Learning to Synthesize History

When confronted with history too narrowly conceived or framed, I often think back to one graduate course I took, “Issues in British Literature,” which challenged me on a number of levels. To start with, the British historiography we learned seemed to have nothing in common with what I had encountered for German, French, and Russian history. Of course, different countries and different histories were involved, but not even the language or categories of analysis employed in the British historiography were as familiar as I expected them to be. This circumstance did not stop the authors from writing history and arguing with each other as if the assumptions that informed their language were self-explanatory. Their writings offered an odd mixture of history as common sense that rejected social theory combined with the expectation that readers should not dare question how they framed and wrote about history, because, well, readers with enough uncommon intelligence and specialized training would understand. The rest should not bother trying.

(It would help if I offered some examples here, but that would require research, not just memory and experience. Since this blog represents a mere first draft of some thoughts, and perhaps the basis of some conversations, I will just press on.)

For me, this situation was about much more than trying to find my footing in a new historiographical space. I wanted to take the material and integrate it into a kind of European history. How else was I to make sense of the modern German, French, British, and Russian history in which I would later take my comprehensive exams? But I don’t think I ever learned to put these histories and historiographies together while taking courses and preparing for exams. Not until confronted with the challenge of teaching survey courses did I begin to accomplish the task of putting together histories, but still not historiographies. Some twelve years after taking those exams, it is still an ongoing challenge.

Whenever I contributed to class discussion in the British history course, I tried to relate what I was reading to how I understood German history. Since the class was big, everything I said had to be squeezed into short soundbites, whenever I got a chance to speak. There was not enough time for substantial dialogue, just for proving one had done the reading and was thinking about it. The sum of all our contributions was frequently disjointed. Indeed, integrating ideas from my own historiographical experience was a hazardous undertaking, because others—including the professor—did not share the same historiographical backgrounds and therefore could not necessarily understand my own language and assumptions. Unfortunately, I did not realize at the time how far many of us had already embarked on a journey of national specialization that made it difficult to talk across national historiographies with each other. It took my comprehensive exams to make that point painfully clear.

Thoughts like these come up when I am confronted with historiography that insists on its right to talk in a code that only other specialists will understand. I have seen a lot of rhetoric about the desirability of comparative, transnational, and global history, but often the same scholars use language that narrows their audience to a size too small to spark the kind of discourses necessary to analyze and narrate history across the national and disciplinary boundaries to which our training and research too often confine us.

The course in British history did not just introduce me to the shortcomings of history and historiography, which until then had appeared more coherent to me than they really were. While frustrating my efforts to talk across national boundaries, it challenged me to integrate a variety of approaches and questions within the narrower, but still rich field of British history itself. Our writing assignment for the semester was to write a paper that drew on every book and article we had read for the class, including cultural history, political history, social history, economic history, and foreign policy from the early eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century. We could write about anything we wanted, but we had to think of some sort of narrative that could draw on incredibly disparate material.

I decided that Britain’s history was unusual in comparison to the rest of Europe’s, because, despite all its eighteenth-century riots, it was the only state I knew that escaped revolution in modern times. There was my topic: social stability. And it worked. Whereas my discussion contributions convinced the professor that I knew little, the paper succeeded—not as history for other historians, but as an exercise in synthesis, which historians need to be able to do, but which we too rarely do, since acquiring historical expertise seems to require extreme specialization. That course taught me that I could integrate seemingly disparate historiography after all, albeit not on the fly in that kind of classroom context. It also taught me that such synthesis is not only desirable, but possible, even in unlikely situations. That goes not only for teaching, but also when trying to communicate specialized knowledge to colleagues with expertise in other areas.

This piece originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on this date.