By Rachel Davis |

My undergraduate professor used to end each seminar with the benediction, ‘Fight relevance and preach difference.’ I used to laugh, but recently I’ve been considering his words more seriously. Why are historians so concerned with relevancy in our research? Like any buzzword, we incorporate it into funding applications, papers, and day-to-day speech, as if somehow naming our research “relevant” makes it so while also making it legitimate in the eyes of our colleagues. Relevancy as a survival tactic seems to be two-fold: it asserts legitimacy to people outside the field of history and it ensures nuanced research within the field.

To explain my first point, my undergraduate university faced potentially severe budget cuts to its humanities programmes with the election of a new governor in 2012. Rather than base state funding on enrolment, he wanted to base funding to state schools on the number of graduates with jobs. This sentiment was not really grounded in fact as much as it was grounded in his personal distaste for people that study topics in the humanities, and he specifically made odious remarks regarding degrees in women’s and gender studies and philosophy. It was a tense moment for everyone at my alma mater because it brought relevancy into sharp relief. The idea of relevancy (of research, of courses, of degree programmes) became synonymous with legitimacy. If anything, our esteemed governor undermined himself and his argument, as his quest to deny funding to programmes that he didn’t believe in or agree with only further illustrated why liberal arts and the humanities are important, because we all make such different contributions to society.

This brings me to my second point, innovative research in the field. Relevancy almost ensures originality of research projects, as the current events we draw on are quite different from the current events of fifty or one hundred years ago (or are they?). Regarding relevancy in this way makes quick work of the idea of continuity and change that we, as historians, often highlight. However, this approach to history may work better for some projects than others. Perhaps it is important to remember that relevancy is an approach to history, not the approach to it. Relevancy almost carries a sense of judgment in its meaning, like some areas of research are more legitimate than others. If anything, the diversity of topics covered by historians illustrates the myriad of human experiences that we study across time. We could all certainly become a more cohesive unit within and without academia if we embraced the variety of topics we all find so fascinating and important. So, I think I will continue to heed the sage advice of my undergraduate professor and propogate difference by questioning relevance.

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