Sunday, April 15, 2007

GayProf's Origin Story

My friends, the people have spoken. They call for me to write on my decisions to go to graduate school. Well, a couple of you asked for that and Cooper asked for a my view on New Mexico (which is actually related to my decision to go to grad school). A few constitutes "the people" in my book.

About a decade ago, a decision was made to send a single emissary from New Mexico into patriarch’s world. He would teach them of New Mexico’s institutional multi-culturalism and our ways of love. A great competition convened where all the faithful challenged each other. In the end, only I remained. Oh, wait – No, that was Wonder Woman. Damn! I should probably see a therapist about the ways that I confuse her biography with my own.

Actually, my decisions about going to graduate school were part of an on-going process. A single moment of decisiveness or a dramatic turn of character did not really occur. Rather, a number of things converged. I was also very lucky to have happened to know professors who encouraged me to go to graduate school (and, later, those who supported me through it). It doesn’t make for dramatic story telling, but it is how it happened.

I had always been interested in history. Even as a student in grade school I learned that most people didn’t actually remember that much about the past. With just a little bit of reading, I found that I could know things that others didn’t. Being a bit macabre, my history reading tended to focus on human folly (such as learning lots about the Titanic (back before it was cool (though, yes, I recognize it has stopped being cool again)). I was the only sixth grader (maybe the only individual in all of New Mexico) who could give a blow-by-blow account of the sinking. I also found that I enjoyed telling such stories.

So, from middle school through high school, I projected a future as a history teacher at the secondary level. In some ways, I just didn’t have much imagination or I loved consistency.

When I reached college, however, my career plans took a slightly new shape. Within my first year, I learned what it meant to be a historian. Finding that it was possible to do original research excited me. If I was going to pursue higher education, I decided that history would be the course that I would take. Plus, I was lucky that one of my older sisters was already blazing a trail by attending graduate school (though not in history). Yes, there is another.

It took time to figure out what type of historian I wanted to be. Basically, I had lots of questions about the past. Most of those questions happened to center on New Mexico and Mexicans’ roles in the U.S.

Existing histories on the state, especially the ones for primary schools, had a teleological narrative that made New Mexico’s incorporation into the United States appear inevitable. This narrative was (is) so ingrained that most people accept it at face value. "If New Mexico had been part of Mexico (and the name alone does imply a certain connection)," I asked, "Did nobody feel patriotism towards that nation when the U.S. invaded?" The answer provided (They didn’t because they joined the U.S.) ignored actual historical evidence.

Contrary to popular mythology, Mexicans in New Mexico had little desire to become part of the United States. Indeed, the people of Santa Fe wept as the U.S. military seized the capital in 1846. Wild stories also circulated that the invading military had planned to brand a “US” on the cheeks of all the Mexicans in the territory. Clearly there was some apprehension about becoming Americans. These stories, however, were (are) not widely told. All that I had at the time was a feeling that the traditional histories were dubious.

Those doubts emerged because I felt there were many inconsistencies about how Mexicans viewed their life in this nation, even within my own family. I really loved New Mexico (and still do). Yet, there was always a certain uneasiness among Latinos in the state as well. At times, there were contrasting impulses and sentiments among the Latino population.

While most (if not all) claimed an avid patriotism for the U.S., there were also frank discussions about how racism and social inequality impacted their daily lives. While they celebrated the 4th of July, there was also resentment that wealthy Euro Americans flooded into the state and gobbled up local lands. There was a sense of shared commitment with other Latino groups in the U.S. Yet, there was also a divisive emphasis on color. Some discussions (at the time) suggested internalized racism as many Latinos in New Mexico argued they were “different” from other Latinos through the claim of being “pure Spanish.”

In a similar way, I noticed Mexican Americans’ complicated relationship to the Catholic Church. The hierarchy had a tense relationship with the laity. Many Latinos openly discussed their feelings that the Church had often failed to acknowledge their unique religious expression and the spiritual needs of the local population. Yet, most Mexicans also remained devoutly Catholic and considered it a critical part of their own sense of self. Indeed, when I first imagined my research in graduate school, I believed that I would study the history of Mexican-Americans’ relationship to the Catholic Church (that later changed).

In other words, a lot of my interest in doing historical research came from my own personal experiences grappling with different aspects of my identity. I saw inconsistencies and even contradictory assumptions about how Mexicans understood themselves within the U.S. nation.

Given that my father was Mexican-American and my mother was Irish-American, I started with a certain perspective. Likewise, claiming an identity as a gay man also aligned me with different aspects of society. Perhaps these combined to make me suspicious of institutions and majority politics.

As I developed an increasing focus on Latino history, some of my undergraduate friends made me feel uneasy about the ways that the historical profession operated. Though these friends were also history majors, none of them were interested in New Mexico or Latino/a history in the same way as me. Indeed, they even scoffed at such a pursuit. For them, studying Europe was a far more legitimate intellectual enterprise. While I had no desire to dictate their interests, it struck me as odd that they felt the need to explicitly distance themselves from Latino studies (and even denigrate it) given that they also identified as Latino/a. Moreover, they received a certain cache in repudiating the study of people like themselves.

This made me wonder about the ways that university structures perpetuated the omission of Latino history. The Eurocentric structures of the education system created a scenario where even those with a direct stake in Latino history turned their back on it.

During my last couple of years as an undergraduate, I took a variety of courses that focused on feminist theory, race and ethnic studies, and a nascent form of queer studies. I became increasingly interested (in a crude sort-of-way) in how U.S. society historically established and enforced power relations based on race, gender, and sexuality. Historical scholarship can be a powerful means to challenge and resist the status quo.

Of course, much of my thinking as an undergraduate was still pretty shallow. In between considering the underpinnings of heterosexist privilege and U.S. imperialism, I often testified about the pair of Guess(?) jeans that changed my life (Though, in my defense, they were great jeans).

I shudder to even imagine what my graduate school application looked like. Once in graduate school, however, I was extremely fortunate to find a remarkable dissertation advisor. She expanded my thinking on race, gender, and sexuality in innumerable ways. I still continue to learn from her.

So, that’s basically the story (as best as I can remember) of how I came to decide on graduate school. It’s nice work if you can get it. Let me tell you, it sure beats shoveling coal.


dykewife said...

interesting personal history you have there. however, i noticed a glaring lack of big haired self-portraits of the era. i'd give you a chiding and rather pursed lipped look if you were here right now.

if i get into grad school (i'm going to apply for that, a job and the college of social work) i'm going to work on the government's continued use of "debtor's prisons" for aboriginal women who are unable to pay fines and cannot take advantage of the fine options programs because of child care issues. then again, i might also write about how the federal system for women still creates very real isolation from family support systems even though they now have regional prisons. i also think about doing a thesis on creating culturally appropriate programming for aboriginal men and women in the prison systems...then i think..

it's like being a kid that has never had candy being shoved in a candy store and being told to pick one of's a bitch of a job.

i want to see a picture or two of you from your university years. if i don't get to see one i'm going to have to pout.

Doug said...

I must say I am impressed more and more as I continue to read your blog. You have such a refreshingly intelligent and clear view of things.

And your story is far more interesting than mine. While your journey through school was driven by your own interests, I majored in computer science because my parents told me I was good at computers, and I did (and sometimes still do) what made others happiest.

tornwordo said...

You couldn't have paid me to go to grad school, lol. My brother took that path, er, is still taking that path. He's 33.

vuboq said...

Wow. Your path to graduate school was so focused/directed. That's very cool. 've always been envious of people who had a clear idea of "what they wanted to do when they grew up." And then did it.

Cooper said...

This was so interesting. I am still digesting it and will read it again later. When I read you, I'm often blaringly aware of just how much I don't know. You're a wonderful teacher ... ummm, prof!

Audrey said...

hi gayprof - delurking to say that i'm a fellow new mexican-turned-graduate student, and i really enjoy your posts about your path and reflections on the state. keep 'em coming!

Earl Cootie said...

I like the image of you as a Titanic-obsessed sixth grader. What fun you must have been. I envy your little classmates. (Not to imply that you're no longer fun.)

(Oh, and thanks for not writing "an historian".)

GayProf said...

DykeWife: I have not forgotten the picture request. I am not finding a photo, though, of my hair at maximum volume (which would have been my freshman year in college). Be patient.

Doug: My parents had a general push that we stay in school, but were largely unconcerned with which major we selected. Of course, they also didn't pay for my tuition or any of my expenses in college, so they may not have felt at liberty to say either. One of the bits missing from this story is that I worked mostly full-time through college.

Torn: Grad school really isn't for everybody. Usually I advise people who are thinking about it to start with a Master's degree and see if that satiates them.

VUBOQ: My path was pretty focused. As I said, though, I think that is also tied to a certain lack of imagination on my part.

Cooper: I feel like there is a lot that I don't know when I read other people's blogs (like yours, for example).

Audrey: Hail, Amazon Sister! Tell me your story.

Earl: Not writing "an historian" is the first thing that they teach you when you go away to history school.

Rebekah said...

"So, from middle school through high school, I projected a future as a history teacher at the secondary level. In some ways, I just didn’t have much imagination or I loved consistency."

Okay mister, are you saying that those of us who become Middle school teachers lack imagination?


I see how it is.

Senath said...

As an English major, I must ask:

Is it really incorrect to use "an" before a noun that begins with an "h"? I always thought it was kind of cool, especially when done by people of French descent, like in New Orleans.

Of course, Ann Rice does the "an before a h" thing, and I usually try to do the opposite of what Ann Rice does.

GayProf said...

Rebekah: Well, did you never think of any other profession (even in fantasy)? My point wasn't about middle-school to high school teachers. Rather, it was about my own non-interesting trajectory to history prof (I just kept adjusting the teaching level based on where I personally was at the time).

Senath: I can't give a call on the exact rule, but I don't think that I have ever seen "an historian" written in formal publications.

Will said...

I'm a wee bit older than you, and I wore out my copy of Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember." When more and more became known about the sinking, i would make little notes in the back of the book to update it.

Lord, for instance, never knew the ship had broken apart while still partially on the surface--although at one point he recounts what survivors described the rear half of the ship doing at the moment the catastrophic fracture must have happened.

See, I'm doing it again, and because I am so fascinated to this day by the whole story, I refused absolutely to have anything to do with the Leonardo di Caprio mess that made it onto the big screen. I did, however visit the Molly Brown house with Fritz when we were in Denver; and my design for the Titanic scene in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" kicked major ass!

You are SUCH a pleasure to read!

Sarah said...

I was going to add my vote to this topic...good thing enough of "the people" beat me to it and I got my wish!

I'm applying to grad school for fall of '08, and I seem to be having the same kid-in-candy-store syndrome as dykewife. I also have anxiety about my interests being too "personal" (ie, I'm more interested in topics close to my experience than straight white male perspectives). You've assuaged the anxiety, briefly. Thanks. :)

PS Belated congrats on the new job. Big Midwestern University wouldn't happen to be in a Hip Midwestern Town in a state that may or may not be shaped like a mitten, would it?

GayProf said...

Will: I had to have read A Night to Remember multiple times. He also had another book, The Night Lives On.

Sarah: It's my feeling that if you aren't personally invested in your graduate topic that you will never make it through grad school.

Sarah said...

That would be a rational viewpoint, wouldn't it? I try to remain rational. Usually it prevails, too.

Marius said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing this with your readers. You seem to have a lot in common with Linda Chavez. I think the Hispanic culture and history in the American Southwest is very complex. I assume you're talking about recent (i.e., within the last few decades) immigrants from Mexico.

I'm more familiar with Texas history, where Spaniards (or Creoles), Mestizos, and Amerindians of Texas have often been called Tejanos or Texians. Recent arrivals from Mexico (and their American born children) are culturally very different. I also think it’s interesting that many people who study Mexican American history tend to forget about Sephardic people and their contributions to Northern Mexico.