To Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

I still can not escape my professional conditioning. So I researched several blogs by humanities and social science academics before starting this one. Each blog is distinct, although most seem to be made up of six basic ingredients. Here’s a list of those ingredients–annotated, of course.

1) Exhaustion, overwork, frustrations at academic politics and pettiness, and melancholic musings about the barrenness of academic life.

Done well this approach can be harrowing, a disheartening tragedy of ideals betrayed. Done poorly, it is a bog of tedious whining–the tragic flaws of the narrators are laid bare to all except the narrator himself.

I sympathize greatly with the driving emotions and insights behind this approach. It will be hard to resist the temptation to go that way myself. But what is the point of wallowing in those things that have disappointed and annoyed me? I’d much rather recover those dreams and fascinations that seduced me into history in the first place-and which can still occasionally consume me. What light did I glimpse?

I won’t resist the temptation entirely. In many ways these melancholic musings are about the sociology of academia. And one thing I’ve learned from history is that ideas can not be divorced from the social institutions where they live and breed. And one thing I’ve learned from journalistic science is that ideas and knowledge are sterile without some emotion to inject them with direction and meaning. But best to partake in moderation.

 2) Commentary on contemporary political events, whether in the academic’s home country or the area of research.

 My gut instinct is that following contemporary events is the surest way to rot your mind and suffer emotional apoplexy. As often than not, this kind of political commentary is angry and bitter—coming from the same emotional source as ingredient #1. Again, I sympathize. But why wallow? And worse, why subject and manipulate history—as so often happens—to the unquenchable fires of our political battles and frustrations? Commentators rarely tell us how history has made them change their minds. We only learn why their opponents are wrong and dangerous. Is there no other way that history can matter?

For many of my fellow historians, politics and public discourse are precisely the most important places to insist that history does matter. I don’t think this follows from actually studying history, where you can learn: 1) Large (or deep) structures and processes shape our lives more profoundly than the perturbations of politics; 2) How people have made meaningful lives outside of politics; 3) Not to trust any political analysis without a minimum of ten years hindsight (and even then to be highly skeptical); 4) History is far too complex to offer any clear-cut insight on contemporary problems; and 5) That the best political intentions and critiques can lead to the most horrible consequences, and vice-versa.

 So, if not for politics, how does history matter? That is the question that troubles me, and is not one I can answer now. I will admit that that my antipathy towards politics is just as emotionally driven as any political partisanship. I also have to admit that history gives plenty of examples of ways in which politics does matter. So I can’t avoid the politics. . . . But hopefully there is more.

3) Daily life, such as how the kids are doing, recent vacations, house repairs, meals cooked, committee meetings, when the flowers bloomed, etc.

The best blogs always integrate the personal with whatever else the blog is about. But all too often, the descent into daily details is the mark of a blog that has run out of ideas.

4) Updates on recent publications, upcoming talks, workshop schedules, lists of work-in-progress, and the reception of recently completed work.

Really? Is this what a personal blog is for?

5) Informal presentation of interesting findings, ideas and reviews of recent scholarship.

 This can be a nice way to work through ideas and materials without the restrictive trappings of more formal academic work. The best of such blogs cultivate a love of the material and speak to people other than the specialists. Some seem to assume that history matters, but they rarely make an explicit case why. Others—often the most interesting—do not seem to worry about it.

6) Well-adjusted and constructive ruminations on teaching, publishing, administration, academic life and ideas in general.

This is a foreign land. I have visited for long periods and even have some good friends who live there. I can admire the achievements, values and structures of this culture. I have sometimes even been mistaken for a native. But I will never feel at home there.

The blogs I still read for pleasure either have lots of pictures or are very well written. A surprisingly large proportion are also written by ex-academics.



Posted on August 19, 2011, in Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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