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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I'm not very good at math ... that's why I like history


My colleague Jordan Goldstein wrote a blog post earlier this year about how Canadians often define themselves in terms of how they are different from their American colleagues. How groups view themselves is a common theme in Public History, because if historians want to know what kind of image of history we can present to the public, and what kind of images the public will except, we should understand first how a culture sees itself. There are the positive identifiers, the thing that a group is and does, but there are also the negative identifiers, what the group is not or doesn't do that others might. In the case of Canadians, that seems to be Americans more so than any other group that we have decided we are not (mostly because the case is not always that obvious).

My colleague Braden Murray made the observation much earlier in the year that many of the conversations had by Grad students in the History department eventually turn into a discussion of Canadian identity. Partly that is because most of us are Canadian historians, and even more so because we all come from different areas of both Canada and the United States. This was especially true at the beginning when we were first meeting each other, and when we were first trying to explain how we were a cohesive group to our American colleague (sorry Sara). But maybe that is one of the positive identifiers of the group known as History grad students, a desire to define our shared cultural heritage.

What also makes us a group, however, is our negative identifiers. Mostly, I find that for Grad students in history, and probably in many other Arts programs as well, the group that we define ourselves against is Math. It is a suitable excuse, when you get a simple math problem wrong, to say that I am a history major. Marking especially is always described in relation to the math department. The argument is that in Math you can get 100% because it is either right or wrong, but in History it is more subjective. You can't get 100%, but the likelihood of getting less than 60% is also greatly minimized. It seems everything that we are is best understood in relationship to Math. In many ways this is a fallacy, particularly for the economic historians, but it is an easy means of self-identification. I my personal experience I wasn't bad at math, but it was the only class that made me physically squirm in my chair. And my path through University has been chosen in a way where I can take the least amount of math possible ... since I am, after all, a history major.

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