Saturday, August 26, 2006

Now and Then

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.


Doug said...

It certainly seems true that historians in any era don't get the credit and thanks they deserve.

Given that, I would like to personally thank you for helping to make sure that history doesn't get [re-]written by the likes of George W. Bush, James Dobson and Katherine Harris.

While it may not seem like you save lives, in the long run, and from a larger perspective, I think you do.

If I ever meet you in person, GayProf, the first hug you get from me will be a hug of gratitude.

GayProf said...

Aaaww – That’s sweet, Doug. I appreciate that. In lieu of the hug, just send liquor.

Larry said...

Well I don't give a damn about history, I just hang around because I think you're hot :)

That statement is only half true, since history and government were the rare classes I actually did well in back when I was in school.

Sometimes I wonder if someone is out there chronicling the history of the blogosphere...

Frank said...

Slight tangent, and far be it from me to question George Santayana, but I've come to think that the whole, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it" thing is, at best, problematic, and, at worst, pure propaganda to make high school history teachers feel better about themselves. I mean, even when people DO know history, they always seem to "repeat" it anyway. We humans are good at ignoring stuff we don't want to see/hear/read. Plus, if, as you historians are always saying, our understanding of the past is constantly changing, how can we really "know" it? How can we "know" anything about anything, truly, unless we're right there? (This treads dangerously into solipsism. Sorry.) So if we can't really "know" "history" how on earth can we NOT "repeat" it?

And I think the "repeat" thing is a little over-doing it, too. The only thing that repeats are broad themes; but, as in literature, a repeating theme (adultery, say) doesn't equal a repeating narrative (Madame Bovary and The Awakening, say, though very similar in many ways, are two different books about unhappy women who have an affair and then kill themselves). But, then, I guess anyone who's serious about history would dispute that; ours isn't a cyclical universe. JFK doesn't get shot over and over again. It's all a matter of analogies, I guess. The Great Depression can never happen again, but an analogous event sure can.

And... I have no idea what the overall point of this comment actually is. I just wanted to vent my spleen/ramble on about that saying. Sorry for all the scare quotes and for, possibly, poo-pooing all over your field, GayProf. Truly, I believe we SHOULD know history and learn from it. I'm a history buff myself. And we should give history and its handmaidens more respect. (We should give literature more respect, too, but that's just my English major talking. *LOL*)

Anonymous said...

Given how little many twenty-first century Americans can be bothered to give a damn about history or historic preservation, I think your services are very valuable indeed (and then there's what Doug says).

And don't worry so much about the community. Frankly, the only good thing I could have done for the "community" I grew up in was to detonate an atomic bomb at its core.

Anyway...if you still worry, think of what I hope to do with my life. You do actual history, I just dredge up dirty anecdotes about long-dead kings, queens, and dukes :).

r said...

So, what are you saying? I shouldn't leave my lucrative position telling 13-year-old boys to pull up their pants, for the wonderful world of a Ph.D and teaching at the college level?

(I know, make it all about me...)

Literature professors make less than history professors?

Man. They always fuck you in the drive thru.

Castle of Stink said...

As another professor on the low end of the pay school (I teach theatre), I find myself in a pickle with the community thing. I teach in a rural area, so my chance to bring my specific talent into the community is community theatre.

The chair who hired me said we should not work in community theatre unless they were paying us equivalent to what we were paid for the same job we did for the university. Our current chair disagrees with that concept, so now I'm directing community theatre.

Still, they don't get the best parts. I can't create the kind of show I would as a professional that would demand a more committed and talented cast. Besides, these people are here to have fun.

And now a professor in our department quit, so I am now teaching FIVE classes (though I do get paid for the overload). But with the outside obligation...

Sigh... yes, it's a cushy job most of the time, but it's one of those semesters where I'll be lucky to be home for ten hours a day...

Wish I were in Boston, too...

dykewife said...

"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."

well, for me, it's good to know that there are people like you to keep people like your (not your's specificially, but the country's) gw bush, and our (not specifically ours, but the country's) steven harper, from settling into that comfortable zone of of thinking the past is all white, middle- and upper-middle class, male only. your contributions shake their comfortable little domains and make them stare uncomfortably at their microphones and stumble on their words.

so, rejoice in your utilitarianist job. it is your duty, nay, your sacred obligation, to remind people like the neo-conservative conservative christian right wing-ers that the world wasn't built by their ancestors alone, and that the building of the current north america destroyed some very complex societies.

i could go on this for a while. needless to say, though your job may seem ivory tower to you, to me (being a lesbian and female - i know they go hand in hand, so to speak), or to a First Nation's person, or decendant of the slaves, it's a very real and beneficial thing you do.

so there you go. some worship from afar, and no, i won't send booze. it'd be confiscated at the border as a possible security threat.

tornwordo said...

At the animal shelter! That's where I'd volunteer anyway. And I thought that teaching served society by enriching the mental capacities of others. That's what I tell myself, lol.

And you did paraphrase my thoughts perfectly.

GayProf said...

Larry: Fear not. I am sure many dissertations are being typed about the blogosphere even at this moment.

Frank: I feel what you are putting down. History does not repeat itself. Every historical circumstance is defined by the specifics of that moment. Historians make terrible predictors of the future. Cassandra we are not.

Chad: Dirty stories about old queens is not that far from what I am interested in history...

Rebekah: Sorry, but literature folk are the most numerous in the academic world. Moreover (as far as I can tell), universities are putting more and more pressure on literature departments to simply teach the mechanics of writing rather than actual literary analysis.

Castle of Stink: I wish you were in Boston as well.

DykeWife: Poor Canada: So far from God, so close to the United States. In lieu of liquor, send quality chocolate.

Torn: Well, there seem to be some volunteer opportunities at the aquarium. That might be an option, as long as I don't have to get wet.

northernlad said...

when are they gonna do a wonder woman movie?!?!?

i still watch reruns of the tv show - so camp :)

great blog site - i just love it
keep up the great work!

northernlad ***
:)))) gay & proud ****

Adam said...

Be a bartender.

Lorraine said...

Historians rock. They don't have any money, but they rock.

And the bartender idea is a good one. Probably not what you meant, but a good one.

Anonymous said...

For the history teacher:

It took me about a dozen tries to answer all 8 questions, but it was well-worth it!!

I'd love to be his teacher's pet ;


Anonymous said...

Hi gayprof,

Great post. As a former archaeologist, future nurse, I can relate especially to the part regarding how history (or other humanities/social sciences) have a less direct effect on societial needs like healing the sick. People ask me why I switched tracks and I often joke "Living people are more interesting than dead people".

Anyways, I responded to a history-themed post over on "Screw bronze! on Nellie McClung and the eugenics laws of the last century. If you'd care to respond, I'd be interested in your opinion.

I was going for "Every historical circumstance is defined by the specifics of that moment" (which took me 3 paragraphs, you one line--aren't you glad you don't have to mark my term papers!)... I don't know if it came through or not.


Anonymous said...

Volunteer, Schmollunteer. Who sez life has to be imbued with deep, meaningful...well, meaning. Working stiffs like myself are just glad to get through a workday with enough energy to lift a glass or two of refreshing alcohol to our lips. Then collapse into bed to do it all over again tomorrow. I say relax and enjoy life. Be glad you're not teaching (shudder) music theory and composition! Now THERE'S a waste of time and money! I know, I once spent a semester studying same. Recently I was driving across campus near downtown and spotted a young man with a trombone case. I rolled down the window and screamed at him "Get a real estate license!"

Dorian said...

Low-pay and angst come with a doctorate? You're trying to keep me from applying to grad school, aren't you?

Oso Raro said...

Thanks, girl, for the shout out! Although this post has us concerned. Job satisfaction? Honey, what are you *smoking* out there? Or is it the effect that annoucing you're an intellectual has on on the lithe and rugged types at the bar? (Typically with me it's been glazed eyes, but I digress)

Me thinks one can find equilibrium when one is on fellowship year, which is honourable and well-deserved. But let's not get too crazy here. Keep it real, girl! If you need a Jean Naté splash, just think about Texas U. That should interrrupt your sexual-historical drama scenes with you as Betsy Ross and Mr. Right Now as George Washington (and any number of other suitors playing the entire raft of Constitution signators, if the rumours I hear are true).

As for historicans, and other intellectuals in general, being social parasites, well, I think we fulfill several crucial, vital socio-cultural roles: we educate the young and ignorant, we entertain the young and ignorant, and form one level of conscience (and consciousness) in a society loathe to remember what it had for breakfast, much less History with a capital H.

Sure, in comparison I suppose to digging ditches, we have it easy(er). But let's keep things in perspective. Teaching and research is hard, thankless work. Sparkling as the fabulous diamonds we are requires constant work (not to mention thousands of years in school), just to be rewarded with some extra free time during the week and a miserable salary. So, for the scraps from the table of Mammon, I think we make out just OK, considering without us time would stop and the world would end.

Stay fresh, girl! Why not try volunteeing at the local gay watering hole, as a taster? :-))

Oso Raro said...

BTW, "historicans" (above) was a typo but I like it, it sounds technocratic and capable, as if we were trained to operate a nuclear power station as well as wield books and ideas, which I would probably argue is roughly equivalent, metaphorically wise.

Oh, and send some of that happy satisfaction smoking drug out here to Cold City. In exchange, I promise to make you a delicious succotash when we finally land in the same place (or at the very least a Double Cheeseburger from MacDo's).

GayProf said...

Cooper: That's pretty much how I teach my classes. Is that unusual?

Oso: Right now, I am high on life -- and maybe Xanax.

Elizabeth McClung said...

My first thought was that Historians, particularly those who lasted post Augustus were toady suck-ups who altered events as neccessary (except when they wrote thier own history ala Ceasar). Amazingly that seems to resemble some aspects of american publishing.

So, you have a couple choices: 1) try to find an even more indefensable academic career choice like literature with a focus on 19th century tales about demonic apes or perhaps even philosophy. 2) Start writing your own suck-up/self grandizement book like the twerp over at Harvard on Manliness (you can call yours, "Superduper Manliness"). 3) continue doing a rather thankless task of moving the collective understanding two inches to the left which might include acknowledging things like "America has had other people than whites" or "Women did things" and other radical ideas.

Names said...

well, my friends and I are starting to plan next years LGBT film festival. If you are looking for something to fill your time let me know.

Artistic Soul said...

I'm with you on the parents "kind of" knowing what you do. They gave up when I tried to explain queer theory. :) Great post though - it is interesting how universities pay their professors based on what they think is "more important" or who can "get more money if they go corporate" which is really kind of a load of BS if you ask me.