From the Archives: Messiah College History Department in *The American Scholar*

9e36b-boyerThis post originally ran at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on December 14, 2014–JF

Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) and James Grossman (American Historical Association), the authors of the “No More Plan B” proposal that challenged graduate programs in history to think about training Ph.D students for careers outside of the academy, have now turned to the pages of the prestigious American Scholar to extol the value of undergraduate historical research.

I think I will just let them explain. But before I do, I am proud to say that Grafton and Grossman use the Messiah College History Department as an example of a department in which students are engaged in extensive student research.  We are indeed a department that uses the study of the past to help students build “a self and a soul and a mind” that they can take with them wherever they go.

Here is a taste of their article, “Habits of the Mind“:

Students of history learn how to do research in institutions of many kinds…Go, for example, to the webpage of the history department at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll read about students doing every kind of research you can imagine, from working with a museum professional to excavate and restore a historic cemetery, to pursuing the family histories of African Americans in the documents at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, to developing a digital archive on the history of Harrisburg. Go to the webpage of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley and you’ll find a student-edited journal, Clio’s Scroll, showcasing detailed and imaginative historical research—often drawn from senior theses—on subjects such as drama, landscape, and political thought.

Why do we teach these students—fresh, bright young undergraduates—to do research? Why take people who are forming themselves, who should be thinking about life, death, and the universe, and send them off to an archive full of dusty documents and ask them to tell us something new about the impact of the Civil War in a country town in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the formation of Anglo-Norman kingship, or the situation of slaves in the Old South?

The answer is so simple that we sometimes forget to give it, but it matters. We teach students to do research because it’s one powerful way to teach them to understand and appreciate the past on its own terms, while at the same time finding meaning in the past that is rooted in the student’s own intellect and perspective. Classrooms and assigned readings are necessary to provide context: everyone needs to have an outline in mind, if only to have something to take apart; and everyone needs to know how to create those outlines and query them constructively. Reading monographs and articles is vital, too. To get past the big, generalized stories, you have to see how professional scholars have formed arguments, debated one another, and refined theories in light of the evidence.

But the most direct and powerful way to grasp the value of historical thinking is through engagement with the archive—or its equivalent in an era when oral history and documentary photography can create new sources, and digital databases can make them available to anyone with a computer. The nature of archives varies as widely as the world itself. They can be collections of documents or data sets, maps or charts, books with marginal notes scrawled in them that let you look over the shoulders of dead readers, or a diary that lets you look over the shoulder of a dead midwife. What matters is that the student develops a question and then identifies the particular archive, the set of sources, where it can be answered.

Why do this? Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. Partly because it’s the way that historians help students master skills that are not specific to history. When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.

The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.

This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.

A self like this can seem unworldly, especially if the “real world” resembles a political culture that dismisses complexity and context as “academic.” But in a deeper sense, this is a worldly education, in the traditional way that humanistic education has always embodied. A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.

That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. As Machiavelli said so well, you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.

History has many mansions nowadays. Historians work on every period of human history, every continent, and every imaginable form of human life. But they all listen to the dead (and yes, in some cases, the living as well): that’s the common thread that connects every part of history’s elaborate tapestry of methods. All historians muster the best evidence they can to answer their questions. They offer respect and admiration to those who show the greatest ingenuity in raising new questions, bringing new characters onto the stage of history, and finding new evidence with which to do so.

As for talking with people who don’t work in universities—a student who writes a good history paper has learned how to communicate knowledge to anyone. History has been a form of narrative art, as well as of inquiry into the past, since the first millennium BCE, when Jewish and Greek and Chinese writers began to produce it. That’s why Herodotus could read his history of the Persian Wars aloud at the Olympic Games—a performance for which he received the large sum of 10 talents. Historians care about clear speech and vigorous prose, and believe that even complex and technical forms of inquiry into the past can be conveyed in accessible and attractive language. Accordingly, we don’t separate research from writing. Just ask the students whose papers and chapters we send back, adorned with marginalia in blue pen or the colors of Track Changes.

When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Anthony Grafton: "I never felt I could claim to be a writer…"

Anthony Grafton at Messiah College, Feb 28, 2012

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor has published a piece on Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton.  The article focuses on Grafton’s approach to teaching writing.  The Princeton professor has written scholarly books and articles for popular publications such as the American Scholar and The New York Times, but he insists that he is not a “writer.”  

Here is a taste of Toor’s piece.

…he insists that he is not a writer: “I’ve never felt I could claim to be a writer in that full sense. It just seems arrogant.”
Grafton’s upbringing surely had something to do with his view on that. I had assumed, when I was classics editor at Oxford University Press and heard Grafton’s name tossed around with admiration, that he was one of those tweedy guys who talk as if their mouth is filled with marbles. And then I learned that his name, like my own, was a crypto-ethnic mask.
His story: “I am as Eastern European Jewish as you can be — my father’s family came from Vilna, my mother’s from Odessa. But when my father was working on a Philadelphia newspaper, his boss came to him and the other young Jewish man with whom he shared an office, and said, ‘Boys, you’re smart. I have just bought the New York Post and I want to bring you there. But you can’t have names like yours in New York.’ So they went and changed their names the same day. Isidore Feinstein became I.F. Stone, and my dad, Samuel Lipshutz — who, unlike Izzy, was pissed off — became not Samuel Lipton but Samuel Grafton, since Grafton was the most WASP name he could think of (he was born on Grafton Street in Brooklyn).”
When I read Tony Grafton’s writing in places like The New York Times, The American Scholar, or The Chronicle, I am reminded of a favorite quote from Pascal: “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted, for we thought to see an author and found a man.” Grafton’s prose twinkles with generosity and compassion. Even when he’s focused on the Big Problems — the “crises” in history, the humanities, education — he can describe the landscape and, while never ignoring dark clouds, refrain from Chicken Little-ing and instead suggest practical solutions.
From his father, who he says was a “real” writer, Grafton learned the importance of knowing not only how to begin but when — to learn to be patient enough to wait until you have an idea of where you want a piece to go. “It’s a matter of establishing your voice on the page, in the first sentence, while hoping to win the reader’s attention and not put her off,” he says. “I like to do it with stories and metaphors, something I learned how to do while learning to lecture about history to undergraduates.
Grafton concludes:
As Grafton confesses, “I worry every time that I send something in that the editor in question will tell me it’s total crap and wash his/her hands of me. I think it’s necessary: Like the nervousness I feel before every lecture in a course I have given 20 times.”
And did I mention he likes what we are doing in the Messiah College Department of History?

Messiah College History Department in The American Scholar: The Power of Undergraduate Research

Messiah College history students conducting research in a 19th c. cemetery
Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) and James Grossman (American Historical Association), the authors of the “No More Plan B” proposal that challenged graduate programs in history to think about training Ph.D students for careers outside of the academy, have now turned to the pages of the prestigious American Scholar to extol the value of undergraduate historical research. 
 
I think I will just let them explain. But before I do, I am proud to say that Grafton and Grossman use the Messiah College History Department as an example of a department in which students are engaged in extensive student research.  We are indeed a department that uses the study of the past to help students build “a self and a soul and a mind” that they can take with them wherever they go.
 
Here is a taste of their article, “Habits of the Mind“:
 
Students of history learn how to do research in institutions of many kinds…Go, for example, to the webpage of the history department at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll read about students doing every kind of research you can imagine, from working with a museum professional to excavate and restore a historic cemetery, to pursuing the family histories of African Americans in the documents at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, to developing a digital archive on the history of Harrisburg. Go to the webpage of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley and you’ll find a student-edited journal, Clio’s Scroll, showcasing detailed and imaginative historical research—often drawn from senior theses—on subjects such as drama, landscape, and political thought.
Why do we teach these students—fresh, bright young undergraduates—to do research? Why take people who are forming themselves, who should be thinking about life, death, and the universe, and send them off to an archive full of dusty documents and ask them to tell us something new about the impact of the Civil War in a country town in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the formation of Anglo-Norman kingship, or the situation of slaves in the Old South?
The answer is so simple that we sometimes forget to give it, but it matters. We teach students to do research because it’s one powerful way to teach them to understand and appreciate the past on its own terms, while at the same time finding meaning in the past that is rooted in the student’s own intellect and perspective. Classrooms and assigned readings are necessary to provide context: everyone needs to have an outline in mind, if only to have something to take apart; and everyone needs to know how to create those outlines and query them constructively. Reading monographs and articles is vital, too. To get past the big, generalized stories, you have to see how professional scholars have formed arguments, debated one another, and refined theories in light of the evidence.
But the most direct and powerful way to grasp the value of historical thinking is through engagement with the archive—or its equivalent in an era when oral history and documentary photography can create new sources, and digital databases can make them available to anyone with a computer. The nature of archives varies as widely as the world itself. They can be collections of documents or data sets, maps or charts, books with marginal notes scrawled in them that let you look over the shoulders of dead readers, or a diary that lets you look over the shoulder of a dead midwife. What matters is that the student develops a question and then identifies the particular archive, the set of sources, where it can be answered.
Why do this? Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. Partly because it’s the way that historians help students master skills that are not specific to history. When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.
The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.
This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.
A self like this can seem unworldly, especially if the “real world” resembles a political culture that dismisses complexity and context as “academic.” But in a deeper sense, this is a worldly education, in the traditional way that humanistic education has always embodied. A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.
That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. As Machiavelli said so well, you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.
History has many mansions nowadays. Historians work on every period of human history, every continent, and every imaginable form of human life. But they all listen to the dead (and yes, in some cases, the living as well): that’s the common thread that connects every part of history’s elaborate tapestry of methods. All historians muster the best evidence they can to answer their questions. They offer respect and admiration to those who show the greatest ingenuity in raising new questions, bringing new characters onto the stage of history, and finding new evidence with which to do so.
As for talking with people who don’t work in universities—a student who writes a good history paper has learned how to communicate knowledge to anyone. History has been a form of narrative art, as well as of inquiry into the past, since the first millennium BCE, when Jewish and Greek and Chinese writers began to produce it. That’s why Herodotus could read his history of the Persian Wars aloud at the Olympic Games—a performance for which he received the large sum of 10 talents. Historians care about clear speech and vigorous prose, and believe that even complex and technical forms of inquiry into the past can be conveyed in accessible and attractive language. Accordingly, we don’t separate research from writing. Just ask the students whose papers and chapters we send back, adorned with marginalia in blue pen or the colors of Track Changes.
When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Life on the Grafton Line

Anthony Grafton

If you read The Way of Improvement Leads Home regularly you are probably aware of the Grafton Line. (We covered it here).  This new community of writers, inspired by the amazing writing productivity of Princeton history professor Anthony Grafton, is the focus of a Matthew Guterl post at Inside Higher Ed: “Life on the #GraftonLine.”  Guterl’s piece mentions my own recent recent hotel writing binge.  Here is a taste:

In July of 2013, the noted historian and humanist, Anthony Grafton, was interviewed in The Daily Beast about his writing practice. His answer was revealingly candid.  At the beginning of each weekday, Grafton said he would be seated at his desk by 8 a.m. and would work until noon. Four days a week, he’d begin with revisions, and then proceed to the creation of new prose. Years earlier, he had drafted his manuscripts by hand, but he’d been using a MacBook Air more recently, and its aluminum skin made for a neat contrast with the early modern bookwheel that held his dictionaries and weighty reference texts. “If I’m writing full-time,” he admitted, “I’ll get about 3,500 words per morning, four mornings a week.”

Days after the Daily Beast interview, L.D. Burnett, an American cultural and intellectual historian in the Humanities/History of Ideas Program at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a blogger for U.S. Intellectual History, challenged Grafton to a race.  Marking out the words she needed to write to finish her book, Burnett set a daily pace, matched to her own best effort, and set out to get the job done. Then, Claire Potter, proprietor of the “Tenured Radical” site and a Facebook friend of Burnett’s, coined the Twitter hashtag #GraftonLine and encouraged her readers to join in. Soon, a Facebook page was created. And, just like that, Anthony Grafton had become the éminence grise of a new and unusual writing group, one that spanned the gap between senior faculty and graduate students, public and private universities, friends and strangers. By summer’s end, #GraftonLine had become a capacious proper noun, as much a play on measurement – a more positive “Mendoza Line” – as it was a synonym for ambition and drive.

Collaboration is old stuff, and technology – not merely Twitter and Facebook, but also personal blogs, Dropbox and Google Drive – is making it both easier and different. Steven Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, pointed me to @ProfessMoravec, who works with shared documents and Twitter, and encourages a crowd-sourced model of composition. On her personal blog, Claire Potter has been exposing her methods, revealing not merely how she writes but also how she assembles and archives her materials. At Historiann.com, Ann Little ably summarized her own experimentation with a full-throttle, early-morning #GraftonLine. John Fea locked himself up in a hotel room and generated over 30,000 words in one weekend. And me? Well, the #GraftonLine arrived in my Facebook feed at just the right moment – a big deadline was looming and my writing had stalled, so I owe a book to it.

Take the Grafton Challenge

Anthony Grafton made some waves in the blogopshere recently when he told Noah Charney of The Daily Beast that he writes 3500 words in a normal morning.

Here is a taste of that interview:

Describe your morning routine.

Absolutely. When I want to write, at home, I get up about 5, make coffee, slowly begin to be conscious. I’ll do a fair amount of other work, check email and Facebook and news sites, then I’ll bring my wife coffee and read the newspaper. It’s a long day’s reaching consciousness. By 8 I like to be at the computer and I like to write until about noon. 

Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I write my first draft on the computer. I used to write everything out by hand, but just don’t have the time, patience, or legible handwriting to make that possible anymore. I like to write quickly, so in ideal conditions I’ll have done a lot of research, made a lot of notes, before I sit down. But I don’t do an outline. By the time I could do an outline, I’ll already know what I need to say, so I’ll just sit and write. 

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day? 
If I’m writing full-time I’ll get about 3,500 words per morning, four mornings a we

After reading the interview, Claire Potter of Tenured Radical issued the “Grafton Challenge.”  Here it is:

Finish your manuscript before Anthony Grafton does and win valuable prizes! (Self-esteem, good humor and bloggy fellowship are what sponsors have donated to date.) All you have to do is go to the original post and enter your numbers and you are in. I just did: 120,000 words, 12 months: that’s 10,000 real words a month, 2,500 a week, divided by five = 500 words a day.  But, as Grafton points out in the interview, not every word is a good word, so I’m going to double that to 1,000 words a day, five days a week.The hashtag is #graftonline (a coolio double entendre.)

I will have to give this some serious thought.  Anyone willing to take the challenge?

ADDENDUM:  It looks like I failed to give credit where credit was due.  The “Grafton Challenge” was first proposed by blogger and University of Texas graduate student L.D. Burnett at her blog “Saved by History.”  I am sorry for the confusion. Thanks to Dan Allosso for pointing this out.