Over the past few months I’ve had three graduate students contact me to talk about archival sources and my work on William Mahone, the Crater, and postwar Virginia politics and memory. My position on sharing my ideas and files is very simple: What’s Mine Is Yours. Of course there are a few exceptions, but barring anything extreme I look forward to being able to help others – especially graduate students. I should say that I am both surprised and pleased that my work is beginning to make the rounds. The ego gets a bit of stroking which is fine as long as it remains in check. I’ve learned to appreciate those historians who have taken the time to share files as well as for reading rough drafts and offering their own critical comments.
More importantly, however, the contacts serve as a reminder that doing serious history is a joint venture. In my view all interpretation is incomplete. This does not mean that all interpretation is subjective; I have little patience with post-modernist theory that reduces everything down to the text or some type of pragmatic epistemology. It simply means that what the historian brings to the interpretive table is based on a relatively narrow reading of both primary and secondary sources. Because of this we share rough drafts as a way to bounce ideas off one another and we inquire into the location or availability of various sources. Behind it all – at least in my own case – is the hope that someone will share an interpretation that I’ve overlooked. The reason I like graduate students is that they are already geared to trying to poke holes in the views of others. I guess it’s some kind of rite of passage. In short, we learn as a community by disagreeing and challenging one another.
With that in mind I was disappointed to read in the most recent OAH Newsletter that historians seem to be growing more resistant to the idea of debating in public settings. President Richard White attempted to organize panels around scholarly controversies involving two or more speakers for the upcoming annual meeting in Minneapolis next year. He was struck by how few were willing to take part, but attempts to explain it by referring to the "culture of caution" that pervades the university.