It was again the time for the ”Dinner with a historian” -event that my students organize at the end of the survey course on western historiography. Last year I introduced this adaptation of a role play to encourage students to apply the knowledge they had gained and to review the extensive content of a course than aims to outline the development of historical writing from Herodotus to Hayden White. As the rather unorthodox assignment had been a success, I decided to repeat it this year as well. Once the students recovered from their initial surprise that was caused by a request to choose one of the many historians we had learned about and to invite that scholar to a dinner to discuss about historical research, they embraced the possibilities time travelling opened up for them. Thanks to their enthusiasm, the classroom was turned into an eloquent banquet hall where we celebrated the past, present, and future of historical scholarship. I was again delighted to discover how the assignment inspired students to think through what they had learned during the course: carefully they placed their chosen dinner dates into an appropriate scholarly and intellectual context, and innovatively drafted a list of topics that they wished to discuss with their guest. The colorful depictions of the dishes that were served during the dinner suggest that the didactic goals were reached while having fun.
The guest list was quite different than last year. If the Finnish historians had been in stark minority last year, now they were more prominently present in the banquet. The invitations were spread out more evenly and no one proved to be a particular favorite this year. Although the modern period still dominated the event, invitations were sent to earlier writers as well. Without holding the suspense any further, here’s the list of invited historians in a rough chronological order:
Herodotus, Lorenzo Valla, Francesco Guicciardini, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Voltaire, Catharine Macaulay, Henrik Gabriel Porthan, Zacharias Topelius, Edward Augustus Freeman, James Anthony Froude, Johann Gustav Droysen, Karl Marx, Johan Richard Danielson-Kalmari, Jacob Burckhardt, Alma Söderhjelm, Tekla Hultin, Karl Lamprecht, Väinö Voionmaa, Eino Jutikkala, and Eric Hobsbawm.
The mix of historians with so different scholarly preferences and interests together with diverse national and ideological backgrounds ensured that the evening was filled with intriguing conversations, spontaneous orations, and insightful analyses of the art of writing history. Since the guest list also contained controversial figures, heated debates and confrontations broke the scholarly conviviality every now and then. Wisely the organizers had seated James Anthony Froude and Edward Freeman at tables far apart from each other. Freeman was exasperated once he discovered that his archenemy Froude had received an invitation. His rage boiled over when he heard that this vilest of all historians had not only received an invitation, but that two students had requested his company. That was one student more than had approached Freeman. Froude’s fate of being cast aside by the academic establishment seized the students’ attention and they wished to hear how Froude experienced the fact that he had been turned into a tool for drawing a boundary between academic and amateur historians.
Marginalization was brought up also in the context of gender. Catharine Macaulay, Alma Söderhjelm, and Tekla Hultin were all asked to describe how they had succeeded in writing history in a male-dominated world, and how they had negotiated the structural obstacles that stemmed from their gender while pursuing historical research. These pioneer women were not only invited because they could tell about their strategies of coping in a masculine scholarly world, but students wanted also to celebrate them as important role models in their own time, and to remind us about the continuing gendered inequalities in the academia. This very same question was addressed last year during the dinner, and since there has not been any drastic change at the history department about the proportionally small number of permanent female faculty during the past year, it should not come as a surprise that women like Macaulay, Söderhjelm, and Hultin continue to serve as an inspiration to female students in 2015.
Lastly, the students took some liberties which time travelling placed at their disposal and persuaded their guest to comment on the contemporary affairs. The Finnish historians were asked about the current day Finnish-Russian relations, Marx about the financial crises, and Burckhardt about his views on contemporary art. The dinner was rounded off by Voltaire who elegantly explored the question whether our modern age is an age of rationality or irrationality. All in all, the dinner proved to be a success for everyone involved in it. Hopefully the future will hold many more of these merry events.