My senior seminar has been a struggle.
Why? Because being a historian is hard work. Historians ask questions about history so as to better understand the state of the world in previous eras and, by extension, the human condition. With an appropriate question underway, they search for appropriate primary sources to make a claim based off of that question. It is a time-consuming process. Historians might go through pages and pages of primary source material before finding that one small bit of information that will make everything worthwhile. That one small bit of information that is their “aha!” moment.
This semester, I’ve been waiting for that moment without avail. I came into my senior seminar determined to be a “true” historian. To find those sources and have that “aha!” moment to create a strong, unique, and original piece of scholarly work. The truth is, one semester isn’t enough time to work with a large amount of primary sources, especially when I have other homework and commitments to attend to. Also, to be quite honest with myself, although I’m continuing to learn and grow as a historian, I simply do not yet have the historical expertise to make the claim I’ve been trying to make.
Today, I e-mailed my senior sem professor with some questions and an update on my progress. I had my practice presentation on Tuesday, which was really rough. I was confident that I had everything planned out, but I got up to the front of the room to start my presentation and it all went downhill from there. I felt like a terrible failure afterwards and actually started crying in the middle of the dining hall. I realize now that my practice presentation went so poorly not because I am inadequate as a student of history (something I was beginning to believe was true), but because I’m still not confident in my argument. Why? I don’t have enough sources. I have a few sources that are promising, but nothing that can bring the claim I’m trying to make into a worthwhile and unified whole. In response to my e-mail–where I mentioned my concerns about my practice presentation and my paper–my professor suggested a new direction for me to take. It’s a direction that I will be able to successfully complete in the next three weeks (I present on December 2 and my final paper is due on December 9). It’s an easier direction than I was shooting for, but I realize that that’s okay for now. The question I was asking before was much too large to be answered in this semester alone. It’s something I could very easily turn into a dissertation if I continue on to graduate school. I could have written a paper based off of this question in the three weeks that I have, but I wouldn’t have been proud of the results. Why? I know that I don’t have enough information to successfully argue for the claim I’ve been trying to make.
I wanted so desperately to be a “true” historian this semester, one that works with mostly primary sources and covers new and uncharted ground. What I failed to realize until today is that I’m still a student who is learning how to really work in the field of history. I don’t have this whole being a historian thing figured out, and I’m trying way too hard to act like I do. While this doesn’t make me any less of an authority on my topic–after all, I know a hell of a lot more about Montgomery Blair (the main focus of my paper) than most people do–it has been hindering me from seeing that I should be focusing in on a much more manageable topic.
Having the realization that I can still change my direction is so relieving. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I have all the source material to take my project in this new direction, so I wont have to worry about doing so much extra research. My main concern is now much more realistic for the three weeks that I have–putting together a well-thought out paper and creating a presentation that is organized and to the point.
In the fashion of a true academic, I am allowing myself to be flexible with my materials. However, I am still learning and I need to keep that in mind. The history senior seminar, after all, was not created with the intent for students to tread on new territory and make great claims. It was created as a vehicle for students to implement what they’ve learned throughout their undergraduate study of history by way of a project that is feasible to accomplish in one semester.
I’ve sure learned a lot as an undergraduate student of history, and I think the work I have been doing on my own project and my willingness to be flexible definitely shows that. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of work to do; that work, however, will be more structured and to the point than the claim I was banking on earlier. There is absolutely no reason why I should be trying to make an earth shattering historical claim at this point in the game. I have neither the expertise nor the time to do that at the moment and recognizing that feels pretty damn good.