Who can critique

One of the required courses in nearly every graduate history department is Historiography, in one form or another. At Missouri, this takes the form of a co-taught course, one Americanist, one Europeanist, who select a book a week and then discuss the ideas, theories and methods of those works. Some of these actually cover topics of historiography (though rarely theory), while others simply are topical and from a wide range of subjects, styles and methods.

My own thoughts on the discussion, purpose and failings of the course aside, the intent is to make us think about what we are doing, and to expose us to a wide range of styles and methods. The department is distinctly anti-theory for reasons I will not broach here, and so the thrust of the course is this: “The better your method is–including languages–the more viable your research will be.” Bits and pieces actually address method and some (though not enough) of the class discussion is directed to this end, but realistically this assessment is self-evident or should be.

One of the issues that arose this past semester was over who can and should criticize scholarship. The book in question was well researched and conducted through a study of numerous languages and documents. The method and the research was generally sound, but I, at least, had some problems with the application at various points. Nonetheless, the class was repeatedly told that we were not qualified to critique the method. None of us were familiar with the other research in the field (which was characterized as a political agenda covering for shoddy scholarship), or the languages to properly critique the book. If someone without the proper credentials attempted to challenge the method and findings, they would have no basis for doing so.

Though I agree that method is important and that proper language use is essential to history, this argument that one must be credentialed to critique a work is nonsense. Someone with more credentials will bear more weight, but anyone is qualified to critique any book, and in fact they should. To not do so is the opposite end of the spectrum from accepting something because of a political agenda and as bad. Nothing should be taken for granted. This is true in history, as in any field. I am perfectly qualified to critique theater or cinema, even though I don’t necessarily have the ‘proper’ vocabulary. Some people will find my review helpful and accurate, while others will staunchly disagree. In some instances I will find myself corrected by so-called experts, while in others I will assert my right to hold an opinion. The point is that I can still do it; feel free to disagree.

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