Who Wants to Help Me Make a Patchwork Quilt?

When I began reading Geoff Eley’s book, A Crooked Line, I was really struck by his comparison of historians and “professional guardians.” This made me think back to our discussion in regard to being “gatekeepers.” Last week, Claire’s viewpoint was incredibly accurate due to the fact that we, as up and coming historians, are no longer acting in the sense of those gatekeepers. In class, we have established the premise that to move forward in our field, we need to improvise a way to gain a foothold in the digital age. We must then adapt our way of researching, analyzing, writing, disseminating, and recording history, to make this, and future generations aware of their past. It will be up to those that absorb this new history, to distinguish which information has been properly researched and written, or which “facts” are ones that can be trusted.

This week, I was astounded to find that Laura and I had been thinking along the same track, when I saw her use of the quote from Eley’s book. I had intended to use that very same section, as it really spoke to me in a way that helped me understand more fully, what our job entails, demands, consists of, etc. as rising professional historians.

The boundaries between history’s professional precincts and the wider realms of the public are far more porous than most academic historians might allow. Once we admit that porousness, we relativise our understanding of the professional historian’s influence. If we ask where society get its sense of the past, for instance, only delusions of grandeur could induce historians into claiming much of the credit. For most people, knowledge about the past comes very rarely from its professional guardians and then usually at several times removed. Even those of us squarely inside the profession spend much of our time responding most urgently to questions coming from elsewhere, from beyond the safety of the archive, the library or the seminar room. (Eley pg. 8)

We have the responsibility to become “sharers” within our discipline, which means that we need to allow others within their respective field into our little “sewing circle.” What I mean by this, is the way we, as historians know that we have to put together the various scraps of material, which we find in our research, (kind of like when sewing a quilt.) Imagine if you will, a beautiful patchwork quilt; it starts off with various swatches of material, scraps, patches, and many of them do not match, right? Well, in an old timey sewing or quilting circle, (sometimes not old timey, as there are modern sewing circles;) people would invite friends, family members, and often members of church, social, or other community groups, over to a sewing bee. They would come together and after working together as a group, the end-product or result would be a beautiful “patchwork” quilt. I personally feel that by allowing other disciplines into the “conversation” in the methodology of writing the historiography about various topics in history, then we are melding together and making a beautiful “patchwork” history.

As I am trying a new idea this week, (recommended to me by my writing class professor,) I am trying to not write a novel on all of the readings. Rather, she suggested that I should just try to pick one thought within a reading and focus on that in my blog. So, in conclusion, I firmly believe that there is always more room in the “sewing circle.” The invitation is out there for others, in other disciplines, to come on in, join the circle and by doing so, we can broaden our minds, and as Eley said, create a more “porous” way of learning history. We can all let our minds, which like sponges, are ready to soak up a broad range of topics, take it all in. The melding together of other disciplines and other guardians within their own fields can only solidify the historiography through these new ideas with the methodology of recording history.


4 thoughts on “Who Wants to Help Me Make a Patchwork Quilt?”

  1. I like your thought that we are required to be “sharers,” but I’m not sure “required is the right word per say. What if I want to just hole up in my office and be a history grubbing hermit? I have that choice, right? I feel like there are many old-school historians who essentially hide their work until they release it into the world, not allowing anyone else to benefit from it for years at a time (depending on the project). I think for our generation, collaboration is the name of the game – whether with other disciplines or simply each other – and it produces much stronger work that is not only more accessible, but is deeply researched and extensively analyzed.

  2. Tiny,

    Great minds think alike! That quote spoke to me as well and I almost felt it reassuring that we as historians are not necessarily going at it alone. Rather, we have a variety of other disciplines to choose from and work with to only enhance the work we do and that has incredible possibilities. What other academic subjects can boast that same level of permeability and porousness? Not many, would be my guess. And I suppose this is part of the reason why I love history so much and why I chose it for my life studies: it is ever-evolving and ever-changing and it has the ability to be molded into whatever we want it to be. Can we ask for anything more than that?

    Also, just a side note but I wanted to commend you on your focus for this post. I know I find it difficult at times to pinpoint precisely what I want to discuss in any given post and with this week’s copious amounts of reading, it was even more difficult. Great job!

  3. Tiny,

    I, too, was drawn to the same quote from Eley’s book. I think it is an excellent message–suggesting the benefits of embracing the porous nature of our discipline rather than fighting it. As Kate said, there are those who might choose not to join the sewing circle, and according to our readings in the course thus far, that certainly has been the case. However, at this point of transition with new mediums of sharing and accessing information, the sewing circle is larger and more inclusive than ever.

    A key lesson I have learned in over the past several weeks is that the discipline of history is evolving, rather than dissipating. With that in mind, readings such as Eley’s are much more optimistic to me.

    Also (a bit of a tangent), the word “patchwork” always seems to jump out at me–why does it seem to always show up so often in history (specifically American history)? Just within the past week I have encountered the concept of a “patchwork quilt” in three separate classes–the patchwork of the environment in a Cronon article, the quilt tiles to commemorate those who lost their lives to AIDS in the late 1980s, and your reference in this post. I just find it fascinating that people (Americans, perhaps?) can identify so well with the quilt that it becomes a symbol, maybe even a beacon of hope.

  4. Hi Tiny,

    I agree with you that interdisciplinarity is beneficial to the study of history. I think, also, engaging in a continuous conversation with those inside and outside the field is beneficial. The social sciences have a lot to offer in terms of analyzing the way society is structured and who is privileged and why. Looking at history in a way that is informed by these disciplines can help uncover structures and information that strictly “fact”-based historians might not have seen or cared to look for.


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