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.