There Will Always be Historians, Right?

Monica F. Jacobe

“There will always be historians, right?” asked one of my colleagues from history recently over lunch.  For her, this was a rhetorical question not needing an answer, as it was connected to a wonderful story she told about her honors course for senior majors, but it is a question that needs answering in a slightly modified form.  My version of this question is “How do we get to be historians, literary scholars, sociologists, etc.?”

My colleague’s story is a useful illustration.  Several of her students attended a lecture on campus about Spanish fascism, and when the speaker referenced several of the scholars covered in her course, she looked back at them to see joy and shock on their faces.  Some days later with a forkful of quiche in hand, she talked about their innate passion for the discipline and deep engagement with the questions of the field.  These factors are certainly part of what helps move an undergraduate student toward scholarship in a particular field, but I also think that my colleague underestimated her role as mentor for these students.

Yes, those high-achieving students had to apply to get into this special seminar, so they did self-select into an undergraduate course in historiography to get a firm foundation in the methods of historical research.  But how did they get to that lecture?  Their course is not on Spanish fascism, and they weren’t required to go.  It was at the suggestion of their professor, and opening these kinds of doors for students in their educational process is just as important as their own ability to walk through the door for themselves.  This, too, then is part of mentoring.

The other factor here that my colleague may not yet have realized the impact of is the selection of readings for her class.  When we as teachers align a certain set of texts for students in a class, we are labeling them important.  That labeling is a kind of mentoring, saying to students “You need to know this; pay attention.”  I will never forget the class where one of my undergraduate faculty told me how important Fred Hobson’s work has been to the study of Southern literature.  Why?  Because I still read and draw on Hobson today, as I did in my undergraduate senior seminar course and my doctoral dissertation.  Without that mentoring, that help sorting the cacophony of voices on a subject, no amount of passion can be adequately focused, even by a driven undergraduate. 

That last claim may be one that many of you initially object to, but let me explain by going back to those history students who may one day become historians.  My colleague saw joy and shock.  Why were these students shocked and joyful?  Yes, because what they had read was being re-inscribed as significant by this scholar who was not their teacher in a subject they weren’t necessarily studying.  More than that, though, I’ll bet that these students were raising their own objections and affirmations of this speaker’s argument and were happy to feel like they could and should be “thinking back to” a real scholar and joining the conversation about history.  They felt authorized—specifically because their professor had given them the authority they needed to see themselves as more than just learners but also as creators of knowledge.  That seems to me to be the heart and soul of mentoring.  Yes, students need passion and intelligence, but without a mentor to help open many of the doors and windows, students are less likely to apply those innate abilities to the knowledge production of a particular field.  For example, I would have found Fred Hobson eventually on the path to a doctorate in Southern literature, but without finding him so early in my academic career, would I have taken this path?  Inspiration comes from input, and giving students the right kind of input is mentoring.

So, yes, I think there will always be historians, provided there will always be mentors helping students who may already read the world with the eyes of a historian understand what they are looking at and how to talk about it.

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