Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Waving my History Degree in Your Face

Waving my History Degree in Your Face
J. Lannan

Yesterday someone inquired at to why I was working towards another Bachelor’s Degree and what I planned on doing with a degree in Creative Writing. The answer should be obvious. I need a piece of paper that tells me that I can actually write...that’s how I feel about art degrees. You can create art, but there’s something special about a new piece of parchment to show off. Maybe my first degree just looked lonely on the wall in the office.
A degree in Creative Writing seems only slightly more useful than my previous degree, which was in History. I had big dreams, but somehow I fell out of love with what I was studying. Iranian prison systems are not that romantic. I also bored of having to prove everything that I wrote about and trying to back it up with facts and figures and bibliographies. History is a place where in order to have an opinion it has to be supported by a few other people’s opinions, and it helps if they wrote books or were interviewed on the matter so that there is something to cite in the research. I always toyed with the idea of claiming something completely outrageous about some moment in History just to see if I could find enough research to back it up. With Creative Writing I can make it up as I go, and there’s so very little that I must attribute to anyone else. It is said that, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It’s creative theft. A rhyme scheme here, a twist there and suddenly we’re wearing a coat made from some other artist’s skin. Awkward.
The allure of Creative Writing should be obvious for someone who wanted to put as much flare as possible into their historical research projects, but what is a History degree really good for?

1. Grad School—That seems to be everyone’s plan. “I’m going to teach.” Only so many people can teach because universities can only hire so many people, and even though your research may be your baby, your love, your everything, it may not be someone else’s “everything.” What you find value in is not likely what someone else values, but when you do find someone that shares your interests you either love them, or you’re convinced that one of you is doing something wrong and suddenly it becomes a contention. History is a fickle mistress that leaves you exhausted, with a sore back and wondering if you’re ever going to succeed in appeasing it...but you’re not quite sure what it means to succeed at History.

2. A Masters in BS—Even with a BA in History you should be awarded a MA in BS. It is nearly impossible to complete every assigned reading while working on a History degree—here the similarity between the study of English and History is stunning—so you need to set priorities early. Ask yourself these questions: Do I actually want to read about this subject? How small is the class and therefore how likely am I to be called upon? Does the Prof think that I’m an expert and that I can be singled out on the topic? (And made to look like an idiot when I don’t do the reading?) Can I sneakily read this document during my earlier classes as I’m discussing the other readings?
BS becomes much easier with experience. By the end of my History degree I was BSing things that I did not even know that I could BS—even in a class where a Prof considered me an “expert.” If given proper attention to important facts (such as: time period, location, tone, political affiliation, etc.) you can determine how people will write about certain issues and concurrently guess what they wrote or how it could be interpreted.

3. A Massive Academic Penis— Historians, and, yes, other academics can be blessed with Massive Academic Penis. They always have that smirk as though they know a secret as soon as any debate starts, and then when someone lets their guard down the academic just flops it out there. The reaction may be awe or terror, or begrudging respect, but it is obvious who has won this contest. MAP is not just for show, but can also be used to poke holes in other academics’ research, and if your MAP happens to be big enough some people will thank you for using your clout on them. Writers can also have MAP without any proper training, but theirs manifests more as wit instead of facts, and they usually gain the cockiness after writing something especially clever. MAP does not decrease in size even if you don’t decide to go to grad school, and even if you’re not really using it for the intended purpose it is kind of nice to just take it out and look at it from time to time.... just to make sure that it’s still there and that it functions properly.

4. Research—I can locate and whip through several dozen articles on Vegetarians in “The New Age” magazine in the course of about 2 hours. My familiarity with finding things and people puts me up there with the CIA, but I don’t have any secret prisons and I’d only torture people if they asked nicely. I could probably find Bin Laden with an old episode of MacGyver, some chewing gum, a board with a nail in it, and the right Search Engine. I’d probably need Chuck Norris too, but even Google won't search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don't find Chuck Norris, he finds you.
There are other benefits of research though such as becoming really pale due to never seeing the light of day.

5. Stalking—That’s the bastard child of Research. I never know if I’m going too far, so I need to draw the line somewhere right before “Creepy.” On more than one occasion I’ve had to make that call on “If I tell them that I know this about them, does this make me a weirdo?” Give me a tiny shred of information on someone and I will turn that into “crossing the creepy line” in the matter of minutes.

6. A Strong Back or a Back Injury—From carrying massive amounts of books to and from the library. When the workload becomes physically too heavy of a burden you can pawn it off on your friends and help them get into shape because there’s nothing better than hiking the hills of Athens with two messenger bags of books as added weight.

7. The Fear of Historical Reenactments and Reenactors— Oh sure, reenactments seems like a cool idea at first, but then you realize that reenactors usually have a screw loose...and this commentary comes from someone who likes to play dress-up for their own amusement. I once attended a panel on the American Civil War (I believe it was titled “War is Hell” or something along those lines) and I had to leave early due to prior engagements and nearly falling asleep. I later came to find out that the Q&A nearly ended in fisticuffs over a lecturer and a reinactor’s disagreement over something trivial. As opposed to Massive Academic Penis the reenactors, who are not really historians, but armchair historians, usually have a narrow breadth of knowledge and experience. They may know a lot about one guy, one battle, a series of battles, etc, but when they try to fling their knowledge out there in front of an academic who has a MAP, well the only thing that can be focused on is how small it is. Due to their limited experience the reenactor does not recognize their deficiency, but is very proud of what they do have and when the Academic's reaction is less than awestruck the reenactor will then proceed to get really loud and defensive because they don't know how to back up their claims when challenged. The academic has a MAP, so they're not going to back down either.

After writing this out I suddenly wish I had cartoons to go along with it, but I don't have time for that right now... maybe I will get around to it though.

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