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.
Continue reading “Learning to Synthesize History”

The Vocabulary of Grammar

Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.

I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.


This piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date.

Six Years Ago

Georgetown University in Washington, DC, did not cancel classes on September 12th, so I went into a class packed with mainly freshman at 9:15 a.m. By that point teaching early modern European history was out of the question, so we talked. After I got home, I sent the following message to everyone.


Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 12:56
Subject: reflections

Hi everyone,

Frankly, I was surprised by the rather large turnout in class this morning. Yesterday’s news was disturbing, and many of us feel worse as the details and reality of the terrorist attacks sink in. The class discussion was heartening for me, because I saw a large group of curious, thinking, politically astute and morally aware students, who will one day help to lead this country. There is still much to learn (for your professors too), but your remarks show that you want to learn. This desire to learn about and engage in the world might help give a little meaning to the tragedy.

Those of you who did not come to class leave me worried. Was it because of the general sad and bewildered atmosphere that has enveloped this city? Or have you lost family members or friends? I do not expect an answer to these questions, but I do want to point out two things to all students. First, those of you who feel despondent, in shock, depressed, angry, or confused should know that this is normal. You should also know that such feelings can be extremely debilitating if you cannot address them in some way. Make sure you seek out counselors, chaplains, advisors, professors, friends or family members for assistance. Some of you will find your academic work a good diversion–or way of understanding what happened. If, however, your personal situation makes such work impossible, because of depression or family obligations, please also visit your dean, who can run interference for you with your instructors.

Student reactions in class covered a wide spectrum of opinion and emotions, which I would like to summarize. Some of you appeared numbed or angered by the attack and could not yet put it into some sort of abstract moral or political framework. Others were outraged at the apparent insensitivity some people showed towards this great loss. These are normal reactions, and I imagine most of you have felt or will feel similarly, at least for a time. Many of you pondered what the U.S. reaction should be. While some expressed concerns about the morality and justice of retribution, others worried about what application of force might actually work. Who was behind these atrocities and what would be the most efficacious manner of dealing with them? One of you pointed out that any political or military reactions must consider the mindset of the terrorists, their cultural assumptions and psychological make-up. We cannot assume that they think as we do. Some of you talked about what yesterday’s event meant for your sense of security in the U.S. This concern appeared to waver between two poles: our own physical security and the impact that this violence will have on our own humanity. I underscored the latter concern. Finally, Anton [my TA that semester] pointed out that coming to terms with many of the big conflicts in our day entails learning how to ask the right questions. Besides learning about what happened in the past, our course provides an opportunity for you to learn how to ask trenchant questions.

Finally, some personal notes: A friend of ours in Augsburg, Germany (north of Munich) called this morning to find out how we are doing. She says no one in Augsburg is talking about anything else. They are horrified. My mother-in-law in Munich spoke of a minute of silence being observed today in the textile industry (probably elsewhere too). As far as my friends in New York go, well, it is impossible to get through on the phone. One can only hope and, if one is so inclined, pray.

I encourage you to participate in the university’s various forums for dialog today, and to listen to or read some quality news, such as NPR radio, The Washington Post, and so on. Some of you might also read the foreign press online. Participating in the country’s and world’s dialog is good not only for your intellectual development, but also for your mental health.

Take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Mark Stoneman


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Stumbling Upon a Dissertation Topic

Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as “Your Excellency.” I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff’s experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems? Continue reading “Stumbling Upon a Dissertation Topic”