Friday, June 28, 2013

Falling in love with history again

The other night I started reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam.  I only made it through the first couple of chapters, but it really changed my perspective in several areas.

First of all was just impact of reframing the amount of time you have available.  Thinking of just the 24 hours in a day makes time feel cramped, like you have to try to squeeze everything in.  But when you multiply by 7 and spread your activities out over the course of a week, you find (or I do, at any rate) that your schedule feels more open.  If you do something a couple of times a week for an hour of two each time, you can do more (and, perhaps more importantly, feel like you're doing more) than if you try to cram everything into every day and only do each thing for a few minutes.

The second thing that jumped out at me was when she talked about core competencies.  Reading this chapter made me think about my stillborn career as a history professor[1].  And I realized that a lot of the things I would need to do as a history professor don't really fit into my core competency as a historian.  For one thing, I have no gift for academic politics.  I don't have the knack of the sort of quid pro quo and mutual backscratching that yields plum committee assignments, a desirable office space, and a manageable courseload.  I'd end up being the poor slob with a tiny office in the basement who's stuck teaching seven sections of Western Civ every semester.  I also don't have the knack of producing the sort of theory-heavy, technical papers that lead to journal publication (and hence to tenure).  I am good at research - I'm like a terrier:  I can find the scent of my quarry and stick with it until I find what I'd looking for.  I think I'd do well in lecturing, but can't be completely certain as I've never really had a chance to test it.

But where I really shine as a historian is in a place that's not really valued in academia:  As a storyteller.  I seem to have a natural talent for finding the narrative around a person, event, or concept, and then of telling that story in a way that grabs and holds people's attention.  I was able to make my wife - who has a limited interest in history - not only understand the causes of World War I, but also care about them.  I'm a popularizer[2].

And so, having found my core competency as a historian, now I've got to take the next step:  Embracing my core competency.  Reveling in it.  Loving it.  Owning it.  Possibly even getting some money and some recognition for it.  After all, I've got time.

[1]  Long story short, I stopped after getting my master's degree because I realized that the nomadic lifestyle and high debt load of a newly-minted PhD didn't really fit into the kind of life I wanted to lead.  I was kind of stunned when a professor I approached for advice about getting my PhD said "If at all possible, don't do it," but on further reflection and research, I began to see the truth in his words.
[2]  I really don't like the word "popularizer."  Not because of the word itself, but because of the way so many academic historians use it, with a condescending sneer and a connotation of, if not incompetence, at least a lack of rigor.

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