Presenting my own research, and finding place in world history

Started off my spring break last weekend with a visit to Savannah, to attend my first history conference. It was a fairly small assembly, the Georgia Association of Historians annual conference, but I was fairly nervous because I was presenting my paper on Young J. Allen and his mission and education work in China. This was my debut  as a historian, more or less, since this is what we do, talk about our research with each other. In a way, this was what I most worried about--concerned that I wouldn't be able to answer a question, or someone would grill me or point out a gaping hole I had somehow missed. It was unnecessary worrying. I've spent awhile on this paper, had the luxury of more time with it than other busy historians and professors have with newer ideas and less structured research topics, so I need not have worried over any hypothetical holes. That is not to say my work on Allen is done--it probably never will be. And my fellow panelists had several very interesting thoughts on avenues to pursue to further develop my paper and argument about the life and times of the Methodist educator. My voice never quavered, and I went away feeling satisfied and more confident. I sometimes have inklings that perhaps I am a fraud, undeserved to have my name down next to PhDs and seasoned professors and professional historians. I feel a little less so each day, and this was a big step in the right direction.

My panel fell in the last session out of five over the weekend. I attended a couple of the ones before it, the highlight being a panel of authors and editors of an upcoming history text for the survey-level world history course at the college level. The collaborators are all professors at University of West Georgia, and what they are creating is inspiring: a textbook, in two volumes, that tells the larger themes and histories of the world using place as the vehicle. Following a roughly chronological order, the author of each chapter takes the history of a specific city in the world that has larger significance in the scope of world history, and, because that author has been selected for their own connection to and expertise on the city, they can convey some of that personal connection to the student. If the work is as successful as the three chapters that were presented, world history will come across in a more personal way than any survey class textbook or method or pedagogy that I ever had--in high school or college.

I have personal beef with world history classes, as I always feel they have failed me. Somehow getting to all the political, social, cultural, linguistic, religious, technological, and other aspects of the human past across in any sort of order is our goal, and I've never felt I got all I could have from them. I get mixed up, twisted around, many important parts fall by the wayside in an effort to cram the "important" stuff. Ironic that I really do enjoy history, but have never done well in my own world history classes--literally I have poor grades to show for them.

My master's program so far has facilitated an ongoing conversation (with myself, but also with professors and classmates) about place, about what it means to residents and foreigners and immigrants and displaced people. About what it means to have a place or to be without one, about the literal and also figurative meaning and position of place in American history and world history, in family history, and local and regional history. Hearing that there will soon be a survey class textbook based on place, that conveys the complexity and drama of our global past via Xian, Crete, Mecca, Samarkand, Cape Town, Paris, Berlin, Dubai--it truly gives me hope for a course that I have had a lot of issues with in my own experience.

(The person who conceived the concept for this book is Elaine MacKinnon, who chaired the panel I attended. The book's working title is Places of Encounter: Time, Place and Connectivity in World History, slated to be published by CQ Press. Couldn't find much on this book online yet, but let's hope it gets more exposure soon.)