Ghavri: Becoming a Young Historian

Dartmouth’s history department has meant a great deal to me.

by Anmol Ghavri | 3/1/18 1:15am

Despite the myriad problems and the issues I have come to see and experience over my years at Dartmouth, my academic experiences and time spent with faculty have been the highlight of my time in Hanover. The one-on-one interactions, engagement and emphasis on undergraduate teaching Dartmouth offers are features of the academic experience that I will miss. In particular, my experiences with Dartmouth’s history department and its faculty have been the most consistently eye-opening and intellectually stimulating part of my Dartmouth career. The history classes, foreign study opportunities, research and faculty engagement I have partaken in have all, in one way or another, had a significant impact on both my personal and professional development as well as the evolution of my intellectual and social concerns. A critical and subversive worldview — which revolves around a concern for inequity and emphases on complicating, contesting or interrogating existing paradigms and ways of thinking — that history professors at Dartmouth have instilled in me will continue to shape my life long after I graduate in the spring.

Despite offering a popular major at Dartmouth, the history department still maintains an intimate feel. Even in relatively large classes, there are plenty of opportunities to interact one-on-one with faculty or in small groups with peers. Professors are always willing to chat in office hours or over coffee about assignments, readings and even topics not directly related to class. This exposure has been particularly important to me in connecting the issues, problems and theories we studied in classes to the real world and making them relevant.

While the critical and subversive worldview I developed through my academic experiences in the history department has been useful in allowing me to critique power and those who hold it, I do not simply look to undermine or find faults in institutions or society writ-large. Rather, I stand by the belief that despite the problems humans have faced and continue to face, all people are agents in shaping the progress and direction of communities and the world at large. Knowing how to interrogate, contest and subvert top-down narratives and piece together a bottom-up or middle-out narrative of history that emphasizes human agency and all the ways it interacts and collaborates with systems and structures of power creates better citizens. It also provokes people to be more skeptical of seemingly simple solutions to complex problems.

Because of the disciplinization of academia, some divide the so-called pure social sciences from the so-called pure humanities. The social sciences allegedly revolve around using the ideas of objectivity, technocracy and replicability. In these disciplines, the questions posed are often binary, and recent efforts have focused on making data used in such scholarship publicly available so that findings can be replicated. On the other hand, what we know as pure humanities disciplines might not seek singular answers to

singular questions but rather explain the spectrum of what a question, issue or topic can mean and the shifting ideas and theories underpinning them.

I would say history falls somewhere in between this artificial binary. While history majors often rely on pure numerical and categorical data, we recognize that the categories we use are constructed by humans. Historians gather data from archives, texts and material and visual culture and produce what social scientists call “literature reviews” in the form of historiography — and in this focus on evidence and data the discipline certainly has qualities of the “social science” category. Yet, interpretive multidisciplinary methods — particularly anthropological and literary methods and concepts in microhistory and oral history have become powerful forces in history, particularly when relevant consolidated archives do not exist. Moreover, human agency is emphasized as shaping the progress of history and scholars seek human action, input, beliefs and attitudes which sometimes cannot be recovered from archives or numerical records. In my opinion, most serious historians do not look for single, universalist answers to questions but rather processes and the spectrum of factors and how they interact, collaborate and weigh into nuanced answers in specific contexts.

This emphasis on complication has rewired my brain to stop looking for universal explanations and singular solutions. It has redirected me to depict the spectrum of explanations to a question and their relative weighting and interaction with each other, as well as how my contribution relates to what others have said. Beyond being useful in academic research and writing, this skill makes for great lawyers, businesspeople, engineers, doctors and anyone who deals with complex problems.

Another invaluable skill I gained from studying history is the ability to critique scholarship and systems of power. As a person of color, first-generation American and college student and as a member of the Indian diaspora, this has been especially powerful for me in challenging stereotypes and monolithic views of non-European people and societies. The history of the formerly colonized world in particular has been an innovative field. Theories and analytical toolkits that emerged out of postcolonial and subaltern studies — which sought to challenge historically exoticized or distorted visions of non-Western societies or to tell history from the bottom up reappropriate the language of scholarship to subvert and contest older historical narratives.

Indeed, the most important theories developed in these schools of thought were articulated in Western academia by diasporas, and their application in historical scholarship has allowed me to connect my scholarly concerns with my social concerns. They have made me a better citizen and activist. One of my social activist role models — Howard Zinn — was a historian, and many of my academic role models like Eqbal Ahmad, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Cornel West were or are social activists. Scholarship — historical scholarship in my case — can make people better citizens, friends, colleagues, activists and humans exercising agency on this speck of dust floating in the infinite void of space. That is one of the reasons I decided to pursue a graduate education in this field. My experience with the study of history at Dartmouth has meant the world to me and will certainly shape the trajectory of my life.