Historians are fond of looking for “turning points” in the past–pivotal moments after which things began to change for the better or the worse. Last month I spent two days at a valedictory conference for my friend and colleague Stan Katz, historian, mentor, and public citizen. As I listened to all the tributes to Stan from all phases of his life, it became clear to me that each of the hundred or so people in the room all were beneficiaries of personal turning points in some way induced by or influenced by Stan.
Each of us can look back into our own personal histories to find one or more turning points. Thinking about my own career as an historian and an educator, I can point to three small, but very important moments. Appropriately, I’ve listed them in chronological order, which gives Stan pride of place as the last. At one level, this may seem self-indulgent (but what are blogs if not exercises in self-indulgence?), but I hope that at another level there are some worthwhile lessons here for all of us who think about and teach about the past. And I hope that those who read this post will offer your own reflections on similar turning points in your own careers.
For me the first turning point came in the fall of 1977. I was a brand new freshman at the University of Virginia and, knowing nothing about course numbering systems and lacking any advising whatsoever, I ended up in History 553, European Diplomatic History, taught by the Metternich scholar Enno E. Kraehe. Because it was my first college class, I arrived early and took a desk in the back corner of the room. As I watched the other students file in, I thought they all looked a lot older than I did. By the time the professor arrived, it was obvious, even to me, that I was in a course full of graduate students. Had Mr. Kraehe not arrived when he did, I would have slipped out the door and dropped the class as quickly as possible. Instead, I sat and listened with great interest to an introductory lecture on the great powers and their relations to one another.
When the class ended, Mr. Kraehe called me to the front and asked if I had the time to meet with him in his office. I knew I what was going to happen…he was going to explain to me that I needed to get out of his class. But when we arrived in his office, something unexpected happened. Instead of casting me out, he asked me to tell him what I knew about European history already. He listened carefully as I stammered my way through what I knew, then nodded his head and told me that if I worked very hard and came to see him in his office hours every week, I could probably do well in the class. I was so amazed that he didn’t cast me out that of course I agreed to his terms and that B+ I earned in that class is still the grade I’m most proud of in my educational career. Along the way, I developed an abiding interest in nationalism in Eastern Europe, the topic that has consumed most of my time in the archives ever since.
The second moment came in the fall of 1996 when I was teaching on a one-year contract at the University of New Hampshire. One day I received a memo asking if I wanted to learn how to put my syllabus on the Internet. Remember now, this was 1996 and so “the Internet” meant the Lynx web browser and the Pine email program or, if you were lucky, Netscape 1.0 (UNH had not installed it yet). I attended the seminar, learned to write some basic html code, and put my syllabus online. At the end of the semester my students wrote in their evaluations that having the syllabus online was one of the best features of the course. So the next semester I devised a simple Internet research assignment, which they also loved, and the rest, as they say, is history. Each semester since I have experimented with digital media in my teaching.
The final turning point in my career came when I was trying to decide whether to publish an article I was writing in analog form or in digital form. I called my friend Stan Katz to ask him what he thought I ought to do. His response was that he’d tried to build his career around doing what he thought he ought to do rather than by doing what others thought he ought to do. This made good sense to me then as it still does today. Ultimately I ended up publishing the article in print instead of pixels–largely because I didn’t have the time to do the digital work it needed–but I came away from that conversation resolved to build my career as an historian around the kind of history I thought we ought to be doing (digital history) rather than more of the same in the print world. And it’s worked out pretty well for me so far.