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Teaching Thursday: The Modern Graduate Student

The most demanding course in my schedule this semester is my seminar in graduate historiography.  The class is big (20+), the students are sharp, and the class sessions can be rather intense.  The course covers a grab bag of historiography, methodology, and intellectual history with a primary focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.  There is a weekly set of readings and a few mid-length critical analysis papers (a comparative book review, a topical review, and a prospectus for a longer research project). 

As part of course, I encourage the students to critique the syllabus and my choice of readings and topics.  After all, a historiography course should be historiographical in nature!  This past week, we read A. Momigliano’s Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, the first books of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy, and Tacitus, Agricola.  At the end of class I asked the students whether I should continue to include a week dedicated to ancient historiography in the course.  The class is predominantly students of U.S. History and the 19th and 20th centuries  The overwhelming majority of students said “no” (17-4 may have been the final vote).  The most commonly advanced argument was that these sources were no longer relevant for students of contemporary history; contemporary historians had “moved beyond” the work of the ancients. 

First it is clear that Momigliano’s work had very little effect on them as a class.  Momigliano argued that historical works from antiquity served as a touchstone for historical thinking well into the modern era. What is more interesting is how overwhelmingly modernist the class’s perspective on the past was.  Their brazen rejecting of the ancient historiographic tradition implied a historical method that not only showed progress through time, but had, in our modern day, somehow stabilized at a superior state that rendered its earlier manifestations irrelevant.  This modernist reading produced a historical method that was, at its very core, ahistorical.

This approach to the historical method and the development of this discipline is not radically out of step with some of the scholars that the seminar had read.  In fact, we have thought a good bit about the the history of historiography. We have read several classics of the historiographic genre: R.G. Collingwood, E.H. Carr, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, and have several more on the syllabus. Over the past few weeks, I have encouraged them to critique the relationship between a scholar’s understanding of the development of the field of history (and historical thought) and their view of the historical method. It is remarkable, however, to consider how deeply modernism still holds ground in how even serious students understand the historical method. It must warm the hearts of the opponents of post-modernism and its ambiguity and openness to chaotic, innovative, and recursive views of the past.

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