Inspiration Roundtable: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect the Historiography

This is the second post in a roundtable about research inspirations. You can read the first essay, a guest post by Whitney Barlow Robles, here.

My dissertation on food and war, which became my first book project on war and hunger, originated at a crossroads between panic and personal interests. I was a sophomore, taking a class on the American Revolution, and the professor was walking us through the process of writing a final paper by requiring a paragraph-long research proposal, followed later in the semester by an annotated bibliography. We were at the point in the semester where research proposals were nearly due, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I remember discussing my growing sense of panic at swim practice with a friend, and vacillating between this sense of anxiety, and pleasant anticipation of dinnertime. I swam for the team friendships, and the fact that even bad dining hall food tasted good after a hard workout. As I speculated about our dinner choices, my friend interrupted me, observed that I was obsessed with food, and suggested that I write about it for my history paper.

Reader, I wrote a final paper about food nearly every semester for the rest of my undergraduate degree. I wasn’t yet an experienced cook or baker, but I’d been raised in a family that cared about cooking and eating together. Once I started writing about these topics, it became clear to me how much more I enjoyed doing the primary source research when I cared about the topic. I was happy to trawl through newspapers, cookbooks, travel narratives, letters, and diaries, looking for any and all mentions of food. Thus did a sophomore paper about food during and after the American Revolution turn into an undergraduate thesis on American culinary nationalism, and then into a dissertation proposal for grad school, based on the same topic.

The thing is, I applied to grad school in precisely the wrong way. I contacted no professors, networked at no events, and just got lucky that I got accepted anywhere with funding. Once I became a grad student, and did enough reading for comps, I realized that I didn’t want to write a dissertation about culinary nationalism in the early republic because I found that I wasn’t really interested in those historiographical questions. I didn’t want to debate what constituted “American” food, nor did I really think I could add to historians’ interpretations about what these definitions meant to people in the early nineteenth century. I’d managed to write an undergraduate thesis that was driven by primary source research, but hadn’t reckoned enough with the scholarship on my topic. I then made a similar mistake for the dissertation: I started with the primary sources, struggled with the historiography I had to get to grips with to write an argument-based dissertation, and then spent a long, long time figuring out how to make that dissertation into a book with an innovative argument.

These struggles raise questions about what sorts of research and writing should matter—at the undergraduate level, for graduate school, and for the book. If undergraduates are to develop crucial analytical skills, they need to be able to identify and articulate a historian’s argument, their methods, and their revisions of past historians. If graduate students are to convince potential employers that they’re doing something new and necessary, they must be able to assess what’s come before them. But if, for most books, the historiographical discussion gets relegated to the footnotes, we cut the literature review, we put our primary source manuscript research front and center, and we try to make that work accessible to the everyday reader, do we really need to be as steeped in the historiography as traditional graduate school training programs suggest? Reader, I think we do—and this conviction means that I’ll probably take a more strategic approach for the second book project—but I confess that I still struggle to reconcile what seem to me to be two very different approaches to writing history.

I chose a dissertation topic that gave me joy because I knew how long the process was going to last. I knew that I needed to remain enthusiastic about the primary source research; about traveling to archives to do it, and about writing it up. I continue to think that the ability to read a primary source and analyze it are among the best critical thinking skills an undergraduate can acquire, and I personally place them higher up in my teaching aims and learning outcomes than I do reckoning with the historiography.

But I also know that you can’t analyze primary sources without putting them into conversation with the historiography. The best sort of context has to draw on what’s been written previously about the source. The undergraduate, and then graduate student that I was, who failed to do these things, failed largely because she was lazy—and because it takes a lot of practice to learn how to distill previous historians’ arguments. I was always fine at stringing together quotes from other historians to contextualize my sources, but I’m not convinced I’d really come to grips with what those historians were saying about the sources. And I know that when my third years write their undergraduate dissertations, the really successful students will thrive where I did not; they’ll write those three to five introductory paragraphs explaining how previous historians have studied the sources they’re now studying, and they’ll describe their new interventions in that historiography.

There are several takeaways to my first book story. The first is the conviction that your research needs to be a topic that will hold your attention for at least half a decade. If it dovetails with your personal interests, and you have enough self-control to maintain work-life balance while pursuing those interests simultaneously for pleasure and work, then that is the topic you should choose. The second conclusion is that we should not separate our research interests from the act of teaching those same sources to our students. Those students, especially undergraduates, need to be walked through the process of creating a project, they must be encouraged to follow their interests, and they have to be supported as they work out what it is they want to write about. They also need dedicated teaching about historiography, because guys, historiography is hard.

Writing about my process for you here today has also encouraged some reflection about the less-than-intentional way I chose a dissertation topic. I think that being able to play in the primary sources is precisely the way that undergraduates should be encouraged to write end-of-term essays, but they need historiography, too. Letting the primary sources lead me resulted in a really (really, really) messy dissertation process that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. If you can strike a better balance between researching the primary sources that you love, and reckoning with extant scholarship sooner, rather than later, then that is what I’d suggest doing.

One comment on “Inspiration Roundtable: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect the Historiography

  1. […] in Research.” Previous contributors to the roundtable include Whitney Robles, Rachel Herrmann, and Lindsay O’Neill with Ken Owen’s final post of the roundtable coming […]

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