Many scholars have an "aha" moment while conducting research. But Professor Paul Barba is likely one of only a few to experience a revelation while reading a 19th-century Alabama state code book.
What Barba discovered in the old pages wasn't a shocking, hidden story from the past but rather information that led him to believe that other historians had made a mistake. For the first time, he felt empowered to question everything he'd read growing up.
"When something is published in a book, there's a certain assumption of truth and power connected to it," he says. "Being able to unravel that authenticity — to see that there's another person on the other end — made me believe I could contribute to the conversation as well."
As a teacher, Barba encourages his students to exert that same sense of authority over texts and narratives. "I like to emphasize that students need to learn to be skeptical, critical thinkers," he explains. "Accept nothing at face value. Question everything, over and over again."
In particular, he challenges students to rethink the prevailing Western view of history as inherently progressive.
"History is a philosophical experience," he says. "The way we live and think in this time and this society isn't the only way. Nor is it necessarily the best way. Other people have lived differently — and thrived."
As a scholar who researches the history of the African diaspora and slavery, Barba also looks outside the usual framework of nations, states and boundaries when studying the past.
"Politics and nations are important," he says. "But you can also focus on the more authentic sinews of history, such as social networks and immigration. Then individuals and communities of people emerge as central to the narrative. Let's follow the people and their connections and find out what was really going on."
Barba believes that studying those linkages and constantly asking questions can lead historians — and students — closer to true pictures of the past.
"I hope my students gain a greater appreciation of multiple perspectives," he says. "I hope they relish the discomfort of not knowing everything, but striving to know more."
Posted Oct. 6, 2017