This past week has been an absolute blur. I gave a paper at a conference on Saturday the 8th, I’m working on creating a visitor studies evaluation for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and my work with the National Council on Public History is hectic as we plan for our 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, which starts on Wednesday, March 19. My formal thesis defense smashed itself on top of these other tasks, taking place this past Tuesday, March 11.
The defense went amazing. It lasted about an hour and a half and it was really more of a conversation than an interrogation. We ended up spending some time towards the end discussing post-graduation life and ways to get parts of my thesis turned into journal articles (more on that in the future). I also got a really good question about how I would interpret the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana in a public history setting, to which I responded with something along the lines of what I discussed in this post about the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and the collective memories of Indianapolis.
I got home from school pretty late that night, around 11PM. Once I got back I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I shed a few tears. It wasn’t a huge blowout sort of cry; just a light moment that acted as a cleanup for my heart in the same way that a person gets an oil change for their car. It felt good. I wasn’t crying because I’m done–I actually still have many edits and a formal format review with the graduate office that still need to be addressed–or because I’m really proud of myself. More than anything it was the fact that I received the approval of a thesis committee that did so much to help me and whose scholarly and personal credentials I stand in awe of. These people took time out of their busy schedules to offer feedback and suggestions for my research while giving me room to make mistakes and find my own way through the process. To have their enthusiastic support meant the world to me, and I don’t take their approval lightly. Beyond these few words it’s hard to convey the sense of gratitude I have for my entire thesis committee and the countless other faculty members at IUPUI who have done so much over the past two years to help me discover the joys of studying history while becoming a critical thinker and engaged citizen in the present.
It is easy for people to construct a picture in their minds of academic scholars as out of touch with the world outside of their ivory tower (or in the case of my professors, the 1970s type building with terrible drinking fountains, windowless offices, and moldy ceilings). While I agree somewhat with Nicholas Kristoff’s calls for some academic writers to move beyond “turgid prose” in their writing and research endeavors, Kristoff goes too far in portraying academics as willfully ignorant of the outside world and perhaps even their classrooms. Academics, in Kristoff’s mind, have relegated themselves to their highly specialized research silos while avoiding the use of social media tools or commentaries on contemporary problems.
In my own experiences I have continually encountered and worked with academics who were the polar opposite of Kristoff’s portrayal. Sure, some disdain social media and blogs, and they all have specialized topics of study that provide fuel for their scholarly endeavors. But almost all of them have also been nothing but supportive of their students’ own scholarly pursuits, and they continually promote their own work in other ways besides monographs and obscure journals. These endeavors include consulting with outside cultural institutions, participating in workshops for k-12 teachers, and in the case of some of them, blogging and tweeting about their research.
I guess the point I’m making is that some of the biggest intellectual heroes in my life are the academics who not only do their own amazing research but also enthusiastically work to help their students in any way possible. Indeed, these academics care greatly about the world around them because they are helping to prepare students for work in that world. Isn’t that one of the reasons people become teachers in the first place? Isn’t the goal of the humanities to make us better humans at the end of the day?
No scholarly writing endeavor can ever be a fully individual effort. While a writer may do all the research and writing, no writer can complete the task of getting their work published without the help of others who offer suggestions, make edits, and ensure that your work is of the highest standard. I am thankful for the help I’ve received and can only hope that I get many opportunities in the future to help people–whether in or out of the classroom–pursue their own journeys in learning.