Sunday, July 24, 2005

Putting the Human back in Humanities

Dr. Camicao at Academic Splat has gotten me thinking about the future direction I would like to see for historical scholarship. I think that the human element definitely should take center stage. I have been increasingly moving in this direction myself for a while. My own writing has evolved from a heavily "scientific" style influenced by German and more importantly Russian models of historical production to a more humanistic emphasis. I think that good scholarship should seek to synthesize both the objective facts of history as well as how humans subjectively experienced these events. It is this human element that makes history interesting. A lot of historical writing even when sympathetic to the people under study tends to overemphasize the details of the external forces acting upon them to the exclusion of their subjective experience. I myself have been guilty of this in the past. In my more recent writing I have tried to strike a greater balance towards situating the human element in the center of the narrative. When I did my upgrade from M. Phil. to Ph.D. my committee noted that I showed a lot of sympathy towards my historical subjects and their subjective views, but that it was appropriate and not over the top. That is they thought that objective scholarship did not require a sterile approach. It certainly never requires a moral neutralism which was something I was never guilty of employing and reject as a perversion of objectivity.

Since I finished writing my thesis I have moved even more in the direction of putting the human element back into the historical narrative. In May 2004, I attended a conference in Beirut on Violence in the Middle East where one of the main themes to emerge was in fact the need for all humanities to do this. That is center the common humanity of the subject in our scholarship while recognizing the distinctly different ways various cultures express that humanity. Now that I am starting to write some non-academic material I think the challenge is to bridge the differences between the culture of the reader and the historical subject to show this common humanity and illuminate the differences in its expression. This is the task I think that should lay before humanity scholars.

I am going to continue on this theme in my next post which will deal with the topic of Orientalism. Or why I am an Orientalist and why followers of Edward Said in post-colonial studies should stop sullying the term. I have decided I am going to tackle my use of the term as an identifier before somebody points out that it is usually used as an insult in the humanities.


Frank said...

Dr. Pohl,

I ran across your blog via Academic Splat! and I just want to say how much I like it. Your posts on the Russian-Germans are fascinating; I only had a vague notion of the group's existence and persecution before this blog. And your obvious love for scholarship and writing is really cool. How you don't have an academic appointment, I simply cannot understand. Every other academic blog I've read complains about how much pressure there is to publish, but you publish like a madman and yet do not have an appointment. It's very odd.

Anyway, keep up the good work and I look forward to continued reading.

J. Otto Pohl said...


Thanks for the comment. Out of the 50 rejection letters I have gotten since January, two gave a reason. I have no teaching experience. I have never even been a TA. Apparently this is enough to negate two books and half a dozen peer reviewed journal articles. But, I will say it was the two books that did get me into graduate school in the UK. Even with the two books I could not get into any US programs.