What’s Left for History?

Kendyl Harmeling, Writing Consultant 

In reflecting on this past semester, my first as an English student and as a graduate student, all I’ve learned, all I’ve taken in and digested, I find myself sorely missing the field of my Bachelor’s degree: I miss History; I miss reading ancient works; I miss talking about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; I miss it all, the whole lot of it. I changed disciplines between undergrad and grad because of my passion for Writing Center studies, so I left my history studies…in history (cheesy, I know).

My academic voice as a historian was pronounced, articulate, and confident. Being able to synthesize ethics and past events was my favorite part of writing theory for that discipline. But, I often felt out of touch with modernity in writing History. As such, Historical theory is debated around the idea of the present age—do we study history to learn or do we study it to better off ourselves today. I loved this question. It’s one of the unanswerables. I had a professor once tell me that the purpose of research is finding the question you can spend you life trying to answer. At this time last year, I thought I’d be at Yale studying for my PhD in Early American Feminist Rhetoric, and reading Captivity Narratives from 1660 and trying to understand the mechanisms of society which both bolstered and limited female agency in the church. Instead, I’m in a Master’s program in Kentucky, attempting still to learn the mechanisms of English Studies and trying to make myself as a scholar fit into that mold.

I started this reflection in my childhood home. Sitting on my couch, next to my wood burning stove, and thinking about the decisions I’ve made in the past year which have put me in this spot today. I’m writing it now in my studio apartment, sitting in bed, under 14 foot high ceilings and heavy wooden doors hanging off-kilter in their frames. I so miss History, but English is a new language to learn – or to learn better, and confidently.

One question we were repeatedly asked this semester was, “what is English studies?” and I’m not sure I can answer this question yet. Easily, it could be defined as the study of literature. But, History does this too. English could then be the attempting to understand a society through the written texts of a time, including video, art, etc., but… History does this too. I don’t dare suggest these two fields as the same, because that would be an affront to unique scholarship in both, yet both claim Foucault as a founding theorist, both use Frye, Derrida, textual analyses, and conversation.

Perhaps, then, the difference is that History deals in fact and objectivity. English deals in emotion and subjectivity. But even this delineation is too contrite. I once read a work called, The Myth of Religious Violence: The Roots of Modern Secularism by William Cavanaugh. Of course, the work itself doesn’t apply to this consideration, but in the work, Cavanaugh suggests that it’s impossible to define religion. He writes that drawing lines too tightly leaves out non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, but drawing lines too broadly lets in social structures like Capitalism into “religion.” I suggest English studies as the same: un-pin-point-able. Maybe this is because most of my training as a scholar was done by historical method, but c’est la vie.

Where does this leave me? Again, I’m not sure. For a reflective entry, I find myself knowing what I am not more than knowing what I am. In History, we call this an “ethnically differentiated classification,” where knowing your own identify comes through the “I am not’s” and not through the “I am’s.” In regard to my future in the field, I don’t even know what I’m “not.” Outside of the academic, I joke with my friends that if I was ever to leave the academy, I’d proofread restaurant menus. While certainly not a money-producing vocation, it would be fun. But I have a while between now and doing that proofreading job. So for now, I’m in the academic. Where I love being. It took me a long time when I was a bartender to learn how to make certain drinks, and learning this new field will be the same. And luckily, I know how to make a Manhattan to help get me through that process.

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