Historiann has an interesting post up today about the epithet "revisionism" when applied to historians. And this got me thinking about an unsettling encounter I had the other day, here in exotic research city, one that really brought home to me that historians in different places work really, really differently.
So, a couple of days before it happened, I saw an announcement posted for a mini-seminar on the history of women -- led by a woman, now quite senior, who was at the vanguard of women's history in this country. No, strike that: she was the vanguard. Her book (mid-70s) on the history of women in Exotic Research City in the Middle Ages** was a cry out against the old white d00ds that populated history faculties at that time. It was very typical women's history for that time: dig through the archives, find a much of documents about women, and then present them and say, "Look! Women have a story to tell, too, so stop ignoring them!" From all reports, her own work hadn't changed much methodologically since that time, but man, I had to go, if nothing else than to pay some respect to one of the foremothers. And besides, she was organizing the thing (and doing the closing presentation), but the others were going to be given by an advanced grad student and a mid-career professor, so fine.
But alas, to my dismay, it seems that things here haven't changed much. Or at least, not the way it's done at this particular university. Foremother is very sweet, but hasn't made any methodological changes (that I can see) since the 70s. Worse yet, those around her haven't, either.
And then there was a question period. Now, I should explain that the audience was mostly undergraduates (though many were in their 30s). So we're not talking heavy discussion here. But this is where I made my mistake: In the crushing silence after the presentations, I felt for the presenters (who likes to have a roomful of students staring dully at you?), and so I put my hand up and asked a question.
I don't want to go into too much detail, because this post is too long already. But the question, and the (rather condescending but missing-the-point) response made it clear that we are speaking totally different languages, methodologically speaking. Worse, the response was delivered in a tone that implied they thought that I hadn't understood a word they said.
Now, I know I did understand. Yet somehow I still feel like I'm the idiot.
But what I do understand is that I do things very differently from the people around me. And it's kind of lonely. My friends here are boy historians, working on more traditional topics for here (economic & political history). They don't think much about what I do, and when they do, they're bound to associate it with the rather simplistic work described above. Which is really, really too bad. Because without new blood and new ideas (and there are at least two women's historians here I can think of who are indeed using new approaches), this is a field on life support here.
**Of course, they didn't call it "Exotic Research City" back then. They used Latin.