Monday, April 12, 2010

Archives and Interpretation

::pooof!::

I just poofed the post, though I'm leaving the comments (strange, huh?) -- Squadratomagico makes an excellent point about overgeneralizing, and in retrospect, the post was written from a place of frustration. My apologies to any I offended.

In lieu of the original post, let me ask a question, in case people want to keep the discussion going: how do we, as researchers, weigh the relative value of years of work in the archives versus creative interpretation of the sources -- perhaps fewer sources, or perhaps working only from published sources? If you feel comfortable doing so, perhaps add the country you received your historical training in.

And I know many of my readers are stateside Americanists, so: do you think you work differently than your colleagues who study other countries? Do we medievalists just need to get over ourselves, already?

UPDATE: Fellow Blogger Tenthmedieval has left a very nice response (his second response, comment #17, I believe) in the comments -- I think it's well worth reading, so make sure to take a look.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I tell my students that US scholars do interpretation because we can't be at the archives every Tues. There are similar issues among scholars working on medieval England. Once you've published they in their thoroughness can't ignore you. The other thing is that your job is in the US and you need the US scholars to respect your work, so an important part of your identity is US medievalist.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't sound like you respect their work very much, either. (Based also on previous posts.)

Anonymous said...

Both approaches have their value. But, if you want to be remembered in the longer term, the European approach is to be preferred.

tenthmedieval said...

I fear finding similarly, but at least I'll have company...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This rhetorical tension exists in the sciences as well. I spend a lot of time exhorting my trainees to focus at least as much of their writing and presentations--manuscripts, grant applications, and seminars--on "why the fuck I give a shit" as on "what the fuck I did". If your readers/audience are not motivated to give a shit, then they are not going to exert the mental energy to wade through your exposition of what the fuck you did.

Belle said...

I hear ya, sistah! When I tell Europeans that I do European history, they usually deny anything like that exists. I think one of our strengths is that breadth, that comparative element that our methodology brings.

It helps with the isolation. Sometimes.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'd like to address anon 4:31 (though I'm not sure which "other posts" s/he is referring to -- perhaps the one on the women's history symposium I attended?), because it was a thought that popped up just as I was posting this. I can understand why my post would be interpreted this way.

Do I respect European scholars' work? Hell, yes. without their meticulous work in the archives, a lot of U.S. scholars' work would not be possible. As Anon. 4:09 points out, we can't be in the archives every Tuesday. Most of us can only manage to put together a few weeks or (at best) a few months at a time. So we do lean on published collections to supplement our own archival work -- and those published collections would not have been possible without the expository work done by Europeans who *do* have that daily access.

On the other hand, I do indeed prefer the way we "do" history. Not surprising: I've been trained to prefer it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

By the way, as I wrote this post, I was wondering about medievalists in Britain -- access to and work in the archives, and lots of it, but also a historiographic tradition that emphasizes interpretation. If we've got Brits reading, I'd especially love to hear from them, as they seem to have a foot in both worlds.

squadratomagico said...

Hm. I think you might be making too general an argument, Notorious. While I see the pattern you suggest in some European national traditions (notably German historiography, also some corners of British hist.), I do think there is more diversity of approach than the "continental/US" dichotomy suggests. I see French scholarship as very big-picture oriented; Italian scholarship has some of the meticulous stuff you describe, but also some excellent microstudies that mediate well between on-the-ground local data and bigger questions.
There are some interesting treatments of the different national historiographies in a collection of essays titled, The PAst and Future of Medieval Studies.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Squadratomagico: Fair point.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

hehehehehe! I'm one of those people who focuses way too much on the documents and not nearly enough on the secondary stuff :-) it's always been an issue for me.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

ADM: I wonder if it's even a question of subfields (knowing what you work on, more or less). What do you think?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I know that my esteemed grad advisor always felt that when her students went off and spent lots of time in the English archives, she had to "broaden" them again when they came back. (I nearly said "British," but no, these were *English* archives!) And at the one (major) British medieval conference I attended, I was kind of startled at some of the narrowness and wild praise for the "creativity" of one paper which I found extremely run-of-the-mill (she's "reading" a will using anthropology! no! really?? yawn).

That said, though, there are many wonderful British scholars of England who don't approach their work narrowly at all. And there were great scholars from all over Europe offering really interesting work, too.

Plus, the meticulous archive-based stuff is really really necessary for the profession, and not the kind of work Americans are usually situated to do.

I do think that as an American medievalist, I worked differently than some people in England did, but not all. I think I approached questions more broadly than some English scholars (of England), but not all, and those who *did* think broadly had the advantage over me in their access to sources.

I don't know how my work compared to US scholars of other subjects, partly because my grad work was long enough ago that everyone was stuck spending a lot of time in the library photocopying articles and printed sources and what not. Doing research for legal articles now, it is kind of mind-boggling how much useful, relevant data I can find just by googling. The government puts ALL KINDS of stuff online! So I kind of do think that now, in some US fields, you could craft a research agenda that didn't require going ANYWHERE, and I don't think that's yet the case for medievalists. (Full disclosure, though: I relied HEAVILY on printed sources when I was doing history. It was part of the cultural history turn of gender history that I see sr. medievalists in women's history decry.) The amount of material is also kind of mind-boggling.

I will say that most Americanists I interacted with also tended to view medievalists as "historians with real skills," since we had to learn languages and paleography and basic manuscript stuff. Some Americanists do this, too, but my experience wasn't so much medievalists saying that what they did was different, as non-medievalists saying that what medievalists did was different.

(Of course, if you start adding in Asian languages and whatnot, I think the Asian historians, especially historians of early Asia, have us all beat...)

Belle said...

It's hard to say one is better than the other, without keeping in mind the larger historiographical and cultural context. I went into the archives looking for X, and when I discovered it wasn't there, but that there was so much stuff on other topics not addressed at all in the broader and even specialized literature, decided the only way I could salve my conscience was to read the entire archive on my topic. So I did. I had the time, and was in place (Paris) so I could do that. But I also encountered French students who went in looking for Y, didn't find it and were stumped. They expected to be in the archives for maybe a month (at the longest, for an MA) and had no time to do more.

But in general, I tend to think that others can do their research quickly but I don't have the mindset for that. My last research trip was a month, reading five dossiers - the last five of the entire series. Only then did I feel like I knew what was there and could truly begin a serious discussion of what was there.

No, I haven't worked on it. Gah.

Historiann said...

How did I miss this party, man? Curse you Mondays, with your afternoon seminar!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Maybe so, H'ann - but you can still tell me to get over myself if you want to. ;-)

tenthmedieval said...

I'm a Brit, and I'm reading. I think you're right that the academic culture here (UK) does have a foot in both worlds of interpretation and source-digging, but I think these traits are rarely combined in one individual, and there is something of a difficulty getting the two subcultures into dialogue. I did (shh!) my entire doctorate out of printed sources, because domestic reasons made it hard for me to go away at that time, and still have very little archive time under my belt compared to many, so I'm not sure I'm typical of either, but when I went to the archives it was not least so that I would stop getting reviews of paper submissions (which must, given what I work on, have been from US scholars FWIW) that said sniffy things like "it's not clear that the author has even seen this document" and so on. (Because obviously the whole point of published scholarly editions is not to open the sources up for scholarship but to re-establish a high-funded high-leisured academic élite's superiority over those who use them, right? Sorry, anyway.)

The absolute best people here do combine heavy interpretative work, including a certain inflection of anthropology, and heavy source-work (and where they find the time I have no idea) but being deep enough in either is a route that can be followed in itself, and from either of those redoubts incorporating a little of the other can seem innovative. (I can certainly think of parallels to New Kid's story, and I would especially say similar things of work using maths on the sources, which seems to get a free pass on criticism.) Then, of course, one's paper gets reviewed by someone from the `other side' and you feel ignorant all over again!

I see the divide between the UK scholars I know best and the interpretations of the Spanish scholars I read similarly. Both are advanced in their own ways, but the UK scholars largely want to take this material somewhere else to show people rather than study Spain itself, and some of the Spanish ones don't think anything from outside Spain is relevant because it can't be deeply enough embedded in their material. In between there are a very few people who are good enough to make a success out of dialoguing these two bodies corporate... And they are the ones it's worth finding and hanging on to, because their endorsement will count for something in both camps (and they also tend to be interesting people). That's my feelings about it all, anyway. Sorry, the coffee may have hit hard this morning.