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From the Teaching column in the January 2000 Perspectives

One Historian's Life

Annette Atkins, January 2000

My graduate professors at Indiana University spent a remarkable amount of time with me and with the other graduate students. M. Jeanne Peterson, the British 19th-century social historian, went painstakingly over our papers and Bill Harris, the Afro-Americanist, patiently waited while I struggled in front of him to figure out the thesis of some book or another. Walter Nugent, my dissertation director, and Martin Ridge, then editor of the Journal of American History (and my "boss"), made sure that I learned how to think and then to write historically. Graduate students felt lucky to assist David Pace with his undergraduate survey because he was (and is) such a good teacher. Others worked similarly and didn't seem to mind too much the time that we took from their "real" work. For that was one of the central lessons of graduate training for me—teaching was what you did if you had to, but a good historian lived and breathed archival dust.

I also learned this lesson at professional meetings. Since 1974 I have usually attended two national professional meetings every year. I love going. There is always a big contingent of Indiana University faculty and former graduate students, so I look forward to seeing these people. Other friends, too, from various historical societies and university presses attend regularly so I count on a roommate and several especially companionable meals. Truth be told, I go to the meetings in part for these people and to feed my social soul. I do also love wandering through the exhibits to look at the books advertised in the back of the program that I've carefully marked up on the airplane en route.

I know how hard program committees work to put together a varied and interesting array of papers and I often go to sessions (unlike some people I know who say if it's worth hearing it will be published someplace soon and they'll read it then).

Having said all of this, I also want to say that I nonetheless often feel a little odd and peculiar at these meetings, intimidated, perhaps, or sheepish. By the standards of my academic training I've not "produced" enough. There it is, simply stated and admitted. I go to the meetings and feel not like a "failure," exactly, but nearly. I suspect that I'm not alone. It has to do with the issue of what makes a professional historian a professional historian.

In my home community I'm quite successful (even if I do say so myself). I moved in good time through the ranks of assistant and associate to full professor. I co-directed a multiyear program called "Listening to Women's Voices" (teaching as I do on a men's college campus) and then another faculty development program. I've sat on and chaired various university committees, including three years on our Committee on Rank and Tenure. I had a very satisfying term on the state humanities commission and am currently a loyal board member of the Minnesota Historical Society. The standard teaching load for a full-time faculty member at my university is seven courses per year—three in the fall and spring and one in January. In my department this usually means five preparations. I don't list these various things to brag; but quite the opposite, to say that I think my professional life is pretty "normal" and even less demanding than what some of you face. One historian I know teaches nine courses a year—three each quarter that meet daily for 10 weeks—and his courses include: Historical Methods, State History, World History, American History since 1865, History of the South, 20th-century United States, and History of Russia. (At least all of my courses are in American history.) I also include all of this to point to the disjuncture that I feel when I show up at the professional meetings.

I'm not a "failure" in my job, so why do I feel like one when I cross the threshold of the Hilton and meet the sea of historians with whom I think I should feel the most camaraderie? After all, we've all selected a profession that reflects our common interests but is not particularly well rewarded (some of our students start jobs the day after graduation at which they're paid more than we are after 20 years and with a PhD in hand). We also all witness for a set of common intellectual values not commonly held in our society (contemplation rather than action, in sum) and we all are routinely categorized as living in an "ivory tower" implying that what we do has no real value.

But I don't feel "at home," because my life is predominantly a teaching life in a profession that defines itself primarily by research and writing. When I've done research and writing I've simply had to take time off from my teaching—sabbaticals and leaves of absence. I can do a book review while teaching and I've tried various "tricks" of locking myself in—and students and colleagues out of—my office for an hour every day to get "something" done. Nonetheless, despite having gotten some writing done and published, I simply do not turn out as much as I feel I "ought." So, I find myself second guessing, perhaps I just don't have enough discipline or ambition or commitment?

Universities and colleges like mine also wrestle with this problem. We sell ourselves as places where students are at the center of the academic enterprise, where faculty members are available and attentive. Yet, we often feel compelled to evaluate quality by the number of publications. And, we've all been trained in the same academic culture that—whatever the discipline—discounts teaching and prizes research and writing, so we know the overwhelming importance of research and keeping up in the field. Moreover, we all have encountered the tenured faculty member who has apparently not read anything since graduate school and has hidden his waning interest behind recycled lecture notes (though I don't know too many of these, I will admit). So, I certainly do not want to encourage people not to research and write!

What I most often see around me are people who work very hard at their professional lives, but define its contours and express their intellectual passions differently than the public persona of the professional historian. What I also see is that lots of us actually took these jobs not because we didn't get positions at the major research institutions, but because we like them. They allow us to be historians in the way that suits us—and that has enormous value. I get to teach a varied diet of courses, have tried interdisciplinary courses, and team taught a few. I've been allowed to explore fields in which I'm not an "expert" but in which I can read faster than my students. Teaching in our study-abroad program got me to Europe for the first time (and allowed me to go back). I've been stretched and pushed and drawn out of my specialty. I have room to experiment and to expand. Most days I wake up and think that I have the best job in the world—and mean it.

I write this to name what is a powerful issue for me within the historical profession. I recognize that various efforts are being made in different parts of the profession to address the interests of teachers, and I applaud these efforts. I'm not especially even seeking a "solution." I am, however, trying to "come out of the closet" and to help make a bigger, more comfortable space in our profession for people who put their teaching work at the center of their—our—professional lives.