Inevitable absences

Well, that was more or less inevitable. Job applications and finishing a draft of the dissertation appear to have eaten about three months of my life. In the interim, though, I did some pretty interesting things, including speaking at a symposium on the idea of empathy – which raised a lot of questions for me about how interdisciplinarity works, but introduced many more tools for engaging with historical emotions than I’d previously had. The conference, hosted by Indiana University’s Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions called for:

“scholars in literature, psychology and brain science, history, religious studies, philosophy, political science, education, law, sociology, and aesthetics” to discuss “empathy’s connections to human development; interpersonal relations; and political, cultural, and social life.” (program here)

I’ve been to a few other conferences where, either because of the overall theme or because of the panels I attended, I’ve come away thinking about the social science implications of my work. At the Empathy symposium, because so many people from so many different fields were discussing the idea of empathy and empathic behaviour, there were a lot of definitions flying around – from biological descriptions of what empathic behaviour or feelings do to the brain, to psychologists’ characterization of what empathic behaviour looks like, to my and other historians’ work on the impressions that empathic behaviour leaves (we think) on the historical record and how we can use that records to reconstruct (in some limited way) the emotional experiences of people in the past.

I’m trying to keep all of these approaches in my head as I work through the first round of dissertation revisions, which are currently taking the form of diving more deeply into the literature on the history of emotion – in particular the ways in which expressions of emotion can be used to garner political, social and moral capital. The tension between “authentic” or “real” emotions, the work they do, and the mark they leave in the record is occupying me at the moment. I’m not sure what (if anything) historians can say about “true” experiences of emotion (I also know that psychologists struggle with a similar problem vis-a-vis self-reporting, so this isn’t only a problem for history) but it’s been fun to play around with the different approaches to engaging with interior lives that were discussed in Indiana.

Hopefully, I’ll be better about writing here in the new year (though I always feel like the ‘real’ New Year begins in September with the academic year), particularly as I get into teaching an undergraduate class on the craft of history.

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