I’m no good at broad retrospectives. I tend to become a bit sentimental, and let my emotions get the best of me. So, for me, answering how I’ve changed and what I’ve learned over the past year is actually a fairly difficult question. I learned; I thought; I changed.
I suppose I’ve had a similar experience to other students who have come here—I arrived with an ideal in mind of what I would achieve quickly realized I knew nothing despaired of ever learning anything, and now am buoyed up by the thought that maybe some part of me will prove worthwhile if I work harder than I’ve ever worked for anything. We’ll see about that. I’m not convinced yet, but we’ll see.
I have learned a lot about teaching that I never knew before. My experience has always been with primary and secondary students in a museum classroom, so being a teaching assistant was completely new to me. I have seen so many different ways to structure and conduct a class that I had never been exposed to before. Perhaps most importantly, I thought critically about the ways I saw classes being taught. I noticed what students responded to and why, and started slowly building an arsenal of techniques that seem to work. I’ve started hoarding syllabi and ideas, despite the fact that I don’t plan to teach. I think that knowing how to organize and engage a class is important anyway, and I’ve started to learn more about that. No matter where I end up, this has been an important thing to learn.
I have learned a lot about reading in ways I never knew possible. I came here with mixed experience, having been both a history and English undergrad. It was difficult to transition from close-reading to the how-can-I-possibly-read-all-this-in-three-days reading I need to do in order to complete my assignments. I don’t think this style of reading is bad—it’s just different. It develops different skills and makes my brain work in different ways. I like that.
I have learned that I miss people. I missed spending my January and February teaching preschoolers about farming and shapes and patterns; I missed helping to launch field trips for excited fourth graders who learned about American history in their books but got to see it come to life; I missed helping adults experience something new about a topic they’ve known their whole lives. Heck, I even missed sitting through interminably long meetings where it seems you get nothing done. I missed connecting with people, and connecting them to history. I did not miss that weird school lunch smell that always seems to emanate from lunch boxes no matter how new or fresh they are and somehow always involves the aroma of somewhat off bologna…thinking about that still makes me a bit queasy.
And so all this to say that I’ve come to realize three main things about me and my experiences attempting to become a historian. First, it takes a lot of thinking. Not just perfunctory thinking, but elbow-deep-in-the-mire thinking where you need every bit of brain-strength you have to get from one point to another. I’ve learned to ask better questions of others, of myself, of sources. I’ve learned that it’s ok to ask questions of established historians, as long as you can substantiate the reason you’re asking. I’ve learned that, really, there’s no point unless you’re going to ask questions. This critical thinking is requisite. You can’t just proceed with the way of thinking you’ve always done and that has always served you well. You need to be open to new ways of approaching sources and situations, open to being taught new ways of analysis. Maybe you don’t enjoy them, but you have to acknowledge that they have a use and a place. Second, I’ve started thinking more thematically, for lack of a better word. I’ve started thinking in a way that always involves a mystery—there’s always a question, and always evidence that helps to support or refute what I think is the answer. Instead of focusing on details, this has led me to start collecting the details into a greater whole which, you guessed it, requires even more thinking. Finally, all of this combines to make me believe that there is no point at which any one person becomes a historian. I think it is an ongoing process of development through the years that requires constant work, attention, and thinking.
I have learned that there’s way too much for me to ever know, but that I need to keep trying. And, whenever I get bummed, I return to the lyrical genius of MGMT: “Yeah it’s overwhelming but what else can we do…get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?” I’d rather try and learn, yet never know than to have never tried at all.