Throughout the Institute, our discussions never strayed far from the human experience of political crisis. Reminders from the dance scholars in our midst about the inescapable physical manifestation of trauma, workshops about how to conduct oral histories, testimony from our tour guide in Dubrovnik and a survivor of Srebrenica, pockmarked stone and man-made memorials in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – all of these kept our attention on the immediate and material effects of political crisis on people’s lives.
For me, grappling with individuals’ experiences underscored the centrality of humility and compassion to scholarship and teaching. In one of our first panels, we broached a question that we returned to repeatedly: how scholars might reach a wide audience. Emphasizing the importance of narratives, one scholar observed that in order for a specific narrative to gain traction it must reflect the reality people experience. She also contended that the idea that the narrative offered by experts holds “some grand messianic truth” would “backfire.” These comments and the whole experience of the Institute made clear that scholars can contribute in unique ways to making sense of political tumult and violence, crafting accurate and incisive narratives that incorporate a multitude of experiences. At the same time, however, academics certainly do not bring an omniscient perspective and must tread with care and modesty in the deeply human endeavor of attempting to understand and explain our shared world. Many members of our group, particularly the scholars of dance and film, conveyed the intricate connection between our topics of study and emotional responses. An appreciation of this dynamic must accompany our work, not only in conducting interviews, for instance, but in all efforts to analyze people’s behavior and communicate our ideas. While we strive for surgical precision in our arguments, we cannot lose sight of people’s investment in the topics to which we apply our scalpels.
During the Institute, my own experience replicated and distilled the process I believe that teachers, at their best, can help set in motion in the classroom. I felt the exhilaration of glimpsing something familiar – the topic of my own research and the history of the nineteenth-century United States – from new and untried angles. The panels, immersion in an international group, and our forays into Croatian and Bosnian history encouraged me to reflect on, even attempt to imagine, the experiences of people far removed from the time or place where I live. Within our group, I came to see the similarities and connections among the events in each of our nations but also the vast differences in history, tradition, and circumstances that distinguished them. I left with a renewed sense that studying the past should foster both empathy and critical analysis among students as they try to conceive of lives different from their own and reexamine what they had taken for granted. Encountering histories and disciplines that were new to me at the GHI animated, confounded, and challenged my thinking, a process we can encourage among our students and aim to continue for ourselves.
Brooks Swett is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University in New York. She is currently working on a dissertation entitled “Reconstructing the American Union and Building the Democratic State in the United States and Britain, 1865-1885.” The dissertation examines how, in the wake of the U.S. Civil War, American and British leaders drew conclusions from each other’s responses to the rising possibility of mass democracy and agitation over the rights of laborers. Her research traces the connections between British and American debates over pressing questions of governance, including the extension of suffrage, military rule and martial law, the rights and obligations of citizenship, and control of labor. Brooks completed a Master of Studies in U.S. History at Oxford University and received a B.A. in history from Yale University in 2009.