I'm going to have to do is just write up a methodological essay discussing how I intend to study books and the literature supporting the worthiness of said approach. Maybe such a composition can be an eventual component of my dissertation. 

 

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14 minutes ago, Neist said:

That and job prospects in the history of science are beyond dismal.

If you want a dedicated history of science job, there aren't too many of those. However, historians who can also teach history of science are valuable. We just hired one here as our new Ottomanist.

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22 minutes ago, psstein said:

If you want a dedicated history of science job, there aren't too many of those. However, historians who can also teach history of science are valuable. We just hired one here as our new Ottomanist.

True, but I, unfortunately, suffer from interests in highly studied areas. :) 

If I had to generalize, I'd state that I study the history of books, evolutionary theory, and progressive era United States. The latter two are somewhat saturated fields.

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9 hours ago, Neist said:

It's somewhat tiresome. 

 

8 hours ago, Neist said:

I think I'm just going to have to sort of adopt a benign apathy to the criticisms and tally forth with the work I want to do.

The first two quoted passages IMO do not reflect a sustainable approach to the craft. If you can't explain in a way that resonates to established historians how what you're doing is history, then you're doing it wrong. You can do what you want but if you want your committee to do what you want (sign off on your dissertation), you're going to have to find it within yourself to do what they want. 

6 hours ago, Neist said:

Eh, well, the most general issue I encounter as I perceive it is that I'm a book historian who is more interested in the "message" than the "messenger". I consider books as cultural artifacts and believe they can be and should at least be considered important materially distinct from those who have created them, just in the same way that a magazine advertisement of a woman in the 1950s smoking a cigarette while cooking a meal is historically interesting beyond as to who created that advertisement. I see books as potentials of what could be known, not as evidence of what a person conceived as being known or worthy of being known. It's a subtle distinction, but a lot of the critiques I receive about my work, while valid, presuppose a different approach than that which I'm attempting to formulate (the specific method of my work is somewhat novel, and while known historians have used it, I'm plowing untowed ground). 

Is the passage above is an indication of a novel approach to history or an example of writing that is unclear?

9 hours ago, Neist said:

Now that I'm into my third year,

? 

Sometimes, when one thinks one knows "I know exactly what I'm doing" is the best time to hear again and again "Exactly what is it you think you're doing?"

I suspect that what you're trying to do has been done many, many times and that you would greatly benefit from finding examples. These examples will put you on more solid footing IRT the historiography, the method, and the tone of your work. 

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6 hours ago, Sigaba said:

Sometimes, when one thinks one knows "I know exactly what I'm doing" is the best time to hear again and again "Exactly what is it you think you're doing?"

One of the pieces of advice I received as I look ahead to the job market is to pay attention to the ways people who know my work describe it, and compare those descriptions of my work to how I conceive of it. You'll often find these differ substantially, even for people who have read multiple chapters of your dissertation. Exploring those differences is a very useful exercise. 

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On 9/30/2018 at 7:39 PM, Neist said:

I consider books as cultural artifacts and believe they can be and should at least be considered important materially distinct from those who have created them, just in the same way that a magazine advertisement of a woman in the 1950s smoking a cigarette while cooking a meal is historically interesting beyond as to who created that advertisement.

It is unclear to me, as it was to @Sigaba, how this is an unusual approach. Indeed, the idea of "book as cultural artifact" is the foundation of Eisenstein's work in the late 1970s, and thus the entire field of the history of the book. Ann Blair and Jeffery Hamburger are more recent contributors to the discussion, one which has not only divested the book from its author but also made the case that the object is itself a historical agent. 

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You're only in your 3rd year and I assume you have not passed your candidacy exams yet.  You will most certainly learn a lot this coming year from your preparations the best ways to articulate and defend your ideas.  One of the aims of a doctoral examination is to see if you can articulate your understanding, analyses, and ideas clearly to a range of audiences (particularly well-educated people who are not necessarily in your field or sharing same methodologies). 

Many doctoral students struggle as you are, which @telkanuru hits it on the head: articulating your thoughts clearly and in an unpretentious way.  We always ask, "so what?" Fellowship committees always ask "so what?" when they read proposals.  It is your job as a scholar to explain the big picture of why the history of books as part of material culture matters.  For example, in your case, I'll say, I appreciate books as tools for disseminating information but I cannot care less about the kind of cover or script a book has (why should I care where the pages are from, animal skin or trees?).

Keep working at it; don't brush those comments off. You need to convince those people why your work matters.

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Thanks for the responses, everyone. :) 

I apologize for being deliberately vague, but considering a rather large of my research is a methodological defense of my work, one can't honestly expect me to work expend the effort typing it out here. Though, I'll briefly state that some of your advice, while worthwhile, is not relevant to my particular case.

First, I don't consider myself a historian. I consider myself a bibliographer who works historically. There is somewhat of a distinction, and the distinction is a larger discussion than what I, unfortunately, have the time to discuss here. But regardless, bibliography is very much a different way of producing scholarship. My committee supports my work, but my committee is somewhat of a unicorn. I don't feel as if, very generally, historians consider my work worthwhile.

Second, as I've stated before, I likely will work in libraries, so ultimately, it doesn't matter what other historians think of my work. All that matters to me is that I produce historically sound work. I'm not planning on playing disciplinarity politics, which to be honest, has turned me away from working in academia in general. People are so catty.

Again, thank you for your responses.

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20 minutes ago, Neist said:

Your post.

 

It's increasingly apparent to me that you may be feeling overwhelmed by the process of preparing for your qualifying exams and that you're using this thread to blow off some steam. 

While blowing off steam in front of strangers is a convenient tactic, I don't know if it's a sustainable practice. I recommend that you "downshift" for a day or two, maybe treat yourself to a beverage at your favorite coffee house, maybe do some recreational reading, and then get back to it. When you get back at it, take another look at the posts by @telkanuru and @telkanuru

If you need support figuring out how to square the circle of finding ways of framing your approach to the past within existing trajectories of historiography, rephrase your OP so you can get the support that you need. (FWIW, I've in mind at least two ways that you can do what you want to do and anchor it to at least one trajectory of established historiography.)

Please keep in mind that regardless of what you think and what you say, you do need the support of your current program to get to where you want to go. A reputation of not playing well with others, considering yourself too smart for the room, and being inconsiderate of others' time will follow you in your professional career even if it's outside the Ivory Tower.

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

It's increasingly apparent to me that you may be feeling overwhelmed by the process of preparing for your qualifying exams and that you're using this thread to blow off some steam. 

 

To be frank, my response was a struggled and diplomatic attempt to respond to replies which I consider ranging from slightly patronizing to entirely off-base. Indeed, some of the comments are so wholly off-base that I'm uncertain how politely to respond. But then again, I feel obliged to answer as I believe it impolite not to regard comments which were written in good nature, even if possibly unintentionally off-point. 

How should one respond to comments which imply increasingly codified assumptions about one's intentions? How am I supposed to politely say, "Actually, I'm not talking about that..."? How am I supposed to say, "Isn't it perhaps a stretch that you assume that, specifically, is my concern?" How does one politely articulate "Yes, I've already considered everything you've written, extensively" without a "Nu-uh, I don't think you have!" response?

I'm thankful for the good nature inspiring the replies, but very little of the advice given here is especially profound or relevant. So here I am, at a loss.

Consider this a second attempt at my struggled attempt at diplomacy.

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2 hours ago, Neist said:

How should one respond to comments which imply increasingly codified assumptions about one's intentions? How am I supposed to politely say, "Actually, I'm not talking about that..."? How am I supposed to say, "Isn't it perhaps a stretch that you assume that, specifically, is my concern?" How does one politely articulate "Yes, I've already considered everything you've written, extensively" without a "Nu-uh, I don't think you have!" response?

Those are all good starts.

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4 hours ago, Neist said:

replies which I consider ranging from slightly patronizing to entirely off-base

Do you think that's because you're very clear and everyone else is dumb, or that you really need to work on articulating what you're thinking to your audience? If we're having the same basic reactions as people you've explained your ideas to in person...

4 hours ago, Neist said:

Actually, I'm not talking about that..."?

This is fairly polite.

4 hours ago, Neist said:

How am I supposed to say, "Isn't it perhaps a stretch that you assume that, specifically, is my concern?"

You don't. You evaluate why they think that this thing that isn't your concern is your concern.

4 hours ago, Neist said:

How does one politely articulate "Yes, I've already considered everything you've written, extensively" without a "Nu-uh, I don't think you have!" response?

By giving heavy credence to that rebuttal. If it's clear to you but not to them, it's your responsibility to bridge that gap.

4 hours ago, Neist said:

very little of the advice given here is especially profound or relevant.

Profound? Certainly not. Relevance, however, is your burden to shoulder.

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Your position is that you're not concerned with what others think you should be concerned with because you don't need to be. How do you know? Do you have an executed job offer that guarantees you a position no matter what? Do you know what it is like when a department PNGs a graduate student? Are you so adept at what you intend to do that you can endure the consequences of the path you're set on walking? (FWIW, one of the most intellectually capable individuals I've ever met got himself PNG-ed. He got his dissertation approved in record time and he can't get his calls returned because he burned every bridge along the way.)

Those who are offering support--and it's support that you're receiving--are urging you to be cautious and to be patient, and most of all, to be smart. Maybe not into one's third year 'increasingly confident" smart like you, but smart enough to talk to professors about the experiences you're disclosing. The point that you're disregarding is that one goes through a period where one's research interests and methodology seem ahead of the field not because petty academic historians are playing an endless game of cat and mouse to thwart the unappreciated genius of a graduate student but because they're teaching that student to tighten up the argument.

As you've doubtlessly experienced in your classes, a established historian at the top of his game can run through page after page of bibliographies and reading lists, summarizing complex works into one sentence. A graduate student at the top of her game can summarize a complex and heated historiographical debate in a couple of paragraphs (and some long footnotes) in a peer -reviewed article.

If you had demonstrated either level of expertise in your OP, it would have been up votes, golf claps, and bravo zulus for you. But the fact that you are refusing even to try suggests that you're not anywhere close to where you think you are. The support you're receiving in this thread are recommendations that you slow your roll, reassess where you are, where you're trying to go, and ask yourself if your current path is the best one.

A word about the "patronizing" that's going on in this thread. It's coming from you. You're the one starting a thread in the history forum denigrating the craft and its practitioners as being unworthy of your best efforts. You're the one saying you ultimately need nothing from historians but only after you didn't get the approval you sought in your OP. You're the one talking smack about unnamed people in your department rather than going to their office and saying it to them in person. You're the one talking about how ahead of the curve you are but when invited to walk the talk you double down...by refusing. FYI, hoarding knowledge is not a best practice for graduate students. Graduate students need more from others than they have to give.

You want to show historians how your approach is better despite what SMEs in your department tell you, that's great. Yet, a point that you're ignoring in this thread is that there are ways to make that argument in ways that historians will understand and respect--if not like.

(A question. How is it that, after two years in a program you don't have at hand numerous examples on how to present an iconoclastic argument that has the potential to revolutionize a field? Have you been spending all your time figuring out how you want to do things at the expense of learning how BTDTs do their thing? )

3 hours ago, Neist said:

Consider this a second attempt at my struggled attempt at diplomacy.

 

Hey, if you want to forgo "diplomacy,"  I'll be your huckleberry.

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2 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

Do you think that's because you're very clear and everyone else is dumb, or that you really need to work on articulating what you're thinking to your audience? If we're having the same basic reactions as people you've explained your ideas to in person...

 

Certainly, the latter. But for whom isn't that an issue? There is as much of a struggle articulating my thoughts as another person will have interpreting those thoughts. Communication is hell, and written communication is routinely inadequate. Case in point, the previous post by @Sigaba.

2 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

Insert toxic comments here. 

 

You really pulled all of that from a few hundred words and vague comments on a message board post that was casually written? I think you're reading a bit deep there, buddy.

As someone who suffers from quite a bit of mental health issues myself, I think you should talk to someone if your vitriol runs so deep that you feel compelled to project that much hatred onto others. A great deal of what you've stated is assumptions based on casual statements devoid of any person-to-person interaction. You have no idea who I am or my relationship with my advisors. You have no idea how I perceive myself or how I perceive the merit of my work. You immediately assumed I believed myself better than others, which, just so it's out there, is certainly not the case.  

I can't even engage with you. How do you engage with someone who assumes you're someone you're not? And quite frankly, I'm sickened that you'd spend this much effort trying to break someone down.

I'm done with you. I refuse to engage further.

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O....kay.  Just gonna pirouette over all of the above comments and offer my perspective.

It sounds like you might be doing something that is viewed as unfashionable or possibly antiquarian or overly technical by the historians in your department.  (Though I confess your method doesn't seem that strange to me -- it appears analogous to art historians who focus on the art itself, or like or anything in material culture studies.)  Are there historians of science whose work you can point to as examples of what your method can accomplish?  That might help them figure you out.

I would advise you to at least try to see the professors' perspectives and learn from what they have to say.  It's their job to get you to defend what you are doing and explain its importance. Right now it sounds like you are writing them off as people who refuse to comprehend the significance of your research. But they are most likely just doing their best to help you. Let yourself be stretched a little.

Of course, if you are confident of your career path in librarianship, you can get through as best you can, then do whatever you want afterward.  While in the program, look into opportunities like Rare Book School or any kind of relevant side-job you can get working in special collections or research libraries. 

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1 hour ago, Neist said:

But for whom isn't that an issue?

Sure, but that's the reason you try harder, not surrender.

Reading back through this thread, I'm even less sure of what you wanted from it than when we started.

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10 hours ago, Neist said:

I'm done with you. I refuse to engage further.

If this is your response to @Sigaba's mild suggestion that you take a step back and reevaluate, then maybe they're not as off base with their comments as you want to think they are.

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9 hours ago, telkanuru said:

Sure, but that's the reason you try harder, not surrender.

Reading back through this thread, I'm even less sure of what you wanted from it than when we started.

Well, I'm not surrendering? Sure, I don't feel the need to receive the approval of every scholar I meet, but I'm pretty certain that's par the course in the humanities. We don't agree. Frequently. Sure, there's a certain decorum where two might mutually disagree amicably, but I know I'm not the only person who's witnessed very intense professional feuds, even within the same department (I've been in some very uncomfortable meetings....). Academics aren't hired because they get along. They're hired because they know a lot about something and, hopefully, have the skills required to teach others that something.

Also, I think this might be key to some of the miscommunications in this discussion. I think some people think I'm seeking answers or advice. I am not. I just wanted a discussion and perhaps some camaraderie between fellow graduate students about the issues we face. 

1 hour ago, WhaleshipEssex said:

If this is your response to @Sigaba's mild suggestion that you take a step back and reevaluate, then maybe they're not as off base with their comments as you want to think they are.

Re-evaluate? What exactly? 

A lot of @Sigaba's post presupposes so much about who I am (which, just to clarify, is very much off-base and occasionally, borderline offensive), that, quite frankly, I don't know how to respond. If I respond to these mild suggestions then I affirm his view about who I am. I don't need to validate myself to a bunch of strangers online. Nor do I have the time to.

Edited by Neist
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10 hours ago, Katzenmusik said:

O....kay.  Just gonna pirouette over all of the above comments and offer my perspective.

It sounds like you might be doing something that is viewed as unfashionable or possibly antiquarian or overly technical by the historians in your department.  (Though I confess your method doesn't seem that strange to me -- it appears analogous to art historians who focus on the art itself, or like or anything in material culture studies.)  Are there historians of science whose work you can point to as examples of what your method can accomplish?  That might help them figure you out.

I would advise you to at least try to see the professors' perspectives and learn from what they have to say.  It's their job to get you to defend what you are doing and explain its importance. Right now it sounds like you are writing them off as people who refuse to comprehend the significance of your research. But they are most likely just doing their best to help you. Let yourself be stretched a little.

Of course, if you are confident of your career path in librarianship, you can get through as best you can, then do whatever you want afterward.  While in the program, look into opportunities like Rare Book School or any kind of relevant side-job you can get working in special collections or research libraries. 

As I stated previously, I wasn't really looking for answers, but I admit, this is likely the best comment I've yet received in this thread. Thanks a bunch. :) 

I've actually already attended some Rare Book School courses. They are great experiences, but I'm somewhat conflicted about attending more given how expensive they are. I received a more than a generous scholarship for the last class I attended, but it was still rather pricey. I might consider applying for the fellowship program once I'm a doctoral candidate; it allows one to take the courses free of tuition. 

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4 hours ago, Neist said:

Well, I'm not surrendering?

Withdrawing from the discussion by depicting it as irresolvable seems to be a form of surrender to me. 

4 hours ago, Neist said:

I think some people think I'm seeking answers or advice.

That's usually the purpose of these forums, so that sort of reaction doesn't seem very out of line. And I've re-read your initial post after seeing this; it still looks like you're seeking advice. 

4 hours ago, Neist said:

I just wanted a discussion and perhaps some camaraderie between fellow graduate students about the issues we face. 

You got a discussion, it's just not the one you wanted. What conclusions do you draw from that?

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