Thanks to the University of Victoria
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Categories: Modern

Thanks to the University of Victoria

Good harness, attentive students, and a Gothic podium to profess from – teaching and writing brought different rewards in Giovanni da Legnago’s day (d. 1383). Sculpture in the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna (possibly slightly later than his death).

This summer, my plan is to publish two posts a month while I enjoy the weather and the slowdown in the pandemic and get some other things in my life sorted out. But with the burst of traffic from Hacker News, and a reminder of a previous life beyond the ocean sea, I would like to thank one of the biggest intellectual influences on my thought which does not get called out in my book: the University of Victoria.

Nobody outside of Canada, Japan, and maybe Washington State has heard of UVic, because every Canadian province hosts several universities which offer Canadian citizens a world-class education in most fields of human knowledge for a modest fee, and none of them lets in so few students that four years partying with the right people sets you for life. (The University of Toronto educates as many undergraduates as the entire Ivy League but without billions of dollars in investments). In my time getting a BSc there I learned many things.

From Computer Science I learned about abstraction, and how all models are wrong but some are useful, and mathematical proofs and coding and the ethics of data collection.

From History I had seminars and close reading of sources and arguments, learned the history of technology and concepts like the difficulty defining ‘progress’ and the flaws of technological determinism, picked up the scientific parts of postmodernism and postcolonialism, and above all how to research in libraries. (I should probably explain what happens in a history seminar or discussion but that would be another post). One reason I am so frustrated with many things which are written about the Achaemenid army is that with a little prompting my second-year classmates would have torn them apart in half an hour.

From Greek and Roman Studies I learned Latin, and more seminar discussions, and more history of technology and archaeology. I learned the ethic that any serious work on the ancient world combines art, literature, everyday texts and archaeology: I took that so much for granted that I almost forgot to write about it. And despite an encounter with an odd little book called Who Killed Homer? which presented one of my professors as having published wicked bad decadent things, I did not learn some of the ideas about Greek and Roman exceptionalism which seem to be still taught some places, or that ancients mean Greeks and Romans, Greeks really means mainland Greeks, mainland Greeks means Athenians and maybe Spartans from Homer to Aristotle.

Being a university teacher is a thankless job. Nobody knows how to teach our herd of eccentric cats to teach, although instructional skills / instructional design have some useful ideas and an army of quacks swears that their pet theories are such powerful SCIENCE that they don’t have to justify them. It can take five or ten years outside the classroom before someone realizes how much they owe a teacher or admits the they were right. Writing things which question the answers instead of answering questions brings thanks but not money.

Five years ago I was sitting in on a very odd seminar and I told myself in a self-satisfied way that we historians had absorbed the parts of post-colonialism, post-modernism, late 20th century literary criticism, and so on which were useful to satisfying our curiosity about the past. Now I have realized that this knowledge is not so common as I thought. There are a lot of people who don’t know why after a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, bookish people stopped talking about race, ethnicity, gender, and religion as Platonic essences and started talking about them as constructed identities (or about the problems with that new approach). There are self-proclaimed intellectuals who rant on about Marxism or postmodernism without ever having cracked the pages of Marx or Foucault or realizing that Marxism was one of the modernist ideologies which those dreaded French philosophers took apart like the Green Knight unmaking a stag. Because so few people today read anything written before they were born, or anything first written in another language, a lot of our conversations have become detached from their historical and intellectual contexts and drifted into a shadowy world where the ghosts of tweedy Russians and Swiss ride bodies in t-shirts and chinos and magical Names lurk on the edge of our vision but everyone who hears them reports something different.

a painting on wood of two medievla scholars with waxed tablets in their hands wearing long red and pink robes with furred cuffs and chaperone-hats with long tails hanging at their right breast and the skirt of their hood hanging at the left breast
A painting of the Arab medics Cosmas and Damianus in the Bolognese style of around 1400 or 1410. Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, Inv. No. 234

Because my teachers took books like Plagues and Peoples or The Invention of Tradition for granted and marched on towards the next goal of their quest, they stopped explaining these core results of their discipline to the wider public. And so they scotched the snake, not killed it, and terrible ideas from the time of European colonialism are walking the earth again. (It does not help that historians trained in North America don’t like to talk about theory, and historians trained in classics department may not get any formal training in historical reasoning at all – and some historians think that the way to write for the public is to skip all the discussion of sources and methods and just tell a story, and don’t realize that other kinds of people can tell just as good a story but nobody can beat historians at arguing about how to interpret sources). A lot of people I respect who started from the premise that the easiest person to fool is yourself and knowledge can only come from grappling with the facts have died or dropped out of the conversation, and been replaced with people who promise superpowers without all that hard work.

This is a hard and confusing time. My values and my ways of thinking are not nearly as common as I thought they were as an undergraduate chatting about ideas on his walks home and making his first posts on the Internet after ten years of lurking. And a lot of universitied thinky talky people want us to entrench, not talk to people outside our communities and not ask some questions, become propagandists preaching righteousness instead of scientists teaching our provisional best guess at how the world works, and stand on some authority they thought they had in 1990 and believe they could have again if they just herd everyone on to twelve sites and put the right people in charge of censoring them. On some new social media they have invented curious names to justify not asking or answering questions: sealioning, JAQing off, citationsplaining, and the proposition that people have a responsibility to educate themselves (as if someone who has never learned a topic knows where to find the trustworthy teachers and the reliable books for beginners, or learning was simply a matter of reading and not practice and debate! There are reasons that debate is what you do with swords as well as what you do with words, even if some of my friends in the historical fencing world do not know them).

I wish I could talk about all of my intellectual influences. That would cross too many of the streams of my life (although readers of this blog and my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag can guess a few). And there are some whom I respect but who taught me to never in any circumstances act like they acted, and saying that in a loving way takes more skill than I have this year. But I am very thankful to the University of Victoria.

Edit 2020-12-13: Added a link to my ‘problems with identity’ series of posts

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