Exigent connections in recent historical fields

The field of historical study is under constant growth and transformation. A new trend among historians is to examine much more specific areas within the broader disciplines. This new focus has many advantages for the student of history. The exploration of a very specific field requires investigation into the smallest details of that field and how each detail relates to the broader scope of historical representation. Examining new and highly specific information provides opportunities for historians to make exigent connections between fields they have not previously examined. Conversely, the exploration of very specific material may reveal less of a connection to the broader area(s) of study than was previously thought.

Connections between highly specific fields of study and their broader counterparts will often be influenced by cultural factors. For example, it would be an exercise in futility to address the specific field of African American women in the United States with doctorate degrees practicing law within the context of the antebellum south. For this reason, the exigent connections between a broad scope of study and a lesser one will vary and sometimes not exist at all. This allows the specific field of study to remain relevant as it can only be dissected within the timeframe or experience that allowed that particular field to exist at all.

The strengths and limitations of any new field are highly subjective and need to be extensively scrutinized by other qualified historians before they can be deemed relevant or simply labelled an attempt to make “a mountain out of a mole hill”. The article Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History by Ted Steinberg is an excellent example of how a new specific field, that of human and animal waste disposal, can be relevant to historians. Steinberg briefly relates some historical methods of waste disposal in large urban cities that clearly addresses the broader historical fields of psychology, sociology, and ecology. Qualified historians in these larger fields will need to determine the relevance of this more specific field as it relates to their own specialty as well as how this new field of study is directly influenced and constantly undergoing change depending upon the cultural practices of the era under examination.

Specific new fields in history are both fascinating and challenging and will open doors to research and debate among historians of the broader fields which leads to the greater and more profound understanding that history is and has always been a series of ongoing and interconnected circumstances.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” The American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820. doi:10.1086/532497.

Boxers & Saints

            The two graphic novels of Gene Luen Yang, Boxers and Saints, are a high school level set of texts that do a thorough job of highlighting the events leading up to and surrounding the Boxer Rebellion from two very different standpoints. The approach gives a general overview and the novels are interdependent. While Yang attempts to convey both sides of the conflict, he clearly leans in favor of the Christian view that emphasized the brutality of the Boxer warriors. Yang covers the Boxer mythology with as much clarity as he can impart knowing his target audience is a casual reader and not an established scholar in the field of Chinese history. 

            In order to properly analyze graphic novels, both the images and the story need to be examined. These books have an appeal to all readers because Yang uses simple but historically accurate images and modern colloquial text to convey the depth of suffering and violence that impact Bao’s life in the six years examined. Vabiana is also a fully developed character that Western readers will understand based upon her comparison to the martyred Joan of Arc.

            Boxers and Saints is an excellent educational tool as Yang has been able to convey the events surrounding the Boxer Rebellion in an accurate and understandable manner that has an appeal to mainstream readers. These novels are much more than comic books and would be best utilized in the 11th and 12thgrades. Upper high schoolers will be able to understand the subtle nuances of the Boxers as magical figures and be able to view the violence and racism as an integral part of Chinese history.

Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2013.

Yang, Gene Luen. Saints. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2013.

My Historiography: Genre and Approach

The term shell shock was introduced into modern culture during WWI. This terrifying syndrome would become the subject of much study. Secondary sources on WWI shell shock victims show an evolution of understanding and empathy as the horrific experiences of the WWI soldier were examined by historians that emphasized factual cultural representations of these traumatized souls. 

The recent 100thanniversary of WWI has inundated us with movies, books, and documentaries depicting the suffering of these brave men. Many well researched and compassionate resources for study are abundant and more accessible than ever before through the internet. They cannot fail to pique the interest of the avid military historian.  

  Accounts prior to the 20thcentury often refer to “soldier’s heart” or “nostalgia” as a type of melancholic illness. Physicians and historians had been aware of this issue for centuries but documentation of this affliction only became widespread during and after World War I. Simply put, this war was on an unprecedented scale and the number of soldiers who participated was staggering. The large and diverse group of soldiers first mentioned as shell shock victims were referenced in a 1915 article of the Lancet medical journal by Charles Myers, a physician in the Royal Medical Corps. Descriptions of shell shocked soldiers became commonplace in popular culture and quickly emerged as an integral part of the history in WWI.

The widely accepted attitude held by historians writing during and immediately after the war was that shell shock afflicted those men who had some type of fundamental weakness in their character. That these men were “neurotic” and unflatteringly feminine, often referred to as “lunatics”. The British approach to mental illness limited the extent to which fear could account for these symptoms, as it was believed that only women and not men suffered from psychological disorders.[1]The prevailing culture held a masculine view of men. Expressions of fear were not encouraged and cowardice was unacceptable.[2]

Thankfully new books such as Stefanie Linden’s They Called It Shell Shock: Combat Stress in the First World War (2016) are written with the necessary sensitivity and thoroughness that allows the modern historian to view the shell-shocked soldier from a more objective and compassionate standpoint. Not just as objects of fear and pity. This evolution of compassion and insight into mental health disorders makes for an excellent historiography.


Helmus, Todd. Steeling the Mind: Combat Stress Reactions and Their Implications for Urban Warfare. California: RAND, 2004.

Linden, Stefanie. They Called It Shell Shock: Combat Stress in the First World War. Warwick UK: Helion & Company, 2016.

[1]Todd Helmus, Steeling the Mind: Combat Stress Reactions and Their Implications forUrban Warfare. (California: RAND 2004), 11.

[2]Todd Helmus, Steeling the Mind: Combat Stress Reactions and Their Implications forUrban Warfare. (California: RAND 2004), 11.

Military History for the Modern Student

            The study of military history is an ever expanding and changing field that is not well understood by the public at large. Mainstream audiences live in a sort of reflective nostalgia that is fed by popular books and movies designed to thrill rather than enlighten.

            The academic study of military history is divided into three separate categories. The first being scholars who focus on war and societal issues. Next come the traditional historians who report extensively on battles and tactics. Finally, the last and newest category of military history seeks to apply the aspects of memory and culture to the traditional straight reporting of events.

            Robert M. Citino explains that this third approach of applying aspects of memory and culture has been around for a generation and is an important development. In his article, he emphasizes that the application of a broad range of methodologies is critical.

            “Indeed, military history that does not take into account all three schools (society, culture, and the distinct imperatives of the battlefield) is by definition incomplete.”[1]

            The scholarly study of military history has a wide scope that continues to expand. Scholars today are attempting to cover a broad range of approaches while still staying true to the facts. This is not an easy task but one that today’s military historians have taken on with vigor. On the whole scholarly military history remains a fascinating and expanding descriptive.

[1]Citino, Robert M. “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction.” The American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (2007): 1090.

On standards for quality academic history

            The study of history has a large and diverse audience which mostly absorbs information through books, films, the internet, and television. Quality academic study of historical issues and events is a different construct. The professional historian has a much more complex task of investigation and interpretation than the casual observer.

            The professional historian is as concerned with the investigation and interpretive process as with the outcome of the inquiry. A three-step process of research, organization, and analysis is the prerequisite to a well-prepared product. 

            It is often not difficult to discern between popular history and that of academic origin. The pop culture history seeks to provide an entertaining overview which will awe the respective audience and make an impression that is designed to delight but not necessarily enlighten. An academic approach is much more detailed and circuitous. The historical event viewed from an academic standpoint can only be an investigative reproduction of an event which has most likely been rigorously examined from several standpoints by individuals (historians) who possess the appropriate expertise to properly dissect the event(s).

            Standards for the academic study of history need to remain focused on in depth research and multi viewpoint analysis in order to preserve content and context. The past, as seen through several lenses, is an intricate set of issues which allows for varied viewpoints and interpretations. Popular culture history, while not as intellectually valuable, can have its own definitive place in our culture as smashing good entertainment for mainstream consumers.