Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Some autobiographical wandering

Posted by Gerald on June 7, 2007

I’ve backed into a lot of the decisions in my life.  This is why I’ve come to distrust long-term plans.  Even when I was a kid I just assumed I would go to college one day – and I always wanted to.  That is the only one of my long-term goals that ever came to fruition.  When I entered college, my plan was to become a lawyer.  By the time I was a junior, I had decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do.  At that point I cast about and decided I was going to teach high school history.  I was already a history major because I thought that was a good foundation for eventually going to law school, and I just couldn’t see myself getting a degree in “pre-law.”  I also thought that my high school history teachers had had more of a formative influence on me than any of my other teachers, and I wanted to make a difference.

I also decided I would start on the road to that goal by entering graduate school.  What I should have done, if I wanted to pursue that goal, was to study education.  Instead, for reasons I am still not clear on, I decided to get a Masters in History.  I liked my Masters program.  As I came to the end of it I realized I really wasn’t ready to get the teaching job I was still aiming at and I also wanted to go on with my history studies.  I talked to one of my professors and asked him if he thought I had what it took to pursue a doctorate.  He encouraged me to do so, and also suggested I look into the program at the University of Iowa, where he had gotten his doctorate.  I applied to several places.  Luckily for me, my GRE scores were great, because I wouldn’t have gotten in on my previous grades.  I had always been an A-/B+ student.  My grades in grad school were much better – I think because I wasn’t working a full-time job for the first time since leaving high school.  I think it was my GRE’s and my recommendation from an alumni that got me into Iowa.  Certainly, the other places I applied to were not fighting to get me.

My time at Iowa was transformative.  Whatever pretentions I have towards being an intellectual began there.  I also met people there who were so obviously operating on a level beyond mine that I started to also see my limits.  I learned to really love the life of the mind while I was there.  But I still wasn’t as clear in my direction as many others.  Most people pick thier schools based on what they want to study.  I went to the one place that would accept me and then hunted around for the person whose ideas most interested me.  That person, to my lasting suprise, was a dual chaired professor in economics and history.  My undergraduate general economics class had the same effect on me that those classes have on most students – it led me to reject any thought of studying economics.  Dee McCloskey showed me the human, and humane, heart of economic history.  She also introduced me to Iowa’s Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry.  My rhetoric studies there gave me more than anything else I’ve ever gotten in the academic world.

I left Iowa City intending to do a major research trip which would then lead to my finishing up my dissertation.  My parents had graciously allowed me to move back with them while I got all of that started.  A couple of months later I was on my way to Jamaica.  Then the wheels came off the car…

While I was in Jamaica, my mother developed cardiac problems and had an angioplasty.  The trip itself yielded mediocre results, but I did leave having found the records I wanted to examine and having secured an agreement with the Jamaican PRO to microfilm the recoeds I wanted.  Dee found money for me, and the plan was I would return home to live, get the mocrofilmed records sent to me from Jamaica, and then do my analysis, write my dissertation, get shaving endorsements, and pursue my glorious career.

Eleven months later everything had changed.  After six months of one-sided communications from me to Jamaica, I received a letter telling me that the records i wanted were no longer available and they would tell me when that changed.  I was out of money, so I couldn’t go back and deal with this personally … and by then I didn’t want to.  Five years of that dissertation topic had so thoroughly burned me out on it that I didn’t care if the damn thing ever got written.  In addition, during this period my father developed respiratory problems, my mother began the long process that two years later would leave her blind, oh… and our dog died.

Then my dad died.

Again, I backed into a decision.  I took a job teaching history part-time at the community college I had attended back in 1982.  I was hired by the man who I had taken history from, and who was one of the influences that had led me to major in history to begin with.  Much to my suprise, I came to realize that this was where I had been heading all along.  I liked TEACHING college students.  I never liked research, or academic writing.  I was always more interested in thinking and talking about history than I was in writing it.  Community colleges have a sense of mission – the idea of helping people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to college find their way there.  I had always had some peoblems with the class assumptions of the history profession.  Here I found a place to do something I feel is important – where I can use my skills and my passions to make a contribution.

And I backed into it.

Go figure.

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