Ambivalence, AP US History, Career Decisions, Career Development, CMU, Commitment, Editors, Graduate School, Historian, History, Nonprofit World, Nuance, PhD, Self-Discovery, Self-Reflection, Teaching and Learning, UMUC, Writer, Writing
Right now I sit between two important dates in my life. One was a few days ago, the thirtieth anniversary of my triumph on the AP US History exam in eleventh grade. Two will be in two days, the nineteenth anniversary me of graduating from Carnegie Mellon with my PhD in History. Both are signifiers of my achievements, my ambitions, and of my becoming a professional historian. But in the decade after earning my first college credits and the nearly two decades since earning my doctorate, I’ve still had a few lingering questions about where and who I am professionally.
One of those questions I’ve discussed ad nauseam here. Am I a writer who’s also an academically trained historian, or am I a historian first and a writer second? Or, can I be both at the same time? For better and worse, I am always both, but can emphasize one or the other at random, depending on context.
Other questions, though, have lingered even after spending more than a decade in the nonprofit world and another eight years teaching a full slate of undergraduate history courses. Do I still enjoy teaching history? Does my experience working on real world issues in civic education, social justice, and educational equity cloud how I see myself when I’m lecturing on the Agricultural Revolution or the Middle Passage? How is it possible for me to reconcile myself as a freelance writer who wants to take my academic historian experience, combine it with my other professional and personal experiences, and write about it for editors with little clue about the roads I’ve traveled? Is it even possible to un-layer the onion of my life and write about it to my or anyone else’s satisfaction? And if so, am I still a historian when doing so?
To that next to last question, I think that’s already a yes-no answer. Since 2013, I’ve written articles for publication with newspapers and magazines, and am working on my first new scholarly piece in six years. It’s difficult, to say the least, to explain to an editor what in academia or even among US or African American historians is a settled issue. Editors always believe that any story has two equal and opposing sides, because that’s how most ordinary people see most stories. As an academic historian, I’m trained to see nuance, to know when one side has a stockpile of evidence, while another one has a stockpile of bullshit.
Or, more often, to know that the no man’s land of gray present several or even multiple perspectives on issues like racism, poverty, college retention and graduation, American individualism, or the rigging of the federal election process. That no man’s land, I have found, more often than not scares away an editor, even ones working for intellectual magazines. They think their audience is incapable of getting nuance, when I think that they often reflect their own narrow and elitist view of the world.
As for teaching history, I find myself literally bored with the basic facts of any survey or even upper-level history course. To me, history is a panoramic lens through which students and experts can study human beliefs and behaviors in all its glory, ugliness, and ordinary-ness. Understanding how and why a person or a group of people did x, y, or z is much, much, much more important than knowing the exact date a specific event took place or coming up with some interesting but irrelevant fact in the process.
Which was why I began to teach my undergraduate courses with far more discussion and less lecturing than I did when I taught history as a grad student. (I taught a bunch of graduate-level education foundations courses in between my various nonprofit stints between 1997 and 2008.) I decided it didn’t matter if my students had done the readings, hated history, or were tired and ready to nap through three hours of lecture. I will facilitate discussion. I will make sure to make this process one about human interaction. Even when the lack of independent thinking among my students has me near ready to strangle a few of them. Why? Because understanding how people think and why they draw the conclusions they do can be as eye-opening as the knowledge they pull from one of my classes, maybe more so.
So, do I still see myself as a historian, or more as a psychologist or sociologist? Does it really matter how I see myself? Probably not. I just know that after years of teaching, writing, and all of my ups and downs professionally, that I remain two things most of all — a writer and a learner. Those two callings fuel my ability to raise my game, to want to be a better professor, a more expert historian, and an insightful writer. That, I hope, won’t change as I continue my long march toward fifty.