[The following is a guest post by Daniel Goldberg.]
Thanks much to LD Burnett and the entire gang here at USIH Blog for permitting me to wade on in and muck things up for everybody again. I promise to return the car with only minor dents and scratches. In my first post here – almost a year ago! – I self-identified as an intellectual historian, but noted that the vast majority of historians of medicine and public health write mostly social and cultural history. In my second post, I want to pick up this point and mull (gripe about?) the challenges of writing intellectual history for social and cultural historians.
Unlike most of the contributors and the readers here, I did not set out to be an intellectual historian. When I realized my passion for history, and my great good fortune in landing at an interdisciplinary graduate program with a proud tradition in the history of medicine and several excellent mentors on board, I embarked on a passionate program of reading, writing, and revising, primarily in the history of medicine and public health. Naturally, the majority of this work involved social history, which I quickly adored for its emphasis on bottom-up historiography and its rejection of the Great Man history that characterized at least some of its earlier traditions.
When I arrived at my current position, I had a manuscript I had been working on for some time, and I brought it to one of my new colleagues, a senior and extremely well-respected social historian of medicine. When we sat down to discuss the paper, the first thing he said to me was “You’re an intellectual historian!” Honestly, I had no earthly idea that this was so, but I also sensed intuitively that he was absolutely right (and my exposure to history and philosophy of science on the one hand and the writings of William Bouwsma on the other meant that I was not entirely in the dark as to what characterizes intellectual history).
And so, I began to own and self-identify as an intellectual historian, and to try as best I could to put that ownership into practice in my approach, my research questions, and my writing as well. (The MS was published, too!). But I now find myself in the somewhat peculiar position of writing an entirely different genre of history from the dominant methodologies to which members of my professional historical community are accustomed. There is a dissonance here, and I began, for several reasons, to wonder if this dissonance presented any kind of a professional (First World) problem. I presumed this was simply plain old junior faculty paranoia – until several trusted and senior colleagues concurred that it could indeed present some difficulties.
If you will forgive the navel-gazing thus far, it brings me to what I take to be an important issue: what counts as good evidence may differ across subfields even within the same discipline. This is one of my major challenges as a scholar trying to write responsible historiography that contributes to a larger conversation. Note that the issue is not only possible dissonance between subfields regarding what counts as good evidence in proving a respective claim in each, but also relates to the standards by which peers assess whether a quantum of proof has been supplied that is sufficient to ground the author’s thesis. In my short academic career, I have been the beneficiary of astounding good fortune in my peer reviews, and have generally received excellent and helpful critical feedback on most of my work. And I dislike the idea of a general maxim by which a jilted author asserts that “the reviewer simply did not get what I was trying to do” even where such is obviously true in some cases.
But on several occasions with submitted manuscripts, the feedback essentially centered on the reviewer’s belief that the sources on which I drew and the frameworks in which I situated them simply did not satisfy the arguments to which I was committed. And on these occasions, I often felt that the reviewer and I disagreed on what standard of proof was necessary to substantiate a claim made in an intellectual history context, and on whether the texts and kinds of evidence with which I was working were sufficient to satisfy said standards.
A major portion of my faculty development energies focus on writing pedagogy, and I spend quite a bit of time with the great folks in my University Writing Program, many of whom are trained in rhetoric & composition. One of the interesting concepts to which I have been exposed in this process is the notion of a discourse community. There is a lot of literature on this, but one of the primary experts is John Swales, and he identifies 6 characteristics of a discourse community:
- Broadly agreed set of common goals
- Mechanisms of intercommunication among members
- Participatory mechanisms used to provide feedback
- Utilization of genres
- Specific lexis
- Threshold level of expertise required of members.
It is IMO interesting to think about the possibility that even within subfields of history, different methodologies and approaches may not constitute the same discourse community. Or, alternatively, perhaps historians of medicine and public health are indeed part of the same discourse community, but use slightly different genres (social/cultural vs. intellectual history) in that discourse.
In any event, the rubber really hits the road for me on the question of evidence. I am preoccupied these days with the question of how one identifies what quantum of proof is needed to ground sufficiently a claim made within the history of medicine but from the standpoint of intellectual history. And if the audience for whom I am writing, no matter how brilliant, have simply not internalized the types and standards of evidence marshaled to satisfy arguments made in intellectual history, how does one proceed to convince skeptical readers?
I have been fortunate to find a few junior historians of medicine who either write or at least share my affinity for intellectual history, and I was invited to submit to a panel addressing precisely this question at OAH (which I had to decline because I could not attend). So I am lucky that I am not alone in facing some of these challenges, which are both fun and a bit frightening to engage, truth be told.
What do you all think?