By Avigail Oren
We are reprising our Month of Academic Odes on the The Metropole because, as it turns out, winter 2021 was not the hoped-for end of the pandemic. Here we are, in February 2022, with all the more reason to embrace the positive (as long as it isn’t on a COVID test).
The problem is, last year I wrote a nice introduction to the Month of Odes and talked about four things I was, and remain, grateful for—like kind colleagues. This year, I felt the need to say something new or at least more substantial. I wracked my brain for something meaningful to contribute, like an ode to a historiographical trend, or a work of scholarship I have found insightful.
The problem is, for the past five years I’ve not really practiced history in the way I was trained—not in the sustained, supported way that many of our readers and contributors with research, teaching, and public history positions are. Although, as editor of The Metropole, I keep close tabs on the field, my day-to-day work has reshaped me into more of a generalist—a quick learner of new, varied topics—than the historical expert I aspired to become when I started my PhD.
So, I find myself without anything substantive to say to my peers—at least about urban history. What I do know intimately is the tsuris of navigating a career as a historian outside of the professoriate. I have no regrets about the weird, backwards way I’ve built a business and livelihood for myself—and for those out there contemplating these same questions of identity and detachment from the professoriate, I dedicate this ode to you.
It’s probably ill-advised for a blog editor to write an ode to saying no—please, do not stop agreeing to contribute to The Metropole when we solicit posts from you. It’s also not a particularly novel idea. Every third inspirational meme is encouragement to “choose you” and stop trying to please people. It’s good advice!
I want to drill down and celebrate a specific “no”: refusing to measure your success and worth according to how well you follow “the” path of a history PhD. This path is a framework: a simplified model of linear, prescribed steps to, through, and from the history PhD that culminate in the student and degree having value in the form of an academic job.
Like all models, it works for some people. Hurray if following that path worked out for you! I am genuinely happy and excited for you, for your colleagues and students and fellow scholars, and the growing body of knowledge that institutional support allows you to contribute towards.
But, like all models, the rough edges are smoothed, and blurry exceptions ignored. To contemplate stepping off the path feels like peering over a cliff into the abyss—a void that robs you of vision and leaves you directionless and flailing for anything familiar that could provide a semblance of security. Isn’t it easier to stay the course?
My experience has been that what lies beyond the model is not so much an abyss as a Chuck E Cheese ball pit of possibility. It’s still unstable, but blindingly bright; it’s pointless, but there are plenty of ways to pass the time in there; it’s an uncomfortable mess of germs and people who invade your personal space, but it’s strangely fun. It’s awkward to be caught playing children’s games by “serious scholars,” but tossing a neon pink plastic ball in their face feels deliciously rebellious and liberating.
This is my story of falling in the ball pit.
It’s still unstable, but blindingly bright
After finishing my PhD program, I started a business on a whim, without a business plan or any idea what entrepreneurship entailed. (It worked out, but business plans are good things and I recommend them.) It took me a few months to figure out that my business was “editorial services.” When people asked me what I did, for two years I could say “I’m an editor.” Sometimes, depending on the projects I was working on, I could also say “I’m a writer and editor.” My business and work were legible, if tenuously profitable.
The last two or three years, I’ve struggled mightily with the question of what it is I, or my business, actually does. The opportunities I have had—from writing hundreds of historical stories about sites along a landmark U.S. rail-trail, to editing economic development strategic plans, to designing a website about the implementation of patient-reported outcome measures—are bewilderingly varied. Am I a public historian, or a historian who doesn’t do archival research anymore? A former urban historian who edits? A writer with a public health background who got a history PhD and then started working in public health again?
I never would have realized my potential without trying on all of these hats. I’m so grateful to all the clients who took a chance on this eager dork. But if I tried to measure my success against the publications, presentations, grants, or awards of my professor-peers, I would fall short. My career has been valuable, at least to me, but the output has been more ephemeral, mostly made up of invisible, behind-the scenes support.
It’s pointless, but there are plenty of ways to pass the time in there
Work is not an identity, it’s how we fill time between the earthly delights of eating, sleeping, and intimacy, and how we keep these sacred activities from getting stale. Yes, it’s also a necessity for most of us to survive under capitalism, but I don’t need to belabor (pun intended) the point for this audience.
For me, refusing to follow the prescribed path to the professoriate also meant reckoning with how I valued history and whether my career would feel rewarding if I wasn’t adding to historical scholarship or teaching it. I spent months reminding myself that although I have always loved history, it is reading and writing that have been my most stalwart lifelong practices. Despite making my peace with “not being a historian anymore,” I have done a lot of historical research in the past five years! Perversely, clients believe in my expertise as a historian more than I do.
A few days ago, I saw a tweet expressing a very understandable, relatable anxiety that leaving the professoriate creates the perception that you couldn’t hack it, and therefore, by leaving, you lose the credibility of your expertise as a historian and can no longer be considered a “true” historian. My reaction was complicated. I’ve never really felt like a good urban historian. There are many people who have read more urban history than I have, visited more archives, written more, taught more. I’ve never put myself through the peer review process or the academic job market. So maybe I felt that I didn’t have much to lose by stepping off the path.
I used to feel more confident that at least, because of my training, I saw and understood the world around me as a historian does. I’m sure that to some extent I do, but increasingly I wonder if my worldview is shaped more by the nonprofit professionals and consultants and entrepreneurs and activists I work with.
Regardless of whether I am perceived as a good, fine, or bad historian who could not hack it in higher ed, my community of history colleagues has been supportive. I spend four hours a week in a writing group where nobody cares whether I’m writing a grant for one client or transcribing an oral history for another. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they care because I care, and they care about me. I also have had the privilege of working with Urban History Association colleagues who have jumped into ball pits of their own, working for the federal government and public history institutions and think tanks.
Am I a value-add to society? Who knows. The days pass quickly.
It’s an uncomfortable mess of germs and people who invade your personal space, but it’s strangely fun
One of my favorite things about archival research and writing history was how solitary the work could be. I collaborate a lot more now, though blessedly it is virtual and not the petri dish of a literal ball pit. I have gotten to meet incredible people I would not have encountered outside of work. Fun people!
I have also gotten to work on fun projects I never could have dreamed up. As a result, I know a bizarre amount about a historic bridge in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I can also tell you that if you are a woman or under 65 years old and considering total knee replacement, data shows you probably should go for it—don’t wait for the pain to get more debilitating! And those rail-trails you love riding your bike on? If we get sucked into WWIII, they could be turned back into railroads for defense purposes.
It’s awkward to be caught playing children’s games by “serious scholars,” but tossing a neon pink plastic ball in their face feels deliciously rebellious and liberating.
I love and respect my mentors and colleagues, and would never throw plastic balls or words in their face. But I feel no compunction about giving the finger to the neoliberal university and the incentive structure of the professoriate.
That said, I regret not turning my dissertation into articles or a book. It makes me kind of sad, to be honest, that I didn’t follow through on publishing that research. I would feel immense pride to see my name on the cover of a book.
I had to make a choice: I could figure out how to have a career on my terms and use my free time however I wanted, or I could figure out how to have a career on my own terms and write history in my free time.
I wish I had the willpower to do the latter, but I’ve really enjoyed the former. Spending years’ worth of Saturdays and Sundays watching television instead of revising my dissertation slowly eroded my attachment to the validation of the professoriate and academic incentives.
To return to those inspirational memes, I saw one the other day about life’s hard choices. It was a long list of statements like “Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard.”
Academia is hard. Leaving academia is hard. Choose your hard.
The hard I chose—stepping off the path into the ball pit—was the right hard for me. I put my energy into myself, into my clients, and, yes, into capitalism’s maw. It can be hard to show people the return on that energy, and if you like producing outcomes that are meaningful to professors and universities, the ball pit might not be for you. But for those peering over the edge, I invite you to jump in.
Avigail S. Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She received her PhD from the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, and has been an independent scholar and entrepreneur ever since.
Featured image (at top): William Henry Jackson/Detroit Publishing Co., “Bicycle Path, Rockledge, Fla.” (ca. 1900), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.