The Art of History
Caroline Walker Bynum, December 2009
Noralee Frankel, AHA’s assistant director for women, minorities, and teaching, writes: On the suggestion of the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee, the editorial board of Perspectives on History has launched this new series of articles under the title, The Art of History. This new column will carry essays by senior scholars who are willing to share their thoughts on, and offer advice about, some aspect of the art and craft of historical research and writing, drawing upon their own experiences in particular. Given the Graduate and Early Career Committee’s special interest in this series, it is fitting that the series begins with Caroline Walker Bynum’s article describing why and how she imparts to her graduate students the “unerring sense of what scholarship is.”
Perspectives on History has recently published so many good articles by gifted scholars on how they go about doing research and writing history that I am at a loss to say anything more on these topics.1 Realizing this, however, has led me to ponder what gives such essays their wit and wisdom, and I think it is this: an unerring sense of what scholarship is. A set of shared assumptions about what scholars do informs such writing so deeply that it is never articulated; it doesn’t need to be. Hard work in archives and libraries without taking shortcuts through the research of others; integrity of citation from primary sources and secondary authorities; thorough grounding in earlier work (and not just that of the 1990s or later); situating of specific conclusions in complex historical contexts; genuine discoveries and original questions, not just a rehash of current theories; and always, always the struggle to ensure that the issues raised are appropriate to the material at hand, that it is not pulled out of shape by contemporary concerns or anxieties: these things are assumed by those who ask “how do we get started in the archives?” or “how do we write up our notes?”
Yet these values are not a natural part of the mental furniture of ordinary people, nor are they implicitly assumed even by most intellectuals, who may find something almost stodgy in such rectitude of citation, in so much work for such a small amount of prose. Where do such values come from? Are we teaching them and, if so, how? It seemed to me, as I thought about writing this essay, that I might consider not so much how I go about crafting history myself as how I go about ensuring that these values are still assumed in the next generation—that is, in my own students.
Such values and assumptions are not those of the average, or even the gifted, undergraduate history major. He or she has seldom seen an archive and often not a primary source. Moreover, young men and women do not bring these assumptions with them to graduate school. Indeed I think that such values are less likely to be present at some implicit level in those entering graduate school today than they were earlier. The reasons for this are complicated and may stem in part from the cynicism of our contemporary political culture as well as the excesses of some current academic and journalistic practice. But, ironically enough, the reasons also lie in the educational successes of the previous decades.
In high schools increasing efforts are made now to have students “do research.” It is more common than it was several decades ago to ask high school students to write long papers, ostensibly based in “primary sources.” But, as those who teach in colleges know well, such “research” is all too often simply a good deal of cutting-and-pasting from internet sources.
Faced with this, college teachers are under even more pressure to teach “critical thinking” than they were 20 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s it was also, of course, necessary to unbalance the assumption students brought with them from high school that history was about “the facts.” Then, as now, professors had to teach undergraduates that there is no such thing as a “fact” in the strict sense of the word—that is, that history is always constructed and perceived. But now there is the new danger of the ease of “research.” A high school student can “Google” anything and everything and paste it in. Hence college instructors have to struggle to introduce the very concept of an expert opinion or a primary source. We all know this. But I think we have not realized that, in the process of teaching undergraduates not to “just cut and paste,” we have imparted a sort of hypercriticality that may undercut—even while it in some ways enhances—what they need in order to be scholars. We have taught them to be critical of where they find material; we have taught them to expect bias and to study authors for it; we have taught them to ask questions of their material, not just “accumulate facts.” All to the good. But in the process we have perhaps led them to think that when they have “critiqued” someone else’s position, they have found one of their own; that the work of the historian is to find the flaws in how others put things; that the task is finished when they have contextualized—as part of a “school” or a “trend,” a political commitment or an “identity position”—someone else’s conclusions. And such contextualizing or “critiquing” often means demolishing. We reward the cheekily worded rejoinder, the clever diagnosis of bias in their supposed elders and betters. It is hard to teach any other way when one needs to engender skepticism about the vast wash of material available out there in cyberspace. It is especially difficult for areas such as medieval Europe or early China, for example, where undergraduates cannot be asked to do genuine research.
This situation means, however, that those who have succeeded as undergraduates often come to graduate school with a hypercritical stance toward the profession. When, under the pressure of declining enrollments, graduate students specializing in widely different time periods are thrown together into a single introductory class, such pro-seminars often come down to reading a few books, “classic” or otherwise, and finding the biases in them—something these gifted students have learned how to do all too well in college. Yet, if I am right about what we at our best assume scholarship to be, we in fact value something else more than these “critical skills,” however much we value them as well. We value patience and the ability to postpone gratification until we get something right. We value the silences in our sources more than the speed with which we obtain results; and we are willing to slow down, to read again, to listen to what is not being said, in order that we may spot unlikely possibilities. We assume we are in continuity with the work of other scholars and that the best work is not necessarily the most recent. An archivist in France in 1900, for example, or an archaeologist in Mongolia in the 1950s may have gone further than a recent theorist who knows the basic material less well. We understand that the purpose of a footnote is not so much to disagree with someone else’s argument or call attention to our own interdisciplinary reading as to express gratitude to those earlier scholars without whose work we could not make progress ourselves.
How then do we teach this stance to our graduate students in the face of the very different habits they may have brought with them from college and indeed from the larger culture? Here I can suggest only a few techniques I have found useful in offering introductory “methods” classes to first-year students who come from such a wide variety of fields and chronological areas that sharing specific bibliographies and research techniques is not an option.
My first principle is to postpone the writing of any “book review” until well into the semester. Before evaluating an argument, it is necessary to get it right; this is far harder than most beginning graduate students realize. In the second or third week of class I have students bring with them a one-sentence summary of the book we are discussing. Then I have a student volunteer to put his or her statement on the board. We usually spend the entire class period revising that sentence together until we finally have a statement that accurately sums up what the author is saying.
For the next class, I have students find a review of one of the books we have already read that they consider a good (not necessarily, of course, a positive) review and write a short essay on why the review succeeds. This precipitates a discussion of what a review should accomplish—that is, not only identify a book’s argument and its anticipated readership correctly but also evaluate its use of sources, situate it in the field of scholarship where it belongs (including the broad trends, biases, and assumptions of that field), and assess what it contributes. Students immediately realize that they usually don’t know enough to write a good review, but the realization is as much freeing as discouraging since it suggests to them that, in the long run, the goal of reviewing is assessing fairly and furthering knowledge, not either one-upmanship or paraphrase.
Then comes the footnote exercise—a pedagogical technique I borrowed from my former student Alison Frazier, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. I have the students find a long footnote in one of the books we have read and write an entire paper about it, checking every reference, primary and secondary. Do the sources support the point made? Are the cited passages taken in or out of context? Is the secondary material germane to the issue? The result of such investigation can, of course, be disillusionment with some great scholars whose particular note may turn out to be inaccurate or tendentious; but learning that even the greatest historians sometimes nod can be a relief as well as a warning. And in any case such an exercise leads to new respect for how much work goes into the deployment of even a single bit of supporting evidence. Only after these three steps do I ask students to write a review of a book.
While all this has been going on, I have also had students work on a prospectus for a research topic, to be submitted halfway through the term. I spend a good deal of time with each student, criticizing as best as I can the design of the topic, how appropriately it fits the source material, and why (given the state of the field) the question is being asked. This first prospectus is really a joint enterprise in which I steer the students away from unanswerable questions, inappropriate use of sources, or trendy (and therefore often tired) topics. I spend a lot of time asking, “Just how are you going to determine this from that?” Then, instead of having the students use the remaining six weeks to cobble together a research paper, I say, “OK, start all over again. Find a completely different question and design a research plan. This time do it by yourself.” Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, there will be a second semester in which the student can actually write one of the two papers proposed. But the interesting thing is that, even if the paper cannot be written or cannot be written just then, students tell me later that having gone through the exercise paid off when they came to choosing a dissertation topic, for they had begun to develop a sense (which, we know, will require a lifetime of honing) of how sources and questions must fit together.
Different teachers will have different techniques. These have worked for me. My general point is not, however, so much to suggest specific exercises as to make the argument that we have to teach a scholarly stance and that it is best taught hands-on. Only by the painstaking examination of what actually goes into an argument or a footnote or a review—of how hard it is to write history well—are students both challenged and empowered to do it themselves. Paradoxically enough, it turns out that making good scholarship seem difficult in the first graduate class leads to students who feel confident, not daunted when they turn to the far more difficult but far more rewarding work of finding a dissertation topic and crafting their first piece of history.
—Caroline Walker Bynum, professor of European medieval history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She was president of the AHA in 1996. Among her many books, the most recent is Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, which received the Otto Gründler Book Prize. She is currently working on the significance of objects in the medieval religious world.