Category Archives: Week 2: History past: Historical Thinking/Historiography

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.


Understanding Being a Digital Age Immigrant

When I was sitting in our GTA workshop class the week before actual classes started, I was introduced to a term which I had never heard before. This moniker was “digital age immigrant.” You see, that explains what I feel that I am right now. I grew up in an age when there were no computers in classrooms, we were not allowed to have calculators in class, and people didn’t all have smart phones. This has turned almost a complete 180 degrees now, as students mostly have laptops in college, they used computers since elementary school, and almost everyone has at least a cell phone, if not some sort of smart phone. Young people now are considered to have been born in the digital age and since I am a student during this time, I am considered a digital “immigrant.” This kind of sums it up for me, as I often feel like I am behind the 8 ball when I am in class with these younger students. I am at a loss on the newest and best technology, and couldn’t tell you how to hardly turn on some of these smart phones, let alone operate one of these new I-pads.

I thought at first that this was going to be a tough assignment (only because it is something that I am completely unfamiliar with,) on using digital sources to record history. However, reading the “digital born” articles this week gave me new insight into the possibilities of how the use internet to help get the subject of history out there on the “cutting edge” of technology. While reading the article on the ship’s logs and being able to actually see the ship’s voyages and routes (which certainly outlined the continents,) I was pretty amazed and I did not have to try and “visualize” what the author was trying to say, I could actually see what was meant in the way it was posted online. In this article, I was most impressed by the way the information was shared, and as the author stated right from the get go: “the differences mean that we need to reinvent, not reaffirm, the way that historians do history. This leads me in a very different direction form my previous train of thinking. The way that new, more recent historians are writing about history does not mean that they are not good historians, they are just trying to write about history in such a way that it will benefit the most people in a more accepted way.

The drawback that I was envisioning, is one that Leslie Madsen-Brooks discusses in her article “I nevertheless am a historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers. This shows where anyone can post something online, without any shred of proof or fact based research. This can be very misleading to the inexperienced researcher. My fear was conveyed in class, but after our discussion and after thinking on it a while, I have come to realize that there are also countless sites out there that provide very valuable research right at the tip of our fingers. This fact was made apparent when we looked up MLK, and Dr. Nelson talked about the various sites we found on Dr. Martin Luther King. This was very educational to me, and I found myself changing my mind and leaning more towards a more open minded approach to the use of the internet when doing research, which I previously had seen as an unfortunate direction in which modern historians were heading.

I am a more traditional learner and need the books to read, have my hands on, write my notes in the margins, highlight, or underline information if necessary, and actual books allow me to do that. However, I can see the definite advantages of having all the information anyone could ever want right at the tip of our fingers. This could also possibly be the downfall of some researchers and newer historians because, like I mentioned before, anybody can post something online, male a webpage, list information, etc. and in doing so, if it is not correct information, it can be very detrimental to more traditional; researchers and historians.

One last thing that I have a concern, if not a fear about is that everything is electronically stored on the internet. This can be very problematic if for whatever reason the internet ever goes away, either through government control of the flow of information, (from what I understand, or read on the internet somewhere…haha) people in China have limited access to information, or through Cyber terrorism. This is a very real threat and if someone can hack into the internet and destroy files, information, etc., it could be a severe setback as well as a major stumbling block for future historians. One last thing I worry about is that people have become too reliant on the internet for their daily lives. Again, I ask what would we do if the internet would suddenly become non-existent?

Is there TOO much information out there? And if so, HOW do we gain knowledge from it?

On page 1 of David Weinberger’s book, “Too Big to Know;” he includes a couple very thought prevoking lines; “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I mean change is often meant to be good or at least is thought to be better than what we currently have. Everyone wants to get what is newer and better, or to keep up with the Jones’, but is change always for the better? When past generations changed with the times, wisdom was exchanged for what was thought to have been better or more advanced and in doing so a lot of common, everyday skills, arts, traits, and ways of life back then, became only distant memories. Take for example the art of starting a fire, cooking over that open fire, sewing by hand, curing meats, making shoes, milking a cow, making material to have clothes, etc. By progress, we have moved forward and have let knowledge slip through the cracks. I am not saying that change is bad, but when we become too reliant on the ease of doing something, (take for example Google search,) then having to do for ourselves becomes too much work. If we were faced with having to provide for ourselves without electricity, i.e. no lights, no heat, no refrigeration, no transportation, then we would be in a world of hurt. That means no Google to look up how to do something, let alone the zettabyte, or sextillion bytes Weinberger talks about (pg.7.) Speaking of bytes and such and with the internet having (according to Weinberger) at least a trillion pages, there is no way that all of those pages can contain fact filled accurate information…(again, what exactly is a fact?) That is where Weinberger says that we can get into knowledge overload, I mean 3 million hits on Google as to what knowledge overload actually is, come on. (pg. 11)

Weinberger also mentions “cherry picking” facts, which can hurt an historian just as quickly as can, reporting wrong facts, or not being objective, critical, or analytical of the research that one collects. For instance, last week we read how in the 1960’s, historians began looking at history in a more social science aspect, when we read this week, that this was not a new train of thought, i.e. looking at different points, such as social, economic, etc. to learn more about history. Malthus, as mentioned in Weinberger (pg.26) saw “facts” in a social point of view, i.e. “logical deductions from premises that he presents as self-evident.” However, later in his life, Weinberger writes, Malthus did further delve into a more analytical method of research. Weinberger also says that “Knowledge has always been social.” (pg. 51) It is this mode of research, that we, as up and coming historians, need to learn. This will allow us to move forward, using critical analysis in our own future endeavors. If we do not follow the methodology of proper research, and just start forming opinions on baseless facts, then as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” Weinberger (pg.36) This can be misconstrued when using the internet, even by some people reading this very blog, as it is only my opinion on what I took away from the reading. It is often inculcated in us (as the general public,) that what we “read” on the internet, is “fact.”

Tosh goes into great detail on how to use the various sources available to us as historians. These sources, such as WHOA…….what???  The WRITTEN word……Heaven forbid that we break open a book, or even visit the stacks in the library. There is nothing like getting out there and finding new information, be it in a primary sources, such as a narrative, a memoir, a diary, etc. I absolutely LOVE the feeling of finding something new to add to the story/conversation within the historiography of a subject, be it a person, or an event. He even goes into some options that many overlook, such as record sources, bureaucratic records, church records, government records, firms, etc. These can be a wealth of information. His details of how to go about uncovering this source material is very insightful, and is of great importance to us as budding historians. I found that the “gaps” section of Tosh’s text (pg. 132) left me wanting more information on how to manage those gaps in my research methods…but that might be something that I can just search the web for….,how about I use Google, … Bing, … Yahoo, …Ask Jeeves, …..just kidding.

What Do We “KNOW” About History?

One of my favorite quotes in history is:  

“I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I think Cicero hit the nail right on the head. History can often be right in front of us, however, as historians, if we do not research, if we do not delve into what makes history history, then we are all just skimming the surface of an abundance of information about our past.

I often feel this way when I read about various topics in history. However, in some of this week’s readings, the following question came to mind. What do we really “KNOW” about history? I mean if we take everything that EVER happened in history, and I do mean everything, then there would be no way to record it all. Writing about history has got to be subjective, as well as analytical.  In this week’s readings, we got a sense of the many different facets in reading and writing about history, (especially in the George Iggers readings.) We also found that history can evolve, or come to be understood differently, at different periods throughout history itself. The way that history is taught at those various times, is also something that we, as students of history have come to understand as process. (Tosh, pg. 11)

History is a set series of facts, thoughts, ideas, or even myths and legends that are filtered, then written about in such a way that it lends credence to the very famous saying of “history is written by the victors.” What I mean to say, is that there is a lot of history out there that we will never understand or even know about.  When I say that history is filtered, I mean that events, people, etc. have to first be remembered, recorded, preserved, discovered, understood, then accepted and thought to be important, then researched, sometimes thoroughly,( often not,) to eventually become part of history, or what we are taught to know about history.  Throughout time, history has been altered or purged by historians, to blot the memory of a conquered people, or to wipe clean the recorded history of an event.

In the Iggers readings, which I found to be extremely difficult to locate and get a good copy to read online, AND with the library’s copy checked out… (however a BIG shout out to Faith for coming to our rescue,) I eventually was able to get a copy, and MAN what a scholarly book. I was able to get somewhat of a fuzzy picture of what he was explaining, yet I found it to be unnecessary to write about so many historians throughout history. He could have limited the number of people and expanded more on following more of a timeline himself. For instance, he jumps from Herodotus and Thucydides to the German historian Ranke, (thus not following his description of a coherent sequence.) He did seem to make a clear argument, (at least one that I found easier to grasp,) in the section on history becoming more of a “social science.” Here, Iggers talks about the “process of social change” which came from historians overlooking the “social change,” while being too focused on “great men.” The various periods of change throughout history are touched upon in the section that we were assigned, and however scholarly or “wordy” the article was, I still found his arguments to be compelling enough to really cause me to look at the various times in, on which I focus, in a much different light.

As an avid reader of American history, I was surprised when I read William Novak’s “’The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State.’” When he wrote, “The American Present is at Odds with representation of the American Past,” that really struck a chord with me. Representations?? Who’s to say what is right anymore on what we are being taught? When he also wrote about the “pathological tendency to compose a fictional American ideal…” I was starting to wonder where he was going with this article. However, throughout his article, as he wanted to find the facts that supported that America was weak, he kept finding that America was stronger than most people realized. It is a hidden power that is spread across the government. His ultimate findings were that America has a problem with consolidating this power to prevent her from becoming weak. This power in America is “complex, multi-faceted, and not simple…” Novak pg. 769 This power, which is “complex,” also goes to show how complex the study of history is becoming. The methodology employed to research and write the ultimate historiography of history is changing all of the time.

As I read the segments written by Kyle Ward, in the small handout, I was relieved to see that it was nowhere near as scholarly, and it was even a fun little read. The changes that Ward mentions, especially the ones in regards to Columbus, were really eye opening, because I looked at the section from 1946, and it brought memories flooding back from my 7th grade history class.  Our books were from the 40’s and 50’s, (even though I am not that old,) as this was in the late 70’s. This brought a good laugh (NOT at the information, yet at the difference in perception over five decades.)

Overall, the Tosh chapters kind of mirrored the other authors/historians, only in a more readable and understandable way. His writing seemed to not be as scholarly in word choice, but he was able to convey the same general message. One passage in particular, I found to be quite interesting, as it kind of lays the responsibility of preserving and presenting either at the feet of, or upon the backs of historians. “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of the ages to come.” (Tosh pg. 7) Does that mean that we as historians, should judge the past? Should we “dismiss” the past, as Tosh points out, for progress? (Tosh pg. 19) Several other sections in Tosh’s book cover a wide ranging series of topics, which in and of themselves could be covered in book s of their own, not just touched upon. Some of these are very relevant to our world, as we know it today, areas in political, social, and religious history. These areas are important to our modern world, however, they reach back through antiquity, to tell us about the past, and as we historians keep telling people, history has a tendency to repeat itself, but since we are not a “real” science, only a social science, people just as often tend to not listen…

Hello world!

Greetings to everyone,

My name is Kevin “Tiny” Dawson and I am now a graduate of Virginia Tech, with a major in History and a minor in Political Science, as well as an option in Military, Foreign, and Political/Diplomatic Affairs. I graduated in May of 2014. I am now a 1st year Graduate student in the MA program in History at Virginia Tech.

I am starting this blog for my Historic Methods course and am looking forward to beginning my career as a grad student, working towards getting my Masters in History and possibly working on a second Masters degree in Education/Curriculum and Instruction. I am pursuing a certificate in Public History and wish to learn as much as possible in the fields of History,  Methodology, Historiography, and Education, to broaden my fields of expertise and my possible future job opportunities.

As this course, History 5104, Historic Methods moves forward, I will be posting blog entries on books, journal articles, and will be accepting comments and suggestions along the way. I look forward to hearing from all of you. Stay tuned and look for upcoming posts and blog entries in a wide variety of subjects. Thank you all for your interest and I look forward to your input.


Kevin “Tiny” Dawson