A Historian at Work

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We see them standing at the front of lecture halls, or maybe meet with them during office hours, but it’s fairly rare that we get sustained time with our professors up close, or hear them discuss how they approach their own work. At a recent Berkeley Connect History small-group discussion, distinguished historian Martin Jay spoke with the students about two of the many books he has written.

First, Jay talked about one of his earliest books, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas, published in 1984. In this work, he wrote about the idea of totality and the “privileged way to make sense of what’s on the ground,” he explained.

For research on Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, published in 1993, Jay travelled to Paris to study people’s attitudes towards the totalizing gaze. Downcast Eyes explores the gendered differences in the way people look, among other analyses related to vision in that time period.

In relation to choosing a topic for historical research, Jay stressed the importance of incorporating a scale of history, from macro to micro. “You have to recognize what you gain and lose from each scale; it requires the recognition of limits,” Jay explained.

“How do you find the limits of what to write about?” asked one student. “It’s difficult,” answered Jay. “You begin by conceptualizing much bigger than you will actually go.” He described how when researching a subject, you discover that there’s a wealth of information available, and that you’re not the first one to write about it.

“You have to decide what aspect to focus on. What makes big books manageable is having one main thread running throughout,” Jay added. Also, he emphasized that the new material you produce should challenge what’s already been said.

Another student asked, “How did you feel when you held your book for the first time?” Jay talked about how excited he was, as one might expect. “But it’s not so exciting when you open it up and see a typo,” he joked.

“How do you feel when people criticize your book?” asked another student. “It’s always a great honor to be read,” said Jay. Obviously, he wants readers to be convinced by his book, but that’s not always the case. “Whenever you get a critical review, you have to look more carefully at what is being said and who said it,” he suggested. Some people hate Marxism regardless of what you write, for example. “Just don’t be so protective over your ideas that you can’t take criticism,” he advised.

This is Jay’s last semester teaching at UC Berkeley, so the words of wisdom he shared with these Berkeley Connect students were especially valuable. The opportunity to speak with students was valuable for Jay as well. “I will certainly miss the contact with students,” he lamented. Though he will no longer be a professor, he will still be a scholar, and now he will have more time to focus on exactly what he spoke about to these Berkeley Connect students: exploring challenging new ideas and writing about them.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant