“After you take your comprehensive examinations, which will consist of both five-hour written and two-hour oral examinations, you will then be ABD – All But Dissertation. And then, you are on your way to becoming a member of ‘The Guild.’” – Jeffrey Bolster, 1997 Graduate Director, University of New Hampshire
Did I just hear him correctly? I had been in New Hampshire for a little over a week and I recall sitting there quietly, my insides churning, as I ran over and over in my mind that I would be questioned for two-hours by five accomplished men and women on hundreds of books that I had not yet read and digested and memorized; books that apparently by the end of three years would become so ingrained in my DNA that I would be able to dredge up the minutia of history from the far reaches of my cells, regurgitate it brilliantly to even more brilliant humans, and thus, prove that I too belonged in The Guild. This was how I began the first semester of my doctoral program at the University of New Hampshire. Paralyzed by fear, uncertainty, and mired in sheer terror.
In direct contrast to that moment, this day I am lying on my soft, yet worn beige sofa, listening to Miles Davis radio on Pandora, reading a book about the possibilities and hope that history can bring us. Magnolia, my sweet 13-year-old beagle/border collie/mutt, is snoring loudly in her green Woolrich dog bed not two feet from me. It’s a day that is as sweet as they come. I can enjoy days like this because I am now a member of said Guild, who is soon to embark on summer break – four months of days like this – lazily reading, writing, and contemplating history. When I first emerge from a semester, after papers and finals are assessed and grades are submitted and anxious student emails are addressed, I find myself reaching for something to read that reminds me that I am not simply a staid academic, but also a writer. I long to read something other than history, hoping to re-acclimate myself to the current world, out of the morass of oftentimes disturbing past events, although when historians in the future write about our current times, they may be more disturbed than I am when reading about the Jim Crow South. I savor this type of reading because it feels luxurious compared to the methodical nature of how I read non-fiction texts with an eye towards sources and theory and method. It is in those fifteen weeks of a semester that I miss this type of reading, the kind that transports me to another place for a few hours, where my heart and mind are still and I can slip quietly into the peacefulness that reading someone else’s well put together and carefully thought out words bring me.
My relationship with the academy has always been a complicated one. I have been in said relationship with academia for the better part of three decades now knowing, almost from the day I set foot on the campus of Bowling Green State University in 1986 (Go Falcons!) that I would never, ever leave. The quad – where students gathered to sun, read, play football, protest, meet with classes on warm, sunny days; the ivy and moss covered old, red brick buildings; the union, where the cacophony ranges from loud conversation to laughter to crying to quiet contemplation; my almost hysterically clichéd Philosophy professor replete with beard and padded-elbowed, tan corduroy jacket, smelling faintly of pipe smoke and whiskey and books – all of it made me want to linger there for the better part of the day, a year, and now, my life.
And then there was Tim. When I met him at a Peace Coalition meeting during my freshman year, Tim was completing a doctorate in Sociology. Tim was brilliant and funny and contemplative about the world. Tim lived social justice. Tim was who I wanted to be and be with as a young, idealistic eighteen-year-old. Tim and I became friends. Tim and I became lovers. Tim and I discussed social inequities and poverty and race and peace long into the night. We drank Iron City at a dive bar off of Route 6, about 20 miles from campus. We listened to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary at deafening levels reliving the “sixties” in our own small way. We were and perhaps still are in many ways soul mates. Tim’s love of academia moved through me like osmosis. I, too, wanted to join The Guild. Who wouldn’t want to spend their life living vicariously through their students, reliving their own college years through their students eyes, walking through hallowed buildings that reek of books and sagacity and lead paint. A life spent reading and writing. And summers months free to explore history and the world.
When I graduated from BGSU with an undergraduate degree in Therapy/Sociology, I didn’t immediately apply to graduate school. I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the largest homeless shelter in the United States, as an activist. I supported myself by bartending at night, as I had done to put myself through college. It was a necessary respite from the four and a half years that I worked and went to school full-time. I need space from academia, to regroup and come it at with fresh eyes and a less jaded spirit. Four years after I moved from the nation’s capital to New Orleans, Louisiana, I began the process of seeking out a graduate program that would suit my social justice sensibilities and nourish my intellectual soul. I contemplated Seminary school at one point, if only to understand the inner workings of the various religions that infused my sense of social justice, but that which I didn’t quite understand. I found a program in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. I was accepted. I deferred. I stayed in New Orleans where I earned a Masters Degree in African American Urban History, studying with some of the most accomplished, activist, and interesting historians I still know to this day. And then, I moved myself and my then dog, Riley (name for BB King of Pat Riley, depending on who you ask) to New Hampshire, some 1400 plus miles South to North. Away from everything I knew and loved. Away from my love and great food and music and to an even bigger degree.
Honestly, I am proud to be a member of The Guild. Most days. There are elements of academia, however, that bring pause. History and, my field in particular, Southern History, is still largely white and male-dominated. Female academics, including myself numerous times, often get “mansplained” – talked over or dismissed or ignored. We are easily waved away with a look or an admonition more than we should be when females are more than half of those graduating with history Ph.D.s. I still find myself wrestling with “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that I’m simply posing as a historian and not really belonging to The Guild in the way that others seem to do so effortlessly. I am not subject to the “publish or perish” aspect of The Guild as others I know are at universities that thrive on research, however I continue to write books because, quite simply, I love this particular facet of being a member of The Guild. My small, liberal arts university doesn’t expect me to produce the number of books that research institutions do, however I do it anyway largely because of the joy I feel when I sit down to write about a history that is yet to be unearthed and brought out into the world.
I’ll continue this but, for now, this is how I feel about The Guild. It’s the most I’ve written in months. It feels good.