Had a good day in the senior seminar today. The class is the capstone for the major, and its major aspiration is for the students to produce a significant work of scholarship, reflecting all they’ve learned about doing the history thing. So thinking backward from that outcome, I suggested to the students that they take a project they’d already worked on and use the class to move it to the next level. We’ve then been workshopping that process in various ways, by finding and examining primary sources, talking about research strategies, brainstorming interpretive approaches, and so on.
I’d become a little concerned about a couple of guys in the class, however. Each time it was their turn to talk about what they were looking at and thinking about, they were producing the same wifty boilerplate accounts that reflected no significant effort to engage with their topics and deepen their knowledge. These things can go in rhythms, but I wanted to see if I could get them more invested in the process.
So today, I asked the group to reflect on what made a work of scholarship good. They’d read a lot of them at this point – what were the characteristics of the ones they liked? Not surprisingly, the engine coughed a bit and we did some sputtering around on movies they had watched, which was where one of them defaulted when it couldn’t connect to the question any other way. So I asked about what was different about a really good movie about history and a really good scholarly study. And they came up with entertainment, and the need to involve the audience emotionally. I added a personal memoir to the mix, and we talked about passion and detachment.
Then somehow one of the worrisome guys brought up a peeve from a previous class. As an African, it had been upset by a source that had lumped together all of Africa under the rubrics of dictatorship and disease. They didn’t even think we had any mathematicians, it said. I pointed out that it seemed to be taking this very personally; that the ignorance of this account felt like an attack. Yes, for sure. So how about if we think about doing history that way, I said – as if we had to face the people we were writing about later and look them in the eye; as if their sense of integrity was at stake in our work? (As if lazy wifty handwaving was a personal insult to an actual person, I didn’t say.)
I mentioned I’d just been having a conversation online with a former student, a Tibetan, about the arrest of Uighur economist and activist Ilham Tohti. My friend remarked that the Chinese really don’t understand the Uighurs or the Tibetans, and in fact have no interest in understanding them. I observed that this is how repression works. People with power don’t need to be curious – they can just plow through and make their world in the image of their prejudices. No one in class wanted to be that guy.
So does that mean we have to commit to omniscience, the view from all perspectives at once? Everyone got how the God’s eye view is not a reasonable standard. But we do have to stay curious, and we do have to be constantly mindful that there’s more to the story than the part we’re able to handle in realtime. At this point one of the students who’s had me before started musing about mobiles, my working pedagogical metaphor for complex systems. So we went out to the lobby and looked at the big mobile I put there. And its lessons about parts and wholes, structures and dynamics clicked instantly for the students who’d never noticed it before.