Why I’m a Historian First (and Everything Else Second)

Way back in the day, when I used to tell people that I studied history, the most common response I got was:

So, what are you going to do?  Teach or something?

To which I’d usually say “yes, that or do research” and they’d normally fall silent.  Sometimes, I’d get to hear about how they majored in English and that’s why they now work in Marketing–and make a much better wage than if they had gone and been a free-lance writer.

But then, I stopped telling people. Why?

  • Part of this was due to the fact that my PhD adviser-to-be permanently extended his leave of absence without notice.
  • Part of it was due to the fact that I thought this predicament was somehow my fault:  If only I had known, I would have found an replacement in time and would have still been accepted before the funding cut-off date, instead of being left with no stipend, grant, or scholarship to speak of.
  • Part of it was due to being embarrassed that I had spent five years studying something that was not useful in my day to day job.  Sure, paleography skills are good when you’re trying to decipher your co-worker’s scrawl on a post-it stuck to your monitor, but I certainly didn’t slug through a year of classes–much less the year of intense Latin–to do that.

Not surprisingly, I tried to have my cake and eat it too.

I toyed with the idea of waiting out my history bug by getting  a (non-history) job, turning it into a career, have a decent wage on which to help raise a family, then go back to school once my kids were grown up.  In short, trying to forget that I had really loved this discipline.

There were certainly a number of older grad students in my master’s program, so it seemed like a plausible alternative.  Besides, only über-nerds get their doctorate by the time their 27; everyone else is out there living their fun Sex-and-the-City lives before “settling down”.

Yet there more I tried to do this, the more I resisted internally defining myself by my current job.  Instead of partying it up, I subscribed to The New York Review of Books, read Postwar, and attempted to teach myself Arabic and German.  At the lunch table, I’d spend more time telling my coworkers about the history behind a current event than the event itself.  That is, if I wasn’t reading Postwar.

I am a historian; always have been and always will be.

I spend afternoons thinking about how people explained their worlds hundreds of years ago.  I keep indexed print outs of NY Times articles in a filing cabinet for the future me.  And I’m still plugging away at Arabic because I know that one day I’ll need it.  My brain is also built for this type of work, a fact that I always assumed others had until I started working with non-historians.  I can remember bits upon bits of seemingly disjointed and unique pieces of information then tie them all together in a narrative.

In short, I’m a historian because studying and living history is what I love–and nothing else I’ve tried comes close to the high I get.

If we’re supposed to “do what we love“–or as Penelope Trunk advises, “do what you are“–then it’s about that time for me to start living that way.  I can understand the need to have a hobby, but when you start looking for ways for your hobby to become your career, it’s time to make changes–and to get an actual hobby like button collecting or typesetting instead.

Right now, I’ve got big plans to start building a new professional life and this blog is part of that effort, and I promise that history posts featured here certainly won’t smack of that dull “Intro to Western Civ” you took back in the day.  The only thing I love more than studying history is talking history. I want to have a conversation with you, so come on in.

Of course, if you think I’m boring–or worse, that I’m presenting bad history– call me out on it.  Tweet that I’m an idiot, comment below, anything–just don’t stay silent.