Monday, April 13, 2015

Dispatches from the History Major: "The Benefits of Jousting"

I hope you are enjoying "Dispatches from the History Major." Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  --JF

I had never met these strangers before. We were a mixed group of four students and four adults, and the eight of us did our best to keep the awkward silence at bay by introducing ourselves. It was my turn. After I said my piece, the middle-aged women sitting across the dinner table began the attack: “Ahh, you’re a history major, huh? Interesting….” I sighed and started mentally preparing myself for the verbal joust I knew would follow. “So, what will you do with your history major?” she interrogated.

I started my charge, “Oh, I plan on translating in the future. I’ve studied both Latin and French at Messiah College, and I’m studying abroad in Paris next semester. When I come back I’ll be bilingual and have a minor in French language.”

She lowered and aimed her lance, “Mmm. I see. But where does the history major come in to play? I don’t see the connection.”

I hesitated. Wasn’t it obvious? When I study a primary source I have to understand what it’s trying to convey. I have to explicitly listen (understand what the author is saying) and implicitly listen (understand the genre of the source, the bias of the author, and any cultural references which could confuse the chronologically and socially removed modern reader).

Then I have to write about what the source tells me. I analyze pieces of a foreign past, construct an argument, and present that argument to an audience who may be completely unfamiliar with this part of the past. Isn’t this sort of listening, people reading, and interpreting exactly what translators do every day?

I wasn’t quick enough on my horse, and these weren’t the words that came out of my mouth. Instead, I half-confidently muttered something about the connection between history and people, and how studying history helps me to better understand the human condition.

She politely smiled, nodded her head, and changed the subject. I fell off of my figurative horse into the mud and cursed myself for letting such a great opportunity to defend my discipline slip away.

If I were a STEM major, I could avoid the work, frustration, and self-reflection these jousts cause. But even though they can sometimes feel defeating and shameful, I’m glad I have to participate in these jousts. Instead of coasting through my college career due to guaranteed job-security, I have to constantly think of new ways to combat the popular stigma that history majors can only be teachers, librarians, or hobos once they graduate.

This constant tension helps me to develop the creativity and conviction I know will be necessary to convince future employers that my historical skills are valuable assets. This constant tension helped me to come up with a better answer for the next time someone asks me how history relates to translating.

I look forward to my next battle, because jousting is teaching me how to be a better salesmen as well as a better historian.