What exactly do you do??! Part 1: History

by Increase M

I read an article today, I can’t remember what it was (actually yes I can, it’s this Ask a Queer Chick on the Hairpin I lurve you Ask A Queer Chick, I lurve you the Hairpin!!!!!) And I’m totally not nitpicking because, this really has nothing to do with the amazing advice she’s laying down but I wanted to circle in on this because it touches on some Thoughts I’ve been having:

“[Grad students are] working hard, putting in long hours for little pay or no pay or the ever-popular negative pay, usually on projects so specialized they’ve given up trying to explain them to anyone outside their department”

What she’s referring to is what here in these parts we refer to as The Struggle. It starts innocently enough, someone will ask what I study. This conversation goes several different ways:

1. Q: What do you study?

A: The history of science.

Q: What’s that?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I explain this without getting all like “well, you know what science is don’t you?….” And generally being a condescending pile of stereotypes about somebody who paid to much money for their Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless degree.*

A: It’s like the history… of… science, you know? Like science in the past, I guess?

Q: Oh, right, like Galileo.

A: Right!*

2. Q: What do you study?

A: The history of medicine.

Q: Oh yeah, what part?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: This is actually rougher then the bit outlined above. How specific do you get? Chances are, the person asking isn’t looking for a dissertation, or even a moderately long research paper. At the same time, I hate dumbing down my own thoughts on the assumption that the Q in this Q & A has NO HOPE of understanding what it is that I’m talking about.

A: I generally look at 20th century medicine, although lately I’ve been getting into this collection of 17th century medicinal recipes. I’m particularly focused on gender and women.

[We’re assuming that Q is not going to get all “gender and women… LOL” -Ed.]

Q: That’s cool.

A: Yeah.

3. Q: What’s your thesis on?

ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I say “I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century” without actually saying that?

A: I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century.

Q: That sounds complicated.

A: Yeah.

The problem with these scenarios is that, when moving between the two polls of “needlessly simplistic” and “needlessly esoteric” I’m not actually communicating anything about what it is that I study, or why I think it’s important. And I do think it’s important, important on more levels then just “important to my future relationship to Sallie Mae”.

Historical narratives are powerful, and I don’t just mean in that reductive history repeats itself  kind of way. People (historians and lay public) have this unfortunate tendency to view the work that historians do as producing an immaculate chronicle of The Past as it Really Was, and that if we are doing a good job, then we are producing a pristine set of data points, each point being a distinct event and maybe if we were lucky we could then begin to piece out What People Actually Thought. Wouldn’t that be great? Our historical TV would be so much better (ahem, The Tudors, ahem).***

Then maybe we could turn to whether or not our friends are Actually Racists.

See, it’s bullshit. I’m sorry, but it is.**** Historical events are too complicated, to multi faceted and unique. They can’t be dissected, anatomized, plotted out, or totally explained. There are too many contingencies, too many nodes in the network. Furthermore, besides being lazy and boring, this way of thinking about history serves to obfuscate the very real participation of historical narratives in contemporary discourse.***** It’s like Ronald Reagan. Do you think that all this political trumpeting about who is more like Reagan, is Reagan the best president ever or the very best?, what would Reagan do now has shit all to do with the what Ronny actually did whilst he was president? The supplicating to the Holy Relics of St. Gipper have more to do with legitimation then they do with the past, in ways that completely transcend the historicity of any given claim.

Which is why I get all bent about The Struggle, why I keep fussing and bothering about how to best communicate what it is I spend all of my time doing: because people need to understand that history is not about what happened in the past, but how those things function in the present.

*Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless are the cows in Cold Comfort Farm, which is a really hilarious book, btws. It’s a C/C- level metaphor, I think.

**Except that I don’t study Galileo AT ALL. In fact, I never talk about Galileo unless it’s to score cheap rhetorical points.

***J/K I love the Tudors, dubious historicity and all. Is it accurate? Of goodness no. Is it a fine approximation of what I want when I bother to tune into a dramatization of the life and time of Henry VIII? Absolutely. It’s really not taking itself seriously, nor should you.

****Not really.

*****You know shits about to get real when I start throwing down the D-word.