Thursday, October 16, 2014

Writing Institutional History

Burkholder and Norris have written a forthcoming history of Grace College
One of the panels I missed (due to a scheduling conflict) at the recent Conference on Faith and History meeting in Malibu was focused on writing institutional history.  It included Shirley Mullen of Houghton College, Mark Norris of Grace College, and Devin Manzullo-Thomas of Messiah College.  

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz has offered a nice summary of the session.  Mullen suggested that her training a historian has helped her navigate her role as a college president.  Norris, along with Jared Burkholder, just completed an excellent history of Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana.  And Manzullo-Thomas has written a congregational history of a Brethren in Christ Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and is currently at work on the history of another BIC congregation.  (He also spends a lot of time in the Brethren in Christ Archives at Messiah College).

Gehrz, who has experience working on the history of Bethel University (where he teaches), chaired the session.  In his post he offers "6 c's of writing institutional history."  As someone who is also engaged in writing an institutional history, I found his these "c's" especially informative.  I decided to interact with them below.

Capability:  Most historians who tackle institutional histories have the skills in historical research and writing needed to pull off such a project, but they are often asked to write such histories because they are "well-trusted figures" in the particular community.  While I have no history with the American Bible Society, I imagine that they approached me about writing the history of the organization because they thought that I was sympathetic to its mission.  

Comfort: Christian historians writing institutional history can "construct narratives of hope in times of difficult change."  Gehrz is not advocating some kind of providential history here, but he does believe that a historian writing the history of a Christian organization "should be able to help communities take a longer view than that offered when we're experiencing a particularly difficult present...."  Who knows?  Maybe my history of the American Bible Society will help the organization think more deeply about its next two hundred years.  I hope this is the case.

Complication:  A good historian will always make the smooth places rough.  In other words, they will "complicate the narrative."  Not everyone affiliated with a particular institution will like such a complicated narrative, but as Gehrz notes (echoing Mullen) a complicated story is more truthful and complete.

Compassion:  As Gehrz writes, Christians who write institutional histories must "rejoice with those who have rejoiced and weep with those who have wept."  They must show compassion for their subjects.  I think this is something akin to the kind of historical empathy I have discussed in Why Study History?  In some cases, what the panelists are calling for may be closer to "sympathy" than "empathy," but I think it is OK if these two affections merge in writing institutional histories.  As for my ABS book, I am not sure that I would take this notion of "compassion" too far.  While it is a book that I hope will edify the faithful followers and supporters of the ABS mission, I am not entirely sure that I am writing with compassion for the institution.  Maybe I should be doing more of this.  I am sure that executive who run the ABS might like such an approach.

Community:  Drawing on Michael Frisch's A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Gehrz (borrowing from Manzullo-Thomas's remarks) notes that institutional histories should be written in dialogue and conversation with the subjects.  

Confession:  Should Christian historians writing institutional histories "confess" the past sins of their institutions?  Non-Christian historians might bristle at such an idea, but isn't this what is happening all over the country as colleges and universities begin to explore the relationship between their institutions and slavery?  While such institutions may not be "confessing" sins in a Christian way, they are certainly making public apologies for their past.  I am not sure that this category applies to my work on the ABS.  Unlike the members of this panel, I am not writing as an insider.  But perhaps something I uncover may lead to this kind of confession.  

Great stuff as usual from The Pietist Schoolman.  I had fun interacting with this post.