Want glamour and exotic travel? Be a historian!

Last week, I was invited to talk to a class of third- and fourth-graders about what it’s like to be a historian.  I was pretty sure I and my line of work would be about as exciting to these kids as a lecture on tort reform, or monetary policy, or the line-item veto.  But, these kids were into history–my 30-minute guest spot lurched closer to 60 minutes, and many hands were still in the air when I stopped taking questions.  (That’s just a random photo of a classroom–it’s not Historiann at the head of the class.)

According to the questions I got that day, and the thank-you notes they all wrote me, here are the things that really impressed them about being a historian:

  • The opportunity for glamorous travel!  (Seriously.)  This was really exciting for them–to think that I had to travel as far away as Boston, Maine, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even across an international border to Quebec to do my research.  I told them that I wanted to do research in Paris, and one of the children wrote sweetly, “I hope you get to Paris someday!”  Their excitement about travel struck me because for me, being a historian is not about movement, but about being stationary–that is, spending a lot of time sitting indoors in a library, archive, or my own desk, albeit sometimes at libraries in Chicago and Los Angeles, and archives in Boston, Maine, and Quebec.
  • There are historians writing books about every place in the world!  (Related to opportunities for glamorous travel.)  African history really got a few of the children excited.  I think this was a revelation for them because the hook for my visit is that they’d been doing a class unit on local history, so the teachers hadn’t connected the dots yet to world history.
  • In colonial America, girls and boys were taught to read but only boys were taught to write, and enslaved children were forbidden to achieve any form of literacy.  That blew their minds, as people who were still very close to the achievement of literacy, and who were taught literacy in a way that made learning reading and writing inseparable.  Most of them mentioned that in their thank-you notes as the most interesting thing I had taught them.
  • One kid even worked himself up to an epistemological crisis!  Toward the end of the questions, he asked, “But, how do we know that history is, you know, the truth?”  His classmates started to ridicule him for complicating something that to them seemed pretty straightforward–historians read the sources and tell us what they say, right?  I shushed them and he perservered:  “I mean, how do you know that your sources are true?”  That blew me away–he got to a place in 45 minutes at the age of nine that many of my undergraduate university students will never go. 

Once again, I was humbled by the work that schoolteachers do.  This class was incredibly well-prepared for my visit, and it’s amazing to think that teachers do that every day not just in one subject, but in five or six of them, in addition to dealing with learning disabilities and any social or family problems the students might have.  The children were all unfailingly polite, although some were clearly more interested than others.  One of the things that took a few minutes to get used to was the constant fidgeting in the students–in an adult audience, fidgeting is a major sign that you’re losing them and it’s time to wrap things up.  But in an audience of eight- to ten-year olds, they all fidgeted, even the ones who were clearly very interested and asked me lots of questions. 

At the end of the class, the teacher said to the children, “Now when you heard we would have a historian come to our class, you probably got a picture in your mind about what a historian might look like.  Does Dr. Historiann look like the picture in your mind?”  Immediately, all the heads started shaking violently–I was a little taken aback.  When I asked them what was so different about me, one little boy half jumped out of his seat and waved his hands consolingly, “You’re different–but in a GOOD way!” I think they knew I was a woman before I visited–I got the impression that they thought I would be older, more serious, and more formally dressed.  (I wasn’t slovenly, but I wasn’t wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.)  I’m just wondering where their ideas about historians have come from that already by the ages of 8, 9, or 10, they have a picture in their minds about what we look like.  But, some of them may have seen a documentary with the usual, not terribly diverse array of talking heads on PBS or The History Channel.

One boy, whose mother works with a Historiann family member, told his mother that the kids thought that I was prettier than they thought a historian would be.  (I was flattered until I remembered that kids that age all think their mothers are pretty, so consider the source.)

0 thoughts on “Want glamour and exotic travel? Be a historian!

  1. I was a substitute teacher for a while, and they are great at that age. Still enthusiastic. Haven’t discovered the other gender. Eager to please and really really interested. If we could just send away students at the beginning of 5th grade and not let them come back until they were juniors in college, things would be great!



  2. Their mothers ARE pretty! (How’s that? Very contrary to the epistemological relativeness of the “truth” question)

    Sounds like a restorative day on the way back toward pedagogy. There are some days in my classes when a fidget would be a good sign. Our students call all assigned monographs and even most documentary sources such as The Age of Reason or The Wealth of Nations “novels,” which we desperately want to interpret as signs of post-modern irony, but can’t quite persuade ourselves to do that. That would have been my question to your class’s teacher: why do they call things like these “novels?!?” Have the genres all melted together in K-12?


  3. I am impressed by your encounter with the fourth-grade Hayden White.

    While I don’t know what you like in RL, My guess is that you are prettier than most historians. Have you been to the AHA? We are not an attractive crew.


  4. ,i>Our students call all assigned monographs and even most documentary sources such as The Age of Reason or The Wealth of Nations “novels,” which we desperately want to interpret as signs of post-modern irony, but can’t quite persuade ourselves to do that.

    As a musician, I go a little nuts when people–the same people as your students? I bet yes–call all pieces of music “songs,” even when there’s plainly nobody singing. I don’t expect them to distinguish symphonies from sonatas, though it would be refreshing if they could, but why not just say “piece” when “song” is manifestly inaccurate?


  5. Right, rootlesscosmo–and “book” would be an accurate, catch-all term for the things we talk about in class (except articles, natch.) I get the same thing that you and Indyanna get–I just took it as a sign that they’ve never read a non-fiction book for class (or for fun) until they entered my classroom.

    GayProf–well, beauty is subjective, of course. But, related to your observations of our colleagues at the AHA and most other conferences, I can tell you that I had one very well-meaning student at my old job who once told me, “Dr. Historiann, you’re the best-dressed professor in the History department!” She really did mean it as a sincere compliment–but considering the, shall we say, low level of competition, I had to laugh!

    And Bing: I was really touched by their openness and their lack of cynicism and “cool.” How interesting that they’re the ones being forced by the state to be there, when our students of course are free to skip class and drop out.


  6. HistoriAnn –

    If you were a history book you’d be “Babe-raham in Arms.”

    Don’t be surprised that the children were surprised at your appearance – it seems that most interviews on The History Channel are with gin-soaked, dewlapped septuagenarian British guys seated against a backdrop of animal heads and leather globes.


  7. Thanks, Monocle Man–compared to the snaggletoothed septuagenarians you mention, I am a babe. But what’s wrong with animal heads and leather globes? That’s what my study looks like!


  8. Historiann,

    Your blog was a lifeline this semester. A source of oxygenization, smart ideas, the occasional heated argument, and also a lot of just plain fun. Getting some (pictorial) content on your front page was a dream. I’m breaking camp in the morning for the trek back to my summer pasture in the eastern urb. I’ll be attending from there, too, perhaps under a new seasonal nom-de-blog (if that’s even done?), or perhaps the same old one. Can We Has sum mor Barbie blogging at some point?!? (This seemed like maybe the best thread to skyjack for this uncategorized endorsement.).


  9. Will check on the doll colony first thing, probably tonight. Will also be reporting on a hot/cool new retro-consignment boutique in the same neighborhood that’s energizing the place in a big way. Vale.


  10. Pingback: “Science Cheerleaders”: feminist FAIL : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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