Experimental History in the Classroom
Martha Hodes, May 2007
"Experimental History. Is anybody interested?" So read a headline in the December 1992 issue of Perspectives. Curious, I read on. Robert A. Rosenstone, professor of history at California Institute of Technology, was putting out a call for scholars interested in innovative forms of historical writing. Coining the phrase "experimental history," Rosenstone went on to organize a workshop at Cal Tech, a weekend filled with inspiration and debate—debates that ranged from where to draw boundaries between history and fiction, to the merits and demerits of writing in first-person, to the question, "Can anyone but tenured faculty write experimental history?"1
"Is anybody interested?" Those words resonated for me long after the weekend in Pasadena, especially as I found myself slipping unconventional readings onto my syllabi: John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America for the U.S. survey; William S. McFeely, Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom for my Civil War course; David Farber, Chicago ‘68 and Rosenstone's own Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters in Meiji Japan for a graduate course on methodology.2
Designing the Course
In 2002 and again in 2005, I designed an advanced seminar for undergraduate history majors at New York University that I called "Reading and Writing Experimental History." Enrollment was self-selective and therefore modest—lucky, since the class worked beautifully in an intimate setting.
"This course investigates and evaluates the ways in which scholars attempt to expand the boundaries of writing history," I told my juniors and seniors on the first day. "Our central concern will be the relationship between historical evidence and the writing of history in new ways." Experimental history and conventional history, I explained, converge in two ways. First, argument matters to both. Here, no less than in other undergraduate seminars, students would learn to formulate an argument and support it with rigorously interpreted evidence. Second, complexity is a crucial component of sound historical analysis. The difference is that experimental history offers scholars new ways to develop arguments and to convey complexity. As well, I noted, the engagement of readers is not always important to standard academic history—as undergraduates well know—whereas it is vital to those who write experimental history.
Enough good experimental history exists, I discovered, that I'd be able to vary the readings each time I repeated the course (I will teach it again in 2008). My version focuses on my own field, the United States, though some readings move beyond those geographical and disciplinary boundaries, and students may conduct research beyond U.S. history. No doubt a different (or more eclectic) national focus would serve equally well.
My syllabus attaches a particular theme to each assigned book. Students read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 in order to think about the re-creation of past worlds, and James Goodman's Blackout to grasp the re-creation of a single event. Suzanne Lebsock's A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial serves the theme of history and storytelling, whereas Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter serves that of history and fiction, as does David Dante Troutt's The Monkey Suit and Other Short Fiction on African Americans and Justice. Daniel K. Richter's Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America gets students thinking about speculation in historical writing. For the use of unabashedly experimental voices, which comes later in the semester, there's Simon Schama's Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations, and Equatoria by Richard and Sally Price. For shorter readings, I assign articles from Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice (founded, in 1997, by Rosenstone and Alun Munslow of Staffordshire University) or from History and Theory; a favorite is Greg Dening's "Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay."3
Combining texts with film proves a useful device for stirring up reflections on representations of history—we watch scenes from PBS's "A Midwife's Tale" to go with Ulrich's book, and from PBS's "Murder at Harvard" to go with Schama's Dead Certainties; stretching a bit more, I show clips from Disney's Pocahontas to accompany Richter's Facing East from Indian Country. If an author's primary sources are readily available, we examine those (for example, the 1945 Supreme Court case, Screws v. U.S., from which Troutt wrote the short story, "Never Was").
If a historian has created a relevant web site, we spend time there (www.richandsally.net to go with the Prices' Equatoria, for example). Or we spend class time examining an author's endnotes, flipping back and forth to the text in order to make sense of the conversion from document to experimental form. If an assigned author has written about the practice of history, I pair those readings (for example, Lebsock's "Truth or Dare: On History and Fiction"). If an author is close by, I'll extend an invitation (Goodman, at Rutgers University, led the class on Blackout).4
Readings on theory prove a good supplement. Students ponder Carl Becker's "Everyman His Own Historian" in order to understand that the problem of objectivity is not new, and John Clive's "The Most Disgusting of Pronouns" in order to understand that the use of first-person is not simply a post-modern phenomenon. On the question of first-person, students also fervently debate Daphne Patai's "Sick and Tired of Scholars' Nouveau Solipsism" coupled with Ruth Behar's "Dare We Say ‘I'? Bringing the Personal into Scholarship." In order to think hard about listening for multiple voices in the archives, there's Elsa Barkley Brown's "Polyrhythms and Improvization: Lessons for Women's History." And my favorite (or the only?) relevant historiographical essay is Brook Thomas's "Ineluctable though Uneven: On Experimental Historical Narratives."5
Reading Experimental History
Some colleagues have asked whether works of a primarily narrative nature (like Ulrich and Lebsock) are really experimental, but I include them because good narrative history and good experimental history share the ambition of engaging readers. Always, I ask the students: "Why did the author choose to write this particular history in this particular way?" and "Was it successful for you, as a reader." Of course students disagree in their responses to both queries.
Indeed, on that first day, I impress upon the students that experimental history will not ultimately be to the liking of every reader, but by enrolling in the course, they commit themselves to approaching unconventional scholarship with respect. ("I liked that not liking a book was enough for starting a dialogue," one student reflected on the course evaluation form. Or as another admitted, "Even if there were readings I didn't particularly enjoy, I still found myself thinking about them all the same.")
Given the wealth of exciting work, my syllabus also includes a list of further readings from which students must select one for review. They happily choose books ranging from Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family's Past to Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922–1992. In their reviews, students are expected to pay special attention to an author's use of historical evidence and the ways in which form relates to historical interpretation and analysis. (Although this particular assignment did not mandate an experimental form, one student wrote a review of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century in which his underlined subheadings formed a key sentence when read continuously.)6
Writing Experimental History
Our classroom discussions begin with each student reading aloud—and then handing in—two substantive scholarly inquiries raised directly by the week's reading. (Spurred on by their web site, I forwarded the entire lot of students' questions to Richard and Sally Price after we read Equatoria, to which Sally Price responded graciously.)
In addition to weekly questions and the book review, students write a document analysis, rendered in experimental form, that will ideally be incorporated into their final papers (the document can be textual, material, audiovisual, or electronic). The diversity of creative ideas still delights me. One student, interested in early American romantic correspondence, wrote his document analysis in the voice of an anthropomorphized letter-writing manual published in the late 18th century. Another, interested in early rock ‘n' roll, wrote about the 1956 record album The Great Pretender, by The Platters, with a repetition of particular phrases mimicking a skipping record, then invoked the device of "filling in the blanks" of a skipping LP as a metaphor for filling in the blanks of history.
The students' final paper, 10 to 15 pages, must be executed in experimental form and should offer a substantive argument based on scholarly research in primary and secondary sources. Toward semester's end, when the students are researching and writing, I'll give them the first 20 or so pages of Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence, an unorthodox meditation on procrastination, along with selections from Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk About Style and Voice in Writing. Several class sessions are devoted to discussing progress, frustrations, and epiphanies, and our Blackboard web site serves as a repository for related references.7
I've never enjoyed grading so much as when the final papers for Experimental History come in. One student wrote a screenplay about Margaret Fuller, interrupted by narrative passages composed of questions she was unable to answer from the primary sources. Another wrote about a Civil War raid, employing blue and gray ink to denote Union and Confederate perspectives, then carried this color scheme into her footnotes in an effort to illuminate point-of-view in primary sources. Another composed what he called an annotated history of the 1967 Newark, New Jersey, riots divided into a six-page narrative followed by nine pages of discursive, first-person endnotes explaining the perspectives and limitations of his sources, followed by endnotes to the endnotes. Another student began with a newspaper article about his grandparents' first Thanksgiving dinner in the United States after surviving a Nazi concentration camp; he presented the paper in three columns, each telling the same story, but respectively centering on his own search for his grandparents' story, his grandmother's biography, and Holocaust survivors more generally.
Of course not all forms of experimental history are successful from a reader's point of view, and for that reason I ask students to include a "rationale" for the final paper, in the form of a note to the reader, explaining their experimental intentions—use of voice, tense, page layout, typeface—in plain terms. Last time, I encouraged two of the students to submit their final essays to the journal Rethinking History; both have been peer reviewed and are forthcoming (one concerns Turkey during the First World War, the other the 1972 U.S. presidential election campaign).8
Inspiring, thought-provoking, fascinating, challenging, stimulating: all of these adjectives have been invoked in the course evaluations. "Some weeks the reading was overwhelming, but strangely I felt compelled to complete it," one student wrote (a professor's dream!). And perhaps my favorite comment: "This class makes me want to just be a writer and devote myself to writing and researching."
What about Graduate Students?
I will continue to teach Experimental History as often as the needs of my department's undergraduate curriculum permit. I've often wondered, though: What about graduate students? A few colleagues have encouraged me to offer a graduate version but, having served as director of graduate studies, I know that our doctoral students are burdened with coursework necessary for qualifying exams. Are our MA and PhD programs so professionally oriented, then, as to preclude room for those who wish to write history in unconventional ways, or even just to consider that possibility? I wonder too: Do we, intentionally or unintentionally, heap the greatest rewards upon the most conformist graduate student writing?
When I think about my dissertation-writing students, I think about the question that arose at the Pasadena workshop more than a decade ago: "Can anyone but tenured faculty write experimental history?" The answer, of course, is that any scholar can try out innovative forms of historical writing; the real question is what such a creative foray will mean for those who also wish to follow a traditional academic career path. Maybe it's time to ask our graduate students—or, more to the point, the departments that will hire them as assistant professors: "Is anybody interested?"
—Martha Hodes, associate professor of history at New York University, is most recently the author of The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (W.W. Norton, 2006) and "Four Episodes in Re-Creating a Life," Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 10 (June 2006): 277–90.
1. Robert A. Rosenstone, "Experiments in Writing the Past—Is Anybody Interested?" Perspectives 30: 9 (Dec. 1992), 10, 12, 20. Robert A. Rosenstone, Bryant Simon, and Moshe Sluhovsky, "Experiments in Narrating Histories: A Workshop," Perspectives 32: 6 (Sept. 1994), 7–8, 10. Conference participants were: Harriet Hyman Alonso, Marjorie Becker, Susan Crane, John Demos, Wolfgang Ernst, David Farber, Linda Gerstein, James Goodman, Martha Hodes, Minsoo Kang, Dave Marvit, Maclen Marvit, James McKenzie, Allan Megill, John Mraz, Michael Pearson, Jenny Price, William Reddy, David Ritchie, Robert A. Rosenstone, Bryant Simon, Moshe Sluhovsky, Nathan Stoltzfus, Rea Tajiri, Alice Wexler, Richard Wunderli, and Denise Youngblood.
2. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America (New York: Vintage, 1994); William S. McFeely, Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994); David Farber, Chicago '68 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Robert A. Rosenstone, Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).
3. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990); James Goodman, Blackout (New York: North Point Press, 2003); Suzanne Lebsock, A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003); Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter (New York: HarperCollins, 1998); David Dante Troutt, The Monkey Suit and Other Short Fiction on African Americans and Justice (New York: New Press, 1998); Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001) Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); Richard Price and Sally Price, Equatoria (New York: Routledge, 1992); Greg Dening, "Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay," History and Theory 41 (Feb. 2002): 1–24.
4. Suzanne Lebsock, "Truth or Dare: On History and Fiction," Common-Place 5 (Oct. 2004), www.common-place.org.
5. Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," American Historical Review 37 (Jan. 1932): 221–36; John Clive, "The Most Disgusting of Pronouns," in Clive, Not by Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Daphne Patai, "Sick and Tired of Scholars' Nouveau Solipsism" and Ruth Behar, "Dare We Say ‘I'? Bringing the Personal into Scholarship," Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 23, 1994, p. A52 and June 29, 1994, p. B1; Elsa Barkley Brown, "Polyrhythms and Improvization: Lessons for Women's History," History Workshop 31 (Spring 1991): 85–90; Brook Thomas, "Ineluctable Though Uneven: On Experimental Historical Narratives," Common Knowledge 5 (Winter 1996): 163–88.
6. Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family's Past (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998); Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922–1992 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
7. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (New York:Little, Brown, 1997); Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk About Style and Voice in Writing (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).