Historical research: voyages of discovery

I spent some time today talking to second-year students about the dissertations they will be doing next year. I don’t know about the students but I enjoyed the session. I did, however, sense a degree of apprehension in the audience.

Setting out on a new historical project is always daunting. You worry about whether there will be enough sources, whether they will tell you anything interesting, whether you will be able to understand them at all. You wonder whether anyone will care about what you are doing. For students the apprehension is worse because a dissertation is a new experience.

But there is also the excitement of challenging old ideas, of finding out new things, of being one of a select few to handle an old document. There’s also a sense of exploration and discovery in historical research.

The reality, however, is that most historical research doesn’t discover anything astounding. Historians tend to explain the world, rather than change it. And even the bits they explain tend to be rather small. The value of historical research is in its totality rather than in its individual components.

I don’t want to discourage students from studying big events and important people. There are, after all, plenty of good things that can be done with the careers of kings and queens and the courses of wars and rebellions .  But I also want them to remember that the best dissertations are often very specific studies of things that on the surface might not seem that important.

It’s in studying the ordinary, mundane and the obscure that knowledge can really be extended and challenged. It’s by looking at the events, places, peoples and behaviours that aren’t normally remembered that even student dissertations can be voyages of discovery.

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”

From Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011).

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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.