Historiographical Reflections

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Alec Ryrie, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  Alec has expertise and has published widely in a variety of areas pusuant to the history of the English reformation, including Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Here he offers some historiographical reflections on Collinson’s Stenton lecture and the model of doing history which it offers.

The consensus view of the workshop was that significant parts of Collinson’s argument in this lecture were, simply, wrong; but also that they were fascinatingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong. Pieces of this kind appear periodically in historical scholarship: powerful arguments which do not necessarily command any kind of assent, but which unsettle and stimulate a wide range of scholars and end up advancing an entire field. We can all come up with a short list of works of this kind. They are a very useful part of the scholarly ecosystem. My question is, how do we encourage this kind of work? And I ask not least because I fear that it is becoming less common than once it was.

This is not, I think, because of any intellectual failure. Naturally you need to be a brilliant scholar to be interestingly and usefully wrong, rather than just wrong. But we are not short of brilliant scholars. Nor is it necessary to be a well-established figure: such pieces have often been written by pushy younger scholars out to make a name for themselves. Nor do I think we can blame this on the passing of a heroic age in which scholars could survey a wide field, now impossible thanks to hyperspecialisation and to the flood of evidence now available. Several of us noted the contrast between the evidence we now have a few clicks away and what was readily available to Collinson in 1985 – pre-internet, and I suspect pre-STC microfilms. But let’s not romanticise this. The 1980s, too, felt weighed down by new evidence.

ref-2014My worries are more about shifts in scholarly culture. In the UK, the RAE / REF must carry some of the blame, since it fosters a risk-averse approach to publication. Better to produce a safe, scholarly article which will be a solid 3* piece than to risk a provocative one which will divide opinion, and which a panel might rate as 4* or as 1*. Slow and steady wins the race. But that too only reflects a wider set of prejudices. The problematic transition from PhD to postdoctoral work is one of them. A PhD thesis is and should be like a tank: armoured, bombproof, but not necessarily nimble. The trick, as a postdoctoral scholar, is to learn to build a plane instead. But as we rush to publish, that trick can be missed.

So, in the spirit of being provocatively wrong, there are two particular issues I would like to highlight. One is the role of labour in history: of archival drudgery, sheer hours spent combing sources. I was brought up an Eltonian, valuing this immensely: history is a craft. And it would be nice if there was a clear correllation between quantity of work done and quality of the insight that results. But we all know it is not so. Our libraries are laden with exhaustively researched volumes which certainly add to the sum of our knowledge, but not to the sum of our understanding.

Think of the stereotypical common-sense response to modern conceptual art: ‘My five-year-old could have done that!’ That response assumes that a work of art should be judged according to what it tells us about the skill and labour of the artist, rather than any intrinsic qualities: as, for example, our response to an acrobatic display may be to find it astonishing rather than beautiful. You could say that, in evolutionary-psychology terms, arts are here being used to display and to assess the performers’ fitness. But if we accept that arts and even crafts can have other purposes, we must also face the awful truth that outstandingly beautiful, moving, insightful or powerful pieces can sometimes be created quickly and easily.

For historians, this means that the quality of an article is not equivalent to the weight of its footnotes, and that interpretative thinkpieces which skim the surface of the evidence can contribute more to our understanding than slabs of archival research. Of course, it is almost impossible to write a genuinely insightful thinkpiece unless you have served your time in the archives, but we ought not need to display that research effort like a peacock displaying his tail. If such a display becomes a credential which an article needs in order to establish its scholarly bona fides, then we will find that the problem with peacocks, as with tanks, is that they do not fly very well.

Second, and in some tension with the first. If one way in which historians can put on a peacock-display is by showing off their footnotes, another is by writing exactly the kind of piece I am discussing: the bold, provocative, agenda-setting ideas-piece. And this, at least, I suspect is actually gendered. Surveying my quick mental list of books and articles of this kind, I find that they are overwhelmingly written by men. There is something macho about the genre: something a little History Boys, a certain showy contrarianism, or at least a degree of intellectual risk-taking. This is not about quality of scholarship, obviously, but the kinds of work outstanding scholars do. If I think, for example, of the early modernist who in my view is the most gifted and significant scholar of her generation, I don’t see look-at-me pieces of that kind in her output.

peacock-1So perhaps we should treat this genre as mere peacockery and hope it dies out? Clearly some of it is, but I think we’d be the poorer. My hope is that, instead, we as a discipline can find ways of encouraging rising scholars to consider framing their ideas in these ways, and sticking their necks out, regardless of gender. It is not and should not be every historian’s style. But there are deep and subtle expectations at work as to the kinds of writing expected from male and female historians. And I strongly suspect that those expectations can decisively affect the calculation of risk involved in producing work which will likely attract controversy and which may well be judged to be ‘wrong’. If we can challenge those expectations, and collectively become more forgiving and encouraging of fruitful error, then we may succeed in advancing our historical understanding in pace with our exponential increase in knowledge – and perhaps even get rid of a few macho high-wire acts along the way.

5 thoughts on “Historiographical Reflections

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  2. Medievalists would, in contrast, look to the iconoclastic (metaphor) work of, inter alia, Brown and Reynolds, and for the latter for many engaging thought pieces rather than the celebrated confrontation with the concept of ‘feudalism’.

  3. Peer-review has become an issue now which only open-access publication can begin to address. Controversial pieces tend to be suppressed by the majority of peer reviewers, I think, and editors seek any negative comments or even lack of sufficient positive comments to exclude submissions – because of available space. Personally, I think that peer reviewers should display more generosity of spirit.

  4. This is a very thoughtful piece, Alec. I think you are correct that REF has made us conservative (even timid, perhaps). Maybe the new rules for 2 submissions will change this somewhat by really pushing for quality over quantity (a rare not of optimism on my part, perhaps!) I also wonder if the art of essay writing (as opposed to article writing) has been somewhat lost. There is a greater degree of bravura inherent in essay writing, I think.

  5. Loved reading this (and the whole series!) and completely agree that its a two way street – scholars need to be both a little more daring from time to time, and a little more generous in critique. As you say, academics shouldn’t be afraid of attempting or accepting fruitful error. Great phrase. Hope I can put this in to practice in my career.

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