22 August 2008

Thinking Historically

Some notes from part of a history lecture:

What is history?
Why study it?

The past helps us understand how we came to be the way we are.

The past shows us alternative ways of living to contrast our own.
• The cost of petroleum was of no interest to Captain James Cook.
Scurvy, which Cook reduced among his crew, is not a significant health problem today.*

Historians . . .
Respect our subjects
o Avoid thinking of people in the past as backward and ignorant because they didn’t understand vitamin C or the relative differences between T-mobile and Verizon.

Carefully limit our generalizations
o Avoid putting all people of a particular place and time into a single box. For instance, consider the statement, “Seventeenth century sailors were horny and spread syphilis.” Even though that statement contains a kernel of truth, it does more to create and perpetuate stereotypes than to shed light on the lifestyles, culture, and health risks of seventeenth century sailors.

Avoid anachronisms
o McCoy on Star Trek (set a few centuries in the future) called twentieth century surgeons “butchers” because they used scalpels; likewise eighteenth century bloodletting was often condemned by these same butchers. These criticisms assess behaviors of historic individuals by standards unknown to them.

Are aware of our own biases
o We attempt to judge people in the past by their own terms, not ours.
o We might go on to note, and even celebrate, the changes in mores, but we begin by considering people according to the standards of their time.

Work from evidence
o Our statements about the past must be supported through artifacts (usually primary texts) from the past.

Focus on
o Continuity and change
o Cause and effect
o Significance

*“Recurring nutritional deficiency diseases, including rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, and pellagra were thought to be infectious diseases. By 1900, biochemists and physiologists had identified protein, fat, and carbohydrates as the basic nutrients in food.” “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (October 15, 1999), 906.


Prerna said...

Any notes on subaltern studies or subaltern history?


James Stripes said...

I offered two PowerPoint slides in the previous class meeting consisting of:

Subaltern Studies
The term “subaltern” originates with Antonio Gramsci:
“subaltern social group, deprived of historical initiative, in continuous but disorganic expansion, unable to go beyond a certain qualitative level, which still remains below the level of possession of the state”
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 396
Subaltern Studies Group—postcolonial historians of India that have influenced historians of other regions

“[S]ubalternity was materialized by the structure of property, institutionalized by law, sanctified by religion and made tolerable—and even desirable—by tradition.”
Ranat Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, 45.

It's not much as Subaltern studies has not made significant inroads into Pacific Northwest history.

These two slides are part of a longer sequence concerning postcolonial theory in the obligatory, but very brief section on theory, that I present in one form or another in every college history class. I typically offer bits about Marxism, postcolonial theory, critical race studies, cultural studies, and indigenous historiography.

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