Friday, March 12, 2010

In Which I Convince a Roomful of People that I Am an Idiot, and Truly Come to Understand Some Critical Differences in Methodology

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.

8 comments:

Belle said...

Yikes. That must have been excruciating. I totally get the lonely part of it; hard to bounce ideas off anybody when nobody's around.

Suzan said...

Loved reading your blog.

I've already blogrolled you, but I wanted to say that I'm with you in spirit.

And I know that "lonely" feeling too.

clio's disciple said...

Deu meu! That sounds exceedingly painful. Not, perhaps, unexpected--I think we've talked about methodology issues in Exotic Research Country before--but no less painful for that. I feel for you.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

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.

Although it didn't have the gender privilege aspect to it, this was kind of what the field of my most influential post-doctoral research project was like before my work was published. It was a little bit difficult to get my work accepted as relevant--and not some sort of trivial uninteresting curiosity--but it has ultimately been quite infuential in the field. And it required quite a bit of bush-beating and glad-handing on my part to make that happen.

All this is by way of suggesting that perhaps a way can be found to turn this current relative inattention to your perspective into an opportunity, rather than just an unfortunate situation. Is there a way to use the language of the entrenched paradigm, while still pushing forward your own perspective?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

argh -- I get that frequently. And it's a horrible feeling. But, just so you know, lots of times people in the audience see what you see. I asked questions at Leeds where several of the seriously scary grandes dames of my field were in the room. I heard one making her approving sound, and another told me on the bus after the dance that I asked really insightful questions.


So yeah, it feels horrible, but it's probably not you!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

oh, and also? That doing things differently? Every single day of my life. It's not actually true, but it's hard to find critical mass.

Susan said...

As someone who has always plowed my own furrow, I know the lonely feeling. I always feel as if I have people who get corners or my work, but until it's done (and even then) very few get the whole picture.
I think the other thing is that being a foreigner, whether city or country, provides a different perspective. Those of us in the US who work on the history of the country I do often have a subtly different approach. And I actually think that's probably because of our teaching...

tenthmedieval said...

Exotic Research Country, as I understand it, has some pretty obdurate redoubts where nothing is changing; it's not just women's history, but (ahem) 'boy' subjects like feudalism (especially feudalism) too. Your case sounds worse though, because the feudalism debate has frozen after several more iterations, whereas gender history's hardly had one. But in the cases I know what little I know about, there are a few people urgently trying to refresh thinking, and they tend to be the ones who want to talk to foreign scholars—and this is how I know of them of course—so maybe you will find similar small waves anxious to meet you!