Saturday, January 5, 2013

Clio's Craft

The room was packed this morning for a session entitled "Clio's Craft: History and Storytelling."  The session served as a great follow-up to William Cronon's presidential address last night which focused on the same theme.  It seems that the historians here at the AHA can't get enough of panels and talks related to public history, writing for public audiences, digital history, and narrative.  I wonder how many people left last night's session and went back to their hotel rooms and started writing.

This morning's panel included a host of history rock stars and writers.  They were:

Martha Sandweiss
John Demos
Annette Gordon-Reed (fresh off her appearance as the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture, I might add)
Tony Horwitz (Of Confederates in the Attic fame)
Karl Jacoby
Marci Shore

I will let my tweets speak for themselves.  Additional material beyond the 140 characters are in bold. As usual, check out the Twitter feed (@johnfea1 or #aha2013) for the discussion that ensued.

Sandweiss: Horwitz is only panelist who makes a living by writing. "Without a day job you can get a lot of writing done."

Demos: Handlin and Bailyn transformed the craft from storytelling to "full-blown intellection."   Demos argues that those in favor of "full-blown intellection" were more interested in analysis and argument over story.

Demos: Never heard the word "argument" applied to historical study until he got tenure. He thought it was a strange word.  

Demos: Narrative allows opening for the "emotion"--in terms of readers, author, and characters." "Head history to heart history" It strikes me that Demos was doing "emotional" history well before there was such a thing as the "history of emotions."

Demos: Narrative history leads to questions that often occupy philosophers and theologians.  

Demos: Narrative history leads to epistemological questions "What is my connection to the stuff I am working on--why do I care?"  

Demos: Narrative history closes distance between history and serious literature. Repositions history as a branch of literature.  

Demos: He is not saying narrative is superior over argument-based approaches to history. They are just different. It strikes me that those reading the twitter and blog feeds from this conference, which is saturated with stuff on reaching popular audiences, might get the impression that the AHA thinks scholarly or academic history is no longer important.  While I do think the feeds are one-sided (trending more toward the popular), I don't think anyone is dissing academic or argument-based history here.  In fact, many presenters have been offering caveats like the one Demos offered above.

Gordon-Reed: Her first book on Jefferson and Hemings was the "anti-narrative." All argument, no narrative. She is referring to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Good to see Annette Gordon-Reed again. She was at Messiah College in November She delivered the 2012 American Democracy Lecture.  We covered it here.

Gordon-Reed: When she started writing history she NEVER thought about just writing for the academy, Reed talked about her love of reading fiction as a kid.  She wanted to write the next great American novel, but ended up in law school.

Gordon-Reed: White people not usually attracted to black people doing intelligent things. Unsure white readers would like her work.  

Horwitz: Says he is not an academic. He was beamed down from another planet to the strange world of professional history  

Horwitz: Can't get his kids interested in history with an argument. Needs a story. Adults are the same way.  

Horwitz: Chronology is our natural ally as storytellers.  

Horwitz: The (reading) consumers are always right. Author needs to think about what the reader needs.  

Horwitz: Not seeing passion in papers at AHA. Feels like marriage counselor trying to get presenters to fall in love with subject.  This was a great line.  Horwitz said he was very disappointed with the lack of passion from presenters in the sessions he attended. 

Horwitz: Tired of hearing words like "privilege" (used as verb) and "problematize." People don't talk like this in the real world.  

I think Horwitz should write a "Confederates in the Attic"-type book describing the historical profession and the AHA.  

See my interview with Horwitz in my "So What CAN You Do With a History Major?" series.

Jacoby: Historians need to be brave about how we tell stories. They are politically progressive but methodologically conservative.  

Shore: Hegel's prose is impenetrable, but still told a story that tried to make sense of the world. Intellectuals remain captivated  

Shore: Historians need to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence  

Shore: Empathy is essential to the historian's craft, but it has moral problems.  

Shore: Need to read Marci Shore's book for the way it explores empathy. The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Shore: Read 1950s Czech newspapers during her research so she could put herself in the world of the people she studies.  I found this to be very interesting and inspiring.  Shore read these newspapers to immerse herself in the world she was writing about.  She was not using them for specific research.

Shore: Problem of empathy is it comes with risk of moral relativism I have a lot to say about empathy and morality in my forthcoming Why Study History?": Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Shore: Historian's empathy is always born out of voyeurism that is thrilling, but not nice.

Horwitz: People will always remember the characters.  at the expense of argument.

Demos: We need empathy. Empathy is great. But when you fall in love with or hate characters it could be dangerous. Demos told a great story about writing The Unredeemed Captive.  He was reading to his wife a chapter on Rev. John Williams, one of the main characters of the book.  Demos had thought that he had treated him fairly until his wife said: "It sounds like you really have it out for this guy!"  Demos changed the chapter to be more empathetic to Williams. 

Demos: There is an element of self-examination in writing historical narrative. You learn something about yourself in the process.  

Shore: Sometimes historian's voice must soften so characters in the narrative can be heard.  

Demos: Likes to occasionally use the interrogative in writing narrative. Ask a question and play with it.  

Demos: How do you teach historical empathy to students? Shore is going off on her research and not answering the question.  

I still want to hear panelists speak about how to teach historical empathy to students.  

Gordon-Reed calls Shore out. Empathy is important, but how do you teach it. Glad to see her get back on point.  

Horwitz: Great way to teach empathy is to go to the actual sites. Now we are getting somewhere.  

Horwitz: Students can learn empathy by writing about local history  

Jacoby: We must teach empathy. If we don't we fail. Need for empathy must be made strongly in age when humanities is under attack.    Again, the civic role of teaching empathy is discussed in my forthcoming Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Q&A: How do you get people to read your book? Sometimes it depends on the publisher or publicist, but sometimes its pure luck.  

Lendol Calder, "uncoverage" guru, asks about storytelling in teaching. Teaching literature is about argument at the expense of story   This was a point I raised earlier this year in response to a short post at AHA Today by Allen Mikaelian (who I met today).

The tension between storytelling and argument in teaching is HUGE. Panel is not answering Calder's question very well   I wonder if teaching offers a sort of hybrid.  You want to teach historical thinking skills and critical thinking, but at the same time you want the course to have a narrative to which the documents, readings, and discussion contribute.

I am convinced that it is impossible for historians to ask short questions.  

Sandweiss: Are their historical arguments that cannot be explained by narrative? I think the answer is yes.