I decided to spend my last substantive lecture of the semester addressing that student’s question directly: How do I deal with the importance of narratives in my lectures? Although I had planned to welcome them with part of the film Control Room, technical issues made that impossible.
I began by reiterating Tuesday’s problem: Why was there an uprising among Palestinians in 2000? I reviewed my arguments: The uprisings resulted from the same kinds of issues being faced by people throughout the region: economic hardships, oppressive governments, and, in this case, also occupation. And I had really emphasized my other argument: Historical interpretations have consequences. I wanted to take the historiographical issues I had discussed about the origins of the 2000 Intifada and ask the students to think about how to apply them to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The lecture would focus on the ways historians think, with a silly slide providing the outline: I began at the beginning. Different questions would require different kinds of sources, I explained. So “Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003?” would require different sources than the question “How were Iraqis’ lives changed by the 2003 invasion?” And both would require different sources than the question, “What were the international consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq?” I shared with them my sources for Tuesday’s lecture and discussed the importance of primary sources. Then I asked them to think about their assigned readings on the 2003 Iraq war. What questions would they want to ask? We collected their questions, the TA writing them on the PowerPoint Slide. After they had articulated their research questions, she typed in red their brainstorming about where they would look for primary sources.
Often the sources lead to changed questions, which I illustrated using my own experiences beginning research only to find that the information I had was inaccurate or the documents I sought were unavailable.
The next problem was analyzing the evidence. How do you know that what you read or see or hear is accurate? I provided two examples. First, the pulling-down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. First they saw the Fox News version of the events. Then they saw the MSNBC critique.
How is one to decide which version to accept? I also offered them Jessica Lynch’s disagreement with the narrative that had been provided about her heroism, but did not have time to play the link with her testimony to Congress. (I do post my PowerPoint slides on the Blackboard site, so they can view it if they choose.)
The question of sources is quite tangled, I argued. I showed them the New York Times investigation about the “Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” in television analysis, and juxtaposed that with an analysis from National Defense University of the issues raised by US military interventions.
But even with presumably reliable evidence, the question remains, which issues and events matter? I talked about fishing in the sea of history, deciding which things of the millions and millions of events taking place each day should be included in our considerations. I reminded them of the first week of class, when I had explained that some analysts sought answers to the current uprisings in economy, others in demography, and still others seeking to understand the Arab uprisings by looking to religion.
Whichever events and issues seem most important to the analyst, though, it would still be necessary to put them into a larger context. Here I went back to the British mandate. Was the mandate important in some way for understanding the 2003 invasion or today’s Iraq? If it was, how did it matter? What kind of context did it provide? Did the distinction between two different Muslim groups matter in the war or its outcome? I pointed out that, although many people have emphasized the centrality of a Sunni-Shi’I divide, Iraqis themselves seem not to have paid much attention to it until 2006. Bagdad’s neighborhoods were remarkably integrated until after the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque.
In the end, historians have to construct narratives. But which of the images do we focus on?And what about the consequences?
For historians, how important is “balance”? Although journalists find it crucial in their work, at which stage of our work are historians supposed to seek “balance”: Question-asking? Source-locating? Evidence-analyzing? Narrating hardly seems to be a place to begin trying to find countervailing patterns and forces just for the sake of “balance” when evidence shows a clear way to an argument. And the point of historians’ work is, after all, to interpret the past, not to present a variety of incidents and issues and let the reader decide.
I wanted to make sure that they know that this freedom to pursue information about the past, and to narrate it consistent with our research, is crucial to society in general. That is why US universities provide academic freedom; this is what the tenure system is about. I offered examples of places where historians and journalists are not free to write the information they found, not free to offer their best and most accurate analyses of the past. I really wanted this next generation to understand the point of tenure: the fact that I have tenure allows me to write and teach history as I and historians around the world have understood it, without fear of losing my job–or my life–even if my analysis disagrees with the most powerful members of my society. Having dissenting views is not only important for some abstract liberal reasons. Having people able to tell the powerful that their ideas are likely to evoke dreadful consequences is important for the whole society (even, sometimes, for the powerful themselves).
I did not, in the end, provide my own narrative about the Iraq invasion of 2003, which the TA’s told me would likely frustrate the students. The students can easily find a timeline online, and their journal for the week asked them to write a textbook entry for the Iraq war. I knew they already had the basic elements, and I wanted to interrogate how they had come up with their own narrative.
As the semester draws to a close, I had consciously decided to focus on making the historian’s process transparent instead of presenting my own narrative, and I’m not sure that was generally appreciated. Next week, we turn again to the current uprisings in the Middle East, something we haven’t discussed in the big lecture since January (though the students had been talking about their weekly news postings in discussion sections). But the person at the front of the room won’t be me as the course considers the ways that people are living the current Middle East.