March 27, 2014

The Future of Historiology

Where is the study of the Field of History headed? Three books I've been working through recently make no predictions but identify areas that have been sorely neglected.

In 1997, in a side comment while introducing his marvelous The Footnote: A Curious History, Anthony Grafton made this astute observation (p.26)

"Most students of historiography, for their part, have interested themselves in the explicit professions [I think he means 'pronouncements',B] of their subjects, rather than their technical practices - especially those that were tacitly, rather than explicitly, transmitted and employed. The philosophy of history has had far more attention than its philology. Most studies of the latter, moreover, have addressed themselves only to the ways in which historians do research - as if the selection and presentation of one's data did not affect it in fundamental ways."

Indeed. Who has ever come forth to teach us about best practice in the writing of history? Lo an behold, as if in answer to Grafton, along came professor Stephen J Pyne, with Voice & Vision, in 2009. If your department does not yet recomend it officially to grad students, I predict you will soon begin doing so.

In hope of selling many books for Pyne, I will quote the first few paragraphs at length. They are not complex, but they are foundational. He begins,
It has become commonplace these days to speak of unpacking texts. This is a book about packing that prose in the first place. 
I'm speaking of a prose that often gets left behind. Fiction has guidebooks galore; journalism has shelves stocked with manuals; and certain hybrids such as creative nonfiction or New Journalism have evolved standards, aesthetics, and justifications for how to transfer the dominant modes of fiction to topics in nonfiction. But history and other serious nonfiction have no such guides. Nonfiction - apart from memoir - is not taught in writing workshops or MFA programs, and its standards and aesthetics are not discussed on freelancer listserves. Neither is it taught as part of a professional training by academic guilds. While scholarly historians are eager to discuss historiography, they ignore the craft that can turn their theses and narratives into literature. 
This curious omission places beyond the pale of taught writing whole realms of serious nonfiction that do not rely on reportage or segue into memoir. It dismisses scholarship based on archives and printed literature. It ignores writers who do not make themselves the subject, overt or implied, of their work. It relegates texts in the field of history, in particular, to the status of unlettered historiography or unanchored prose. They exist only as conveyers of theses and data or as naive exposition. 
This book is for those who want to understand the ways in which literary considerations can enhance the writing of serious nonfiction. In their search for new texts to deconstruct, literary theorists have in recent years seized on nonfiction to demonstrate literature's critical primacy over all kinds of texts. It's time for historians, especially, to reply. History is scholarship. It is also art, and it is literature. It has no need to emulate fiction, morph into memoir, or become self-referential. But those who write it do need to be conscious of their craft. And what is true for history is true for all serious nonfiction. The issue is not whether the writing is popular, but whether it is good, which is to say, whether it does what it intends. Here are my thoughts on how to make this happen.
Again, the book is called Voice & Vision and if you care about the writing of history, or just want to see how the more engaging nonfiction writers manage to keep a clear conscience, you should buy a copy for yourself. 

Whether or not Pyne's manual becomes a classic among scholars, it clearly details a gaping lacuna in scholarly practice. With or without footnotes, History is Literature. For a long time, historiography has been caught up in a battle between objectivity and subjectivity (or often merely between competing authorities' versions of things) but the recent phenomenon known as the "linguistic turn" did more than divert scholars' efforts into postmodern studies where they could say things that were sayable. Over time, our growing awareness of history's literary aspect (a *very* large aspect, to be sure) is altering the way we read historians of the past and understand our own efforts to construct new ways of understanding the past. Surely, it is inevitable that we begin to focus on writing.

Finally, in a slightly different direction, the third book I mentioned has identified a serious gap in the pedagogy of history. Also semi-recent and deserving of much more attention, in 2001 Sam Wineburg published Historical Thinking, a book whose title thrils me almost as much as its subtitle arrests me. Historical Thinking "and other unnatural acts". What a discouraging thought! But the diagnosis is offered in search of a cure.

Wineburg's second subtitle is prescriptive, "charting the future of teaching the past". With yet another series of recognizable surprises, he shows how little attention educators have paid to *how* and *why* we teach History, as curriculum guides tend to focus on which facts should be (ahem) "taught".

Again, to recognize and address this pedagogical lacuna is perfectly in line with the present moment in, ah, history, as they say. What has gone until now is the jockeying between authorized textbooks, but the future may not be doomed to an infinite cacophany of persepctives. Rather, the historical works that may matter most in our future are ones which stand on significant sources of the past but do NOT attempt to play trump cards again, as has been attempted so often, with increasingly fleeting results. Instead, I do hereby predict, the most valuable historians we will carry into our future are the ones who use major sources of the past in completely pluriform awareness, to teach people how to explore, analyze, and understand the past for themselves.

If History has any bedrock, we must now content ourselves to lay out the possibilties and allow people to recognize that for themselves. The professional historian's job is no longer going to be as enforcer or arbiter, but as guide. The historical writer, as instructor, must decide whether to convey facts or teach skills. In this regard, Wineburg's volume is desperately needed.

As society moves further away from being told what to think, we need - truly, desperately, urgently NEED - to step beyond tired rhetoric and truly, honestly, effectively, actually TEACH the poor and thoughtless among us HOW to think.

The History books written in our near future are going to aim at teaching, and they're going to be written well. Hopefully.

Anon, then...

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