The Beliefs We Profess

medieval professor

Our students, colleagues, and the general public almost always see faculty members in their “professor” roles.  The word originally meant one who declared (professed) their faith or belief, which shows the origins of the word in the monastic realm (monks still profess their vows).  It also shows how thoroughly academics were expected to know their material; they were literally professing that which they understood to be true and real, not guesses or speculation.

Regular readers of One Thing After Another will know that historians rarely profess solely facts, but rather the intellectual beliefs that make facts relevant and bind them together into evidence-supported explanations for past events.  The true faith of the historian is understood to be not in the facts themselves, but in our training to see which facts are more likely to be true, which are important to weave together, which questions to ask in order to arrive at answers that help us make sense of the past.

Yet particularly when we spend the majority of our time teaching, even we historians fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as others see us – as knowing a huge number of things and sharing that knowledge lecture by lecture and reading by reading with those who know less.  This is particularly true when a student asks a question and we can draw on all we know to construct a rich, complex, and, on our very best days, fascinating answer – it feels like we are on top of our field, a true professor.

Even when we teach students how to do what we do in the senior research class, it can feel as if we are working with apprentices to whom we dole out the techniques and tricks that have made us the master.  Even when their topic is not our own, we know how to find the central works in the field, lay out the historiography, find the central research questions, place our arguments in the discussion, locate the primary sources, read past and around the inherent biases.  This is what we do, and we teach others to do it as well as we can.  At our best, we become colleagues, not masters, encouraging students to be historians, to take the lead.  We ask them, at their best, to show us not only that they know the techniques, but that they can use them creatively to form their own interpretations.

So it can come as a rather great surprise when we take on a new research project of our own to realize that we feel remarkably like apprentices ourselves.  It is the little things, the lack of basic answers to basic questions.  For example:  In which of the four dozen books published on nineteenth century American religion in the past 10 years can I find an answer to the seemingly simple question, how many people were members of churches in 1820?  Why does this author keep using the terms “orthodox” and “evangelical” without explaining them, and where can I look up what they mean in this context?  Since most letters are saved by the person to whom they were sent, not the person who sent them, how do I figure out with whom my subject corresponded, without having a list of names?!  The problems differ by field and by question.  But each of us, when we do serious research, is brought up short by what we do not know, what we can not answer, what we do not understand– yet.

And in that yet is the historian’s real faith, what we profess.  For it is the historian’s central belief that if we ask enough carefully constructed questions, search widely enough for the facts, infer deeply enough from what is present and what is missing, we will find some way to tell the story.  What we produce may not be the definitive answer for all time; more likely it will be complete and compelling for a time, but subject to later additions or revisions as new questions get asked and sources found.  But we stake out our ground and do our best.  We trust that no matter how much we are the apprentice before a new question or a new set of sources, dogged application of the historian’s craft will – sometimes ever so agonizingly slowly – point us toward answers, sources, and connections.

As medieval craft masters knew, there is great economic value in protecting your trade secrets, sharing them rarely, and always appearing all-knowledgeable.   Students and parents might well prefer to pay for dispensers of wisdom than professors of faith.  But just between us, it is the historian’s faith that may be our most valuable property, that which produces the ultimate goal – new historical understanding and new historical thinkers.  In our research, we remind ourselves of that, and it perhaps makes us better teachers as well.


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