Now, What Have We Learned?

It’s the end of the school year here in Toledo. We’ve just begun to emerge from a Winter that was so long all we needed was a White Walker invasion to cap it off. (Side note: Game of Thrones is back on.) While the weather has improved, the atmosphere on campus still feels noticeably tempestuous, as student and faculty alike frantically try to stay ahead of all the looming deadlines. With things so frenzied at the moment, I thought I should take a moment to step back from the fray, and reflect on the past year for just a bit. It’s been a whirlwind journey these past 9 months as a freshly minted Ph.D., and I feel like I have learned quite a bit both about this profession and myself along the way.

Grad school was always presented to me as more akin to a marathon than a sprint. You pace yourself to go the distance and try not to lose steam half a mile after the starting line. That was advice that I took to heart at the time, but this first year as an actual faculty member has taught me that Ph.D.  marathon was just a warm-up for an even more grueling test of endurance now that I’ve advanced to the career stage. Granted, I may have had to hit the ground running at a slightly faster pace than some – defending my dissertation, applying for and landing a job, moving to another state and starting to teach all in just a little over a month last Summer. Still, the important part was learning how to keep speed while adjusting to multiple class preps, hundreds of students, departmental service obligations, my own writing and entirely new surroundings.

The only way I managed to keep a handle on things was to learn how to plan and also learn how to think on my feet and improvise when those initial plans inevitably have to be scrapped and tossed aside. For instance, your very meticulously planned budget may get shredded to pieces when you find out the university won’t finish adding you to its payroll system until a month into the semester. Or, the class discussion that you planned to last the full period and go in-depth on a number of topics may go out the window when you excitedly ask “What did everyone think of today’s reading?” and get met with a wall of silence and dozens of blank-faced stares. In another case, your plan to use your office hours to finish grading the essays you “promised” to hand back today may go up in smoke when for the first time this semester you get not just your first student drop-in but a 2-hour long stream of student drop-ins.

The unexpected will happen, and you won’t always be prepared. In those moments, one thing that became especially clear this past year was that being an educator is not easy. There are the days where despite your best planning, nothing at all seems to be in sync. You feel off your game and wonder if anything you say makes sense. You are out of ideas for how to motivate the students. You question your credentials, and you even start to question  whether you’re cut out for this career at all.

For as difficult as it can be at times, however, over the past year I’ve also come to appreciate how rewarding this job can be as well. Every now and then I’ve taken note of the passion with which a student makes an argument in class indicating that something has clicked and made a connection with them. I’ve also seen the incredible progress students can make from barely knowing what a primary source is on the first day to being able to write about the importance of historical contingency in their final essay.

Moments like these, as well as the firm belief that the ideas and skills that I teach my students fundamentally matter, have kept me going strong through various, wrecked plans and mistakes. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that what we do as historians is both a privilege and a responsibility. This past year has had its bumps for sure, but it’s been a great experience, and I look forward to hitting the pavement once again in the Fall.

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