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.

6 thoughts on “Why I’m a Historian First (and Everything Else Second)

  1. Hi Andi,
    I’m glad to have found your blog. Good post. My mom, brother and most of my cousins all studied history and my family on the whole digs it.

    My mom worked for many years for the NY Historical Society, and she did a bunch of Irish (Hibernian) history work as well. She’s researched and published work on many different subjects in academic journals, encyclopedias and dictionaries. It took her 11 years to get her doctorate in library science and she has a tenured job at CUNY doing what she’s passionate about- research & preservation work on Bronx history, among other things. I love my mom and she’s just one example of someone who turned a passion for history into a solid career.

    Those former English majors don’t know what’s what. There are always jobs for passionate historians, in academia and elsewhere.

    1. Hi Jen,

      Thanks so much for sharing that story about your mom (and your family in general); that really made my day. “Pursue your dreams” is a phrase (command?) that gets used a lot, but when it comes to you actually doing it, it can be hard to find good examples/role models when pressured to do so–especially on the spot.

      My apologies for the subsequent lack of posts; I promise that more is on the way so please stay tuned. And if you mom has a blog/website, please send me the link; I’d love to read what she’s done.

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