The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part I:Introducing the 2010 Summer Seminar in Military History

Last week, during the final day of the 2010 West Point Summer Seminar in Military History, we were scheduled to have a panel on civil-military relations that appeared to actually broach the subject of women in the military.

You have to understand that this is what I’d waited three weeks for. A few days earlier, we received an article to read for this session, and although I was happy to see the military’s late-twentieth-century sexual and racial integration processes included in that piece, I was unhappy with how that information was included. I was eager to meet the author and ask questions about it (namely: how in the world could you fail to cite ANY of the central works on those topics?).

But at the last minute, the author of the piece wound up not coming. And instead of a panel where there was a possibility of bringing up gender relations in the US military and why those matter (or according to many military historians, why those seemingly do NOT matter), we spent most of the session discussing a little Rolling Stone article that you may have heard of by now: “The Runaway General”.

Personally, the subtext of aggressive masculinity that I saw in much of the article struck me strongly. Apparently, I was the only one. Instead, everyone else was talking about the problem of “cults of personality” in the military, when the one question I wanted to voice – but never did – was whether this was really about a problem of a cult of masculinity in the military. (As a related but side point, I think that the debates on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell suggest that gender and sex are incredibly salient issues that the military needs to address, yet tend to be rendered invisible.)

I say all this as preface to explaining my experiences of the 2010 West Point Summer Seminar in Military History. Without a doubt, this three-week program was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned more about military history in that time than I could have pieced together in several years on my own. I met incredible people. And dude, I recreated Pickett’s Charge (er, Longstreet’s Assault).

All told, the 2010 West Point Summer Seminar in Military History was amazing and fabulous and about ten million other adjectives that will seem over the top if I include them here. It was challenging, engaging, thought-provoking, and – more than once – frustrating. In some ways, it was everything I imagined (and more). For the record, I recommend this workshop very highly.

But if you asked many of the people at the seminar, they’d probably tell you that I’m not a military historian. I’m a social historian of the military, more accurately – a social historian who has a firm belief that a working knowledge of diverse types of historical methodologies can be very useful. Also, if I’m writing about the military, shouldn’t I have as strong of a knowledge base as possible regarding the institution I’m discussing?

Just what is the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History? According to the website, the concept of a summer training session in military history has been around for nearly fifty years, originally designed as a training program for Army ROTC instructors. Starting in 1996, the focus shifted towards training (mostly) civilian academics – junior faculty and grad students like me. For about three weeks every year, the seminar fellows live at West Point’s Thayer Hotel and attend daily classes in military history. This year, we began with medieval warfare and ended with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, moving mostly chronologically through it all.

We had guest lectures from well-known historians such as Jeremy Black, John Guilmartin, and John Lynn. We did pedagogy sessions with West Point professors, where we learned how the Department of History at West Point approaches teaching military history (and military art in general). For more hands-on approaches to military history, we took “staff rides” to Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga, Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Gettysburg – that is, in-depth study and analysis of battles at these sites, including terrain analysis/assessment and a look at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. This year, we also took part in a one-day conference on war termination. It was three weeks of intensive learning, reading, conversations, and connecting.

At times, it was also a lot of opportunity to feel out of place. By the end of it, I’d reached the general conclusion that some of my perspectives just didn’t need to come out in our sessions. It’s not that there was hostility towards me or women’s history, but it was certainly clear that being a women’s historian in a room full of military historians can be a challenge (to say the least).  I’ve never encountered so much skepticism to the idea that gender can be a “useful category of analysis”.

I spent a good deal of time discussing my frustrations (and insecurities) about this to several individuals outside of the classroom.  Those external conversations were the safe spaces, where I found colleagues who I think respected me and were interested in what I have to say, even though they didn’t always agree with my ideas. But in the final few days and the time since I left West Point, I’ve discovered how much more I want to say. Perhaps more importantly, I think I’m figuring out how I want to say it.

Because more than anything, these challenges helped me come away from West Point with a lot of things to think about. I think this is a good thing. I think that, in the end, the Summer Seminar was an incredible learning and growing experience. I learned a lot about myself as a scholar, my position within a broader academic community, and how I communicate with other scholars.

Over the next few days, I’ll post more about what I took away from West Point, both in terms of military history and my own project in particular. After a little more than three weeks immersed in one world of military history, I feel like I’m starting to come into my own. Stay tuned.

8 thoughts on “The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part I:Introducing the 2010 Summer Seminar in Military History

  1. By the end of it, I’d reached the general conclusion that some of my perspectives just didn’t need to come out in our sessions.

    I’ve felt the same way at some conferences– particularly when I’m in scholarly contexts where people’s training hasn’t always included analytical approaches to gender, race, class, and sexuality (let alone intersectional analyses). Pushing back on their assumptions in person usually just puts them on the spot, and after one does this a while, it’s… diminishing returns. But if you were able to recognize what you could get out of the situation, regardless of their inattention to gender, then you’ll understand better how to speak to military historians in the future.

    After a few such experiences, I’ve figured out that talking back to the speakers silently, in my own notes, usually gives me great fuel for writing later. Even if it’s just a question in the margin of my notes, I can often get a lot of mileage out of re-reading my notes later, in my hotel, and writing for a while while the memory’s still fresh.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about what you learned at this seminar. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: History Carnival #89 (2010 June) | World History

  3. Having had a number of those conversations with you, I know that it was difficult, and justifiably frustrating, for you at times (esp. as we got closer and closer to the 20th century!). I will say this, though. First of all, you ARE a military historian, and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. A working knowledge of operational mechanics never hurts, but there is so much more to warfare than operations. You know it, and many other folks know it, too. Second, you’re not alone in having learned about yourself and where you position yourself viz-a-viz the field, and I think a lot of us are with you there! One of the things I learned was that I’m as much medievalist who is military historian as the other way around. Which is fine, but certainly caught me rather by surprise. Third, you are a credit to gender history and shining example of how, imho, it should be done (just don’t ask me what exactly that means…). Keep on writing!

  4. Pingback: Apologies | Tanya L. Roth

  5. This was very thought-provoking. I’m not nearly as far along in my history training as you are (I’m in my MA) and haven’t really had much of a chance to be really challenged in history. I’m hoping that changes, but at the same time find it a bit intimidating.

    (Here via the History Carnival)

  6. Pingback: The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part III: On Being Cast as the Token “Where are the Women?” Person | Tanya L. Roth

  7. Pingback: Women’s historian attends West Point Summer Seminar! (Alert the MPs.) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  8. Pingback: Off to West Point… « Thoughts on Military History

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