Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Career as a Historian - Part Eight

Year One of graduate school, particularly the first semester is where the learning curve really reached up and smacked me upside the head. In hindsight, I was not really prepared for graduate school. Everything happens at a much faster pace and everything is more urgent. I didn't necessarily have that sense of urgency. I knew the work would be more in terms of both difficulty and volume, but I wasn't prepared for the mental shift. This will sound strange to a lot of folks, but I actually had to teach myself how to read. When you are in grad school you are often reading 2, 3, or 4 books a week, and that's just for classes. Then throw in all the reading and research required for research papers and you get the idea. You have to abandon the old mindset of cover-to-cover reading for pleasure. You have to develop a system to get the most you can out of a book without having to read every word. This was a huge leap for me, but something I felt I at least started to accomplish in my first semester. You also have to read analytically, rather than just for pure informational purposes. That turned out to be the hardest transition for me, because intellectually I just wasn't there yet.

Starting out as a part-time graduate student with a full-time job probably didn't help either. The job at Glidden was a real, honest-to-God, 40 hour a week (sometimes more) job. I was the primary delivery driver, loading up the company van once or twice a day to deliver to contractors at job sites all over Wilmington. While in the store, I spent much of my time in the back warehouse area either putting recently delivered stock on the shelves or mixing/tinting paint for customers. I enjoyed the job and the guys I worked with were great, but it took my focus somewhat away from my studies, at least for 8 hours each day.

As for school, I registered for two classes in the fall semester. First, I had to take the ubiquitous Historiography and Methodology class that is required of all graduate students in their first semester. Intellectually, I was not prepared for this class. I really didn't understand much of what we were discussing most of the time, but I managed to skate out with a B. Still, I felt that many of my new classmates had their shit together much more so than I did. Years later, that's been proven a false assumption on my part, but I'll get there later. My second class that semester is what really opened my eyes to what grad school was all about. I was back with Dr. Walt Conser taking Religion in Antebellum America. I was stoked about this class because I had done so well the previous semester in his Religion in Early America class. But that was an undergraduate class, and this was a totally different ballgame. The reading and discussions were intense and very intellectual. The research project that was required had an expectation of professionalism attached to it. I'd never done such work as an undergrad. I admittedly struggled through this class even though I enjoyed the subject matter. I was very seriously worried that I'd get a C, which is really the equivalent of an F in grad school, and would probably signal the end of my career since I was on probation and required to maintain a B average. I remember sitting outside the department office worrying about whether or not I'd come back for another semester. In the end, I got the B that I needed (I'm still not sure how) and a great sense of relief to go along with it. I had survived my probationary semester.

This opened another door for me as I was now able to apply for a teaching assistantship in the department. This would allow me to give up my full-time job at Glidden and really start focusing on the studies. I was awarded an assistantship for the spring semester, working for Dr. David LaVere. He was teaching two sections of US History I, my favorite area. I loved working for him and felt that I had finally found my place. I was working FOR a professor and working WITH students. It was great!

I also had to start thinking about what my focus area would be and what I would write my thesis on. I went into grad school with the idea of focusing on colonial and revolutionary America. I liked Alan Watson a great deal and really wanted to work with him. I proposed some research topic to him in a casual conversation (I don't even remember what it was) and he sort of shot it down. He was very pragmatic about the whole thing, telling me that in order to research that topic I would be required to travel to research libraries and repositories in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states, which would make the whole thing very difficult. He suggested thinking of a more local or regional topic. My future path changed my plans and I never revisited this idea (kind of ironic considering the amount of time I spend working with colonial sites in NC and how much more 18th century reenacting I am currently doing).

My second semester I took Mark Spaulding for a seminar in 20th Century Europe. American specialists (which I was) were required to take one non-American seminar. Since I had been through three classes with Spaulding as an undergrad this looked like a good opportunity. This was a cross-listed undergrad/grad course. In these types of courses grad students were to be given extra work in order to bring the class up a level. There were two other grad students in the class with me, and at the end of the first class meeting we approached Dr. Spaulding to ask what our extra assignments would consist of. His answer, "I don't expect more work from my grad students, just better work." We thought we were in serious trouble, but as it turns out I fairly easily managed an A in that seminar.

My other class that semester was my introduction to the field of Public History (yes, this is where it all started). Again, it was a cross-listed undergrad/grad course (we had lots of those in that day and time). The topic was Community Studies; it was basically a class on how to do local history. It was taught by a Visiting Assistant Professor, Dr. Meg Mulrooney. It was a great class, and I absolutely loved it! Aside from doing individual projects, we also had to a class project. For my individual project, I did an oral history interview with a woman at my church who was a school librarian during the tense days of school desegregation in Wilmington. Our class project consisted of a study of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot and the end result was the publication of an African-American Heritage walking tour brochure. Each of us was assigned a site to research and do a short write up for the brochure and the university published it. There was so much involved in this class, its hard to describe it all. Aside from our project work, we had regular readings, guest speakers, and field trips to local repositories, government offices, etc. to learn how to research in public documents. It was an excellent experience and the reason I switched my focus from American history to Public History. I started discussing thesis ideas with Dr. Mulrooney that semester, including doing a community history of the Winterpark community in Wilmington. This was one of Wilmington's many "streetcar suburbs" and the neighborhood where my church was located. The potential for a community history, involving oral history was excellent.

Though I got an A in Dr. Mulrooney's class, my Winterpark thesis idea crashed and burned when she was not invited back. It seems that poking around in the subject area of the 1898 riot so close to its centennial provoked a political backlash. Lots of old Wilmingtonians didn't like us portraying their ancestors as racists and perpetrators of violence, even if the evidence clearly suggested that's exactly what happened. If memory serves correctly, the department wanted to bring Dr. Mulrooney back, but were told they could not. She has since moved on to a couple of other universities (currently James Madison U.) and continues to research the 1898 riot. I credit much of my entrance into the field of Public History to Meg Mulrooney, even to this day. In another bit of irony, my colleague Lerae Umfleet researched and wrote a report on the 1898 riot while an employee at the Research Branch of NC Archives and History. She got much the same backlash as did Meg Mulrooney. Lerae's study of the riot will be published in the coming months by the Historic Publications Division of the Department of Cultural Resources. If you want to read the definitive history, I hope you'll pick up a copy!

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Finally! A professor in common. I enjoyed LaVere's class long long ago. History of the American Indian.

And that book on the 1898 riots does sound interesting. I don't recall talking about it much in history classes, but we did cover it in a discussion during one of my film studies classes.