Last Wednesday I was fortunate to be one of five participants in a graduate student workshop run by the Agricultural History Society in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I’m happy to report that my submission to the workshop won their “best essay” award! The award is sponsored by Yale University Press and the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies.
The essay that I workshopped was a first draft of a dissertation chapter on scientific agriculture in China’s Xikang Province during the 1940s. It’s unconventional by academic history standards: it covers only about a decade, it’s as much about historical failures as successes, and none of the historical actors involved were prominent nationally. This chapter typifies the “history of everyday life” approach that characterizes much of the dissertation, and the positive feedback I received seemed to vindicate that approach: “I like the people,” remarked one senior scholar. On the other hand, my main respondent, Deborah Fitzgerald, pointed out a common pitfall: historians fresh out of the archives are in exclusive possession of a multitude of fascinating facts, and the goal is to be the boss of your facts–not the other way around. In places it was clear that I’d let my facts become the boss of me as narrative disintegrated into trivia, and that’s an issue that I’ll have to work on as I revise.