Sunday, December 09, 2007

I'm busting up my brains for the words *

Okay, so I'd like to explain a bit more on why this dissertation is currently cocking a snook at me. It's just another stumbling block on the way through grad school. Some of you will remember that the French exam gave me problems because I had taught myself to read French in a fairly idiosyncratic way that made sense to me. I also had problems with teaching and actually almost got fired by the gen ed admins at one point. Somehow, I got through those snags and now I can both read French correctly and teach a class without vomiting in terror beforehand. I'll get through this too, although I really do wish that normal human activities gave me less trouble.

Anyway, for educational purposes, here's roughly how you write a history book. Some of you may want to do this in the future. I can't assure you that you'll get it published. Nevertheless, here's how you do it:

1. Find a historical source or topic that interests you. Usually, this happens when the historian finds some old text or box of documents in the archives that fascinates them. Some people look for a topic that is currently big in the field and research that. Those people are schmucks. Most likely, you'll find some weird old book, diary, or other primary document and want to know more about it. This is most fun when the source is really bizarre. Let your curiosity be your guide.

2. Over the course of your research, you want to historicize your sources. What this means is simply putting it in its proper historical context. If your text is the diary of an eighteenth-century fisherman, explain how we can see in this text the changes that were taking place in fishing, or sailing, or labor more generally. I've got one book from the early 1900s that reads like it came from Mars. I've never been able to figure out how to historicize it. Someday, I will.

3. Explain how your project fits in with other historical research on the same topics. This is where I am stalled. It also seems to be particularly emphasized in American academia. Basically, you have to say what's been done on the topic, how your work will add to that, and why it's unique. I hate doing this; it seems arrogant and often comes off as pompous bullshit. I hate historical studies that have an introduction chapter in which they tell us how they're going to change the world with this study, and I hate essays in which the historian tells us what they're doing instead of just doing it. Also, it should be obvious how having to do this over and over leads to the sort of intellectual conformity that is legion in academia. People worry about ''intellectual freedom'', but I wonder how many mind-blowing histories haven't been written because they didn't go over some well-worn path, or fit into the ''current historiography''. It's thinking by committee.

It's also a necessary evil if you want people to give you money. I'm having trouble with step 3 and a bit of trouble with step 2. To be totally honest, I want to study these texts because they're freakin' awesome. They're accounts of French authors who traveled to the Mediterranean, wandered around, took opium, and tried to see the face of God within themselves. Basically. I'm trying to find better words than ''freakin' awesome'' to explain that. I think there will be some key here to how self-hood is fashioned in modernity, as well as the roots of a discourse about the search for authenticity that draws from prior religious pilgrimage to give birth to tourism.

But I feel like a used-car salesman when I explain it that way. Wanna buy a like-new car that was only driven by a little old lady to the supermarket once a week? Please?

* Some of you are probably thinking at this point, ''Hey, what's up with all these Ziggy Starust references, Rufus?'' Well, it's actually an interesting story. Recently, we went to a Hanukkah Party in Toronto. We were playing a dreidel drinking game that my brother-in-law and I invented- our gift to the Jewish people. Anyway, at some point after drinking half a bottle of whiskey, I came up with the brilliant idea- or at least it seemed that way at the time- to try to only give Post Titles here that come from Marx Brothers films, David Bowie lyrics, or Finnegans Wake. At the least, it should create some sort of magical incantation. Or confuse everyone.

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