Saturday, December 23, 2006

Taking Stock Prior To My Return To The History Department

Everyone in the academy of a certain age remembers that great line from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” where the young mathematics professor asks George what department he is in, and Martha lurches over and sneers, “Ge-o-o-orge is in the….HISSS-try department.” Well, much as my spiritual home is in American Studies, so am I, and soon I must return to my duties in the Zenith University Department of History, site of the Unfortunate Events. It had to happen someday, no? So the past week has in part been occupied by putting my mental house in order in preparation for my Comeback Tour.

But here’s the good news: I probably haven’t explained that we don’t live in Zenith anymore – we did until about three years ago, when I began to worry that I would start to rot from the inside out if we didn’t move (N was still based in Big City, and I was feeling more like an exile than the moderately well-known and successful scholar that I am.) We bought a house in Shoreline, home to four or five other institutions of Higher Education, one of which is the prestigious Oligarch University. Moving was a far bigger struggle than it should have been or that I can possibly say; it included a house renovation from Hell, putting things in storage, massive loans taken out, and so on. But it is done, I love living here, N is starting to feel at home outside Big City, and this holiday season we are beginning to know that we are truly settled for the first time in years. Maybe ever. And one way we know that is that we are having quite the social season this December.

Last night we had a small dinner party with a nephew, his wife and their three children, who came from the north en route to their destination, which was to spend Christmas in Big City. Then we also had DJ, Extravaganza’s middle brother, who was invited by special request of one of his cousins, but is the sort of person who should be on the top of the guest list anyway because he – like his brothers -- fits seamlessly into any group. DJ is an incredibly good-natured, sparky boy of eleven who is liked by nearly everyone he comes in contact with and could have a conversation with a complete stranger who only spoke Bosnian if they were suddenly thrown together. The most insightful thing I can say about that is that he is incredibly nice, but that doesn’t explain his almost universal popularity and excellent social aplomb. He’s kind of got the Bill Clinton appeal without the Bill Clinton ego. And frankly, they could really use him in the British Royal family, except that we all have higher ambitions for him than performing one of those useless prince jobs.

Anyway, as the children thundered around the house with Sailor (and then occasionally fell ominously silent, although mostly I think they were playing Scrabble, devising elaborate standardized tests and searching my study for clues about my mysterious life) the grownups sat downstairs and talked about Work. Two of us had physicians for fathers, and we both agreed that the major lesson we had learned from these semi-absent men was that working hard could be fun. All the adults sitting at the table agreed that our own lives had pretty much replicated that model, and that because we all really had work we loved, it wasn't a burden. The next part of that conversation was: how do you communicate that to children, in a world where so many people seem to do work that they hate -- or work that is so alienating they are not wrong to hate it? How do you teach kids that no matter what it is -- Chaucer or plumbing -- work isn’t something you just do so that you can finance small amounts of fun – go on vacation or retire early – but rather that it is part of a life that is more generally satisfying, where work, leisure and relationships all complement each other? Or that you might choose not to be as prosperous so that you can be a writer, scholar, or artist? Or a gardener?

This seems important to remember now, when the blogosphere has recently been jammed with the burdens of teaching. Reading other people’s often hilarious reports on grading, students from hell, and grad programs that may be more of a burden than a blessing, as well as getting re-involved with Zenith prior to my triumphant return to the History Department, has reminded me a bit too much of the Dark Side. There is a Light Side as well: the fun of this. Making a life with books. Days in the classroom that really do seem to make a difference. Really finishing a piece of writing rather than just grinding away at it. And the fact that more people read my blog every week now than have probably ever read one or two of the articles I have published.

And the children clearly ruffled through all the fabulous history books I left around the study in neat piles in hopes that they would snoop. The books are now in heaps, which is how I know. And someone was clearly fishing around in the book manuscript I “forgot” to put away. Hah.

So Happy Holidays to all and to all a good night: the next time you hear from me, I will be broadcasting from a house on a beach in South Sea Archipelago. N and I have invented what we call “the writing vacation” (see my Paul Fussell post) – both to get away from the distractions of home that do inevitably interfere with finishing things and to celebrate the other fabulous thing about our chosen work in scholarship and teaching: the month long winter break!

1 comment:

anthony grafton said...

Thanks so much for that wonderful post. You're absolutely right. We get to have fun at work, both at home in the study and at school in the classroom--and all the sweat and toil are worth it only because that's what they earn us: the chance to feel a paragraph take shape like a fieldstone wall, to see light bulb going on over students' heads, and, maybe best of all, to find in a document--whether it's a letter no one has opened in 500 years or a printed book that's been in plain sight--the jewel in the heart of the lotus, the canker in the rose, the smoking gun. Great thoughts for the holidays--great enough to distract from the equal and opposite truths of the approaching AHA job hunt and other problems for the new year.

Tony Grafton