The time has come for me to admit that I made a substantial mistake. I have not paid sufficient attention to ‘Theory’. When I was in undergraduate, I thought that history was about memorizing dates, figures and events, and then coming up with nifty ways to talk about what I had learned. And so, when we were supposed to talk about theory, to cross the disciplinary divide into sociology, I didn’t do the work. And now, I’m reaping the harvest of that failure. To be honest, that I have a shortcoming with theory is not a recent revelation- I knew it pretty much shortly after I began my MA. The reality is that my failure to engage with theory properly years ago as a undergrad isn’t hurting me due to a lack of ability to quote Foucault, Weber or anybody else from memory. It’s not about the trivia- never about the trivia. The real problem is that I just don’t really have the experience working with theory, engaging with it, and so now when I try to do so, I find it pretty frustrating.
The first major struggle I had with theory was during my MA, at Laurier. I had originally wanted to research professionalization, pertaining to the Royal Navy’s transition in the 18th century from a nominal warfighting service to an exploration service. (Yes, I now know how limited my appreciation of the Royal Navy was). My focus was quickly changed, and on a number of occasions I wrote papers where a better knowledge- or at least a willingness to engage with and work with theory would have helped. In the Tri-U History program, most students take 3 courses in each of the first two semesters, before completing their Major Research Paper. The idea is that in the first semester, you take ‘Part I’ of a nominally full year course, and your paper is an extensive literature review. In the second semester, you take ‘Part II’, where you build on that work, do some research in primary sources. And then ideally, one of the three topics you’ve studied is then your MA MRP, which involves more in-depth archival research.
One of the Part I/Part II courses that I took was the history of International Relations- really, as we did it, the history of diplomacy. The topics that i chose to research in this paper should have been both theory- heavy, but were strangely lacking. In the first semester, I looked at literature that discussed the transition of the German Navy from the Kaiserliche Marine to the Kreigsmarine. I wanted to see what historians had said about the relationship between regime change, and institutional development. (Funnily enough, this ended up being central to my PhD thesis as well). I now know that my ability to do that paper was hampered by the fact that I didn’t bring in literature to discuss regime change. In the second semester I struggled even more: I argued that the framework for classifying warships created at the Washington Naval Conference in the early 1920s was an attempt to create a new ‘language’ for diplomatic exchanges, one that was based in a common understanding of what a Navy was. This was entirely based on diplomatic cables I could look at and historical analysis of the treaty. My classmates (who were responsible for critiquing it and providing a portion of the grade) did not understand why I thought it was a point worth making. If I had attempted to bring theory, whether bureaucratization or something else, I would have been able to explain why I thought it was worth discussing.
Another course I took that semester was Early Modern history- which was a Part I, rather than a Part II. In that paper, I tried to look at how religious music- specifically the music of cathedrals and the Chapel Royal- had changed from Henry VIII to George II. (Little did I know that David Starkey had published a book on that subject a few months earlier. It wasn’t in the University Library.. so I didn’t see it). I had been inspired by Watkins Shaw’s editorial at the beginning of the Novello score of Messiah that I own. In this paper, I did read beyond just historians, as I deliberately looked for musicological discussions as well. In that paper, I argued that it was necessary for historians and musicologists and academics from other disciplines to work together to fully understand the past. Reading that paper now, however, it’s clear that my inability to grips with theory once again got in the way and stopped me from getting to the next level.
For my MRP, my supervisor had provided me with a primary source- Gerald Graham’s diary from his trip to the UK in the summer of 1942. Graham was a historian, and he had been hired (And brevetted as a naval officer) to teach the naval officer cadets at a new naval college. A couple years later, he’d abandon the Navy to join CP Stacey’s staff in Europe. This diary was composed of two parts. First, his time in England where he interviewed Herbert Richmond and Michael Lewis, both of whom had been or were involved in teaching naval officer cadets history. It was clear that Richmond and Lewis had two very different views on teaching naval history. I was inspired to ask whether the way that the Royal Navy taught their officer cadets history between the First and Second World Wars had created a Royal Navy ‘tactical culture’. I was blessed in that I was able to find physical or PDF copies of several ‘textbooks’ which had been used by Lewis and his predecessor Geoffrey Callender (and frankly, written by the latter).
You’d think that this was a prime opportunity for diving into theory! Yeah, well, no. At that time, I was tying myself in knots because I was trying really hard to define myself as a history. I mentioned in my MRP that I was trying to be a ‘Cultural Historian’ rather than a ‘Social Historian’, and yet, I did not in my introduction or what could have been a methodology ever talk about what that meant, or engage with various aspects. Nor did I consider dedicating a section to talk about how I was trying to look at my topic. Absolutely correctly, my two other MA examiners nailed me on that, pointing out the silliness of not engaging with theory.
I’ve spoken before about how thing went badly for the first submission of my PhD, so here’s just one more example. I started to really fall in love with my methodology. I thought wa-hey, I can engage with theory. I read some Weber, David Trim and Michael Lewis, and I thought, great, three lists of attributes about what professions are. Great! From that point, without really bothering to engage with more theory, I started to come up with my own frameworks. I went to a conference in Greenwich where I talked about the ‘Professionalization Triangle’- which was something I created, and various other things. I was convinced that because from the three sources I examined, if they didn’t totally create a framework that suited what I was looking at well, I could create my own. Of course, when I got to my PhD defense, my examiners very rightly cut me off at the knees for not having a better grasp of the existing theory.
In the 18 months between my first Viva and resubmitting my thesis at the end of last October, I finally took their criticism to heart. I engaged with a lot more theory, and I know that in the corrections that are to come I’m going to do have to do even more of that. But I am still not really comfortable working with theory. I am currently working on an article which examines the Royal Navy’s structural development and professionalization as ‘performance’, and so I’ve been reading about Performativity, about Performance Theory, about Criticism, and about Multi-Actor development. To be honest, I’m a little bit (or significantly lost).
It’s not because I don’t understand the theory, it’s because I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to put the discussion of the theory into the discussion of my research. In my resubmitted PhD thesis, I outlined a number of theoretical frameworks from James Garner, Weber, George Ritzer, David Trim, Michael Lewis and Eric Ash, and positioned them as things I want my examiners to ‘keep in mind’ while they read my analysis and argument. This just doesn’t seem right to me, and it’s something I’m going to have to work on in the corrections. that I should have engaged with theory much more.
Other than a catalogue of my failures: What’s the takeaway?
1. Getting history students reading and working with theory is incredibly important.
2. Getting students reading theory early in their education is important so that they can gain experience working with theory, wrestling with it, engaging with it.
3. Working with theory is an important precursor to effectively working across disciplines- and I think interdisciplinary study and engagement with particularly the social sciences is going to become more and more important.
4. It’s important to expose history students to theoretical discussion from other areas within the Arts and Humanities- to the Visual Arts, Performance Art, Literature Studies, Linguistics, as much as exposing them to theory from the Social Sciences. This can only help them improve their academic process and practice.
In my next blog (for the first Monday of March), I will be writing about the Road to Resubmission, and my second Viva (which will be on February 21st).