This year, I’m struck by the issue of hermeneutics in historical interpretation — essentially, the belief that one has to see the past (or whatever culture one is studying) on its own terms; to understand the text (written document, image, series of actions) in the context of its creation).
So far so good. But one interesting effect of teaching this kind of course is that you lose some of your certainty about your discipline’s major assumptions and practices, because you are repeatedly exposed to good but “undisciplinary” questions about its subject-matter. And you often find yourself lacking good, persuasive explanations for what you would like to explain in authoritative terms. And this sense of unease with accepted explanations is precisely what you need to move your research and teaching into new areas.
Jliedl, for example, seems very concerned that she has no good answers to students who complain that her demand to read the past in “its” terms and not their own is too uncompromising to be of any use. Whose terms do they use, where can they find them, and how should they use them?
Jliedl appropriately moves them away from the scary and rather abstract possibility of some “true understanding,” and towards a more productive form of question: “park your smug superiority at the door and get down to asking why and how people thought the way they thought in order to have done these things!” And posing this question, which makes the past a topic of inquiry, makes it possible for students to move past a seemingly impossible demand to learn something new. As she says,
That opens up a whole different can of worms: charges of hubris and complaints of the impossibility of the task at hand. Who are we to think we can really understand this historical culture? Students complain that they lack the time and tools (background knowledge of the Bible, say, or languages) to truly interpret the past.
What interests me here is that students who were perfectly willing to judge the past wholesale (“Yes, women were hopelessly subordinated under sixteenth century law and custom”, and on the basis of very little knowledge of the period, suddenly become much more reticent and fearful when it comes to the project of learning more about the past. Their sense of the “hubris” involved in understanding the past, then, is partly a defensive rationalization–do we really want to learn more?–and partly an acknowledgment of just how hard a job like this really is. But how do we lead those who are not fully professionalized, either as grad students or as undergraduates, into activities that resemble our disciplinary practices?
In one sense, I think it’s worth cultivating their sense of the largeness of the task, but not simply because it’s pedagogically useful: that sense of risk should accompany any large-scale attempt to reconstruct and explain the past, but I believe that beginners are much more likely to feel it than the practitioners, who would usually benefit from a bit more self-doubt about their own efforts of understanding, because this kind of reflection can lead to better teaching.
This was confirmed to me by a book I’ve been reading that describes the difficulties of teaching writing within conventional disciplinary frameworks. The author, Beaufort, quotes David Russell to the effect that:
A discipline uses writing as a tool for pursuing some object. Writing is not the object of its activity. Thus, writing tends to become transparent, automatic, and beneath the level of conscious activity for those who are thoroughly socialized into it . . . As a result, experts may have great difficulty explaining these operations to neophytes (15).
And Beaufort cites Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge, without realizing that she has explained the classic conundrum of the big-name celebrischolar who offers shockingly bad teaching to generations of students hoping to take advantage of his reputation.
As this example suggests, perhaps the most fundamental challenge of teaching derives not from any mastery of content but from “making . . . tacit knowledge conscious,” as Beaufort phrases it. And this kind of teaching can only come about through showing students how to find things out for themselves, even if it’s an incremental process. And jliedl seems to be doing exactly that in her methods class.
Accordingly, jliedl wants to teach her grad students (but should it only be grad students?) how to strike out on their own, forget the intimidation of the fields that need to be mastered, and dive right into the questions that interest them.
I [she says] want to encourage them to explore a little bit more and to venture a few interpretations of their own when they read, say, some of the justifications offered in Wyatt’s Rebellion or selections out of John Bunyan’s Memoirs without making the demands so unreasonable or the task so overwhelming that they do nothing at all. I’m just not sure that I’ve struck the proper balance. At least not so far!
And these, to me, seem just the right questions to get her students going.