Faculty Feature: The Emotional Responsibility of a Historian

Dr. Wayne Tan

At a time when the humanities appear to be in a crisis mode, with declining enrollment numbers across campuses, I want to share my thoughts about how, from a faculty’s perspective, the work I do in history relates back to the core issue of what it means to be in touch with my humanistic outlook. As a historian, it is my job to think critically, articulate my thoughts clearly, and write cogently. This was what I was taught in school and also a lesson that is dear to my heart. Herein lies a question that I had only recently started to reflect on: Can the process of doing history be one that is also rooted in emotions? That is to say, a process that doesn’t pit mind against heart, but instead, one that marries mind with heart? For the longest time, haunting every analytical turn of mind is the fear (stoked gently by conventional wisdom) that emotions cloud judgment. Analysis at its best, we are told, should be clinical, exacting, and stripped of emotional biases in order to present an objective truth. But does it have to be this way—for a historian, fully absorbed as is to be expected in his/her task, to maintain an emotional distance from the object of analysis? After all, is not analysis itself also a subjective experience that is intended to produce a personal interpretive result?

Perhaps owing to my research background in disability history, I am partial to methodological approaches that scour the pages of history to seek out traces of unrepresented and underrepresented communities in our societies. The point of my work, summarized here at the risk of sounding hackneyed, is to give a voice to these communities—communities that have historically struggled for the right to exist despite as well as because of their disabilities and for the opportunities for a better quality of life. This research has also led me down a different yet parallel path of personal growth: I feel deeply for the human subjects who are at the center of the narratives I construct. To disclaim the power of emotions would be disingenuous. I could not ignore the anguished pain I felt upon first reading the case of Carrie Buck (institutionalized and sterilized against her will) in early 20th-century America and her uphill fight against a social system bent on condemning any sign of feeble-mindedness. She was forever ensconced in a legacy of martyrdom because of the inhumanity she had suffered. Nor can I suppress the upwelling current (and sometimes sinking weight) of grief and distress each time I bury myself in victims’ harrowing stories about radiation sickness in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan and more recent local and state media reports of residents’ concerns about PFAS contamination and lead exposures from the alleged industrial pollution of drinking water. If these feelings fall under the broad lexical reach of the word “empathy”, then I am proud to identify with an empathetic audience.

There is a reason why I turn to writing. If I could reinvent the metaphor of giving a voice to the voiceless, I see a new significance in restoring emotions to my stories and perspectives—not the formulaic types that evoke sympathy as the be-all and end-all of writing, but the kinds that provide a well-considered context that would frame the writer’s emotional response. The stories I write shape the narratives I tell inside and outside the classroom, in the repertoire of courses I teach here at Hope College and also the everyday conversations I have. Words themselves are a historian’s consummate instruments to disclose thoughtfully an emotional inner self that is inseparable from the context. The singular act of writing, in all its complexity, weaves together the dense substance of words, which impart an emotional complexion to prose. To say this differently, words reveal as much about the emotional state of the writer as they do about the emotional profiles of the characters portrayed and described. That is why when I write, I own my words and take ownership of my emotions. When I speak, I do likewise. This is the emotional responsibility of a historian to himself/herself and to the subjects at hand and my personal response to why history and, more broadly, humanities matter to us. Now more than before.

Alumni Feature: Daniel Owens

Daniel R. Owens
M.Phil Candidate, International Peace Studies
Trinity College Dublin

When I sat down to write this piece about how studying history at Hope has shaped my career and worldview, I found myself unsure of where to begin. Do I write about conducting archival research on the Liberian Civil War and exploring the role of historical narratives in post-genocide Rwanda? What about the semester I spent studying post-conflict transformation in Durban, South Africa? Or perhaps I should devote this space to detail the countless conversations I had with the department’s professors—in their offices, over coffee at Lemonjellos, and even over dinner—about history, yes, but also my aspirations, sense of calling, and fears.

After a few moments staring blankly at my computer, my history training kicked in. Where should I begin? By reviewing what has already been written on this blog, of course! Two themes quickly became evident that mirrored my own experience in the department—the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. I’d like to offer my own perspective on these topics, focusing in particular on critical thinking.

For me, studying history at Hope was not about memorizing dates and events; it was about learning how to analyze messy, competing narratives and ultimately weaving them together into a coherent argument. Through this process, I came to realize that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Exploring the context surrounding a given event or action is often the first, essential step to take in order to unlock explanations (or at least better understand) something that at first glance might seem nearly impossible to comprehend. Allow me to offer three examples of why this matters and how my history training has served me well in this area.

First, as a graduate student in peace studies at Trinity College Dublin, I found that determining potential avenues for resolution to conflicts—be it in Ireland, South Sudan, or Central African Republic—always required a lengthy look back at prior events and the people that shaped (and continued to impact) the conflict.

Second, in my current role working for a leading online travel agency, I’ve learned that how partners and colleagues respond to the requests I make is closely linked to factors that go beyond the specific issue at hand. By keeping things such as their underlying interests and responsibilities as well as their perception of me at the forefront of my mind, I am better positioned to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.

Finally, in keeping with recent trends, one of the overarching themes of 2018 so far has been rapid change. Headlines of dramatic shifts in politics, economic policy, and technology seem to appear on daily (or hourly) basis. It can be exhausting and more than a little stressful to keep up. That said, I’ve noticed that examining the context of each blaring headline can help make things far less startling, enabling me to more easily grasp what is driving these events or actions. In short, my history training has positioned me well to confront the all-important why question.  

Faculty/Alumni Feature: Chad Carlson, ’03

So I’m in a social setting, mingling with a new acquaintance. I’m asked what I do.

“I’m a professor.” Bad start, haha.
“Of what?” Obligatory response.
“The history of sports,” I say, getting uncomfortable. I don’t like where this inquisition is headed.
“So you must know a lot about sports.”
“Sure, I guess,” I answer noncommittally.
“Well then, do you know who won the World Series in 1984?” Ugh.

As a historian, I’m offended by this question and the many like it that I’ve received over the years. History is not trivia. And yet so many people seem to connect sport history with sport trivia, as if my time in grad school was one long training session to acquire orange wedges (Sports and Leisure) in Trivial Pursuit.

But I have a parlor trick that usually satisfies those who ask about my profession. I can name every team that has ever won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship. (This might be my epitaph!) I have this trick down pat not because I study sport history but because I love college basketball.

It’s my love for college basketball that led me to write the book, Making March Madness: The Origins and Early Years of the NCAA and NIT Basketball Tournaments. I knew all the facts long before I began writing the book.

But what separates me from any other college basketball fan is the fact that I’ve studied history. My book is not an almanac of facts. There are a lot of facts in it, but they serve as nails that fasten the floorboards of the story. My book is a history. It’s a reconstruction of the ways that individuals and organizations navigated the social, economic, and political forces of the 1930s and 1940s to create and sustain the college basketball postseason tournament that has become among the most popular events on the annual American sporting calendar.

The story is fascinating to me. The more time I spent at university archives scouring through previously untouched telegrams, handwritten letters, and microfilms, the more amazed I was at the way certain coaches and administrators created and sustained what is now known as March Madness. The tale is unlikely, unusual, and, more importantly, untold.

The tournament had an inauspicious start. When college basketball coaches offered to run a 1939 college basketball national championship tournament under the auspices of the NCAA, two similar events already existed. Third on the scene, without a home base, without many of the top teams in the country, at the end of a decade marked by severe economic depression, and with the uncertainty of escalating international political tensions, the inaugural NCAA tournament actually lost money. Indeed, the NCAA covered a debt of $2,500 to keep the event going in 1940.

In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting committed to paying the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to televise March Madness games. In 2016, the deal was extended for another 8 years, adding $8.8 billion to the contract payout.

This means that a small, poorly attended basketball tournament in 1939 that lost $2,500 has transformed into a mega-sporting event that, 85 years later, makes more than $1 billion per year.

These are some of the facts, the trivia points that people want to know when they ask what I do. And these facts matter. They serve as touchpoints of the past and they flavor the story. But the history, the academic work of understanding human behavior of the past, is in the narrative I’ve created. It’s in the flow, in the trends, and in the arc of the story.

My parlor trick helps me occasionally in Trivial Pursuit and every so often during Trivia Night at the local establishment. But the history of March Madness is so much more complex.

So when you watch March Madness this year, know that there’s a deep, rich, and nuanced story of its origin and early years. The story is compelling and attractive, and it brings an acute and robust context to any facts that anyone can rattle off about the event.

In short, it has a history—a story that I’ve tried to reconstruct as a historian…who also knows some trivia!

Chad Carlson is  Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Hope College. He will be leading a History Colloquium titled “Why March Madness Matters: Reflections on a Popular Sporting Event’s Forgotten History. The talk will take place on Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 pm in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium.

Alumni Feature: How to Answer “What are You Going to Do with That?”

Madalyn Muncy-Piens, Class of 2013, Marketing Specialist for WSM International

If you are a student of history or simply the humanities in general, you get asked the following question A LOT: “So, what are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I’m pretty sure if I had a dollar for every time I was asked that about my studies in English and history, I would be wealthy by the grace of compound interest. I’m sure you would too.

I’m here to tell you that I’m a living, breathing case study of a humanities major who succeeded in heading straight into the corporate world and did not make a stop to graduate school (yet). I have a house and a dog and a retirement account. I’m doing just fine, without a “practical” college degree.

The condescension of that terrible “what-are-you-going-to-do-with-that” question plagued me all through college, and now when I think back, I could have spared myself anxiety over thoughts of myself as a starving artist, or worse — gasp — back working in retail forever if I had met people who had indeed skipped the graduate school route, made a way for themselves in the working world, and also fit my standard of a functioning adult.

So, what will you do with that history major or minor? Or any humanities major or minor for that matter?

You will write well.
Do not underestimate the power of good writing. Seriously. Most of what happens in the work world is now done through the written word. No, it’s not 50-page research papers. It’s email or instant message or blog posts. Being able to clearly communicate is an invaluable skill and you’ll have it.

You will be able to persuade.
Back to writing. I work in marketing so persuading is an important part of my job function. However, it doesn’t matter where you are in the work world, if you can persuade and influence others to take an action, to help you, to not make a terrible business decision, you are winning. Persuasion is part of constructing a thesis, and guess what? Those pesky emails or presentations are thesis statements!

You will be able to speak in front of others.
Maybe I’m biased, but I truly believe that communication is key to success in most jobs. No matter where you work or what job you do, you’ll probably have to speak in a meeting or present a case to your boss. Your training as a historian has included presentations and discussions. Now–thanks to your professors–you can walk in a little more confidently and contribute in a meaningful way.

You will have an understanding of the ramifications of an action.
History majors have amazing critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is scarcer than you realize in the workplace. And you’ll not only use it there, but also, more importantly, in your personal life. You’ll see the big picture while still understanding how everything all fits together. Being able to look to the past for clues and insight regarding the present and future is what historians are trained to do. This skill will help you reflect on your own journey and help you make decisions about where to go next. In that way, I think historians are some of the most resilient people in the world, granted they translate their academic skills to their personal and professional life.

So you may not know all the business jargon or how to write a marketing plan or how to schedule an Outlook meeting. But you’re a liberal art student, so you can learn.

In a world where everything is becoming more interdisciplinary, where everything continues to becoming more connected, we need people who can see beyond the code or beyond the robot. And that’s where you come in. Don’t think that because you aren’t training for a job right now that you can’t or shouldn’t end up working at one. We need the historians in the archive and in the classroom, of course. But we also need them to bring a set of unique perspectives and skills to other professional fields.

If anything, remember that the greatest gift of your liberal arts education is that of being a lifelong learner.  Necessary professional nonsense aside, your ability to ask good questions, to seek truth, to solve problems, and to come to your own conclusions will continue to serve you well. I’m grateful for my education being just that, an education, not training for a job. For that, my life is all the richer, and yours will be too.