Chicago Humanities Festival Baskes Seminar

I found out about this event through one of the fifty shades of list-servs that I am on. Luckily, the timing and geographic proximity worked out and I was able to attend a really neat seminar with Kevin Boyle that was organized through the Chicago Humanities Festival.

There was an application process that involved submitting a question, so here is what I sent:

How has your methodology or theoretical framework evolved through your work? How has interdisciplinarity informed your research? What do you expect historical research to look like in five or fifty years (within departments of history and without)?

I got to ask my question first because that’s how I roll.

The event took place on Northwestern’s downtown campus, in a courtroom cleverly located alongside Lake Michigan, beside the scenic beach, with nary a window in sight. There were about twenty people in attendance, including graduate students and Interested Observers.

Professor Boyle spoke a bit about his most recent book, Arc of Justice. He also gave us some writing tips as aspiring historians (or poseurs) seeking a wider readership, focusing particularly on the balance between narrative style and rigorous historical methodology. His work strives to reach general audiences and include complex thinking in nuanced accounts of the past.

In response to a few other questions, he spoke a bit about microhistory, the tools of social history, paradigm shifts in the field, the ideal of objectivity (inevitably within a moral framework), answering tough questions, “explor[ing] the complexity of the past,” and“confront[ing] the humanity of people you don’t agree with.” That last point sure was validation for keeping some people as Facebook friends during (and after!) the most recent US election!

It was reassuring to hear that research is an intellectual exercise that often involves running around, since you start somewhere (say, by considering one angle) and always end up somewhere else (if you are successful!). It was also heartening (I think) to learn that a career in writing is an ongoing struggle to find your own distinctive voice. It’s nice to be part of a never-ending project (even after one acquires tenure!).

He commented a bit on readability in dissertations (ha!) and teaching as the best training for historical writing (weaving a compelling narrative based in reality with theoretical and methodological underpinnings while keeping 200 undergraduates awake and engaged is, in many ways, harder than writing a book!).

In general, he advocated a more nuanced interpretation of historical events, with a nod to the many ongoing improvements and transformations in the field. Cookies were served and a good time was had by all.

Further reading:

Clifford Geertz

Arc of Justice

Funny quotes:

“You never escape your advisor.”

“If they’re dead, they’re harder to connect with. I have a PhD, so I get to say stuff like that.” (re: the people you study)

“I’ve had coffee and I like it.”

On Huffington Post: “As long as you don’t wanna get paid, it’s great!”

“When did the Civil Rights Movement begin? Thursday night.”

“We know how the world works. We live in it.”

“Monographs are structured so your target audience doesn’t have to read them and no one else wants to!”

“I’m waiting for someone to write the short something!” (rather than the long 1960s, the long eighteenth century, etc)

“We’ll make our own mistakes. We don’t need to repeat anyone else’s.”

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