Research: Central to Being an Historian

Historical Research

Research: Central to Being an Historian

Research is fundamental to all of history. Without delving into archives, looking at diaries, interviewing survivors, scouring patent applications or medical records, using already existing databases or even just tracking events down through newspapers, history would lack substance. It would be opinion, little more. History is and needs to be far more substantiative and substanial. It is the detailed correlation of historical facts with historical events. It is the unwillingness to extend an analysis further than the historical documents and data allow. It is a rigorous, aggressive attempt to understand why things happened in the past as they did and how that understanding helps us today.

But history is anything but static. New documents surface all the time. New insights are gained and others are proven to be no long tenable. Questions historians and others want to ask of the past change. Historical interpretations remain valid when they withstand the persistent onslaught of new evidence and new thoughts. Only by constant confrontation with new information and persistent reexamination of previously gathered materials can history provide the vitality, nuance and security required to support the demands that humanity places upon it.

Historical research is essential to what we know and what we teach. Hardheaded investigations into the intricacies of the past are what makes a historian a historian. It is what we teach our graduate student and it what we insist that they embrace.

The members of the Department of History at Mississippi State stand at the forefront of historical research. Their many acts and inquiries push history forward in many ways. For example, its members edit an almost unprecedented number of landmark journals, which define and refresh the field. These international journals present the foremost cutting-edge scholarship and therefore are THE journals of record for their historical subjects. Each of the journals edited by Mississippi State history department faculty correspond to one of our Nodes of Excellence. For example, the venerable Isis, the organ of the History of Science Society and now approximately a hundred and ten years old, marks the latest understandings of history of science scholars worldwide. Environmental History, the voice of both the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society, contains the latest interpretations in those fields. War in History, a leading military and international affairs journal, corresponds nicely with our WPIA Node. Early American Studies, the official journal of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, offers historians the new insights into the nation’s colonial and early national period, while the Journal of the Western Society for French History provides an intellectual outlet for members of its parent society and others.

Research in these journals is the product of the labors of many and Mississippi State history faculty stand tall there. In the past three years, our faculty members have received numerous fellowships to develop new, better understandings of aspects of the past. The American Antiquarian Society provided a fellowship to a faculty member to research further the creation among slavery, mining in the south and a national monetary system. Another received a Distinguished Fulbright Fellowship to explore rural America. Two faculty members have received year-long Humboldt fellowships—among the highest awards provided by the European community—to use the various repositories in Germany and elsewhere. A 12-month James Madison Fellowship enabled one colleague to use the collections of personal papers of British generals located at the Princeton University Library, while a 9-month Patrick Henry Fellowship situated another among the collections of the Starr Center for American Experience. Other faculty members have spent a research year at the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, the John Sloan Dickey Center of International Understanding, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The history profession has taken notice. Far more than half of Mississippi State History faculty members have received distinguished national or international recognition and awards for their writing and research.

On the most basic level, MSU history faculty reject any thought that excellence in research is inconsistent with excellence in teaching. Indeed, excellent research is critical to excellent teaching, although it is not the only parameter. Faculty publish books, articles, and chapters of books as a means to spread their insights throughout the profession and enhance the teaching of history locally, nationally and internationally. They attend a wide variety of professional conferences and meetings, presenting the fruits of their research in papers to other experts in the field. This face-to-face interaction fosters communication among scholars and allows disparate interpretations to be heard in a de facto professional tribunal. It helps spread new insights and restrains any who have not survived professional scrutiny from seeing the light of day.

As historians in training, graduate students embrace the fundamental part that research plays in a historian’s soul. They see no distinction between first class research and first class teaching. They seek and receive grants of relatively short duration to visit libraries and repositories to collect research materials. They are encouraged to do original research under the watchful eyes of professors. They present papers at professional meetings and publish scholarly pieces. Remembering that the PhD is a research degree and that the dissertation is first and foremost a piece of original research, they fully adopt the centrality of research to the historians’ craft.