Carlo Ginzburg on the Study of History and the Boundaries of His Commitments


Historians know Ginzburg as the founder of the “microhistory” and the author of The Cheese and the Worms.   In a recent interview at Verso Books with Claire Zalc he talks about his career and the current state of the historical profession.  Here is a taste:

How do you define the boundaries of your commitments?

I must say that I don’t like sermons. If there is anything I can do, as a historian, from an analytical point of view, it is very good. It’s part of my job. But the situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved. Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the screening of a film on immigration and I accepted. Would I have said yes five or ten years ago? The context is changing… Even if the idea of the committed intellectual is not something I particularly like.

Do you think that doing history helps us understand our present? I have in mind the frequent analogy made between the current situation and the 1930s.

I had never used the word ‘fascist’ outside its historical context. Then I watched Trump’s election campaign on TV. I was in Chicago, and I thought, ‘This guy’s a fascist.’ Then I thought about a conversation I had with Italo Calvino, around 1968. He knew Argentina well, and said to me: ‘You see, in the light of the Perón experience, the definition of fascism has to change.’ This struck me. Certainly, there is historical fascism, but can we broaden this definition? Racism or anti-Semitism are not, in my opinion, necessary elements. But we should think about this.

Why do history today? Do you think it still makes sense?

Yes, completely. But we must avoid confusion or identification between history and memory. Even if history is nourished by memory, and memory is also nourished by history, it is necessary to keep this distinction: Maurice Halbwachs demonstrated this very well. It reminds me of the Internet. There are, with the Internet, gains and losses. We gain a potential for opening up, for ‘de-provincialization’, which is magnificent. But there is also a risk of losing the slowness of reading, the slowness of reflection. You have to play between the two, speed and slowness, to regain the thickness of the present.

Read the entire interview and Zalc’s introduction here.

I was struck by Ginzburg’s reflections on the historian’s engagement with contemporary events.  I think his answer to this question best captures how I have approached the Trump administration and my book Believe Me.  “The situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved.”

T.J. Stiles: “America is losing its memory”


Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian T.J. Stiles has a great piece at The Washington Post on reduced funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  This is a must read.

A taste:

Every American can go to the National Archives and get direct access to our past and present. And everyone suffers from the failure to pay what it costs to maintain it. In fiscal 2010, Congress granted NARA $475 million , for example. The next year, it cut the appropriation to $420 million. The appropriation for 2018 was $403.2 million. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for $358 million. Such repeated, harsh reductions are even worse when adjusted for inflation.

Even as appropriations decline, the workload increases. Already NARA facilities are near full capacity for record storage, holding some 4.5 million cubic feet. Yet more files arrive annually, with as much as 2.5 million cubic feet of “permanently valuable, historical records” expected over the next 14 years.

Selecting and preserving these records demand countless hours of expert labor. Some records need special care; all must be identified and catalogued; security and privacy concerns require diligent attention. On top of that, NARA has been asked to digitize those existing paper records. In 2018, it lagged nearly 12 million pages behind its goal of making 65 million available online — in itself a small fraction of its total holdings.

The fiscal constriction shows at the scores of facilities where the public accesses federal records. NARA maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries, 13 federal records centers, 11 regional facilities and two personnel records centers, not to mention two central locations in College Park and Washington. Recent years have seen visitor hours restricted, new fees levied and a shrinking workforce.

That staff consists of dedicated professionals. I’ve worked with many of them personally, from rank-and-file archivists to the agency’s nonpartisan leadership, and I have great confidence in them. (I spoke to no one at NARA about this essay.) But only so much can be accomplished with a shrinking budget. In 2017, an employee survey found 73 percent agreed that “my agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” In 2018, that figure declined to 66 percent, an alarming level for such a critical body.

We owe it to ourselves to substantially increase funding for the keepers of our national memory. No financial interest or large popular pressure group lobbies on NARA’s behalf. Its constituency is all of us — and every American to come. If we lose touch with who we have been, what we have endured and how we have argued, the United States will stand for nothing at all.

Read the entire piece here.

Bringing "Active Learning" Into the Classroom

Last year, as some of you may remember, I taught Pennsylvania History for the first time.

At Messiah College, the Pennsylvania History course attracts a cross-section of students–history majors, public history students, and non-history majors seeking a “pluralism” general education credit.  Part of the course employs the so-called “coverage” model.  In other words, we “cover” a significant swath of Pennsylvania history from William Penn to the present.  The other part of the course is skills based.  Students learn how to do an oral history, they gain experience in doing local history, and they make contributions to our Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

Last year I was very excited to get the students engaged in “active learning,” or, as we historians call it, the “doing” of history.  Unfortunately, not all of the students in the class had the same level of excitement.  While some students participated enthusiastically in an oral history project and a digital exhibit using Omeka software, other students preferred to consume their history by listening to me lecture.  My student evaluations were fine, but several students wanted me to know that they did not appreciate the “skills” dimension of the course.

I am teaching Pennsylvania History again this semester.  Students will still be “doing history.”  I kept the oral history assignment.  I dropped the Omeka assignment and added a couple of local history assignments that will require students to explore historical records related to Harrisburg.

As I think about how to get my students connected to the more “active” dimensions of this course, I found David Gooblar’s piece at Vitae to be very helpful.  Here is a taste of “Why Students Resist Active Learning“:

Be explicit up front. As I’ve noted, a course in which students are expected to be active participants can be a bit of a shock for some. So make the case for your pedagogical choices. Read up on the benefits of active learning (two good places to start are here and here) and, particularly at the beginning of the semester, let your students know that there are well-researched reasons behind the way you’ve designed the course. Treat students like colleagues whose cooperation you need and they will be much more likely to buy in to new approaches.
Be open. Throughout the semester, get into the habit of explaining the justification behind each activity as you introduce it. Let your students know why a particular exercise or topic will be useful to them, either for their final grade, or (better yet!) in their lives outside the classroom walls….
Vary your teaching methods. Some students may resist your attempts to integrate active-learning strategies simply because you rely too heavily on one kind of activity. You want your teaching to benefit both the extrovert who loves collaborative exercises and the bookworm who excels at in-class writing assignments. Mix it up on a regular basis and keep everyone on their toes.
Lecture sometimes. Finally, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are (still!) perfectly good reasons to lecture to your students — some of the time. For one, you know a lot about the course topic and students will benefit from you telling them what you know. But perhaps more important, a lecture component can help increase the benefits of the learner-centered activities that take up the rest of class time….

Mandy McMichael Reports from the Meeting of the American Society of Church History

I am pleased to welcome Mandy McMichael to The Way of Improvement Leads Home family.  Mandy is Assistant Professor of Religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama and a former Grant Wacker student at Duke Divinity School.  She is working on a project, stemming from her Duke dissertation, on religion, the Miss America Pageant, and southern womanhood.  How cool is that?  And to top it all off, she even found a lanyard! I hope you enjoy her first post.  –JF

ASCH Session #5: “Doing History
Today I experienced a first: a standing room only crowd in an American Society of Church History (ASCH) session. I’ve attended full sessions before, but this one had an overflow of more than twenty people who got left in the hallway. Just as Jennifer Graber (presenting on behalf of David Steinmetz) noted that individuals in the midst of a historical event cannot know how it will turn out, Randall Balmer stopped her. Laughter erupted from the audience as we were informed that a bigger room was to be procured.
Finally settled into a larger – though still filled to capacity space – Jennifer Graber (University of Texas at Austin) began again. Steinmetz’s work challenged listeners to strive to accept historical events on their own terms. He offered several examples of what that might look like. To more fully understand the world which Luther inhabited, for instance, one should know Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Only when one immerses herself as completely as possible into the world she is studying can she begin to accept it and explain it on its own terms. This is, of course, not fully possible. Steinmetz thus surmises that translating past events as clearly as we can while being both sympathetic and honest is what constitutes “doing history.”
Catherine Brekus’s paper, “Who Makes History?: American Religious Historians and the Problem of Historical Agency,” was the most helpful to me. All three papers were fantastic, but hers hit on several issues that helped me understand my approach to “doing history.” As Erin already noted, “Brekus explored the possibilities and problems of individual agency, criticized by theorists who would argue that there is no self, only subjectivity, on the one hand, and proponents of ‘big history’ and ‘deep history,’ particularly Guldi and Armitage, for whom the extreme longue durée is the only appropriate way to study history and give it an impact in our contemporary world.” Brekus also argued for “microhistory” as the first step toward expanding the broad narrative, asking larger questions, and exploring the agency of marginalized groups. She closed by noting that Grant Wacker’s work provides a model for conceptualizing agency (as relational and not just individual), writing short term history, and proffering grand narratives.
David Hall’s paper explored his assumptions in two stories he’s found useful in his work on the Puritans: Elizabeth Knapp and Anne Hutchison. He pushed us to consider how we interrogate the stories we use to tell history. How do we determine their authenticity? Do we consider the multiple revisions they must have gone through before they got to us? Who else is mediating the story and is that important to recognize? In other words, he asked us to approach narratives and testimonies and our use of them with “self-critical scrutiny.” He concluded by noting his desire to continue using stories to tell history. Still, we must do so, he cautioned, aware of the “thin ice on which we skate.”
Peter Kaufman’s response elicited much laughter from the audience as he remarked, “Who makes history? We make history.” He interacted skillfully with the panelists’ ideas, using a poem by Robert Frost titled “Mending Wall” as a description of what it looks like to do historiography. We historians are that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” If historians are those who “make facts meaningful,” he concluded, “Grant, you give me a paradigm.”
Today I’ll be attending the luncheon in honor of Grant Wacker as well the panelcelebrating his contributions to American Religious History, “Believing History.” I’ve heard (hilarious) snippets from Kate Bowler’s paper already so I know that the session will be just as brilliant as today’s panel.

P.S. I scored a lanyard. I’ll keep an eye out for more.