Tomorrow is the first day of classes at my university. Last Friday, the campus was almost eerily quiet, but by the time I arrive at my office in the morning, thousands of students will have returned to their dorms and filled the parking lots. January is always a harder time of year to start fresh than September—the dark and the cold take their toll, but nonetheless it’s usually a time of excitement and new beginnings.
This particular January is tougher. Like so many others, I felt like I tripped and flopped my way through the end of the fall semester. November and December are a blur. I spent a great deal of time in the last two months questioning whether my profession has value for society, and whether I have anything to contribute with my voice. That resulted in losing my voice. Not literally, but rather my ability to convey thoughts in writing. I’ve never had writer’s block this severe. For weeks, I could barely manage to send emails, and the only writing project on which I got any work done was one with a due date in December.
In the past few weeks, however, I feel like I’m coming back. I’ve met a few writing deadlines and caught up on a few on which I’d fallen behind. I know that the study of history has value both inherently and in society. I know that my voice is important. I need pep talks more often than I used to (and I have many on Twitter to thank for discussing their approach to reclaiming solid ground). And I know, even on my least enthusiastic days, that this is the most important moment in my life to engage in studying the past.
History is not a panacea, of course. There are limits to historical parallels, much as I occasionally indulge them myself (is this moment most like 1798? 1828? 1850? 1861? 1932? 1968? Give me enough time, and I’ll come up with a few more). History cannot predict the future. What we must do in our study is engage with how we got to the present moment with clear eyes. We need to understand all the factors, whether structural to society or particular to the whims of individual historical actors, that have brought our path here.
Tomorrow in my classroom I’ll undertake to convince a new group of students about the value of studying the past. This is the job I signed up for.