Dec 19, 2012 - Genealogy    1 Comment

Reflections of a Grad Student

This past Friday another semester of grad school wrapped up. I have survived three semesters and currently hold a 3.934 GPA. I do not mean to brag by saying that, I will elaborate momentarily. Next semester I start work on the historiography portion of my thesis. Up until now my thesis was something I was working towards and now that the time is here to actually start working on it …well it’s very surreal to me and has me in a bit of a reflective mood.

Every semester is extremely difficult. There are days where I feel like I’m getting a better handle on it then there are days where it feels harder than ever.  The last two semesters were not nearly as scary as the first. The first semester I seriously questioned if I had done the right thing. I should explain briefly that my bachelor’s degree is in business, but I had a lot of political science, history and art history electives that together met the requirements for pursuing a graduate degree in history. I heard a lot of new things in my first semester, like the term historiography. That semester shattered the way I looked at history. You see before that semester I thought history was a constant, things only changed when new evidence came up. There is something comforting about something never changing, I never realized how much that aspect of history mattered to me until that semester. Instead I found out that the world of history is constantly changing, new theories emerge was to why something happened or the way it happened, old schools of thought come under attack and are replaced by new ones. It is much more dynamic that and constantly being revised.

Since then I have figured something out: history is constant, the way people look at it is what changes.  For those who are scratching their heads wondering what the blazes historiography is, here is a definition: in general terms it means “history of history writing” but to truly understand what I mean the “narrow meaning” should be clarified as the study of “the variety of approaches, methods, and interpretations employed by historians on a particular topic.”[1] As much as I may complain about writing a historiography paper as I am writing it, I am actually starting to like the whole process. There is such great value in it that I could devote an entire blog to that alone…..but I’ll skip that for today. In brief, why I like it is because of what it represents and means. In the world of academic and professional history there is an unexpected element of creativity. New perspectives are not only wanted they are thirst for. Sometimes in the world of professional genealogy I feel like while yes my opinion is wanted it is not valued in the same way and it’s only wanted if it falls within set parameters. Those of you who follow this blog already know that not voicing my opinion or only voicing it if the rest of the flock agrees just is not me. But why do I feel that way? Well mostly because of the reactions I get when I say I am getting my degree in history as well as history degree bashing articles that are out there.

I’ve even come across articles that suggested history degrees are not an accurate reflection of one’s research, analysis and writing abilities because there is no testing involved and degrees are essentially given away to make sure that colleges graduate x amount of students in order to keep the enrollments (and subsequently money) up. Articles like this are ignorant and dangerous. I did not get into the Master’s program just because I said pretty please with a cherry on top. I got in because I worked my butt off when I got my bachelors (graduating magna cum laude) and passed the application process – which included submitting letters of recommendation and the writing of an essay. I have the GPA I do not because someone gave it to me but because of the long nights I stayed up reading until 2 am, all-nighters I pulled to make sure my essay exams were just right and because of my refusal to turn in any work worthy of anything less than A. Ask any graduate student and they will tell you, graduate school is one long test. It tests you intellectually, emotionally and physically. Then as you reach the end you endure an even harder test- either a comprehensive exam or go through the process of researching and writing a thesis only to have to verbally defend it in front of a panel. Call me crazy but perhaps people who do not have degrees, undergrad or grad level, in history or have not been through a program in the last twenty years should refrain from writing articles like that.

The more I think about the way that my degree in history and career as an independent historian will dove tail with my career as a professional genealogist (subsequently researching opinions going both ways about it) the stronger I believe that professional genealogists need to rethink the way they look at history degrees. This is not to say that history degrees are completely unappreciated…it’s that they are not appreciated enough. The value of history degrees goes beyond the gaining of supplementary knowledge in regards to historical context (something in of itself that is underappreciated). The research and analysis taught by universities is too easily written off as not being specific enough. Furthermore, there seems to be a myth that genealogists and historians do not use the same sources…..guess what- they do!!!!  Genealogists could greatly benefit from looking at what historiography means and ways they can incorporate it to their work. Perhaps instead of looking to other occupations such as lawyers and doctors for models, the field should model themselves after historians.  They may find that by doing so, by truly allowing for the introduction of new perspectives that more of my generation just may toss their hat into the ring. These are all things I will be blogging about more and more through the course of next year.

Recommended reading: Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing by Anthony Brundage


[1] Anthony Brundage, Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, Wheeling Illinois: Harlan Davidson , Inc. (2008), p.  71

One Response

  • This is a thoughtful blog, which I very much enjoyed. Thinking about the nature of history (and historiography) and genealogy is something I like to do. I went to grad school in literature. One theoretical approach to literary interpretation is through history, and we like the phrase “the historicity of literature and the literariness of history.” In other words, both history and literature are texts — so with both it is a question of interpretation, in the context of history.

    I see a similar interface with genealogy and history. You have found the creative element in history, which arises in part–I think–from how much of history is unknowable. For example, people’s feelings and views and deceptions and self-deceptions are all part of history, but how can anyone ever really know them? I’ve seen the same debate going on among genealogists on Twitter. Some genealogists (like some historians) want a rigorous proof of everything they find, or they don’t want to mention it. But the genealogists who like memoirs and family history are more receptive of that unknowable aspects of genealogy–people’s feelings and views and deceptions and self-deceptions (and all the rest).

    You have worked very, very hard and will soon be at the fun part — where you can “hold forth” about your own opinions. Everyone shapes the knowledge they hold. It’s good to be a professional “shaper.”

Leave a Reply