Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

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by Nemo

I was off in D.C. last week conducting fieldwork for my dissertation. Besides snapping hundreds of pictures of primary documents that I’m going to have to analyze in the near future, my work  there got me thinking about the relationship historians develop with their subjects, the experience of archival research, and one of my favorites topics, the fleeting nature of human existence.

For my project, a work of intellectual history on the nature of academic freedom in the United States, I often research the papers of twentieth century scholars. By reading my subjects’ journals, correspondence, and manuscripts, I try to gain a better sense of how their ideas developed over time.  Working in archival sources also enables me to learn about their intellectual networks, unpublished perspectives on controversial issues, and the manner in which their personal, political, and professional lives intersected to shape discourse on academic freedom.

Besides gaining a deeper understanding of my subjects’ ideas, however, the intimate nature of the information contained in personal papers often encourages me to feel a strange sense kinship with the people that I’m studying. By reading diaries and letters that often stretch over decades, I sometimes think that I know my subjects better than I know my own friends and family. I see intensely private sides of these individuals. Ideally, as I analyze their papers, I also begin to make out patterns in their work that they never even saw themselves.

Having so much of someone’s life contained in front of you in Hollinger boxes provides a sense of proportion on one’s own existence. It’s as though your watching an entire life develop in time-lapse photography. For me at least, this kind of research serves as a powerful reminder of life’s transient nature.

With letter writing in decline, I hope large numbers of people decide to save their emails, early drafts of their writings, and keep copies of personal journals. With so much information online, it would be a shame if future historians lacked access to the unique insight provided by these kinds of sources.

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Written by Julian Nemeth

June 28, 2010 at 21:09

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