Picket line at York University’s Keele Campus, March 2018. Photo by *Youngjin, CC BY-SA 3.0
[T]here is a peculiar illusion incidental to all knowledge acquired in the way of education: the illusion of finality. —R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946).
As a rule, historians do not often question their role as historical agents. While some simply do not think about it, others seem rather reluctant to imagine themselves as objects of investigation and source-producers for future generations of researchers. As (usually avowed) bookworms, we tend to take our bird’s-eye view on the past for granted and are used to distancing ourselves from our topic. Granted, some prominent scholars, like Marc Bloch and, on the Canadian scene, Bryan Palmer, have engaged in historical reflections on a past they themselves inhabited, but these do not include conjectures on the “future perfect” dimension of their present, namely how it might be interpreted by historians in the future. In that regard, the latest strike by York University’s CUPE 3903 has given me fodder for thought. The dispute, which ended on July 25, 2018, was a three-month affair for me, as contract faculty members (aka “sessionals”), of which I am one, went back to work on June 15. During the time spent on the Glendon picket line as a rank-and-file member, I witnessed countless discussions, debates, and observed several changes and continuities with the previous labour disruptions I was involved in, namely the 2008-9 and 2015 strikes. The notes I took during those three months inspired me to write this somewhat unusual, experimental post, which reflects on the dizzying amount of sources that can be produced in a short amount of time.
In our line of work, historiography is often treated as a necessary evil, a distant arena that not only enables us to locate our own work within the discipline, but also implies a certain distance from the topics under study. Simply put, historiography deals with the ways in which historians have conceived of the past, and what sources and methodologies they have used in order to make sense of it. It also investigates the various trends, schools of thought, and debates that have marked the development of history even before it became an academic discipline in its own right. Essentially, historiography straddles the realms of historical investigation and philosophy. Although I have taught historiography for the last three years at York University’s Glendon College, it only recently occurred to me that historians – and historiographers in particular – tend to adopt a totalizing view of the past, often taking an “end-of-history,” Fukuyamesque approach to their subjects. However, Collingwood’s “illusion of finality” quoted in the epigraph to this post does not systematically stem from a temptation or (sub)conscious will to see one’s field or discipline as complete and unalterable. Faced with countless sources and multiple possible approaches to any given topic, researchers have no choice but to resort to heuristic techniques and to pretend that they fully master their subject. Whereas humility is a prerequisite to any intellectual endeavour, timidity can prove as damning. Therefore, I believe that historians should not refrain from getting out of their comfort zone and embrace the present as the antechamber of history. Continue reading