Absolute Uncertainty

It has been a while since I have taken the time to write something that does not have to do with something read or researched for a class, but writing I have done. There are so many things that have happened since my last writing that I really do not know where to begin. Even if I did, I think other pieces I have previously written and posted say what I want to say, and I do not want to be a broken record.

I am all but done with my first semester of graduate study with only one final revision to turn in on Friday. I learned a lot this semester, though a fair amount of the reading and writing I did does not directly pertain to my scholarly interest or curiosity. However, I did manage to find ways to connect subjects which were read to something that interested me and was able to weave my interests, questions, and opinions into the arguments my classmates and I had during seminar meetings.

Our seminars, like most graduate level history seminars I am assuming, lasted for up to three hours with a small break in between. Most of the time two hours was about the limit, and most of that time was spent arguing about interpretations of what was read or written for discussion.

The largest seminar ended with ten participants and the smallest, six. We came to class prepared. The professor opened the discussion by sharing his own thoughts or opinions concerning the reading assigned, and then opened the floor with this, “what did you think?”

Now here is the funny thing. At no time did a professor tell a student that they were wrong or mistaken. At no time did a student tell another student that they were wrong or mistaken. At no time was a voice raised above what passes for civil discussion or discourse. At no time was a student attacked personally. What would happen is the student offering an opinion would be challenged to better support their opinion, and most of the time, really all of the time, the student would be successful in fulfilling the challenge.

In short, we conversed. We discussed. We may not have left class with an overall common agreement, but we did leave with a better understanding concerning the multiple and widely varying interpretations that arise from an event or a figure from history.

It took some time, but I have been able to find a topic I want to investigate for my thesis. Questions concerning the topic will likely change continuously as I delve deeper into the primary and secondary source material, but the overall scope will likely remain unchanged.

Here is another funny thing. The professor who will serve as my advisor/mentor is unabashedly liberal in his political philosophy, and, well, so am I. The topic of the research seminar I took this semester related directly to my thesis, so the paper I wrote will serve as at least a portion of one of my thesis chapters, if not all of one. The professor that led the seminar is unabashedly conservative in his political philosophy. Though not his primary focus of study, he has just as keen an interest in my topic as I do and has expressed so multiple times. I will likely ask him to serve on my thesis committee, and I hope he accepts.

About halfway through the semester, my seminar professor arranged an informal interview with a friend of his to help me develop a stronger grasp on conservative thought with regard to politics and conservative interpretations of historical events and figures that relate directly to the paper I was writing as well as my thesis. The conversation between the three of us was, well, enjoyable. We all knew that we weren’t going to be changing any minds and on some things we did happen to agree. He and I were both up front with one another concerning our philosophies and outlooks concerning the current political landscape, and we laughed when we each said “I won’t hold that against you.” When he asked me about one of the figures I am studying, I told him that I did not agree with just about anything that ever came out of his mouth, but after reading his memoir I could relate a little more with him, but that I still had questions to ask. Our conversation lasted more than two hours, and when we parted ways we shook hands and he told me to be sure he got a copy of my paper.

I found out a little later that it was on the suggestion of my advisor that my seminar professor set up that meeting because he wanted me to have a well-rounded perspective and idea going into my research. He wanted my assumptions and opinions challenged before I ever got started on the study, and challenged they were. Did the meeting change my mind? No. Did the dialogue carried on throughout the meeting force me to entertain an idea or an opinion different from my own? Yes. Did I have to work harder to support my point of view? Absolutely. Did the outcome of my study meet with my previously-held assumptions? Yes and no.

It is that yes and no for which I am grateful, because it opened my eyes to something I had never considered. It is that yes and no that has led me to ask questions that have not been answered. Can I answer them? I am going to try. Because of the challenges presented, I find myself in a realm uncertainty that is either divisive or not addressed at all.

Something my mentor told me brought back something I have always believed. “Make sure you find an opinion that differs from yours.” In order to refute that opinion, I have to entertain the possibility that it may be correct. By entertaining the idea that it is correct, I have to work harder to find the evidence that will support my argument refuting it. If I cannot find the evidence I want to find, I will have to change my argument, as I have already done once and will likely do again. Though I will likely depend some on what others have previously written, what I say or write will be my argument against the differing opinion, and doing so will be both a challenge and an experience.

In a world that is filled with ideological and unwavering absolutes, the challenges ahead loom with a level of uncertainty. I look forward to it, and of that, I am absolutely certain.

 

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History: Getting All the Books, Reading All the Pages, Learning All the Stories

I am over 500 pages into the reading lists I have received from professors for the courses I am taking in the upcoming Fall. Mercifully, the professor for my summer class responded to my email asking him about a reading list stating that he would be sending out course information and readings (mostly journal articles) a week or two before class starts in late June/early July.

Over the weekend, we took a trip to the bookstore and I happened upon another title on my reading list and scooped it up, increasing the page count to over 3,000 with a few more titles to find before August arrives.

It’s always exciting reading history. No matter how much one may read on a given topic or period something new always pops up and adds to the narrative. Learning something new about a particular idea, person, or place adds to the understanding one has and adds color to the picture that has already been painted, making it a little more vibrant and adding a little more depth.

It’s a rainy, dreary day, so I am going to try and knock out a couple hundred more pages today. Though I am not particularly excited about the period into which I am currently delving, it is a period crucial to the understanding of other periods which I do find interesting. It is fascinating to see and to learn how the stories of some continually impact the lives of others that do not live in the same place or time.

History is an excellent reminder that we do not live our lives in seclusion. We are in it together for the long haul, and just as stories we act out day-to-day are influenced by past characters and ideas, so, too, will be the stories written in the future along with the narratives we leave behind.

Fascinating? It should be.

Getting Interested…

I’ve been busy.  I met with a professor within the department to which I am applying for graduate school last week.  I’ve also been speaking a little with a friend that is wrapping up her graduate studies.  Between the two, I have a pretty good reading list worked out and have buried myself in books, pen, and paper.

A consensus between the two, the point driven especially hard by my friend, is to develop a background on the theories set forth by Foucault and other postmodernist thinkers (I disagreed with this kind of labelling before I began to read Foucault, but now that I have read a little of him, I disagree with it even more).  So, I’ve begun reading, beginning with Discipline & Punish.  At first I was intimidated by the thought of reading modern philosophy, because, well, I have had a difficult time reading philosophy in the past, but (and maybe I am not reading quite deeply enough into it) I think I have at least a layman’s understanding of what is being said.

See, I have this fascination with motives.  I enjoy exploring unspoken motives, especially those motives that drive people who occupy positions of power.  As I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago before even thinking of reading Foucault:

“As much as we respect what we believe to be pure motivations behind political decisions such as whether or not to propose and promote a bill like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we must accept that there is usually more than one story, more than one motive, when it comes to the people in the story. If we don’t, we fail to see the whole story, and we fail to fully grasp the humanity within it.”

Maybe that’s why some of what Foucault has to say, especially concerning power, institutions, and knowledge, makes at least some sense to me, and drives me to want to know more and come to a better understanding. As I said in the referred to post,”the self-serving motive is probably the purest motive there can be,”  and what can be more motivating, or self-serving, than coming into a position of power or sustaining the favorable power dynamics within a relationship that one may already have?

In order to see the basic humanity within a story, which is really all history is, this cannot be ignored.  Even those historical, or even contemporary, figures which we admire have to be scrutinized to some degree, for they were, or are, human, and like all humans they did, or do, have flaws.  On a more positive note, such scrutinization may uncover more positive and wholesome motivations.  To be fair that cannot be ruled out.

Anyway, this interests me a lot.  There will be more to come.