A bad historian but a good medievalist

I have spent a little bit of time this morning pondering why I find all the 9/11 commemoration distasteful (for me, personally; I am not trying to tell anyone else that they are not entitled to commemorate, or remember, or grieve, in whatever way they find most helpful. Especially not those people who actually were in NYC or the Pentagon during the attacks – while I was smack in the middle of cornfields in the middle of the country. There was probably nowhere LESS likely to be subject to a terrorist attack than where I lived, so I cannot claim any insight at all into the experience, nor into what helps someone survive and process such an experience).

Maybe one mini-anecdoate is revealing: out in the middle of those cornfields, the local radio station started playing Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA almost non-stop, which absolutely INFURIATED me. Did they not understand the lyrics to the song? Did they not understand that the song is a CRITIQUE of the United States? At the very least, it is not a straightforward anthem of celebration. But that is how many around me seemed to understand it.

This was my experience of 9/11: a tragedy, and lots of genuine heroism, hijacked by a knee-jerk reversion to unthinking jingoism. 

I know that is not what it means to a huge number of people, perhaps everyone else besides me. But because I didn't experience any of the events of 9/11 firsthand, the actual day is overshadowed by the things I dislike that came out of it, that I have experienced closer to firsthand: jingoism, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, anti-Islamic sentiment, and security theater.

So I have to admit that I am not especially interested in today's commemorations. The good parts of such calls to memory – the reasons why they can be valuable – are not mine to claim or comment on; the bad parts of such calls to memory are not things I want to consider.

* * * * *

About being a bad historian: I also find no impulse whatsoever to archive anything surrounding this event. It seems forced, artificial; let what survives, survive. Let what doesn't, not. This, to me, puts events in their proper perspective. I feel no need to record things for future historians. They can play the hands they're dealt, surviving-sources-wise, as we historians all have. 

But then, if I remain a historian at all, I am a medievalist. I studied things that happened 500-600 years ago. I remain very skeptical that a mere ten years has given us any perspective on this event at all. (I read a comment somewhere that the space devoted to 9/11 in textbooks has been shrinking. Maybe that's actually correct; maybe it doesn't deserve as much space as it had previously been given.) I would rather leave assessments to future, more distant viewers of this particular past. 


Written in semi-response to Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy.

On a certain variety of atheism (edited)

I am not a believer of any organized religion, nor am I one of those generically “spiritual” types. I have a few vaguely hippy-dippy pseudo-pagan-animistic impulses (particularly attributing spirits to, and seeking to placate, inanimate objects like my car and my computer), and an unexamined faith in the precept that what one does to others ultimately rebounds upon oneself, though the latter is more a philosophy than any belief in the divine. And unsurprisingly, as a politically liberal, highly-educated (note: educated, not smart!) modern woman, I have a lot of problems with the doctrines of certain denominations and the behavior of many in the name of religion.

Yet I cannot embrace atheism, and ultimately, it’s because atheism as a rejection, even hatred, of religion comes into conflict with my principles/beliefs as a historian.

Before grad school, I was pretty anti-religion, and considered almost any expression of religion as an imposition on my right to be religion-free. I’m not sure why I was so hostile, except that I had very little exposure to it. My parents both grew up devout (Anglican on the one side and Roman Catholic on the other), but it was a devotion rooted in time and place, and by the time I came along both my mother and father had left behind the communities and class in which their faith had been fostered. My mother made an effort to teach my sister and me about Jesus’ life, but without the parish framework with which she’d grown up, or something to replace it, in her own words, “It just sounded…silly.” She told my father she had no objection to our being raised Catholic, but he would have to be responsible for it – the man who never again took communion after his divorce from his first wife. Besides, in my parents’ marriage, the immediate, day-to-day tasks of raising the children fell to my mom. So it was nothing, pretty much.

We also heard a LOT about the Holocaust in my elementary/junior high school days, which I think taught me a disdain for religion as much as anything else. Not because the Nazis were portrayed as Christians or representing Christianity – which is good, because I don’t think that would be very accurate – but because it was the fact that they cared so much about someone else’s religious beliefs that started the whole mess in the first place. (It was okay to be religious – the Jews were cool – but not okay to care about other people’s religion.)

What changed in grad school? First, I met some deeply religious people, which opened my eyes to the role that religion could play in someone’s life. I remember confessing to a devoutly Lutheran friend of mine that religion just looked like a whole bunch of rules about what you couldn’t do, and she just laughed – wasn’t shocked, wasn’t upset, just thought that was one of the funniest things she’d ever heard.

But more importantly, I began to study the Middle Ages in depth, and ran right up against the fact that whether you think religion is good or bad or neither, it was central to medieval people’s lives. And I don’t mean that in the simplistic, “they had to think the way the Church wanted them to” caricature that many people hold in their heads in the section labeled “Middle Ages.” Rather, Christianity provided a framework for medieval people’s understanding of the world around them, a lens through which they saw the universe. This shaped how medieval people thought – in the same way that the modern understanding of gravity shapes how we think today – without telling them what to think. While I’ve never succumbed to what I’ve heard people call the professional hazard of medievalism – converting to Catholicism – studying the Middle Ages made me view religion in a more balanced manner.

Because the thing is, if you believe that people of religious belief are, essentially, stupid and irrational, then you have to believe that medieval people were stupid and irrational. But spend even a small amount of time studying medieval people – seriously studying them – and you soon realize this is completely untrue, and in fact, I consider it part of a historian’s creed that if you think the people you study were stupid and irrational, you’re not a very good historian. That does not mean historians should be cheerleaders for their subjects, or accept or approve of all that they do (hello, I teach about the Crusades!). Nor am I saying that it’s invalid to dislike or consider stupid specific historical individuals (my sense is that some biographers come to loathe their subjects by the time they finish their projects; myself, I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of quality time with Abelard). But to dismiss an entire culture or society because you don’t agree with some of their beliefs is simply not being a good historian.

That’s all very well and good, a modern atheist might say, but medieval people didn’t know any better. Today we do. I don’t blame medieval people for being stupid enough to believe in religion, but I do blame modern people. 

But this violates another part of my historian credo – one that is perhaps more important to medievalists and other pre-modernists, but which I would hold to be necessary for all historians. And that is that progress is bunk. People are people are people, wherever and whenever you go. People in the twenty-first century are not smarter or more advanced or more evolved than people in the fourteenth century, just by virtue of the century in which they live. We, like medieval people, interpret the world around us in light of cultural frameworks that shape our beliefs just as strongly as the medieval church shaped the beliefs of medieval people. They just happen to be different frameworks.

This is not to say that those differences aren’t important, or that I don’t prefer living in the modern world to living in the Middle Ages (from what I can determine about the latter). But for me, the issue of living today vs. then is one of standards of living – we have better hygiene, greater comfort, better medical care (I’d still have a gall bladder if I lived in the fourteenth century). We live lives of what medieval people would view as unimaginable luxury. I’d like some evidence, though, that our modern cultural frameworks have actually reduced human suffering and conflict compared to medieval cultural frameworks.

So, throw out progress, and what you get is not the idea that modern people should be more rational and intelligent than medieval people, but the recognition that humans are humans are humans, and that religion is simply part of human society. All human societies. I don’t know of any society that genuinely lacks some form of religious belief (and don’t give me the Soviet Union; sending religion underground isn’t the same as actually abolishing it). Religion may be “irrational,” but that’s because humans are irrational. I don’t think we can change that, and in many instances, I don’t think we need to. I have no problem with objections to specific, oppressive religious practices – no one has the right to hurt other people in the name of their religion. But I see no point in railing about the existence of religion itself. The very existence of irrationality isn’t a threat to humankind – it’s a condition. Let’s study its expressions, let’s understand what it provides people.

ETA: From some comments about the meaning of atheism, I need to clarify something: Dr. Virago’s comment is correct, and this post is inspired by recent conversations at Pharyngula, especially those about PZ’s request for consecrated wafers. I like and generally respect PZ, and, to be frank, didn’t want to attract the response of some of his diehard commenters (many of whom I also like and respect, just differ with on this one issue), so I chickened out and spoke in overly general terms without linking. But the atheism I’m referring to here is atheism that is actively hostile to religion, that considers it the height of ignorance and irrationality, and considers the eradication of religion as a n
oble goal. My apologies to those of you who consider yourself atheists but don’t fall into this category – I should have been more clear. (I also probably have more to say about progress but that can go in the comments.)

The times, they are a-changing

When I was a wee lass in New England, we learned almost nothing about Native Americans. In fact, the historical trajectory our schools tended to portray looked like this: Pilgrims left the Old World (which meant England, just so you’re clear on that) seeking religious freedom, they landed on Plymouth Rock, they founded the United States, there was a Revolution (and a shot heard round the world), we split from England, and then a bunch more stuff happened (you know, like the Civil War and so on). Part of this narrative was the idea that Indians brought the Pilgrims food for the first Thanksgiving, and then they apparently went away, because nothing was heard of them ever again.

So it was something of a surprise to find my former elementary school’s web page (what, you never end up in some random location, google-surfing the web??), and to see that the school now describes itself in this manner:

The [Name] School is built upon ancient agricultural fields. The Algonquins, Native Americans  who once populated what is now [my hometown], planted and harvested
corn, beans and squash using a system called “the three

Corn was planted in a circle, surrounded by a circle of beans. As the corn stalks grew tall and strong, the beans would climb the stalks, supported and raised from the ground so they would grow plentifully. Around the beans, they planted various types of squashes and pumpkins. These plants sent out massive leaves that covered the ground, helping to hold moisture in the earth and cool the roots of all three plants. The crops grew in harmony, helping each other to thrive and provide a plentiful harvest.

The [Name] community also works in harmony. By supporting each other and valuing our differences, we all strive to bring out the best in our community. These ancient fields continue to nurture our children today.

Wow. Something of a contrast to the peregrinocentric history with which I grew up.

If you roamed the historic cemeteries of my hometown (which is pretty interesting to do if your town was founded in 1635, like mine was), you could find headstones bearing the same names as people still living in the town (I remember particularly Hosmer, which was the name of my shop teacher). But I don’t remember any Indian names. For that matter, I don’t remember – in the cemetery or in our history classes – names that looked like the names of a lot the kids I went to school with: Kilty, Comeau, Kenneally, Connolly, Abruzzi, DiRosso, Zielinski, Finocchio, Granahan. My own last name, sprinkled with spiky, WASP-unfriendly consonants, was absent, too. Not that this places us in the same position as Native Americans, exactly. Just that the identity of the town and the identities of those who lived within it didn’t always occupy the same space very comfortably.

Teaching intro to history

So, it’s been quiet here not because, like everyone else, I’m caught up in the first days of the new term. No, in fact, I don’t teach till the week after Labor Day. It’s been quiet just because not much has been going on (besides pedicures, and they provide only so much mileage for a blog post).

But since I do start teaching in about ten days, I decided that yeah, I should probably write a syllabus. Lest I seem cavalier, I have two sections of the same course, and it’s a course I’ve taught a whole bunch of times, so I’m not that worried about coming up with the basic course schedule.

What’s different this time around, however, is that I’m teaching this course as a general education, "Intro to History" kind of course. (First/second-year students at this school have to take x-number of "intro to something" courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, where x = a number I don’t know. Presumably they do the same in the sciences, but that’s a different academic division.) Previously, I’ve always taught this subject as a relatively upper-level course. I have, however, taught topics courses at the introductory level before, and this seems basically the same thing: a relatively focused topic intended to catch students’ interest and show them that history can be fun, at the same time that it introduces students to what professional historians actually do. (This doesn’t always look very much like what they learned in high school. Though I have to admit that wonderfully, sometimes it does – I have had a significant number of students who come to college with a pretty good grasp of what real history looks like, not just having had to learn dates and names. You still get the dates-and-names approach, though.)

So I’ve been thinking about what I want to focus on in this course, and trying very consciously to articulate to students the skills that historians need/use, and how each component of the course will develop those skills. For instance, in terms of writing, I say in the syllabus that there are three main skills necessary to write history: the abilities to analyze a primary source, to critique an argument (here I’m thinking mostly of secondary sources, but also primary sources, because critiquing the argument that a primary source makes isn’t quite the same as analyzing the source as a piece of historical evidence), and to present one’s own argument. So each of the three papers will tackle one of these skills – one paper will be an analysis of a primary source, one will ask them to critique a scholarly article, and one will ask them to present their own argument drawing on the primary and secondary sources.* (Obviously I provide more details/guidelines for each of these assignments, which I’ll leave out here for the sake of space.) The main thing is that I want to be very explicit about the purpose of each of these assignments and how they relate to the overall goals of the course.

In writing these assignments, however, I realized how many things there are that I tend to assume students should know about writing that they don’t – in the sense that I don’t address these issues generally in class, just in individual comments in papers, which works okay but seems less than efficient. So I started writing up these guidelines too, which at this point include how and when to use direct quotations, and what kind of audience they should envision for their papers. I also plan to include the obligatory plagiarism stuff, and some nit-picky style-type things (like, don’t use contractions!). Of course, a handout isn’t ideal because while we can go over it in class, students (like most people) tend to zone out when being read to, and there’s nothing requiring them to look at it when they actually sit down to write. (Though I should add that a lot of students actually do look at such things. For instance, once I started explicitly saying in my syllabus/assignments that students had to proofread their papers, the incidence of dumb typos and grammatical infelicities dropped noticeably. They didn’t vanish, but I saw fewer things like, say, spelling "Charlemagne" three different ways throughout a paper.)

So, my purpose in writing this blogpost is twofold:

  • first (and this is directed to anyone, though especially those of you teaching history or historically-informed stuff): what do you think is the most important thing that students new to college don’t know, that you need to tell them? This can be specific to the study of history, or general to the college experience – whichever. (Although if the latter, I’m really thinking about academics – certainly students learn a lot about being adults and dealing with people from going to college, but I’m not here to guide their personal social development.)
  • second (and this is again directed to anyone, though the writing stuff especially I suspect will draw out the comp people among you): what is the best way to get such things across to students effectively? I’m a fan of the old-fashioned handout, but am trying to think about how to present such things actively, so that students come to realize them through their own thought process, rather than me just telling them. For instance, I’m going to ask them to read an encyclopedia article and a scholarly article (or excerpts thereof) on the same topic and tell me what’s different about the two, as a way to get them to think about NOT writing encyclopedia articles. I’m also considering bringing in a not-very-good student paper and a really good student paper and asking them what the differences between the two are, or at least to critique a poor student paper. (The advantage of being at a new school is that they can’t know the authors of these papers, which is what has tended to stop me from doing this before!) (And this is assuming I can dig up an example of a bad paper from my hard drive – a did a big dump of a lot of stuff when I moved. Though I suspect if I needed an example of a poor student paper, someone out there might be able to provide one for me? ;-D)

And yes, I have taught first-year students before – although strangely, at Former College I really didn’t teach them very often due to what I ended up scheduled to teach – and I do have pretty clear ideas/plans about what I want to do – I just thought it would be interested to see everyone else’s ideas on the subject.

*One might also argue that there’s a fourth skill: the ability to tell a story about what happened in the past. Myself, I’m not so big on this particular skill, partly because I’m not an especially narrative historian myself, but mostly because I think for students it tends to mean they write something that looks very much like an encyclopedia article, and that they tend to take "stories" at their face value and assume that they’re true and accurate. So I don’t want to emphasize this in their writing assignments. I do, however, tackle this issue in class; when we read a particular medieval chronicle describing the events under study, I often put them in small groups and ask them to come up with a narrative of what actually happened during the time described in the chronicle. The trick is, of course, that it’s really really hard to come up with a clear narrative from this particular chronicle, as it usually is from primary sources – it’s limited and presented from a very specific viewpoint, one that doesn’t represent the events as a whole but only as experienced by one person, a person who has a very specific goal in writing, and moreover writes about forty years after the events described. Yeah, students love me  for this one.