Monday, April 11, 2005

Becoming a Historian

I just finished reading over an entry on New Kid on the Hallway, discussing the divide between being a grad student and a prof. And that got me thinking (because it shall be a few years before I get to go from PhD studies to professorial work) about when I went from being a "History Major" to considering myself to be a "Historian." Derek and I were discussing this divide recently, and he actually wrote about it on his blog, when I accused him of never growing past the state of a second-year student.

I did not grow up wishing to be a historian. In fact, I've spent most of my life having no idea what I wanted to "do with my life." I guess, when I was younger, I assumed I was going to be a writer, but by "writer" I meant "fiction writer." (When I was younger, "writer" meant "writer and illustrator," but I digress.) I also felt an inclination toward teaching, but was repulsed by the idea of teaching in a high school setting (or younger). I was so much of a misfit in those years that I couldn't fathom the idea of trying to connect with that age group, later in life. My teachers often assumed I was going to go on to be some kind of great scientist, or practical something, because I did well in all of my classes. Throughout high school, I kept my options open, taking a wide range of classes (actually, in grade 12 I was in three sciences and two maths), which gave me even more anxiety about specialising. My poor high school guidance counsellor had to put up with me crying in his office on a very regular basis in grade 12: "I don't know what to doooo with my liiiiiife!"

And then, one day, someone came and talked to my Ranger group (older Girl Guides -- I confess) about local history, and I thought, "I could do this." It helped that I did my family history for an independent study project in grade 11, and that I was addicted to older novels (such as L.M. Montgomery and Jane Austen). And so I decided to give history a "whirl," assuming that I would end up using my B.A. for something entirely different than history, or that I would end up changing majors once I actually took some university-level courses. I absolutely was not going to go beyond the Bachelor's level. (Who goes to school for that long? Ha.)

For my first two years, I had "one foot in the door." (What's with my cliché usage?) I did better in English courses than in History well into my third year, and often considered switching majors, or doing a double major. (One particular English professor still complains publicly about how I ought to be in English. It's fun.) But, somehow, someone convinced me to take honours, mostly because the non-honours History B.A. at my university isn't very challenging (you barely have to take a 400-level course to complete it). Most of my history friends were either in honour's or were double majors.

My year and a half in honours changed my life (I manipulated my programme so that my "fourth year" would go from January to December, giving me twelve months to write my honours paper). The first semester of honours changed me from "some B.A. student" into a "historian." That semester I took Historiography, and also my first German History course from Dr. B. (Germany under the Third Reich -- I needed another non-Canadian history course at a 300-level), which also had a historiographical bent to it. I began making connections between what I was studying and researching in my different classes. I began defining my historiographical philosophies, and got into an hour-long debate with my class "arch-nemesis" over the issue of objectivity in history. I began to call myself a "historian."

And then I began to consider graduate studies. My former department head (sweet old British man, and one of the reasons why I've taken more 17th century British history and literature classes than most Germanists and Canadianists, both of which I have been) first got me thinking about grad studies, when he suggested that I consider an English M.A. under our school's John Donne specialist (she is very interdisciplinary, and I actually ended up working for her one summer)! I was feeling like I wanted a change, after my Canadian history honours paper became increasingly demographic, and even economic (I am very much not a social scientist). I wasn't sure what to do with my life again, reaching the end of my B.A., until I had a chat with Dr. B. I confessed to him that the only factor keeping me from German history (I did quite well in the Third Reich class, causing Dr. B. to attempt to recruit me) was my fear of learning another language. Apparently, he convinced me otherwise. (Actually, I started into German history thinking that this would be how I would learn skills that I would then take back and apply to Canadian history. It helped that there was more of a chance of funding if I was not a Canadianist at this school.)

Progressively, I became not only a historian, but a Europeanist and an academic. My foot is no longer in the door, regarding European history; you can thank my trip to Paris and Berlin for that. I helped to design two new courses, graded countless papers and even lectured, all of which have begun to blur that line between "student" and "professor." (While I am still so very subservient to my professors, I understand the inner workings of courses now, and especially look at undergrad courses from the perspective of the teacher rather than the taught.) I feel like I am part of my University now, rather than just some student who pays to take courses. My first conference (I presented a paper last May) made me feel like I was part of a field, and not just a graduate student at my university.

And so, somewhere in all of that, I let go of my Arts anxiety, and somewhere in all of that, my friends and family stopped assuming I was in Arts because I was somehow "undecided" or doomed to "flip burgers." (I remember one family member who informed me that students only took Arts when they didn't know what to do with their lives, thus increasing my anxieties about becoming a History major.) Somewhere in all of that, I came to the realisation that I am not just wasting my time, but in fact I am heading toward a very defined goal.

Now, perhaps I should help myself along that road by finishing my thesis.


Janny said...

Mary hearts history.

J.C.Q. said...

I think you become a historian when you start doing any sort of work in your field that is not directly related to getting a degree. That makes it really dumb because people with Masters' who work for, say, the government are "historians" but Ph.D. students aren't?

Queen of West Procrastination said...

So, JCQ, what you're saying is that you're only a "historian" when you do work outside of class, such as when you're paid to do history-related work? I'm not sure I agree with that; that definition is very employment-centred, which is fairly blurry when you're a student for so long (as you acknowledged). I guess I define "historian" by your mentality toward the work, and how you see yourself. In a seminar with my History 110 students, as we were approaching some controversial primary source material, I informed them that, during this class, they were the historians and they were providing the interpretations. And, in that limited space, they were, I think.