Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Real Fright For Halloween? Try Historians Partying.

I know, it seems like two things that just do not go together. It does, however, occasionally happen.

Perhaps I am not being completely clear; for lots of historians, it never happens. For some, it happens so infrequently as to be a real shock to the system. For others, it is a weekly occurrence. No points for guessing which group I'm in with.

Taken by itself, last night's festivities were great. One of our number got the whole thing sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon. Holly is a wonderful human being and a credit to the "drinking crowd" in the department.

As ever, I had to wonder why more people didn't show up when free beer is offered. Moreso because, even if beer is not your thing (as hard as that is for me to understand), it is a big departmental social event when we can come together outside of an official setting and, well, get to know each other as people and not just historical fields of specialization.

At least that's how I view it.

Others cannot seem to take off the historian hat for ten minutes and talk about anything else. It's always "I'm working on this" or "I am presenting that" or "preparing for prelims sucks (which it does)." I work hard, but I am a big believer in the notion of not talking shop after hours.

I understand that there will be a certain amount of this. Hell, it is all of our somewhat inexplicable interest in people and times long gone that brings us together as a group. Then it hit me: is this all that we have in common? Is the only "tie that binds," so to speak, the fact that we all happen to do the same thing for a living?

In many similar situations, I think that this is exactly it. Think of any corporate social event and you'll see what I mean. Strained conversations about the Johnson account or what Ted in Finance did in the copy room or aren't Post-It Notes grand, that sort of thing. This has not always been the case, as it seems that lots of corporate events don't involve as much booze as they once did. There is much less awkward drunken dancing, photocopying of buttocks (among other things) and watching the people who went home with each other avoid the subject on Monday morning.

There was plenty of booze at this thing last night, so that wasn't it.

So, does that make us, the history graduate students, different from other sets of people that work together. Well, yes and no.

No because of what I said before. What ties us together as a group seems to be precious little. But it is that precious little that I think is so interesting and infuriating at the same time.

We all do a job that is not something that most people in the general population care about or know a whole lot about. It is not normal (by many standards) to dedicate eight years of your life to something that pays rather poorly, makes you move all over the country and have regular and sustained contact with college students, an interesting group in and of themselves (I know: I was one). Does this make us special? No. Different, it would seem so.

What I want to know the most about my colleagues is, well, what got them here and do they do anything else than history stuff. The former desire springs more from curiosity than anything else. I was compelled to do this for a living and I want to know what drove others to the same decision. The latter springs from the first in that the "academic personality" is a fascinating phenomenon.

This personality type, such as it is, is a mix of many good and bad things (just like most people, I guess) that make us what we are and how we are percieved by others and ourselves. The admirable things come in the form of dedication to trying to answer some of those big picture questions like "who am I?" and "where did I come from?" It also comes from the notion that, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, we try and enrich those areas of life that make the whole damnable business of existence worth bearing. That is us at our best.

Then there's the bad stuff. The pretension, the elitism, the feelings that what we do is (in the larger scheme of things) not all that important. The embarassingly low pay doesn't help either.

So, where does that leave us? It shows that historians (and a lot of acedemics in general) might seem like a breed apart, like radically different sorts of people than "everyone else." Really, though, we are not. Lots of my colleagues don't like to admit it, but we are just people, trying to make our way through a world that doesn't make sense a lot of the time. We like to pretend that, in some way, we have a better grasp of things and have a deeper understanding of the world as a whole.

We don't, really.

All we do is look at the world with an interesting set of eyes and hopefully shine some light on issues and problems that face us all as we deal with the world around us. Or, to put it another way, historians are people too.

Sometimes we in the field need a reminder of this. Having this reminder in the form of a monumental piss-up doesn't hurt either.

Until you wake up on Ted from Finance's bathroom floor, that is.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Prepare To Be Enthralled... the majestic, the haunting, "Old Turkey Buzzard."

(Thanks to David Letterman for sticking this song in my head for two months. I guarantee you will not be able to stop humming this song).

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rinse, Spin, Ponder

It's interesting the things that you get up to when you are stuck somewhere with nothing to do.

For me this evening, I went to the laundromat and forgot the reading that I had to do tonight. I could have gone to the tavern next door, but that seems too much like fun on a "school night." I already read the paper, parts of which from several days were strewn about the place. So, I bought an overpriced can of pop and surveyed my surroundings.

I have been doing my laundry at this place since I moved to Madison, but I realized that I never just sat there and watched life come and go (at least for the time when my giant slacks were being cleansed of their ickyhood.)

Tonight, it seemed that all of the regular characters were there. People coming in and out from the tavern, checking their laundry, some with drinks in their hands even (making me jealous, those bastards). Couple having a fight over the laundry which seemed to spill over into other aspects of their lives. Serious guy with a laptop who frankly struck me as the sort of guy who would hire a laundry service. Creepy guy in the corner just sort of staring (wait, that was me).

I guess that spending time in a laundromat allows you to, well, observe the lives of the sorts of people who use laundromats. Where I live, that means a lot of students and apartment dwellers who have landlords that don't provide laundry facilities. It also means a lot of homeless people who come in to wash their clothes, often using the bathroom to change. Lastly, it means people who are drawn in by the novelty and (frankly) convienence of a tavern next to a laundry. Even though there is a place in town that is a laundromat that serves drinks, that place is by campus and for jerks.

So, that's the scene as I saw it.

Great, you say, but why are you telling us this?

Well, I got to thinking about the sociocultural dynamics of the laundromat. It is an interesting place in that it brings a cross section of people who don't normally associate with each other in a place where they expose some of their most intimate things and are captive by necessity.

Doesn't it seem that it is the necessities of life that draw disparate individuals together. It can't really be called a community, as there is no sense of unity among the group, anything that can cause group cohesion and the only common thread is that the place has something that all these people seem to need for one reason or another. It is really not a group, but a collection of individuals.

That causes me to question the notion, first proffered by Ancient Greeks like Aristotle, that man is an inherently a social animal. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the Thomist Schoolmen to Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau have confronted this issue. It was only really Rousseau who questioned if society was good for us (he didn't think so, but he had a hard time proving it). In fact, that is one of the central questions of the human condition, namely what is the "atomic" unit of human life, the group or the individual?

I have always very much leaned on the side of the individual, but that is not to say that I think all people should be loners. Some of our associations we choose (family, friends, even work to a certain extent) and others we do not (usually situations where we are under coercion of some sort). In many ways, these situations that we do not choose are of necessity and as I mentioned before, cannot really be considered a group of any kind.

How does this relate to the laundromat? Well, it is really one of these very situations of unchosen association. Some might view that scene as proof of the alienation that all of us who live in supposed urban isolation confront every day. I really don't see it as that.

I see it as proof that the best associations we all have are those that we make the individual choice to form, out of some need. It is one of the features of "commodious living" that we all enjoy (in this country, at least).

I also see it as the vindication of that most elusive right, that right that the Supreme Court has never been able to define - the right to privacy. The best thing I ever heard on this score was actually from a former Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. He defined the right to privacy as the right to be left alone. I could strike up a conversation with any of the "laundromat people," but I choose not to. I respect their right to be left alone and would never think of infringing on it.

There are a lot of situations that I find myself in where people don't respect this right. On the bus, in line anywhere, when I am eating alone outside. I have never understood what drove these people to begin talking to complete strangers. Most of the time, if not all the time, I just wish people would keep their comments to themselves and go about their business and let me do the same.

I feel in these situations, a personal right of mine is being violated. I and I alone choose the people that I associate with and no-one should presume that I want anything to do with them. Don't listen to my conversations, don't comment on my purchases, don't tell me about your grandkids. I don't really care.

Does this make me a cold, aloof and cruel person. To some, perhaps. I happen to think that the nicest people can do for each other is to leave each other alone to pursue their own paths.

Some people like being alone. I have always been one of these people. Maybe the preceeding commentary says more about me than a particular view of the world, but it is worth considering.

All of this because I forgot my book at home. I promise it won't happen again.

If it does happen again, I might tell you, I might not. Up to me really, isn't it?