Zac Cowsert Essay
To the casual observer, history often appears static. Most historians appear to spend their lives pensively analyzing long-dead people, places, and events, and most folks imagine historians either behind the desk writing or behind the podium lecturing. One would not think that history and travel go hand in hand.
They do. Historians travel constantly, both imaginatively and literally. Understanding the past means traveling widely through it, and in turn, historians must travel widely in the present in search of confirmation for our ideas. History is a dynamic field. Our ideas about the past are constantly being amended and revised, challenged and overturned. New lines of thinking are brought to bear, and new evidence is uncovered. Names, dates, and facts are important, yes, but the real debates rage over what facts mean—what information reveals about the past, the present, and the human condition.
To answer such broad questions, historians’ interests and imaginations must travel. Here at West Virginia University, history professors, graduates students, and undergraduates alike all let our historical gaze wander freely. We have historians who study material culture in medieval Europe, grapple with conceptions of loyalty in the Civil War, and ponder how museums and national parks should represent the past. Our ideas and research topics span both time and the globe; relatively little in human history has escaped historians’ collectively scrutiny. I like to think (somewhat extravagantly) that historians are explorers, in search of understanding on the trails of time.
Of course, much of the travel described above is done conceptually, imaginatively. It is easy to picture historians buried among stacks of books lost in thought, writing feverishly to lay down their narratives. This romantic scene is not inaccurate. But as any historian will tell you, writing good history requires a lot of literal travel—time spent far from home in search of ideas, evidence, and feedback.
Historians travel most often in search of sources. Even in an age of digitization, historians continue to plumb archival depths in hopes of finding evidence that can confirm or contradict historical understanding. My own research explores the experiences of Native-Americans in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) during the Civil War. As you might expect, I’ve flown, driven, and camped all over Oklahoma visiting archives, historical societies, and state parks looking for sources on the Civil War era. I have, however, also spent time in Little Rock, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Columbus—my research has literally led me across the country. Historians travel extensively so that their research may be grounded in solid primary evidence.
And though historians often research and write on their own, we regularly share our ideas with others. Historical conferences abound, offering historians a chance to travel to a common location so that we might compare our research and learn the findings of others. Although I am at an early stage in my career, I have had the opportunity to give talks and present my research in half-a-dozen states. Recently, I attended a conference on Civil War material culture here at WVU where scholars traveled to West Virginia. Historians share a scholarly community, one that encourages engagement with other historians around the nation and the globe.
Historians, just like history, are not static. Rather, historians carry on vibrant discussions over history’s meanings, and these discussions require historians to travel across time and space both imaginatively and literally. Travel shapes our research, our scholarly community, and ultimately, our understanding of the past.