The first day of the fall semester of my senior undergraduate year, I ran into a friend of mine, a fellow history major, outside of the student union building at the research university we attended. We stopped and talked for a bit, updating each other on our lives and comparing our fall schedules. My friend had just been to the university bookstore, and he showed me a textbook he had just bought for a History of the Old South class that the history department was offering that fall. Intrigued, I sat in on the class and became immediately hooked. I added the class to my schedule and soon decided that I wanted to pursue southern history as a career. That decision set the course for my graduate studies. I spent years immersing myself in the upper southeast—including seemingly endless hours immersing myself in the pertinent scholarly literature, as well as traveling to special collections and sitting in manuscript and microfilm rooms poring through primary sources. And I learned how to practice a discipline I really did not understand as an undergraduate.
Becoming a practitioner of an academic field requires a narrow focus, and for better or worse, I kept my focus close to home. I was naturally attracted to southern United States history because I’m from the South. I was studying the history of my native region and the antecedents of my cultural environment. Nonetheless, my Ph.D. program required its Americanists to do an “outside” teaching field involving an area outside of the United States. My outside field was Early Modern Europe with a concentration on England. After I finished graduate school and began a job at another university as a visiting assistant professor, I began cleaning out books and notes that had been sitting unused and mildewing for several years in my musty basement. Because of their degree of deterioration, I decided to include in the throwaway pile a collection of books I had saved for about ten years from my early modern field. “What are the chances I will end up teaching early modern British history?” I reasoned.
As it turned out, the chances were pretty darn good. One secret regarding academics who end up at small, teaching oriented schools is that we often end up teaching courses that have tenuous relationships with our main foci of study in graduate school. If you are on the job market, you will find job descriptions for applicants that ask for combinations of backgrounds that are as frustratingly specific as they are varied. With the job market so flooded and full-time lines so limited, search committees are increasingly pressured and increasingly able to fish for candidates who fulfill their wish lists all in one package. So if you get an interview at a smaller institution and the search committee ask “Can you teach [insert topic here]?” You answer “yes” if there is any conceivable connection between your training and the course in question. Then you hope to goodness that if the day arrives that you actually have to teach the topic, you can pull it off.
A few years after tossing the books, I interviewed for a permanent faculty opening in a history department seeking someone who could teach the U.S. history survey, the American South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Early American Republic, two upper division British history surveys covering 1066 to the present, the history of Islam and Middle Eastern history. Could the new hire be the world’s leading expert in all of these fields? Of course not. Knowing this, I put the best package forward that I could for the search committee. It was relatively easy to stress my background in Appalachian history, nineteenth century southern U.S. history and African American history as strengths. And, it was quite reasonable to point to my background in early modern England, even though I had not remained current in the literature for a while. There would be plenty of time later to moan and wail over the wealth of sources I had thrown out. Islam and the Middle East, however, were a bit tougher sell. Fortunately, the history department where I did my Ph.D. work was pretty strong in African history, and the professor who directed my African American field also had an academic background in North African and Andalusian history. He was also of Moorish descent, and he incorporated his academic and personal background into his African American courses. On top of that, I had experience teaching a lower division world history survey. My semester-long initiation into the fellowship of teachers who have survived teaching that survey was not pretty, but it was applicable to the needs of the department. I was able to parley my teaching experience and my overall academic background into a job offer that I gladly accepted.
Then, of course, came the time that I faced teaching these non-U.S. courses. My department chair eased me into my first year teaching surveys and U.S. history courses. After that, I began phasing in British, Middle Eastern and Islamic history one semester at a time. As I began preparing for and teaching these courses, one thing I faced beyond refamiliarizing myself with the content I had left lying dormant for years was dealing with the sheer breadth of the time frame that I was to cover. The United States is a relatively new nation. By contrast, the British, Middle East and Islam courses that I was hired to teach cover, in some cases, more than a millennium over one semester. Such periods of time are challenging even for lower division surveys. How was I going to make upper division courses more than tangled laundry lists of kings, queens, nobles, caliphs, shahs and sultans?
Because I teach at an intentionally evangelical school, I get to move away from chronology once in a while and openly explore my faith amid the pursuit of knowledge with my students. With British history, I found that I could risk exploring from a Christian perspective questions that others had tackled before me. Why, for example, was Charles Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey, despite the fact that his own wishes almost certainly were to be buried near his daughter Annie? Was there any connection between the openness with which nineteenth century British elites accepted Darwin as they understood him and their economic and imperialistic agendas? How do aspects of British culture, such as the hymn Jerusalem, conflate faith and nationalism? Likewise, Islamic history became more than a semester-long disquisition on why Christianity is right and why Islam is wrong. I was able to explore with my students in a Christian environment questions applicable to their upbringings and lives. Among them: What are the potential strengths and pitfalls of basing your entire life and existence on one certain interpretation of a book that most of the people in your circle of family and friends believe is holy writ? Defining some subsets of Christians, Muslims and atheists as fundamentalists, I was able to ask myself and my students: what happens if you hold to a specific world view to a degree that you cannot allow yourself to consider even the possibility that you might be wrong on a point because you are so committed to it that to let it go would cause your internal world to collapse? For Middle Eastern history, I can focus on the dangers of stereotyping and molding East and West into false binaries. Skills that I focused on the southeastern United States were somewhat transferable, I discovered. I certainly know something about the historical effects of stereotyping and “othering” demographic groups we do not understand from my study of southern, Appalachian and African American history. That knowledge has served me quite well in my teaching of the Middle East. It is not as easy for me to “other” or to dismiss people in other nations on other continents as faceless members of an amorphous group that has nothing to do with my quotidian concerns or to think of the interaction between the Christian and Muslim “worlds” in binary terms. Even the term “Middle East” is relatively recent and western based, and the varieties of beliefs represented in what we refer to as the Mideast are tremendous, both within and outside of the scope of Islam.
Of course, some might argue that by operating under the assumption that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh, I am undermining the free inquiry that I claim to be espousing. In response I would say that I think we are naive if we believe that any historian at any institution approaches any topic without a set of core beliefs. What I try to do, as a committed Christian at an institution that clearly wants me to teach from such a perspective, is make it safer for some of my students to ask questions that many of them will confront at some point in their lives anyway. And I try to make them view Christianity in terms of clinging to a person, not simply adhering to a set of propositions that they have to win point-by-point internal or external battles over in order to remain in or share their faith. I am not trying to upset their faith; I am trying to get them to differentiate between what is essential and what is not. And with some tweaking, I think I could use a similar approach at a school that is not faith based. Encouraging people to ask themselves what is part of one’s cultural narrative and what is essential and universal has value in any context.
Which brings me back to the value of being a generalist. Spreading my net wide makes me less likely to, as Wheaton College’s Robert Tracy McKenzie puts it, use “history as ammunition.” Anyone with an audience can do that. In our own nation, conservative Christians can be as liable as secular humanists to “discover” that their progenitors laid the foundations for modern science, democracy and everything else that they deem good in their societies. Many Muslims, of course, will just as likely see the histories of science and societal tolerance in a very different light. The wider my view of the world is, the more able I become to stop the tendency in myself to use history as a justification for my viewpoints, though I may never outgrow that tendency during my time in this world. As a Christian and as a historian, I think I should remember that It is one thing for me to evaluate cultures and civilizations, another to believe that my culture necessarily occupies the high ground in the instances in which it happens to nominally mesh with my perceptions of the world or of who God is. God, whose most direct self-revelations came to people in the Middle East, does not depend upon the endorsement of western civilization or the United States as if He has to keep up with supposed competitors. For people to assume that western or Christian, eastern or Islamic civilizations were necessarily and consistently better, more humane or more intellectually progressive than their rivals—or that one civilization was, throughout its entire history, even the rival of another—does an injustice to history and, I believe, misrepresents Scripture.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that we should hesitate to decry such historical disasters as the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide or the transatlantic slave trade. Instead, I am trying to call out the dangers inherent to thinking highly of the national and cultural narratives to which we are most personally attached as a means of self-justification or apologetics. To me, people who engage in arguments over which group of people was the worse collective offender in history—in order to justify themselves—seem analogous to crew members sitting in deckchairs on the Titanic arguing over whose fault it is that the ship hit the iceberg, forgetting in the process the fact that they are all sinking toward the depths together. All the while, Jesus sits in a lifeboat beckoning “Come to me.” The wise ones are those who get out of their chairs, scream “Lord, have mercy!” and move toward the lifeboat.
Many professional historians look upon becoming a generalist as a failure. Specialization is a sine qua non of the research university. The expansion of knowledge to which it leads and the expertise that it produces are among the things that make such institutions invaluable. For my own part, I would like to think that my years of primary research in one subset of upper South history has left me keen to ways in which Americans subtly support systemic and personal racism. And there is a part of me that misses being a more active participant in my primary field. Nonetheless, I find it refreshing to be a generalist. One potential shortfall of specialization is that it skews perspective and can lead to arrogance and balkanization. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but as I look at an increasingly polarized United States in which the presidential candidates for the two major parties are not even holding the same conversations among the same constituencies, I suspect that I am not. True, being a generalist limits my knowledge of the scholarly literature in the fields that I teach because I have to spread my net so wide. But I have to say that over the few years I have spent as a member of my small department at my small institution, my world has expanded far more than I could have expected. I have also gotten an inkling of how much my intense research focus on a subregion of the United States reinforced in me a parochial attitude toward the world that I am glad to be setting aside. I look at becoming a generalist as gaining the best of both worlds. I trained in a profession in which I learned to think about, evaluate, interpret and synthesize primary sources in the context of an ongoing conversation within my primary field. I got to become a participant in that conversation. Now I get to take that experience and apply it to my teaching as I broaden my subject scope. It’s a pretty good way to earn a living.
Image courtesy of DariuszSankowski