Nebraska? Never asked-a.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 05, 2007 9:00 PM

I'm doing the grad school shuffle, and I'm feeling a bit more pressure than I should (I think). I'm a junior, going into my sixth semester (third to last, if you want to look at it the other way), and I'm completely perplexed at what I'm supposed to be doing. I feel at once bogged down with possibilities and disappointed with the lack of them. Sure, I want to go to grad school for history, but dear God, what kind?

I've bounced among classical, Germanic, early American, Western, American Western, Central American, South American, ancient Chinese, ancient Japanese, American Indian, Southern, political, and military history, just to name a few. But, as I've been told before, it's not just finding the right program, but the right professor. That complicates things a bit, considering that I don't truly know what I want my discipline to be. I'm leaning toward the American West (which is why I'm looking at University of Nebraska at Lincoln right now), but it still doesn't seem... fulfilling.

I'm frustrated with the entire process, because I didn't want to do history forever. This has been further complicated by the relative satisfaction and disappointment I get from my museum internship as well as my thesis research. Anything you research enough can become the bane of your existence, and I've found that that has happened with nearly everything I've touched. By the time I'm done researching something, for whatever it may be, I have to suppress the desire to strike a match and set it all ablaze.

So I'm stuck considering places I thought I'd never go, languages I never knew existed, and subjects that seem so trivial that I would rather not even waste my time. I think that's why I gave up classical and medieval subjects in the end. Not that they aren't important, but that they've become over-studied to the point of triviality. Yes, it's important that many of our major documents are based on bits and pieces of those that came long before, but is it really crucial to our understanding of Etruscan culture to argue that they cut their nails in a square rather than a semicircle? The kneejerk answer is yes, of course, because without our retelling of the stories, those cultures are effectively written out of history without even a whimper. But that elephant in the room - the one with TRIVIAL and UNIMPORTANT written across its sides - isn't going away, and is only getting bigger.

Academia is competitive and territorial. Not only must you compete with others for the limited job prospects, but there is a imperialistic tendency amongst academics to grab the last bit of terra incognita and plant a tiny flag with pitiful fanfare. If I'm trying to find a piece of genuinely undiscovered ground, should I be reduced to studying the diets of horses before, during, and after the Revolutionary War? It almost seems that, to be a scholar, the question of Who cares? has to be tossed to the wind - along with caution and perhaps dignity.

This very competitiveness reduces Medievalists to Medievalists with a specialization in 12th century southeastern Irish female mercenaries (I hope that's an exaggeration). What's the point, really and truly? Yes, it was important someone. Yes, it's a part of our history. But how does that affect us?

Contrary to what this has sounded like so far, I'm not against this specialization. It does seem tedious, and it seems like it makes ingenuity and unintentional self-parody synonymous. But to dismiss it so quickly is to forget the reason for having historians in the first place - so we don't forget.

Humans have a depressingly short memory. Even with written language, what gets remembered is still privileged. Who survived the Classical era? Plato, Socrates, Aristophanes? You know them. You've heard of them. And think of how much they have affected our understanding of the world. Yet how much are we missing, because of great fires or bloody conquests? It is the historian's responsibility to find a way to preserve these ideas for the future, because history is the depth that we pull from, whether knowingly or not. To stop having these records, to stop digging, to simply give up on that which we know we cannot reach or rediscover, is to fail those who succeed us and to take away what could have been another layer to life.

Historians also preserve the notion that we are not special and that we aren't really doing anything new. The notions, thoughts, words, and actions have almost always been preceded by something similar, and hardly anything we do invents or reinvents, or even improves. To be a historian doesn't necessarily mean that one is humble (few historians I know would even bother describing themselves as such), but it means we are closer to the human condition than other professions. We see the patterns (as do most professions that have at least some historical basis) that link us to our ancestors.

That said, I still don't think I want to be an Etruscan toenail specialist. But I'll find my niche somewhere.

2 Response to "Nebraska? Never asked-a."

Anonymous Says:

Believe me the elves are the cause, lol

I wouldn't worry too much about the end of college, by the time it comes around everythign will fall into place. Or at least I think it usually does. Who knows you could be like Justin and become a starbucks barista, lol its all a matter of perspective.

Donna B. Says:

When I was in your position, it seemed to me too that I had to find unexplored territory and say something new. But I didn't worry about it until I got to the Ph.D. stage -- nobody expects a master's thesis to be wholly original. And even at the Ph.D. stage, I was mistaken. While you have to have an approach that isn't a direct retread of what one of your sources as done, that isn't as hard as it sounds. If you follow your passion, you will have an approach that is you -- and since you are unique, it will be unique, too.

What I'd do in choosing a grad school is look at where your favorite historians teach -- the ones whose books made you want to be historian. (If there aren't any, well, maybe you're in the wrong discipline.) Then choose one without too much regard to speciality. You're not sure yet -- nor was I at your stage, because I hadn't even heard of the branch of theology that would eventually become my speciality. You don't have to make a final decision about your speciality now. It's more important to find a mentor who can help you learn to be a scholar, than to find a mentor into the content of some field. My $0.02.

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