Oh the (In)Humanities!

I initially wanted to avoid a public flaying of the humanities, but I’ve had a few people reach out to me and tell me they found the first blog post to be inspirational. They also expressed so many of my same frustrations. Since I have yet to start law school, I will continue to explain how I started to drift away from the humanities.

Graduate school is a difficult endeavor. Like most, I struggled with adapting to the workload. But by the start of my second year I felt like I had found my footing. I completed my coursework, passed my qualifying exams with distinction, and even obtained some summer funding. Throughout the whole process I felt uneasy. I had to spend so much time in the library and on my own: reading and writing, writing and reading. It got to the point where I would interact with two or three people during my “work” day. Those of you who know me well know that while I can be shy at first, I will never shut up once I start talking to you. It is who I am and who I always will be. But upon arriving home or to a bar with friends I would sometimes feel like I was a different person. This person had just spent the bulk of his day reading about people from Russia, Europe or some other place who had lived and died long ago–not exactly the most uplifting source of conversation, is it? It was difficult to socialize with people without having my work come up. Whenever I had to discuss what I did I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was floating around the room, avoiding ceiling fans and watching myself having these conversations. I knew they were coming, but I couldn’t stop them.

The most sinister part of my grad school experience was applying for major research grants. Writing grant proposals was something that I quite frankly sucked at. (Don’t let the blog fool you, I am horrible at self-promotion.) How does my research fit into US foreign policy objectives? “Is someone from the State Department or the USDA actually going to read a dissertation on peasant agriculture and material culture?” I would ask myself this again and again. The answer? Probably not. And if someone did? Wow, dude, get a life. But you fill yourself with the optimism that maybe you’ll get selected. Then you wait. Grant season usually starts in the fall and ends in the spring, when everyone learns his/her fate. In the meantime, you can’t make any plans. Should I RSVP for my friend’s wedding? What if I get the grant? Some people have to ask much more serious questions, but you get the idea. And, after all the waiting, sometimes you never hear back. Your application, along with those of hundreds of others, has been swallowed by an invisible maw. (I became so disgusted with the whole process that I would just stop reading my emails and go long periods without answering them.) When faced with this crippling defeat you have two choices: you can either endure another summer to tangle with the beast again and hope you prevail, or you can just stop trying. Neither choice comes without repercussions.

When I was younger I liked history because I thought it was a way to bring people together. After all, history is about humans and their lives, right? Judging from my experiences, being a historian actually seems to isolate you from people in the present. During my travels I’ve sat on a lot of planes and met a lot of strange people. They’ve had all sorts of professions, but it was my profession that always seemed to be the strange one. “Why do you want to get a PhD in history? Don’t we know what happened already?” “So do you want to be a teacher or something?” “Can you get a job with that?”

A woman I sat next to once said my job was “weird.” I asked her what she did for a living and she said she was a urologist. We flew in relative silence after that.

Teaching did nothing to alleviate my growing suspicion that I was the object of some sort of cruel joke. It was like I was carrying some sort of marker that told people that they must interact with me in a totally different manner. (Maybe it was the books on actor-network theory?) The 21st century wasn’t helping. Smartphones and the Internet have broken us into pieces. There is a part of us on Facebook, a part on Twitter, and another on Instagram. When I would walk into my classroom it was a veritable hive of activity, but all I could see was people on smartphones. The only sound was fingers on keyboards and screens. Should I say hello? Would they hear me? When I would interact with students there was always a bit of unpleasantness that had to be addressed: that I was not a professor. Universities don’t do a good job of explaining what a teaching assistant actually does and the result is confusion. I would encourage my students to just call me Alex, but this was extremely difficult for them. They would always fall back to Dr. Kirven or Professor Kirven. I, like most teaching assistants, didn’t really want to get into the details of why I wasn’t a professor. What if the students thought I was incompetent? More than anything I didn’t want to discourage them. What if they wanted to be professors someday? Who was I to tell them they shouldn’t try?

Surely things would be less cumbersome outside of the classroom? Not exactly. The most awkward moment happened on a campus bus. As I was walking towards the back, I saw a student of mine. I waved. She quickly looked away. She actually came to me after our next class to apologize. She said she wasn’t used to seeing her teachers outside of class. I told her everything was ok. When I asked her what she had thought her teachers when they weren’t teaching all she could say was “I don’t know…”

And there you have it. There is a dark side to the humanities. Maybe you already knew that. I didn’t.

It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and empty as I journeyed to the train station. As I synchronised my watch with a clock tower I saw that it was already later than I had thought, I must make haste, the shock of this discovery left me unsure of the way, I did not know this city so well, luckily there was a watchman nearby, I walked up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “You want to hear the way from me?”

“Yes”, I said, “as I can not find it myself.” “Give it up, give it up”, he said and he swung around with the momentum of someone who wanted to be alone with his laughter.

–Kafka

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