Right now I am sitting in the room my husband and I grandly call an office, which is a dumping ground for clean laundry that needs ironing and paperwork that needs filing, and that contains a desk and chair where I wrote much of the book that was published last year. Sunlight is streaming through the window, and I can hear the low insistent call of a wood pigeon. I sip my tea, which I drink strong, and sweet, and dashed with milk, the way I have drunk it for decades (we start our tea habits young, in Britain), and I think about authenticity and subjectivity and honesty. There is a peace in these kind of moments, with one bare cold foot tucked under my right thigh, the sun on my left shoulder, tannin and sugar in my mouth. I have not been still much in the past two weeks, in a sense beyond sitting at a desk or a table in my office or a classroom. It is true, after all, that most of my work is sedentary. But there is a difference between sitting still and being still that is easy for us to forget as we go from bed to desk chair to standing at a lectern. I am aware of the relentless tick of the clock, of days moving forward in my calendar, of the to-do list clipped into a helpful app on my iPhone. I like the bustle of my life; I like to be stretched, and I like to help others stretch themselves. I like to think I do that for my students. I know that they stretch me, and so do my colleagues. Sometimes there is a fine line between being elastic, the mental feeling like the glow of stretched and aching muscles pleasantly exercised, and being stretched thin. But how to tell the difference, and where to draw the line?
I think that is something with which many of us struggle. Higher education is a place riddled with mental health problems, amongst students, support staff, faculty. Lots of people have written about why that may be, and I won’t replicate their work here. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. The lack of representation of women in academia is also well-documented, and I have written a little about it before. At the institution where I work, women could not take degrees until 1920. There was a quota in place to restrict women to one-quarter of the student population, which was not rescinded until 1957. Women’s colleges did not achieve full college status until 1959. My mother was four years old in 1959; I have seen pictures of her from then, round-limbed and curly-haired, and feel a sudden fury at the people who click their tongues when women complain about the problems they face in establishing academic careers. We have so very, very recently found any sort of ground for ourselves. I think even very liberal, thoughtful, feminist-identifying (white) men can find it hard to understand that the weight of a history of inequality behind you can make smaller daily inequalities more exhausting. As a woman and as a historian of gender (amongst other things), I am aware of all the ways in which we have been seen as not-quite-human in the distant and not-at-all-distant past. I wonder to what extent that knowledge contributes to our own health and well-being as female academics today.
The same could be said, of course, of academics who are people of colour, who are queer, who are working class. I led a class on gender history yesterday, and talked – as I have done on these pages – about how if you belong to a minority in one way or another and you also work on history of minorities then it can be assumed that you are doing it because you have a personal, emotional interest in it. This is shaded with the implication, of course, that better history is written by people who are more objective, who do not have a political drum to beat, who are interested in history as something pure.
I had a conversation with Matt Houlbrook and some others over twitter a couple of days ago where I said: “I am totally over objectivity tbh. Messy intimacy feels more authentic to me now.” This was in response to Matt’s question about whether he should use his subject’s first name or surname in the book on which he is working, and he said he was “tempted by first name to collapse illusion of objectivity / flag my relationship to him”. The only problem I have with this is that an illusion sounds insubstantial, whilst the idea of objectivity is an edifice in the landscape of history, a towering destination for toilers-after-truth. To seek to be objective means constantly moving oneself to be able to keep the tower in one’s sightline. Seeking objectivity is about not getting lost. But part of the joy of history – and, I would argue, its necessary business – is getting lost in its messy embrace. There is no best way of doing history – but there are some ways that are more valuable than others, and I think that history which is good is usually that which owns its subjectivity. That doesn’t mean being intellectually lazy, or not questioning one’s views or opinions, or mapping oneself onto the past, of course! It means embracing the ways in which our own pasts and presents have brought us to a place where we can be truly intimate with our subjects. We are all the sum of our experiences, and these allow us to empathise. And isn’t empathy really the most important quality a historian can have? Because really, our work is imaginative, no matter how much data we assemble. We construct a vision of the past inside our heads, and we turn it into words on paper. But before we do that, we have to be intimate with the past. I think that part of writing history has to be intimacy that is not at all like the intimacy of the movies, of love at first sight and walks on the beach and overlooking each other’s flaws, but the intimacy of real relationships: the daily grind, punctuated by joy.
This post has been one of messy intimacy, I suppose. I have shared more of myself than I sometimes would in a blog post, but it all goes nowhere. There are loose ends all over the place. If this were an essay an undergraduate submitted, I would tell them to work on their structure and ask them to clarify their argument. And where, oh where, are the footnotes? But sometimes I think those of us who blog academically wait until we have something polished to share. We blog as if we do it off the cuff, but what we’re really presenting are conference papers. They invite questions and discussion, but not, perhaps, conversation. So this is me talking to you, on a day in early spring. The sun has slipped behind a cloud, and my cup is empty. Enough.