Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

08 Apr 2007, 15:35 p.m.

MC Masala on Spring and Continuous Partial Attention

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Okay, this is ridiculous. It is snowing! in early April! This puts the lie to my "yay it's springtime" column this week.

After I failed one quiz and squeaked by another, he gave me advice on how to study.

Studying computer programming is more like math and less like history. It's a skill, not a bunch of facts and ideas to learn and rearrange in one's head and synthesize into models of how the world works. So, every time the book introduces a new concept or function, I have to try it out and practice it and feel out its limits and appreciate how the contours of the problem space have subtly altered.

[Update Apr 10th: Evidently this post doesn't do justice to the practice of history; please read previous comments and the column itself before calling me on it.]


08 Apr 2007, 16:48 p.m.

I still find it surprising how many people have no idea of what history actually is.

08 Apr 2007, 16:49 p.m.

OK, what is it?

10 Apr 2007, 14:41 p.m.

I've heard historians describe their work as "telling stories about the past," and I think that's apt. History isn't something you learn, it's something you do. (Which is one of the main problems with how it is taught in schools, but when kinds are expected to know certain facts for their standardized tests and a teacher is expected to cover all of civilization in a school year, what can you do.) You can learn all the facts and dates that you like, but that's not history, that's just the context. As a social/cultural historian, I am interested in using my sources the make observations about how people experienced historical events�especially if these experiences differ between, for example, men and women. For political or economic historians, I imagine the subject matter is different but the process is much the same.

10 Apr 2007, 15:09 p.m.

"History isn't something you learn, it's something you do....You can learn all the facts and dates that you like, but that's not history, that's just the context...."

Sounds like the word "history" means several different things and people are using it in different ways. "[W]hat history actually is" makes it sound like there's only one meaning.

In the column I make a swipe at articulating a spectrum of realms, from ones where learning facts is most imperative to ones where practicing a skill is most imperative:

"Now that I think about it, [the way I have to learn programming] also sounds like an excellent way to learn history. But you need a certain base level of knowledge [even] to apply such rigorous critical thinking to the arguments in history books. We only learn skills -- singing, cooking, coding -- with this kind of practice."

10 Apr 2007, 18:11 p.m.

I'm not making a comment about your column, I didn't even read it. I'm just responding to the idea that history is "learning facts" which I guess--to some people it is. That is the impression I got from the excerpt you posted. Many people think of history as a series of dates and names, thus, they have an incorrect idea of what historians do.

10 Apr 2007, 18:49 p.m.

Even in the excerpt I posted, I didn't slag off history as just dates/names; I said "a bunch of facts and ideas to learn and rearrange in one's head and synthesize into models of how the world works." And the last bit there actually aligns substantially with one of your suggested descriptions, "telling stories about the past." But I get tired of my own multiple-meaning-words/metaphor/analogy/semantic quibbles even as I write them. Here I am inclined to be a lumper, not a splitter.

10 Apr 2007, 20:40 p.m.

I'd suggest reading a book on historiography (because I obviously didn't explain it well) but I know you have about as much spare time as I do!