Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

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Day One (Historic Deerfield Fellowship, Pt. 2)

This was originally posted on Around the Grove, the blog of the Universities at Shady Grove.

Today, I started my fellowship at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts at full speed with a series of tours and talks orientating myself and the five other undergraduate fellows to the museum. I’ve never been to Historic Deerfield before or even this part of Massachusetts, but it’s a huge change of pace from the D.C. suburbs. Things are very quiet and scenic, and we fellows are living in historic houses on the main street that comprises the museum. It’s lined with houses from the 1700s and 1800s and surrounded by small towns and green landscapes.

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For lunch today, we climbed to the top of a local mountain (ironically named Sugarloaf, just like one of our mountains in Maryland) to look out on the landscape below, the Connecticut River Valley. We learned that in Native American folklore, the mountain was made by a beaver deity whose head was decapitated and fell in the middle of a lake. Apparently, from above, the mountain looks like a beaver’s head and body, bordered by the Connecticut River!

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We also had a tour of the museum’s exhibition center and a look behind the scenes at the collection, where we will be doing the bulk of our work during the fellowship, learning how to handle historic objects and learn about the past from them. Then we ended the day with a tour of a tavern from the 1700s, learning about how taverns were one of the important centers of town life and socialization in colonial America.

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We also went on a brief walking tour of the town. As you can imagine, it was pretty hot out, but we learned about the history of the raid of Deerfield in 1704, where French and Native Americans invaded the town and killed and captured people as part of an ongoing war between the French and English settlers and various Native American tribes. This raid is one of the town’s claims to fame, but has been told in a very skewed manner over the years, so we discussed the importance of examining how history is told and representing a variety of points of view.

DSC01111.JPGThe start of a new job in a new place, with new people is admittedly very overwhelming, especially with such a packed schedule, but my motto has become “one hour at a time.” Just take things as they come, don’t look too far ahead and stress too much about the future, because you never know what is coming up ahead, and you’ll get too overwhelmed.

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A few more things I’ve been learning in these overwhelming beginning days: Trust your skills and capabilities. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something, and approach your work and learning humbly. Don’t stress about trying to impress people or be the one who knows everything. And push yourself out of your comfort zone, but also have compassion on yourself; you’re only human and we each have our own things that are tougher to do.

DSC01104.JPGPat yourself on the back for the things you accomplish, big and little, and don’t get hung up over little mistakes, mix-ups and places where you don’t seem as accomplished as others. Be patient with yourself; learning and developing professional skills is a process!

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Other posts in this series:

Summer Kick-Off (Historic Deerfield Fellowship, Pt. 1)

Around Town (Summer Fellowship, Pt. 3)

Trekking Along (Summer Fellowship Pt. 4)