We all write from a position, including historians. There have been major moves to consider and acknowledge the position of historians with regards to class, gender, race, and sexuality, and this is more than welcome—it is absolutely vital. It does not now seem right to consider the historian as beyond time itself, as unrooted from the moment in which they write, like some kind of academic time-traveller, though some refuse to acknowledge this. We all have experiences that we bring to bear on the material. The material? What is the ‘material’ of history? Mostly, it is nothing more or less than sources that attest to the lives of other people, however distant in time from us.
The Ideal Historian
However, some ways of interacting with sources appear to remain preferable: the ideal of the detached, objective, and supremely rational historian who surveys the whole of human history as his kingdom, ripe for the picking. It’s no mistake that I said ‘his’ because, in my view, this construction of the historian as fundamentally disinterested, merely questing after historical truth, correlates to a particular ideal of the historian: white, male, straight, cis, non-disabled and upper class. Arguably, part of the valuing of this ‘ideal historian’ lies in the idea that historians must be detached and above the material and sources, to gaze down upon it from some lofty height and explain it to the rest of us. The reason this ideal historian can do this is precisely because he is not considered to have a stake in the game. The ideal of the detached observer can serve to maintain the ideal of a particular type of historian as the ultimate arbiter of historical truth, their insights derived simply from cold study of the facts. What this actually does is cloud the ‘ideal historian’s stake, which is exactly as historically positioned as everyone else’s.
There are several ramifications of this construction of the ‘ideal historian.’ First, what is the right way to do history? The answer runs that the best way to do it is through cool, unemotional consideration of the sources. Then, who gets to do history this way? Those who do not have a(n obvious) stake, lest their emotional reactions cloud their vision. See how this would get real bad real fast? The people best placed to tell the truth are (apparently) those with no stake in the answer. This renders everyone else who is invested as ‘too emotional’, while obscuring what is gained for the ‘ideal historian.’
Now, as I said at the top, there have been moves to problematise this style of thinking and I think/hope it is less common now within the profession (though still rife in general outside it.) But in my view the legacy of this veneration of the ‘ideal historian’ continues to live on. There remains, in my experience, a discomfort with emotion within the discipline.
Crying in the Archive
I cry over the stuff I look at, frequently. I took one course in the first term of my MA where I cried over every single thing I was set to read over the 5-week module and I genuinely thought I was losing my mind. Why can’t I just be normal and read about displaced children and look at their drawings without sobbing? I’ve stood in the Freud Museum and wept over a straightjacket. I struggle to lose sight of the fact that a real child’s hand drew those pictures or a real woman was confined in that thing that’s right in front of me behind the glass. Is the goal to lose sight of that? It can’t be, surely. If that’s the goal, I may as well drop out now as I’m clearly not cut out for this.
And this is where the legacy of the detached, unemotional historian continues to do the work. It makes me think: am I too emotional to be a proper, grown-up historian? Because proper, grown-up historians never cry.
Except maybe they do?
Looking at, studying, thinking and writing about the best and worst of humanity is emotive. How could it not be? The people who baffle me are the ones who have no reaction at all to this stuff. But the discipline, well, disciplines you. It teaches you that historians don’t or aren’t supposed to have feelings about the material they work with. Students look to their teachers for models of how to be a ‘proper’ historian with everything from how to structure an essay, to presenting an oral argument, to what language to use, and how to speak. Well, in my experience at least, nobody is openly speaking about how it can feel to be a historian.
The one conversation I’ve had with an academic historian about emotions was after I whispered in an office hour that I was finding the material distressing. This was simply acknowledged and I was informed I was probably not alone in this. But why should it be that it takes an embarrassing confession to have the difficulty acknowledged? What about those in the class who would never tell a virtual stranger that they were struggling? Would it be hard to say in the very first seminar that it might be hard going? Maybe then I’d have felt less like a complete failure for being an emotional wreck at the end of each week’s reading.
What would it look like to have a discipline attuned to the psychological and emotional life of the person doing the history? I think about this a lot. In some ways, I’m lucky that my experience of mental illness has effectively forced me to become a little better at talking about my feelings. I’m also—crucially—a cis, white, middle class woman, so the world is pretty used to me having feelings and is more open to me discussing them. I am allowed to be ‘soft,’ many other people, particularly those without my privileges, are not.
There exists a bind for the emotional historian—how to do justice to your students by acknowledging that you have feelings about your work and they are likely to too, while not creating a situation in which you will lose professional standing and respect, or be dismissed as being ‘too emotional.’ This is also significantly worse for historians from marginalised groups who already have to fight so much harder to get a position in the first place and then could be neatly dismissed for being ‘unacceptably’ emotional. There is so much to lose for historians from marginalised groups already.
It also needs to be acknowledged that there is a hierarchy of acceptable emotions. Anger is basically just completely unacceptable and it feels like admission of anger at sources would pretty much destroy any credibility you have as a historian. It’s worth asking why this is. I’d say it’s partly because it betrays too strongly the stake you have in this history, as well as the fact that it is not ‘polite’, which appears to be rather highly valued in academia. Again, we’re back to the ideal of the detached unemotional historian who floats above it all, smiling.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any easy solutions to the problems presented here and I fear the legacy of the ideal historian will continue to haunt us for a good while yet.
But what I think might be a start would be some basic steps by academics who are in a secure position to acknowledge their humanity to their students. To ‘admit’ that they have feelings too and that history and the doing of history will almost certainly, at some point, make them feel things. And that this might be uncomfortable, but that it doesn’t make you less suited to doing history. If someone had told me that I think maybe I would have found it all a bit easier. This isn’t to say that tutors should become therapists—I don’t think anyone at all wants that situation!—but recognition that doing history can make you feel shouldn’t be some kind of dirty secret.
So, optimistic and naïve as ever, if I ever do become a ‘proper’ historian, I hope that I remember that I wanted to make sure I tell students in seminar one that crying over sources is 100% okay and normal.