Friday, May 21, 2010

Remembering the Joy When the Market is "Grim"

As a current Ph.D. candidate in American history I often feel that the air is filled with dire news. Having a J.D. gives me greater security, but pursuing any type of academic job now is a risk, which is why I sometimes get well-meaning emails titled "depressing article you might want to read." They forward things like this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on how “[g]raduate school in the humanities is a trap,” this LHB post on the “grim” job market for history Ph.D.s., and this Volokh discussion of the "awful" entry-level law market. As long as I don't smell schadenfreude, I don't mind. I applaud those who seek to give honest counsel to current and prospective graduate students. But this post is not about the many reasons to be cautious, pragmatic, and anxious. Rather, it’s about the joy of doing historical work and the reason I hope to keep at it.
A few weeks ago, I received a different sort of email. The subject line was “Flemming v. Nestor,” the name of a little known Supreme Court case that I wrote about in a 2008 article. The sender was a stranger to me. The message made me smile all day long. In fact, after pausing to consider whether it was a cruel joke (on April Fool’s Day, a devious friend convinced me that he had been stabbed and needed me to call his mom), I’ve been smiling ever since.
The email was from a relative of Barbara Nestor, a feisty radical who was married to the Nestor (Fedya) of the case’s title. Drawing on a terrific oral history that I found at the Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive, I was able to include in the article lots of details about the Nestors’ lives: Barbara’s efforts to school her children in labor history, Fedya’s dreams of becoming a great inventor, the difficulty of finding a lawyer to take Fedya’s case (after immigration officials deported him for his political affiliations, the Social Security Administration refused to pay out his accrued Social Security benefits; a lawyer willing to challenge such an action, even as McCarthyism waned, was hard to come by). This relative of Barbara’s wrote to thank me for giving context to the case and for bringing this family story – which she had heard only in bits and pieces – back to life. She also shared with me her recollections of Barbara, a woman who had come to feel like my own lovable and eccentric relative. She closed her email with her take on the point of the article: that through the law, the lives of ordinary people can shape our future.
This message was significant to me on several levels. First, it affirmed my belief in writing accessibly. As academics, we should write for one another; we should develop ideas that are subtle and complex. But I like to think, as I toil over this dissertation, that we can engage non-specialists, too. Second, the email made me appreciate Wikipedia. Professors are understandably wary of students' heavy reliance on this source, and many observers have noted problems with the “wiki” method, but the website is an important gateway. The author of this email found my article through a Wikipedia link, and thankfully – another point to ponder – the Law and History Review made my article free and accessible to her (via History Cooperative).
Most important, the email helped me remember why I chose this path, despite the uncertainty. To me, the best part about writing history is not, as we sometimes joke, that dead people don’t talk back. It is that sometimes, somehow, they do.

What keeps you all going?
Image credits: Dorothy Healey, Barbara Nestor's daughter