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.

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