Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Beginning Again

Posted by Gerald on February 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking about some things for the last several months and I’ve come to a decision.  Despite some rather public protestations to the contrary – some made within the last 24 hours – I’m not really wholly satisfied with my career choices.  I’m content with where I am in terms of my job.  I like teaching and I feel I have something important to contribute here at a community college to students who otherwise might never see a four-year institution.  Also, frankly, I am in my 40s and like the idea of a steady paycheck, health insurance, and a pension in the unlikely event that I live long enough to retire.  I don’t want to change jobs.

The thing is – I think I can, and should, do more.

I’ve said that I didn’t really like doing research or writing history.  I’m not too sure that is true.  I think my problem was that I didn’t like WHAT I was researching.  After I got to Iowa I made the last of a series of mistakes and I think that might have derailed my entire career.  As I think I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I backed into a lot of the decisions I made in my academic career.  I didn’t really understand what I was getting into when I headed for my doctoral program in Iowa.  I hadn’t made any choices about who I wanted to study with or what I wanted to study.  Because I had taken a lot of British history, I focused on British history.  My Master’s Essay – a product of a similar lack of planning – had dealt with the empire, so I focused on Imperial studies.  This brought me to Jeff Cox.  He did quite well by me given my lack of real focus and I owe him more than i can say for teaching me how to actually write.  Jeff also first brought me into the orbit of the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry – a group whose work really shaped everything since for me.  I then met my dissertation advisor, Dee McCloskey.  Dee helped me move deeper into my rhetoric studies and has been my personal icon for humane scholarship.  I’ve never understood what she saw in me, but she was unstinting in her support for me.  Even when immersed in huge personal difficulties, she was still there with guidance for her students – including me.

The problem is that Dee is a British economic historian.  In moving into her orbit, I tried to combine British history, economic history, and imperial history.  I came up with a dissertation topic that fit all of those things.

And hit a blank wall.

I didn’t realize it.  I came up with ideas and approaches, but I couldn’t envision what the finished product would look like.  I kept trying to forge ahead and assured everyone – and especially myself – that I could do this but I also was secretly thinking “I don’t know what I am supposed to do!”.  Although I had learned to act like an economic historian, of sorts, I never really was one and I now believe I never should have tried.  I’ve never had a passion for this field, just an appreciation for what it could do.  I asked various people for input and tried to follow their suggestions, but without any real success.  As time passed I became more disenchanted with it, but I kept slamming my head into that wall.

Finally, in 1997 I blew what remaining money I had on a big research trip in hopes of jump-starting the process.  For reasons that I’ve discussed elsewhere that didn’t really work.  Then the rollercoaster ride began – Dad died, Mom’s health went sour, I became a part-time instructor and a full-time care-giver.  Then Mom died and a year later I got a full-time job.  The last two years I’ve been settling into that role.

What I’ve come to realize is that I miss doing research and writing.  I think i might have things to contribute even lacking my PhD.  The thing is that I don’t think they have anything to do with economic or imperial history.  I decided to try for my doctorate after taking a graduate course on the French Revolution at UNCG.  It wasn’t the study of French history so much as the topic of my final paper in there that lit my interest.  I wrote on an idea called the theory of political languages and how that could be used to understand the Revolution.  That was the writing sample I sent to Iowa with my application.  While in Iowa I was entranced by the work on rhetoric and with my studies with POROI.  I didn’t finish my doctorate, but I did finish a certificate in the Rhetoric of Inquiry.  I loved the study of ideas and their expression in language and what that tells us about the people involved.  I am fascinated by how language creates communities and how it both defines and is defined by our thought.

I think that is what I need to do.  I need to get back to that.  I’m dropping back to some of my first interests – Bernard Bailyn and David Brion Davis among others.  Political and cultural speech in the English-speaking Atlantic world of the early modern period is where I’m starting.  I’m going to re-explore some of what I’ve already studied and then try to broaden out into new areas.  Along the way I hope to find avenues of research so that I can try to contribute to history.

I feel like I’m starting grad school again – but without the school part.

I’ve got to be realistic here.  I have a heavy course load by four-year standards, no real institutional support at all (no journals, minimal access to non-public-access on-line material, no real library resources, no sabbaticals or teaching reductions, and no willing grad student serfs), and I’ve never worked or written fast at the best of times.  Still, I can try.

Some of you folks who read this are working in academia.  I’ve been away from heavy involvement in journals and conferences for a long time.  I’m trying to get back on my own, but if you have any ideas about recent monographs or bibliographic suggestions or other thoughts I’d really appreciate them.

Here goes…

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3 Responses to “Beginning Again”

  1. bridgett said

    Oooo! This is good news! I know you like maritime stuff, so you’d probably like to read Lineabaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra or maybe even Rediker’s Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. (You probably got exposed to some sidestream “Between the Devil and Deep-Blue Sea”, Rediker’s first book, when you were still at Iowa.) I also think that Chris Brown’s Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism is really good. If you’re looking for colonial American political culture, Bren McConnville’s The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 is a good one.

    It would help if historians wrote better so that their books didn’t feel so much like duty to read.

  2. Gerald said

    Thanks. I do remember “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” I’ll check out these others.

    Yes, academics and impenetrable prose. Of course, here is a conversation we were having many years ago…

  3. Steve said

    These lines: “I loved the study of ideas and their expression in language and what that tells us about the people involved. I am fascinated by how language creates communities and how it both defines and is defined by our thought.”

    Yeah, dude. Rock on. Certainly for me it’s been teaching writing that’s really deepened my appreciation/love of language (of rhetoric). I know my students think I’m crazy when I tell them– with noticeable if manic passion– that I love writing because it is manipulation. I tell them that my sense of manipulation transcends its negative connotations. Writing as manipulation speaks us to a state of linguistic play that touches the very essence of communication, of human exchange.

    At the core language is not a static tool but most alive thing!

    Yeah. I feel you, man.

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