j. liedl on hubris and hermeneutics

Via Sharon’s EMN, I found a very nice post by jliedl about teaching a graduate methods course, and how this experience has opened up a whole new line of reflection about her own work.  She says:

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,


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.



2 responses to “j. liedl on hubris and hermeneutics

  1. I’m late getting back to your incredibly helpful post. Thanks, first of all!, for responding to the issues that I raised with this thoughtful and energizing posting.

    I agree with you that a lot of what we’re doing, when we encourage our students to move beyond a sense that they’re just sponges, absorbing facts and “disciplinary knowledge,” is fostering a conscious awareness of tacit knowledge, both what they have already and what they’re going to need to cultivate over the course of their careers.

    I tread a careful line between emphasizing the amount of information they need to master and how much they can do right now, with what they have at hand. From that perspective, I find that calculating “what I do and what I don’t know about this yet” actually is both liberating and useful. If you can run down that list and realize, “Okay, it’s clear that the most significant gap in my knowledge about X is Y,” at least you know what the next step in the project is going to be. And if you realize you already possess the tools to start unraveling part of the interpretation, you feel that much more secure in pushing forward.

    When I presented this to students in the past, they’re struck by two things. First, that even I, their professor, has to constantly study and research to answer interpretive questions. Second, that they have something they can bring to any problem.

    What strikes me is how much more thoughtful they’ve become about the processes of research, writing and reading, both for their own part as well as on the scholars they’re studying. It’s a sign that all this difficult wrangling in the classroom and in our reading sessions has paid off!

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Janice,

    Glad this was of some help.

    Yes, I think students need to be able to think about problems in terms of the questions they would need to answer, or the information they would need to know more.

    What I think is often missing in students’ assumptions, though, is our sense of “you need to check out X to say Y.” Students, even good ones, often don’t understand the need for careful comparison of first-hand sources, for example, or the need to gauge the relative credibility of secondary sources. Maybe they need to get burned? I don’t know.

    But I’m interested in your idea of the inventory of knowns and unknowns surrounding a historical question, and how you might model that for a classroom full of grad students.