Some reflections on "The Trouble With History"

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s recent article in Perspectives provoked a fairly strong response in me. Her experiences as a mother and graduate student strike close to home, particularly because she’s been a mentor and role model. And her use of poetry as a paradigm for viewing history-making is also salient–my love for poetry is nearly as strong as my passion for historical analysis. Perhaps all of those reasons compounded just how tired I felt as I read her piece. Knowing that, as a profession, we are facing a sea-change as tenure-track jobs are becoming a relic of the past. Knowing that for me, personally, it means that I need to readjust my expectations for the future and open my eyes to opportunities outside of ivory towers. She writes:

I don’t suppose this is any consolation to anyone hoping to enter the profession today. But if there is any moral to my story, it may be that your own instincts are a better guide than the words of your former teachers. The best clue to the future, though, is how you feel about what it is you do. Yes, grants and jobs matter. As professionals we need to do more to advocate for history and to support one another in our work. But we also need to ask ourselves what it is that drives us to study, teach, and write.

In “The Trouble with Poetry,” Billy Collins asks if the time will ever come when poets will have “compared everything in the world / to everything else in the world,” leaving them with nothing to do but sit at their desks with folded hands. He knows that won’t happen, and so do we. For those infected with the need to discover the past, there will always be mysteries pulling us through digital or archival darkness. That is why people with tenure as well as those without continue to write. Collins admits that though poetry fills him with joy and with sorrow, “mostly poetry fills me / with the urge to write poetry, / to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame / to appear at the tip of my pencil.” If you have discovered that flame, you will write history.

She’s right. Of course I will continue to write history no matter where I hang my hat professionally. And even if I had known just how grim the job market would be once I finished graduate school, I am sure I would have made the attempt anyways. But in the same way that my poetry reading is limited to the weekends and vacations, I hate to see that happen to my history-making. And to all of history-making, for that matter. But without a clarion vision of ways our profession can adapt and even lead academia into the 21st century, I fear that the world (and certainly our administrators) will continue to see History as a money-sink rather than as a vital, and vibrant, element of the university.  At least, that’s what’s on my mind as I’m heading into this AHA weekend. Perhaps I’ll come away from the Meeting more energized and hopeful about what lies ahead for me and for History writ-large.

Making History Podcast Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Episode 1
Making History Podcast Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Episode 2

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2 Responses to Some reflections on "The Trouble With History"

  1. Christopher Lee says:

    In the light of many of the feelings and facts described above, one option for budding historians might be a consideration of cross-disciplinary work, specifically with education. I am well aware of History’s disdain (be explicit or implicit) for the methods and purpose schools of education, but the job market and long-term potential for making a real impact in the lives of others is remarkably better for historians interested in working with education professors, schools of education, and K-12 teachers.

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