What makes a historian? Is it the degree? The training? Does one become a historian upon the completion of a master’s degree or is the title withheld for those determined enough (or is it crazy enough) to pursue a PhD? I am not sure I know the answer, though I can say that I feel like a historian.
On the surface, I suspect my journey is no different than most: lifelong interest in history changes undeclared to declared; master’s degree follows bachelor’s degree; trained historian seeks dream job; &c. But in actuality, the process has been more complicated than that.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Kansas, I struggled with finding a profession that would suit the person I had become throughout the course of my studies. Surely there is such thing as a historian who has no plans of being trapped within the uncertainty of the academy, yes? I looked at museums and historical sites only to be met with the “minimum requirement: master’s degree or comparable experience” brick wall. So, turning to the “What To Do with a History Degree” handout my generic undergraduate counselor gave me, I went the legal route. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But one legal assistant certification and three years later, I found myself doing clerical work in an office surrounded by lawyers with impeccable shouting abilities, terrified that a simple typo might lose a case for the attorneys I worked for. Unending anxiety was hardly what I had in mind when I hung my history degree on my wall. But that’s okay, I thought, I can still be a historian on the side.
In my spare time, I decided to continue a project that had followed me for most of my life: reading, understanding, and researching the Civil War journal of my third-great grandfather. Coming from a very history-conscious family, genealogy had initiated my interest in history. Most of my childhood memories involve listening to my father, uncle, and grandfather tell tales of our family’s history, stories that had been passed down through generations of individuals who understood the value of preserving the past, whether in oral or written form. Family vacations often included entire days spent within the walls of a museum, journeys to cemeteries for photos and etchings of ancestors’ graves—and even complete strangers’ to research when we got home—trips to Civil War battlefields, or pitstops at the homes of various historical figures. At each destination, I would ponder my own place in the history of the locations I visited. What did it mean to be the 5th cousin 5 times removed of Alonzo H. Cushing, who gave his life on the battlefield at Gettysburg defending his post? Had my midwestern family lived like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his quaint Victorian home in Brunswick, Maine? Did my grandfathers have any sense of the Native Americans they had displaced when they claimed their homestead in southern South Dakota?
All my life I have been a student of the past, but found that there were very few options for me outside of the academic world, with its scholarship held hostage in unaffordable journals and obscured within mostly-inaccessible prose. Sitting in a cubicle two hundred miles away from my alma mater, my access to scholarly materials was limited. Unaware of the growing community of historians on the Internet, I felt out of sync with the current trends, research, and discussions. Working a standard eight-to-five, low-paying job limited my prospects in terms of getaways to archives in search of research material. What do you call a historian with no ability to practice her craft?
In the end, I chose to bail on my career in the land of lawyers and to cast my lot in a place that would allow me to know what being a historian felt like. Cue coursework, colleagues, thousands of dollars worth of books (and student loans), and seminars where I discovered I had overcome my fear of speaking up. It was paradise. As was the discovery that a future employed by a museum or historic site, sharing history with the masses and being a part of people’s vacations and guilty pleasures like so many others had been a part of mine was in the realm of possibilities. Three years and one degree later, I am waiting for my chance to do just that.
So back to the question at hand: what is a historian? Am I? Does one define a historian by her job title or does a historian define herself?
No, I am not a member of the academy—in that it is not my intention to ever seek a PhD en route to a tenured position—but I am an academic. No, I do not plan on becoming a professor, but I will be teaching. And yes, I would love to make a living as a genealogist. Perhaps in some circles that strips me of my historian credentials, but it is the kind of historian I choose to be—a student of history who is not necessarily bound by limits of era or geography; who wants to learn about herself just as much as she does about the citizens of the past. I am a historian whose affiliation is not to some institution I hope will find my work worthy of tenure, but rather to the people who wish to learn of the past. One who intends to create scholarship that is open to said people and includes them in its discussion. One that takes advantage of the technology at her disposal and uses it to do, share, and promote history. To bring together the scholar with the wannabe student, sitting in her cubicle, daydreaming of archival research or the little girl writing her own History of the Civil War in a yellow Fat Lil’ Notebook at home. It is a lofty goal. Wish me luck.