grad school - a couple of thoughts

So, I'm now into my third semester in graduate school, and so far I'm managing my own. Having a 4.0 is nice, and my work in my three study courses is coming along nicely.


However, this is the first time that I'm going full-time to school; the previous two semesters were part-time only. In taking these three study courses, I'm now able to appreciate the different styles (for lack of a better term) among my professors, regarding their assumptions in the study of history. 

My first professor (also my advisor) focuses on systemic institutions and assumptions that permeate all levels of society, even into the most innocuous aspects. People are trapped by these forces and assumptions, and by realizing our biases, we can come closer to understanding past decision making and the resulting consequences. In this perspective, the works of structuralism (especially of Foucault and Derrida) takes center stage as analytic tool in studying the past. As my advisor's focus is on Orientalism - the Western perception and assumptions towards the Orient - it isn't a surprise that this is the primary means to analyze the past. This includes trying to observe the historian's biases when analyzing texts and material from another society. It is not simply to let the text "speak for itself," but to also be vigilant toward's our own biases. I can say that studying under her has helped tempered my earlier, skeptic-influenced ambivalence towards post-modernist thought.  

In contrast, my second professor eschews the "systemic" notion of history, and looks at individuals. As a semi-famous military historian (and certainly one of the top military historians anywhere), he can appreciate trends and patterns - commonalities - in the history of European warfare. However, he tries to focus much more closely on individual decisions, individual factors that swing the entire course of history from one end to another. In studying WWI under him, the old notions I had of WWI - that the war was inevitable due to long-term trends - are being challenged. The more I read, the more I realize that a Bismarck or any competent leader would not have let war come at all. Rather, the leadership - political and military - fucked up. And fucked up a lot in institutions that did not promote merit or good ideas, in societies plagued by class antagonisms, in a ambivalent adoption of new technologies and falling back on old tactics, and on the contradiction of wanting a decisive victory in the face of trench warfare. Even with these trends, bone headed mistakes and hesitations led to this. So with this professor, the human factor looms large.

And there's the third course. This course deals with Mexican-American and Chicano history. As a Chicano myself, you would think that the style taught here would be to my liking. You'd be wrong about that. From my readings and my observation of the professor, the entire field of Mexican-American history is wrapped up with Chicano and Latin American activism. Now, in their defense, Chicano and Borderland scholars have shed a lot of light of systemic prejudices against Hispanics - from the use of quarantine in South Texas to the use of eugenics to sterilized "troubled" Mexican youths in California to showing that Mexican-Americans were lynched at a higher rate than blacks were. That anger is there, and that anger towards the past is actually justified, unlike the fears of conservatives towards something as tame as affirmative action. Nonetheless, when I hear from this professor that a writer should be more emotional and condemnatory towards an injustice, I feel uncomfortable. History should not be synonymous with polemics. While the course is interesting, I am better able to articulate why I'm unsettled by Chicano studies in genera.

If anything, I do find that the three courses have helped me understand the nuances and contradictions among these different threads. What am I to make of it? Or what am I to choose, I can not say.