The theme of this weekend, for me at least, seems to be “willful disobedience.” So, while I fully understand that the purpose of this week’s readings was to teach me to put the historian E.P. Thompson’s writings within the framework of Marxist theory, I’m going to, instead, think and write about history itself. It may seem like an exhausted trend after the past few weeks, but it’s something I feel compelled to explore at least once more.
As a student, I’ve always thought that history is long—it has happened for thousands of years; it has existed in the same manner, more or less, for hundreds of centuries. However, our readings in Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line truly showed me that history as we practice it is young; indeed, the history that I have grown up knowing and doing is little older than a lifetime. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve known this, but until today it appears to have never quite sunk in. Certainly, I understood that history has changed over time; I understood that there had been a shift during the 19th century, and again during the mid-20th century. Tosh’s The Pursuit of History had taught me about Ranke and the formation of history as we know it. So why did Eley’s piece strike me so? After all, we only read the section about Marxist theory. Three things, I believe, are what truly made me feel so connected with this work.
First, Eley’s conscious choice of tone made me feel as if I were sitting in an office with my very educated advisor. While reading, Eley was talking with me, allowing me to absorb content about the history of history while also advising me, imparting learned-wisdom. Through his well-explained use of personal pronouns, the book became one large conversation between the two of us. My marginalia became responses to his content, and we passed a few hours in pleasant exchange. Some things I did not understand, some rhetoric made me cock my head to the side and wrinkle my forehead, but most of all I was happily coerced into meaningful thought. I sipped tea and digested historical theory. My time was well-spent. We, Eley and I, both had purpose for a few hours’ time.
Second, this reading provided proof to me that individuals can experience history as a thing. Not as a passion or a profession, but as a tangible, changeable thing. Eley began school learning in the early, Rankeian mode and was, he says, bored with it. It wasn’t until he stepped outside the academic classroom and began exploring the local Paperback Shop which received new monthly shipments of new theory works. For Eley, this pseudo-education helped to lay the foundation of the traditional education he received during his graduate studies. During a very brief period, he went from being trained in what was becoming an outdated mode to practicing social and cultural history. What hope this gives to a new graduate student. While I certainly don’t expect to become a historian in the same right as Eley, his story inspires confidence. During the last greatest change, new historians not only survived but succeeded. They were as uncertain as I am, and yet were able to create a more broadly applicable and accessible history by maintaining a dialogue, and by being excited by the changes taking place around them. By becoming involved, by educating himself and by seeking information from others, Eley became a contributor to history and historiography.
Finally, this optimism comes in the wake of three weeks of graduate school where I have learned that the state of history is currently in flux; that the field itself is changing, in more ways than we can count. The shift to digital history (recently explored in readings, blog musings, and class discussions) seems, at least in my small academic world, to be met with mixed feelings. There are those who have slight misgivings, those who are willfully disobedient and deny that change is taking place, and there are those who are embracing the shift and are excited to be a part of it. As our class discussion has evolved over the past few weeks, we have discussed the potential for incredible achievements and the potential for danger that our current digital shift involves. Yet, hearing about Eley’s experiences in the 1960s and 1970s again gives hope that we are in yet another natural, paradigm shift. As he explained of the shifts he experienced, “Methods improve, archives expand, subareas proliferate, bad interpretations are junked, and better interpretations mature.” Just as this happened during the emergence of Marxist theory within history, and with the development of an interdisciplinary, social-science based approach to history in the 20th century, so too can this evolution of change happen with our current shift. The future of history is not so bleak as we, or at least I, have come to believe in the past few weeks. As in the past when “[historians have] been required to respond not just to the various transformations internal to the discipline, including the remarkable changes in the society of the profession, but also to the constant pressure of events in the wider social and political arenas,” so too will my fellow students and I respond to the changing climate of the history we have entered and will become a part of.
Perhaps it is the warm weight of the ginger-haired cat sitting on my lap tonight, or the accomplishment I felt after flipping through a book just to read its footnotes, or my excitement to get to class to talk about the Thompson essays that is giving me this sense of calm and purpose. Historians have met change before, historians will meet change ahead. The profession and field of history will persist, as it has. We cannot be like Eley’s early professors who “willfully closed their eyes to the changes occurring outside.” And I know that we will not. The key is to remain in dialogue, to explore the interdisciplinarity of the field, to experiment with what can be thought, and to be willfully disobedient (while still respecting theory and methodology, of course…I’m not crazy). We must endeavor, we must explore, and we must drink tea—and we will flourish.
 Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 4.
 Ibid,. 6.
 Ibid., 2.