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Grab a Pint and Let’s Talk About History

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris
26 March 2012 - 4:04am

I’ve discussed many historical events in pubs since I’ve been England. Being an historian-in-training of the First World War opens up trajectories of conversation that I feel would otherwise be unlikely. For example, I’ve had more than one conversation like the following: You study the First World War, you say? Have you heard of Q-Boats? Do you know the exact geographic location of every major battle on the Western Front? Wait, you study the homefront? Where, in Canada? Well that’s okay I guess, but let’s get back to talking about the First World War. Did you know many soldiers spent much time fighting in and digging out tunnels?

Eventually, the questions I get asked over beer ultimately come down to meaning. In the pub, people are interested not only in what I study, they are also interested in why I study it. Because they ask different questions than the ones I get from colleagues and from students, the question of why is how I find myself talking differently to people in the pub about history and my relationship to it.

Professor Hayden White explained that “thinking historically means thinking contextually” in a recent seminar at Birkbeck College, University of London. Some of you might know White’s work on the value of narrativity in the writing of history. He argued in his talk that when we contextualize a document we explore the possibility or probability of an event in any time. We explore this by looking for specific information about dates of creation and about the contemporary economics and politics of the age, etc.

In essence, contextualizing a document from the past constitutes an attempt to reconstruct the time, date, and place of occurrence. By definition, then, thinking historically is thinking after the event.

But historians aren’t the only ones who think after the event, as demonstrated by my numerous hours spent listening to script ideas about First World War films  (I’ve been pitched film and documentary ideas about the First World War by more than one person). We all think about the past in different ways depending on where we are and what questions we are asked.

I’m constantly reaching into my intellectual suitcase to pull out theories and ideas to explain and explore what I do with other people. Historians want to talk about the underlying and often abstract theories of gender that are at the basis of my academic work. At the pub, people want to know what I thought of Birdsong. In the classroom, I get asked what’s going to be on the exam. And I have to move seamlessly between these contexts. In this sense, thinking contextually about history is not only about contextualizing a series of sources created in the past, it’s about contextualizing ourselves, and our work, within our own current historical moment and wider social and political environment. It’s also about answering questions from the people in front of us. That audience is a constantly changing one. After all, aren’t the questions we get asked at the pub just as important to answer as those asked by students and by colleagues?