A New Chapter

A New Chapter

            Last fall I gave a number of talks on the Onondagas’ experience as students at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  This weekend, I will participate in a roundtable discussion at the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era in Atlanta where I will share some of my thoughts on the Onondagas’ experiences during the American Revolution. I have been working on a history of the Onondagas for a number of years, and have a ton of reading left to do. Still, these are big moments in the evolution of this project: the first time I share some of this research with an audience, the first time I expose what I have been doing for potential criticism. I feel a bit like I have just set out on a new journey.

            I watch my friends on Facebook and Twitter post their daily word counts.  They participate in the “Grafton Challenge,” or work to stay in “Club 500,” as in five hundred words a day.  I admire them for this in that they find the time to write every day, something that is truly harder than it looks, and requires great discipline and an empty house. I am reminded that I need to get moving, too, but there is just so much to read and so much else to do.

            I have time, I think.  I am one of the tiny percentage of people with a Ph.D who was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job, and I have had tenure for fifteen years. But because of that good luck, I feel pressure to produce.  Hundreds of people would kill to have my job, and that imposes an obligation to do good work in the classroom and in terms of publication. If I cannot produce I should get out of the way for those who can.  Still, I have not sought out an advance contract from a publisher, though I am certain I could get one. I face no externally-imposed deadline. I am free to work at my own pace without intererence.

            My friends write about the pressures associated with being a tenure-track professor, especially those still relatively new to the job.  I have not heard the line, “Publish or Perish,” for quite some time, but the fact remains that new faculty members are required to teach, serve on committees, and conduct research. Advising students seems to require more time than ever. Answering some of the 100 emails I get every day, too requires a commitment, as does scrounging for the money necessary to get to the archives to do research.  Yes, we are lucky to have these jobs, and we are in an infinitely better spot than the growing legion of adjuncts teaching at colleges across the country, but these realities do not make the pressure any less real. 

            And the burdens are greater for some historians than they are for others. Because of the class system in American college life, some historians do their work at institutions where they may teach one or two classes a semester, with graduate students to do their grading, and an adequate supply of travel funding to allow them to do their research and attend conferences.  Others may teach three, four, or five courses a semester, have no help with grading, little money to allow them to travel to archives, and pay out of their own pockets to attend conferences.  For the latter, the burdens of this job are even greater. I have taught at both types of institutions, and there is no question that it is easier to produce at the former than the latter.

            Some are pushing back against tis.  There is talk of a “slow scholarship” movement, based on the premise that allowing scholars more time to get their work done will result in scholarship that is more valuable. If at times this argument can appear self-serving, there is no question that there can be pressures associated with this line of work.

            Research and writing is important. It is through this process that new knowledge is created. It keeps scholars fresh, and up-to-date. For most of us, it is enjoyable. It is fun. But the obstacles one must overcome to do this work are not distributed at all evenly across the profession.  We need to talk more about this. A book written by a historian with a four-four teaching load (that is, four classes a semester) is in some ways more impressive than a book written over the same span of time by a historian with half as many courses to teach, with graduate assistants, and travel money.

            I have it easy.  My colleagues approved my request for eight hundred dollars in funding to cover the costs of flying to Atlanta to participate in the CRE conference. With five kids, a working spouse, a mortgage, I could not afford to go without this assistance. My research and teaching fields coincide, so I can keep up on the scholarship while I keep my classes current. Working in a collegial department is an important advantage, I know, because I spent the first four years of my career teaching at its opposite.

I have been thinking about this project for twenty years, long before I ever began working on it. For several years I worked as a historical consultant for the Onondaga Nation on the Onondaga Lake cleanup project.  The legal work subsidized my scholarship, allowing me to spend time travelling to archives and collecting copies of the documents I might someday need in order to write. The funding allowed me to hire some talented Geneseo students to spin microfilm reels, back before so many newspapers had been digitized, collecting every relevant article on the Onondagas. I could not have considered this project without the financial support provided by this extra work, and I am still drawing upon these materials. But it was extra work: on top of my teaching, committee work, and personal obligations. Even with this assistance, I was only able to throw myself into it full time in 2017, after I completed some other projects. Since then I have slowly worked my way through the massive amount of material I had collected.  And now, a couple of years later, this work is beginning to bear its first fruits, even though I still have a couple of years’ worth of research still to do before I can begin my writing process. Presenting this material is a big step, and I look forward to seeing how the audience and my colleagues receive it.  But I also appreciate how lucky I am to have a chance to do this work, and how few of us actually ever get that opportunity.

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