Becoming a historian

In the last couple of days I’ve had a lot of meetings with undergraduates, second and third years, who are undertaking independent research projects. Some of them are on my Second World War course, and just starting out on new research. The level of enthusiasm and excitement from some of them – at what is pretty much the first time they’ve been set loose in the archives – is astonishing and life affirming. It really served to remind me what got me doing this in the first place.

Some of the third years are undertaking Historical Research Dissertations with me. They’re nearly half way through, and they’re encountering lots of the problems that all academic historians will recognise, no matter what the period – gaps in the sources, the weight of primary or secondary material (or its absence), making mistakes in the archives or running foul of bureaucracy. One of them has met a problem distinct to those who seek to work in the modern period – a newspaper request for information resulted in an abusive response (probably from someone with no actual personal connection in any case). As I talked to them about these issues, I again felt inspired. In these frustrations and errors and their overcoming lies the genesis of the true historian – much more than the spoon fed essay machine or the quickwit exam passer. At a point in time when I am desperate to get back into an archive, any archive, their passionate responses gave me hope. So I kept reminding them that their research scars signify their entry into the historical community, shared with them a few of my own, and wondered at the progress they have made in just a few months. Time to stop living the research life vicariously and return to it in actuality.

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