Keep Doing the Work

1887 painting of a French teacher presenting nationalist history to his students.

Over the last four years I have rekindled my love for history while also becoming more aware than ever before how complicit the discipline has been in the maintenance of an unjust power structure. Instead of being handmaidens to that power structure we must become, in the words of historian Priya Satia, “the province of mutiny.” We must abandon the conceit that we are mere disseminators of objective facts. We do a disservice to ourselves and to our students when we pretend that neutrality is an acceptable stance. Every story we tell, every fact we recite, and the very curriculum we create involves choices which are inherently political. I think often of something Robin D.G. Kelley said in an interview when asked about how historians can be truthful and political: “I am not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.” The world is not right, yet so often history has been told as if we are exactly where we are supposed to be. In practical terms, what this means for me is that I must work to be more intentional about what I teach; to think through why I present a certain topic or why I discuss that topic in a certain way. I doing this, I have realized that it is too often the case that I simply present material in the same way that I had been taught. That is not good enough. I want to tell better stories, more truthful stories, emphasize different perspectives, include more voices, and break through the distorting effects that racism, nationalism, and imperialism have had on the discipline of history as well as on our world. Have I accomplished this? Absolutely not! Too much of what I bring to my classes are still tools I acquired in the 90’s and early 2000’s from professors who got theirs in the 1960’s and 70’s. But one of the other things I have realized over the last four years is that being a historian is more than just having a degree. It requires an unending process of inquiry, of reflection, of self-criticism, and a willingness to ditch the familiar and make history strange. I find that invigorating, and I hope that when I sit down to do this again during my next review cycle I will be just as dissatisfied with where I am and just as excited to keep doing the work. — JW

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