‘Teaching Scholarship’ by Caroline Walker Bynum

The Facebook page of the Australian Historical Association had a link recently to ‘Art of History’, a column in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History publication.  The column contains essays by established American historians writing on the art and craft of historical writing.  Such copious advice is probably best taken in small doses, so I’ve been enjoying reading slowly, one article at a time.  The first link is to an article from 2009 called ‘Teaching Scholarship’, and a thought-provoking little article it is, not just for a clapped-out and inactive educational designer (as I am) but for historians more generally.

Caroline Walker Bynum, a professor of European medieval history,  starts by pondering what ‘scholarship’ is and comes up with a checklist for what it means for a historian in particular,:

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 values, she suggests, are not part of the baggage that the young undergraduate, or even graduate, brings to history.  The American education system (and I suspect that much of this is true of the Australian system as well) encourages students to “do research” by cutting and pasting primary sources, predominantly from the internet.  By pushing students to move beyond this approach, she claims that college instructors have (albeit unintentionally) encouraged what she calls

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.

But, she argues, beyond these so-called “critical skills”, there are those values of scholarship that she started her article with, and they often run counter to the quick demolition-job of hypercriticality

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.

She talks about techniques she uses to encourage this mind-set in her students. One involves getting students to review a review as a genre, to appreciate its demands and to break the reliance on oneupmanship and paraphrase.  A second activity involves getting students to critique a lengthy footnote by following up every source that it references, and to assess- positively or negatively- the relevance and strength that such sources bestow on the argument.   It is only at this point, after students have been alerted to the demands of reviewing and imbued (hopefully) with some sense of  humility, that she asks them to write a book review.

All of this touches on some of the insecurities I feel myself in writing reviews on this blog.  I sometimes come into contact with the authors of books that I’ve reviewed, and while I expect that they’re largely oblivious to the fact that I’ve written about them, I wonder if I’d be quite as confident making my comments to their face.  Sometimes I wonder at my own presumption in commenting on someone else’s achievement in something that I could only dream of: at other times, I wonder at my own presumption in even thinking that what I’m doing even matters at all!

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One response to “‘Teaching Scholarship’ by Caroline Walker Bynum

  1. A very interesting blog about the art of writing history. One really needs to immerse oneself into the culture of the time; to read what others have said and to read what the players said about themselves. History, I think, is so much about the present. We need to keep that in mind.

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