Historiography 7.10.11 — Memory & Introduction

Technically, this wasn’t the first class period. The first class period actually happened on 29 September. But that class was more of an introduction to the module, and a brief discussion on Postmodernism and history. While I find Postmodernism in general to be fascinating, and particularly how it affects the study of history, I won’t bore you with that now. Perhaps in some later post.

This module is essentially an overview of the theoretical side of studying history. Research Methods is more the practical side [1. Read a bit about that class here ]. Theory, as you can imagine, can be quite dense. But I do think it is quite important to study, so I am gritting my teeth and working through it. The purpose of the class is to introduce us to modern historiographical themes, and the new directions in that line of thought. For anyone who thinks history is simply about reading empirical facts, here is the class to challenge that idea.

The class is split into two phases. The first, weeks 1-6, cover general historiographical themes (Social Memory, Marxism, Nationalism, Culture, & Gender History). The second, weeks 6-12, cover historiographical themes specific to one’s topic of study. For me that means Irish Historiography. The class has two assesments: a paper on a topic from phase one and a paper on a topic from phase two. So 50% of my marks [2. British-speak for ‘grades’] hinge on two 5,000 word papers. Welcome to graduate school.

This class has a massive amount of reading, but I have a lot of flexibility as to what and how much I read. Essentially, the classes have 4-6 articles or book chapters that everyone should read, and then there is usually about another 30-40 possible readings, which range from general books & articles on the topic, to ones specific to a strand [3. Irish History, British History, American History, etc]. The actually class time is lead by a different lecturer each week, and centres around group discussion.

Now, on to the fun part. Memory. Or ‘Social Memory’. Or ‘Memory & History’. This was a particularly hard topic because it covered many different fascets of memory. I would say there were at least 4-5 themes in the topic:

  1. How do individual, private memories influential societal memory (history)?
  2. How does social memory influence individual, private memories?
  3. How do historians go about recording individual memories? Are they reliable?

The central premise of studying memory in relation to history is that memory structures everything [4. James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992) ]. Thus, one of the challenging things to wrap my head around was how you can both study how history influences memory. For example, an event like 9/11 is an event every American, if not most people around the world, will always remember. However, when studyed, people often have memories that are shaped by societal reconstructions of the event.. I, for instance, even though I didn’t see the planes fly into the towers, can remember that image pretty vividly. The other side of the coin is that memories from individuals can be used as historical source. One of the more interesting readings was an article by a guy who was studying a Holocaust survivor [5. Roseman, Mark. ‘Surviving Memory: Truth and Inaccuracy in Holocaust Testimony.’ Journal of Holocaust Education, 8 (1999)]. His challenge was how to reconcile differences between the oral memories of his subject with the published records of the German government. There is a tendency in history to give preference to document sources, such as government records. What Roseman observed, however, was that the government records were purposefully inaccurate, and the testimony of his survivor was indeed the reliable narrative. Still the problem becomes how to use memory as a source, and how to gauge it’s reliability. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, even discrepancies and inaccurate in testimony are not necessarily problematic. The historian can well ask why a person remembers things differently than they actually occurred.

This is a part of my History at Queens series. I am writing on what I’m learning in my modules and as a part of my own research. Hope you enjoy!

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