Engaging Historical Discourse

Ostdiek Picby Bennett Ostdiek 15C

Over the course this semester, I have filled up my bookshelf in my office at the Fox Center with countless volumes on subjects relating to the Civil War, Confederate diplomacy, Anglo-Americans relations in the 1860s, and 19th century British newspaper practices. The shelves practically groan under the weight of thousands of pages and millions of words written as far back as the 1860s and a recently as last year.

This bookshelf represents everything that I love about both my fellowship at the Fox Center and the process of writing my honors thesis. It is an incredible thing to have a desk and bookshelf dedicated to my private use. They give me a place to call home during the long hours of writing and research and make me feel like a legitimate scholar rather than a college student flying by the seat of his pants. These resources have made the act of writing my thesis much more fulfilling than it would have been otherwise.

But my bookshelf has also been of practical value. With all these books on related subjects in the same place, I have a treasure trove of interconnected information at my disposal. The number of times that I have followed the trail of footnotes from one book on my shelf to another has been astounding.

Upon first recognizing this phenomenon, I was simply grateful that my bookshelf saved me from having to take extra trips to the library. However, I soon realized the broader implications of this phenomenon – all the books on my shelf are engaging in a dialogue with each other.

As I read more and more, I eventually became an incredibly informed observer in that dialogue. As I read different account of the same historical event, I came to recognize the questions that historians were asking about the issue and the different sides involved in the debate.

And as I became aware of more and more of these debates, a strange thing started happening – I found myself taking sides and developing my own opinion on these issues. At the same time, I began to see the ways in which my research touched on these debates, giving credence to some beliefs and contradicting others.

And at that point I realized that I was not longer an observer of the dialogue that was taking place on my bookshelf, but had become a participant. And, in my opinion, therein lies the essence of writing an honors thesis. It is about the transformation from being a student into a scholar.

When I look at the books on my shelves now, they are immeasurably more meaningful to me than they were when I first began this process. This is not only because I now understand much more of what they are trying to say, but also because I now know that I do not agree with everything that they are saying. This disagreement does not stem from any fault of the books. Rather, it is simply a part of me becoming a participant in their dialogue.

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