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Learning from the Lindis

About the time you hear this essay, Suzzanne and I will be jetting to New Zealand once again. We have scheduled our spring break in the Hocken Library, at the University of Otago, the southernmost university in the world. From there we will range into the field, the grassy basins of Central Otago, for fieldwork in regional history.

This itinerary puts into practice the advice I give my History students at NDSU: first, butts in the archives; and then, boots on the ground. Go get the history where it is.

“Where it is” in this case is eight thousand miles away from home. Which raises the question my late mother used to ask me, as a prairie historian: “Why do you have to go so far away to do your work?”

I gave her, more than once, an answer I knew would make sense to her, as a prairie woman. A farm woman who relished the meetings of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League because they talked about fascinating places on distant continents. A woman who, once retired from the farm, traveled the world to see all those places she had heard and read about. I said, “Mom, because I can.” I go to far reaches of the world in my work because I can.

Now, you may be a more rigorous inquisitor than my mother, although I doubt it, but if you are, then you may point to the expense of trans-Pacific flights. You may note the difficult logistics of offshore research and the heavy demands on time made by such enterprises.

So my partner in crime and I have been thinking about these things and put together a paper entitled, “Learning from the Lindis.” The Lindis is the region of Central Otago the history of which has occupied a slice of our time continually for the past two decades. It is a high basin of semiarid grassland, historically a land of sheep stations and gold mines, now incorporating heady admixtures of viticulture and tourism.

We love the Lindis, course. We have our old friends and our watering holes there. But now, back to the accountability question. What’s the deal with this distant and difficult, albeit pleasurable, research agenda?

More than thirty years ago, as a young historian of the Great Plains, I realized that although my interests focus here, I needed to develop interests elsewhere, too. This had to do with establishing credibility. In the academy, if you only work on things in your own back yard, there are people who will always dismiss you as parochial, for never having proven yourself in a larger arena. Well, nobody tries that sort of disparagement with me today; because of the stature that comes with an international resume, I am more effective at home. Just the way the world works.

That may sound superficial, but here is a more concrete benefit. Becoming a first-rate historian, or any kind of scholar, requires imagination, being able to envision possibilities. What we in History call “contingency.” If your experience is only in one place, then your range of contingency is limited. You think that the way things worked out here is the way they must work out everywhere. Then, you explore other scenarios, and you recognize the amazing possibilities of contingency.

There are a lot of other benefits that precipitate when a prairie person ventures into unfamiliar places. I talk with my students about them, whenever they will sit still for advice from an old coot. I’ll talk some more with you about them, when we come home from our current episode of Learning from the Lindis.

~Tom Isern

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