Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Can My Intellectual Marriage to My Academic Specialization Last?

After my first year as a PhD student, I decided to make nineteenth century Germany my area of specialization.  I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a modern Germanist, but choosing which period of time to concentrate on took me awhile.  A summer spent reading histories on the period while feeling out dissertation topics helped make up my mind and draw me in.  That and the fact that I felt that too much had already been written on 20th century Germany (especially in regards to the Nazis), and I felt like I wouldn't be able to come up with an original scholarly contribution.

I guess it was my contrary nature to not want to study the one topic that people who aren't historians of Germany actually care about (just look at the German history section at any book store), and it certainly didn't help me find a job or land a book contract.  I loved it nonetheless, and wrote a dissertation and published three journal articles on the subject.  Despite those heavy investments in the field, I feel as if I have become estranged from my old identity as a historian, and wonder whether I might be headed for a divorce.

Some of this has to do with the fact that in the five years I spent as a professor, I was never really allowed to practice my chosen specialty.  The first two years, when I taught as a "visitor" at Frontier University (names have been altered, of course), I was tasked with teaching a Western Civ survey, World History survey, and a course on Europe after 1945.  While I particularly enjoyed the latter course, it meant never being able to share my expertise on the nineteenth century.  When I finally landed a tenure-track job, I was forced to teach more American history surveys than any other class.  I did get to teach the occasional survey on nineteenth century Europe, but much of my brain energy was being spent trying to make my American history lectures credible.

I also started getting disheartened with the lack of opportunities afforded by my speciality, especially when it came to getting a book contract.  (Of course, a lot of this was down to the bad job market and the fact that I was not the best candidate out there.)  I started developing research interests tangential to and even totally unrelated to my old speciality, figuring they offered more enjoyment and opportunity.

The real blow to my intellectual marriage, of course, came when I jettisoned academia for my current position as a private school teacher.  I do love my job, but at the end of an exhausting day, I lack the necessary energy to do my scholarly work.  The amount of stamina and effort required for a day of high school teaching makes even my old 4/4 load look pitifully easy.  (Since summer, when I wrote almost a whole chapter of my current book project, I have written maybe two pages.)  After my hour-long commute home, I mostly want to talk with my wife, cuddle my babies, and enjoy a cocktail while watching a baseball game.  In any case, I no longer have the chance to get the necessary grants to travel overseas to do research, so the point is moot, anyway.  The fact that my publisher dumped me right before this job started made it easier to write off my old project and my old field.  When I attended the German Studies Association conference last fall, it felt like a good-bye tour.

This meant that last year, for the first time in a decade, I did not stay up on new publications in nineteenth century German history, except for those by friends.  I spent my free time this summer writing a book related to America in the 1970s, and didn't really bother with German history at all.  My old specialization and I were not yet divorced, but definitely separated.

Old flames are hard to forget, though.  Last week I finally picked up a recent critical biography of Bismarck that I had been meaning to read.  Seeing familiar names and historiographical debates on the page took me back to the year I spent in cave-like archives in Germany and to the endless hours in coffee shops spent with stacks of books with words like Buergertum in their titles.  As much as I would like to shake it and start over again, my interest in the topic won't go away.  Now I am even thinking about conjuring old fascinations from the grave in the form of conference papers and journal articles.  Perhaps it won't last, and perhaps this is just the intellectual equivalent of break-up sex, but it feels good to care about something that I have been falsely trying to force myself not to care about.

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