What I haven’t been taught: Historiography

I went to a lecture today about the “decline and fall” of Rome as a historical example, as a trope, as a convenience. It was interesting, and very useful.

Historiography isn’t really dealt with in the department. In our case it’s mostly a funding issue, but only because we have lots of relatively young lecturers in professor and associate-professor positions. Its absence is conspicuous.

Ancient History and Classics are affected as much by class-ism, by feminism and sexism, by Marxism and neo-conservatism as History – or any other Arts discipline. The history department has courses about it. About the use of history, about history as a product, about history as a lens for the time in which it was written, about the point of history at all.

I’m studying History too – just Ancient History. But that means I can’t take those courses. In our department, we get off-handed warnings to avoid some authors, and that’s pretty much it.

Why? This is one of many problems with my discipline, but it’s one of the most frustrating. I’m ill-equipped to deal with historiographical issues when they arise in my research, as they invariably do. I can tell something’s going on, but I can’t tell why – which schools are being ascribed to, which specific author or trend its reacting against, what the buzz-word is that should have clued me in. I know that the author’s university, the journal and the date can give me clues, but I don’t know what to look for.

I’ve never been told. I could just learn, yes, and I have been. But I shouldn’t have to; I’m finishing my undergraduate degree this year, I shouldn’t still be groping around in the dark. A large part of what I know, I know from conversing with history or philosophy students. The rest I know from going to paper presentations, like the one I attended today.

Prior, coincidental experience should not dictate how well-equipped a student is in their studies. Historiography affects absolutely everything. I’m interested, actively involved, and aware of what I don’t know. But I shouldn’t need to be all those things in order to know even a little about historiography. These shouldn’t be factors which put me at such a marked advantage every time I start to research something.

A grounding should be foundational. Yes, there’s not the funding for a course, but it’s also just not addressed as an issue. I’m seeing one facet of a problem I know is embedded deep in university education, but I hate the fact that I – and not my equally intelligent peer who doesn’t have the time to go to conferences and isn’t dating a history major – am set up from the beginning to succeed.

Edward Gibbon himself.

Edward Gibbon himself.

The featured image is the esteemed Edward Gibbon, painted by Henry Walton, 1773


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