On Predestination; or, I’ll Be a History Major If I Want, Goddammit!

At some point in the first semester of my senior year of high school, I started to ask my teachers whether they would write letters of recommendation for my college applications. I was (and still am!) very close to some of my teachers, and I wanted to be fair to everyone; I didn’t want any of the teachers I approached to feel as if I was burdening them, nor did I want any of the teachers I didn’t approach to feel left out. I remember in particular asking one English teacher whether a history teacher would be offended if I didn’t ask him for a recommendation.

“No, I think that’s fine,” the English teacher said. “You want to do English, right?”

I didn’t quite meet his eyes. Yes, I was our quizbowl team’s acknowledged “lit person,” and yes, I had always done well in and enjoyed my English classes (the good ones, anyway) and the books we read in them. But I knew even then that I didn’t want to be an English major; I think I knew on some level since middle school that I wanted to do history, and that I wanted to study the people (not the texts) who populate our world. So I told my English teacher, “Yeah, I guess,” and he wrote some of my recommendations. And I applied to seven colleges, and I was accepted to four, and I came to Princeton.

Freshman year, I considered and then quickly discarded sociology. I realized I actually have very little interest in quantitative analysis and charts and graphs and all the other markings of social science methodology. I realized I’m more interested in who people are and were and how they interact and interacted—particularly over a given span of time. I took a class spring semester called Gender and Sexuality in Modern America, and I realized with exciting unequivocality that I really wanted to Study, on some sort of a permanent basis, Gender and Sexuality in Modern America. And so that was it: I started telling people that I’m going to be a history major.

This decision has not been without some resistance, both actual and perceived. I am interested in literature, and in many of the questions literature engenders, and the methods used to read it, as well. I have taken a couple English classes, and in some ways have enjoyed them more than some of my history classes. I think some people are simply surprised that I’m not interested in making the English department my own, given my obvious enthusiasm for reading—and writing. My friends in the English department frequently tease me that theirs is the better discipline, too, and although I know they don’t actually harbor any ill will towards me for my choice of major, I can’t help but feel sometimes as if I have chosen the “lesser” discipline. Sometimes, in the academic blogosphere, for example, and in some conversations I’ve had on campus, there is a higher moral weight placed on academic conversations that deal in abstractions. Some people, I sense, consider it better evidence of intelligence to take an interest in theory-and-criticism type thinking, whether that be through the lens of literature specifically or else in a more amorphous universe of something like queer studies or cultural studies. At Princeton, because the structure of our departments means that there are fewer ways to easily be interdisciplinary (at the undergrad level), many of the folks interested in theory therefore cluster in the literature and language departments. History is seen as solid and unyielding. History is seen as, well, historical, not prone to revolutionary new ways of thinking—and not prone to the more “intellectual” abstraction of literature.

Of course, this is nothing anyone has said to me specifically. But just as it was once assumed that I, the only girl on our quizbowl team, would be the “lit person,” and that the half-dozen boys on the team would cover history and politics and math-science, I feel as if some sort of essential characteristic of my identity is leading people to assume that I Am an English Major. My mother studied literature in her higher education; my father’s field not dissimilarly deals with the very close examination of a specific set of texts. I have been friends with English teachers, English professors, and English students all my life (in, perhaps it should be noted, both senses of “English.” For some reason American anglophiles often seem drawn to literature, though of course I’m no less an anglophile despite doing American history). But I think all this gentle nudging of my academic interests towards literature has caused me to shy away, to do something that’s different from, though still overlaps with, what my friends and my family are doing. Even though I am zeroing in on a really fascinating and rewarding subject for my independent work that’s very history-rooted, I think that my choice of major is as much reactionary, as much not-literature, as anything else. I mean, it’s important work; I think history is very important and I’m proud to be training up, as it were, to contribute to the discipline. But in the back of my mind there’s always this “Everyone expects me to be doing literature; I should be doing literature right now” dynamic.

Today, two different people—English professors, as it happens, whose work and teaching skill and intelligence I value enormously—told me that it’s perfectly all right that I’m planning to study history. That’s been one of the Themes of the Week, in fact, and particularly because my English professors are telling me this. One of them is teaching an American studies course, and I talked with him today about what it means to be part of an interdisciplinary field, and the practice of doing interdisciplinary scholarship. I started thinking about how it’s perfectly acceptable to sit somewhere between straight English and straight history (I use the word “straight” with tongue totally in cheek, because my academic interests are in no way “straight”!) and to use the one to inform the other. It made me realize that although I have chosen history, it doesn’t mean forsaking English. Although I have chosen archives, it doesn’t mean forsaking fiction.

Since I started at university, I’ve learned a great deal from my literature classes and my literary friends not just about how to read but also about how to link abstractions like literary theory to reality, or rather to all sorts of realities. I’m learning not to fear theory, because in certain ways and when not carried to extremes, the abstract extrapolations about the patterns of the world’s function build the bridges between all the fields that I love. It makes it much easier to connect my history to my English to my American studies to my political theory to my anthropology (to name the subjects in which I’m taking classes this semester) and have everything work together in this great intellectual system. It’s actually quite mind-boggling, and of course this is the whole reason I’ve committed myself to the higher education system for the forseeable future. In the ivory tower, this is the sort of thing that can happen.

I think that in high school we’re encouraged to see disciplines as very rigid and immutable. You take six (or however many, in my case it was six) classes in quite well-established subjects that have essentially not changed since they were first instituted in the high-school curriculum. When I asked my English teacher for a letter of recommendation, I was taking English, math, civics/political science, French, computer science, and stagecraft. In other years, I would have taken a lab science instead of comp sci, or a world or European or American history class instead of poli sci, or music instead of theater. But these categories are unquestioned. There is no disagreement in high school about What English Is. There is no disagreement about What Math Is. There is no disagreement about What History Is, or What Poli Sci Is, or What Theater/Performance Is.

Then you get to college, and you realize that these are questions that do not have answers, or at least have so many possible answers that it’s quite impossible to settle on just one. And you realize that living in the thick of intellectual forment just generates more of these really fundamental questions, and what’s more, you realize that it’s perfectly acceptable to work through them and to not have answers to them. It’s perfectly acceptable to declare your concentration and start planning your thesis in history, and yet discover and embrace the practice of reading fiction as if for the first time. It’s perfectly acceptable to let history inform literature, and literature inform history. I love it. I am so profoundly grateful. And what’s more, I feel like I belong here; I don’t feel shut out by some sort of more-theoretical-than-thou dynamic. I get the sense that, in ten or so years, when I’m a little better-educated, I will be an academic with something to contribute to the humanitarian (in the sense of “the humanities”) discourse. That’s a heady feeling—and it’s a feeling for which I’m profoundly grateful.

I guess it would have been about two years ago now that I looked down and muttered when asked, “You want to do English, right?” I had no idea then how much my world would be utterly, utterly changed.

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