Sometimes, on days like this, I ponder the choices that I made in my life. In particular, I question if being a historian really benefits, you know, society in any conceivable way. “Yes, GayProf,” I hear you saying, “You do serve society by giving meaning to our dull, grey lives. Let us give thanks to you. It is right to give praise and thanks.” That might be paraphrasing of your general thoughts, but I think basically accurate.
Academics, however, often appear a wee bit useless sometimes. Not that I am interested in pulling apart the academic world on a theoretical level. Oso Raro does a much better job at that than I ever could. Rather, sometimes I feel angsty about not contributing my fair share to society.
Don’t get me wrong. I has got no plans to suddenly change careers. This academic life is the only one that I know. It fits me pretty well. Having always been interested in the past, one can’t think of a better way for me to make a buck. If such a job didn’t exist, I would probably just do it as a hobby anyway. So, I am constantly surprised that I actually earn a living doing this stuff.
Never believe an academic who claims that they have it tough, particularly one who resides at a research-centered university. With only minimal requirements of our time for teaching and office hours, we are basically free to set up our own schedules. Though some elements of the job create stress, like the quest for tenure, it’s hardly like we are out there shoveling coal.
Beyond the occasional whiny student or cranky colleague, moreover, most of the people I deal with in my work are dead. The dead hardly ever complain to me. Plus, the job doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting. All and all, nice work, if you can get it.
Historians also have the best anecdotes for cocktail parties. Well, when people actually invite us to cocktail parties.
On the other hand, historians don’t really provide many direct services to humanity. You can’t eat history. Thinking about the past doesn’t heal the sick or end crime. Yeah, yeah, there is the old expression, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” If really true, historians would rule the world, which we don’t – yet. When was the last time you sat in a crowd and heard somebody say, “If only we had a historian here”?
I always preferred, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but historians repeat each other.” With the exception of “popular” historians (who we all discredit anyway – I am looking at you Doris Kearns Goodwin), our research tends to circulate only amongst our selves. The general public has only the vaguest idea that we exist.
Even my own family has the sketchiest idea of what my job actually involves (beyond teaching). Some of my extended family once asked how many classes I taught each semester. When I answered “two,” they said, “Oh, well, since you don’t teach that often, you could get a second job and make twice the money!”
Sometimes I also wonder if all historians are really just frustrated novelists who lacked the imagination to come up with fictional characters and stories. As a result, we decided to borrow the life stories of other people.
All of this shows up in our actual economic value. Universities generally place historians at the second-to-the-bottom of their pay scales (sorry literature folks, you are even vastly behind us). Of course, universities pay all the humanities the least. Interestingly, economists, who straddle the fence between “humanities” and “business schools” are the highest paid in the humanities. They are, however, the least paid in business schools. Go figure.
Still, I do take solace that history holds an important place in modern cultural battles. Politicians and talking-heads always like to drag out a mythical past in flimsy attempts to justify their modern positions. Then the thinky crew of historians leap into action and slice their second-grade knowledge to pieces.
Historians also don’t usually harm people. Other jobs have more questionable ethics. Working to design AMC Hummers or sending out exploding Dell computers, for instance.
If historians like me totally disappeared then we would only be left with the drudgery of flag-waving-rah-rah visions of this nation’s past. I like the fact that we look backwards to find inspiration and perceptive from past generations of queers, Latinos, African Americans, and other groups that challenged the status quo.
All of this, I guess, is to say that I am happy with my career; however, I also feel the need to be productive in a different sort of way. In other words, this is a long way of saying that I need to find a place to start volunteering my time in the Greater Boston Area.