Why We Return to Certain Books Like Clockwork

This post was originally published at Public Seminar on February 7, 2018

When people ask me what I am teaching this semester, I bury the lede.

I first describe my exciting, five-section strong introduction to Internet studies. Then there is the big reveal: “I am also teaching a core course in our history graduate program,” I continue, “with a super-sexy title: Historical Methods!” Except the truth is — call me a nerd now and get it over with — I do think that historical methods is about the most fun thing to teach ever. I always have, ever since I started teaching a similar course to undergrads back in 1993.

I value the kind of teaching that brings us back to the bones of historical truth-telling now more than I ever did. This may be partly because so many scholars who should know better are consumed by arguments on social media that are less attached to evidence than they are to maintaining an ideological position that they believe is vital to defend in these troubled times. It’s not that ideology doesn’t matter, in life or when you are teaching methods: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s that historical methods can offer us relief from ideology, while still allowing a scholar to remain attached to a deeply held belief system. When a historian strips away the chaff of a book and looks for its methodological bones (which, by the way, are nearly always concealed), ideology can be isolated and clarified. This, in turn, makes it is easier to see how ideology is working in tandem with other tools — historiography, data, structural constraints — to frame the evidence and produce an argument about the past. The historian then gets to decide whether the ideological framework actually helps to reveal a history that seems real and true.

Let me emphasize: when I use the words “true” and “truth,” I am not defending materialism, or  structuralism, as paths to objective reality. I have my own ideological predilections, and I think post-structuralist methods drawn from other humanities and social science fields, as well as purely historical theory, can do work that is just as important as an argument deeply steeped in the archive. I also doubt that any form of historical writing can be done free of ideology or theory. But when I am inhabiting my most deeply historically trained self, I do tend to resemble a certain nineteenth century Missouri congressman. “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats,” Willard Duncan Vandiver is said to have declared at one political dinner, “and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me….You have got to show me.”

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