Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

In what might be the finest opening gambit for a paper on public history, Rebecca Conard – in this morning’s session at the NCPH annual conference in Ottawa – introduced us to the concept of the historiographical joke (just the mention of which was enough to elicit laughs).

This is the joke she introduced us to.  Funny for insiders but pointing, like a lot of good jokes, to something more substantive. If this is what history looks like, how can we ever make sense of it for outsiders?

The Dispersal of Darwin

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative…

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