Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Education major turned historian part two

I wrote most of this post last spring, before the world went crazy. I hesitated to post it in the context of so many bigger, harder events taking place, but I share it because it is a testimony of God's goodness, and because I believe remembering becomes even more important in chaos and pain. I hope that this reminder of his faithfulness to me is in some way encouraging to you, too, reader.

When I look back, I sometimes question why I wasn't a history major from the beginning, but I know the answer.

After I ran into my wonderful history GTA on Thursday night, I continued to waffle about the decision over the weekend and into the next week. My niece was visiting and I asked her, "Should I study history or teaching?" and she said something like "Do what you want to do." Sage advice from a four-year-old, but at that moment unhelpful. The problem was that maybe I did want to be a teacher — after all, I still loved kids. Education was still important to me. I didn't want to major in history if that would only be exchanging temporary relief for lasting regret.

However, after meeting with my professor and with a history advisor, I came to the realization that I don't have to hate all careers and love one exclusively to pick that (plus I learned that in some states and in private schools, teachers don't have to have a degree in education, so I wasn't actually closing the door on teaching forever). I was reassured that history majors can, in fact, get jobs. And I had my first advising appointment where I walked away feeling that I was two inches above the ground instead of walking away seething. I texted my two friends and said "I don't have to decide until October 17th [my enrollment date], but maybe the smile I can't wipe off my face is a good indicator?"

I continued to seek advice that week, but it was really just for form's sake; my heart had already decided what I wanted, even if my head hadn't. I realized that I am truly passionate about history and have been for years. I wasn't switching majors just to get away from education; I was doing what I loved.

While I felt enormous freedom about this decision, I had a niggling discomfort about it. Before I started college, I knew I wanted to minor in history for my own enjoyment, but I never considered majoring in history. Though I may have dreamed about working in an archive and translating dusty documents, I only ever considered it as something I would do in "my other life." Even if I managed to get a job in some obscure library in Europe, filled with documents needing analysis, how could I justify happily holing myself away in an archive when there is so much need in the world?

By contrast, I did not know for sure that I wanted to major in elementary education, but it seemed the thing to do. As a teacher, you have an opportunity to directly impact the next generation and be Jesus's hands and feet to a vulnerable population. As a teacher, I would know that what I was doing every day was of eternal worth. I could go to bed feeling good about how I spent the day. (Side note: in actual reality, I was even less invested in this field, as I hoped to get married and become a stay-at-home mom before ever using my degree.)

I realize now that this objection was really based on a pretty narrow (and privileged) view of the world. In this picture, only about five careers could serve God: teachers, doctors, midwives, pastors, and missionaries. And maybe chiropractors. :) Which means that only a small percentage of people in the world are honoring God with their careers and only the educated even have access to serving Him. And though I would have said that of course God can be glorified in any job and sure we can be a witness in the workplace, I guess I really didn't believe it. It seemed like empty words that we just say to make businessmen feel better for not wanting to sell all their possessions and become overseas missionaries.

In addition, the decision to major in elementary education was largely out of a false identity — a belief that teaching was what a 'good' person would do, whereas history would just be to please myself. It was less that I had a servant's heart and really desired to live purposefully, and more that I desired to feel like my days were meaningful. But in any job, not least teaching, there are days when you spend hours doing terribly mundane things that seem to have no connection to eternity, so if I'm banking my assurance on "doing something important" then I'm going to have a lot of days that end in anxiety over my contribution to eternity.

But at the beginning of October 2019 I didn't fully understand these things. So although my heart decided in less than a week what it wanted to do, it still felt like a decision that perhaps I had no right to make. I had prayed about it, but felt no clear leading. I put off making the decision until I could talk to a spiritual mentor that weekend. She gave me plenty of assurance that history was important and not just a selfish decision. I was encouraged by her enthusiasm and emailed my advisors the next day to announce I was leaving them.
In less than ten days, I had completely changed the course of my life. I felt great peace and joy in the decision, but still couldn't quite answer to myself whether there could be work of eternal worth in a history career. 

But God is so good to us and so faithful. Over the next two months, he confirmed in my heart in so many ways that I was on the right path. Not least was the constant joy that would bubble up, no matter how rough the day, every time I remembered that I was no longer an elementary education major. I don't mean that I was excited for the semester to end so I could be done with my classes; already I felt so much peace. It was like spending all of your life in a place that doesn't speak your language, but not realizing it. Simply discovering that your language is real and valid provides so much relief, because you're released from the pressure of trying to fit with the people speaking a foreign language. Over a year later, whenever it occurs to me that I'm no longer an education major and that I get to be a member of the history department, I still can't keep a smile from my face.

But at first I didn't trust my feelings. The heart is deceitful above all things, you know. I believed that remembering was important — telling stories about people who have been forgotten by history. But in a world that is destined to end, is remembering important to God?

Short answer for those wanting to shut this page and move on with their lives: yes.

In the month following the decision to change majors, parts of scripture began to jump out at me, where God over and over gave an injunction to remember. Festivals and alters were established by God so that the Israelites would remember his goodness. 

And remembering is also part of restorative justice. In November 2019, I wrote a research paper on the persecution of Roma Gypsies during the Holocaust. Their story is largely untouched by history books — at most they state "Nazis persecuted Jews, Gypsies, and Poles," and then go on to exclusively focus on Jewish persecution, ignoring the racially-motivated mass genocide that the Roma also experienced. Today, Roma continue to be discriminated against by society and government policies across Europe. As I wrote, I couldn't help wondering if things might be different for them today if the "never again" sentiment so often connected to the Jewish Holocaust was applied to the Roma as well.

And because God is more kind to us than we deserve, that was not the end of it. In the beginning of December, things fell into place to secure a museum internship for the spring semester and my favorite history professor offered to do an independent study course with me. Both of these were wonderful opportunities that gave me clarity about what I want to do with my degree (and were only the beginning of a year of discovery and blessing as I continued to explore my field).

If I'm honest, while I have never regretted my decision for an instant, I still wonder sometimes if my motives were good. When I spend five (or ten) hours staring at a computer screen working on a paper, I may enjoy it but still battle the feeling that I wasted a God-given day. I worry that I love this field too much, that I'm too attached to this world. But in those moments, I remind myself that loving the world that God created — that he said was very good — is not the problem. Finding joy in working hard, in meeting people, and in understanding new ideas is not the same thing as putting my career, my goals, my school, etc. over Jesus.

That's all for today, readers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Shocking voyage!

Bonsoir lecteurs! 

Yes, it's been a year since I posted. I hardly need explain that 2020 was a year for the books, but I will do so anyway, because its significance for me wasn't even c---d related.

In 2019 I changed my major to history. This was one of the best decisions I ever made, and in 2020, I was extremely blessed to explore my new major in greater depth. Over the course of the year, I interned at two different local history museums, worked as a research assistant for a professor in my department, vastly improved my French (and started learning German!) and applied for an accelerated master's program in history at my university. And more to the point of this post, I made two decisions which have dramatically altered my daily life. First, I decided to take up an independent research project to prepare for my senior thesis/master's research. Second, I applied, was accepted, and was miraculously approved to spend a semester studying abroad in France, where I am now residing.

Which is why I am again taking up my figurative pen to expound upon topics which I hope are of interest to others beside myself. (Also, it's almost 10pm here and this matinal creature has to somehow stay up till 11:00 pm to attend a meeting which is being held online in my hometown at 4:00 pm their time. I have an 8:00 am class tomorrow, so I am greatly in need of some motivation to stay awake another hour.)

Perhaps I ought to be pursuing my research, but after flipping through 300 issues of Le Petit Marseillais (no exaggeration — and that doesn't count the other publications I browsed before settling on LPM for the basis of my research), I am not terribly anxious to jump back into my work.

Not to say that I am not enjoying myself. I actually do like my research. Due to the last-minute news that I was approved to depart for France, I was not as productive as planned in January and got a slow start, which caused a dip in my motivation. Then, my lack of success in finding useful articles was discouraging. It still is, sometimes, but as I persevere, I have also found reading Le Petit Marseillais to be vastly amusing. 

Likely you are aware, dear lecteur, that the newspapers of the fin de siècle are un p'tit peu different than the newspapers of today. The front page is normal enough, containing an update on the current international news (such as the Russo-Japanese war), information on local elections, and the occasional discourse on French grammar. The usual stuff.

On the second page, it gets more interesting. Headlines boldly report on the fate of children attacked by dogs, husbands poisoned by their wives, and villagers burnt to a crisp in cottage fires. People are crushed by trains, run over by automobiles, tromped on by horses, stabbed by their brothers, or merely the victims of a "horrible accident!" which must be too terrible to describe in a single phrase. There are explosions, mine accidents, and at least one attempted suicide every week. It's only a wonder that anyone made it out of 1905 alive!

(The animal kingdom is no less a dangerous place to live. Horses are electrocuted and "automobilisme" seems to be precipitating the end of the canine race.)

Naturally this is all very tragic, but after reading three or four headlines describing "shocking death" in every issue, one starts to feel amused (and eventually fatigued) by the information. If I was writing a paper on nineteenth-century French attitudes towards death, I would have a wealth of information. As it is, my eyes glaze over and I scroll to the next page. 

There I scan the regular sections: the advertisements (Never-fail cure for hernias! British sewing machines! Weight loss pills with no side effects!), the report on yesterday's weather, updates on the daily departures from Marseille's port, and of course, the section devoted to "grèves." One needs a daily section for "grèves" or strikes in a French newspaper because it wouldn't be France if someone wasn't on strike. Only if a strike is particularly widespread or otherwise unique does it make the front page. Otherwise, it is confined to its own little section, like the stock update and the list of local concert showtimes: worthy of mention but not of notice.

Such is France.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A holy coincidence

I recently ran into a former English professor, whom I've been reluctant to tell about changing my major. It may be silly, but I felt awkward about it because he wrote a recommendation for my application to the education program. When I told two separate family members about it, they had different reactions. One said, "Well, just explain that education wasn't challenging and you wanted a challenge. He'd understand that." The other said, "You could say, 'I want to teach but I didn't like the system they were teaching us or the way they were teaching it.'"

What is interesting about these two reactions is that both said their comments matter-of-factly, as if they were just putting into words something I already knew. But the fact is, I wouldn't have used either of those two phrases to explain why I changed my major. Both reasons are true, but aren't comprehensive enough. I actually don't know what one or two sentences I could say, however, to simplify the massive (though fast) process that took me to a new major . When I tell people, I say something different every time.

I apologize ahead of time if this post (ok, let's be honest, it's going to take more than one) is just overly lengthy navel-gazing. It is often said to write what you know, but not often enough said that we really write to know. I suppose the main reason I want to write this out is so that I can figure out that phrase or sentence that the answer to "why I changed my major" really boils down to. (yes I just ended a sentence with a preposition.)

To start at the beginning...

My imaginary future self

I went into college certain that I would never change my major. There were multiple reasons for this. Because I love children and am passionate about education, it just seemed to make sense that I be a teacher. Sure, the public education system makes me crazy, but all the more reason to have good teachers in it, right? I knew I loved history, but I didn't see that as a career. Therefore, teaching seemed like the only job for me and thus elementary education the only major. I realize now that it was also based on pride; I wasn't going to be like "those people" who change their majors as often as they change their socks. I knew what I was doing and I was not going to take more than four years to do it.

Hahaha. Pride goeth before the fall. Only in this case, God was merciful enough that I fell off my high horse and into a green valley (mixing my metaphors here. I know.)

On September 25, in the middle of the fifth week of school, I felt myself to be a mass of tensions barely contained within a human frame. Since starting college two years ago, I have never had much school spirit. I've never felt like I belonged or really enjoyed college. Yes, there have been some professors I liked and a couple of good classes, but in all, it was a difficult time. I struggled to keep myself grounded in the present and not pine away missing high school or longing to be a stay-at-home mom. I prayed that God would use me in the place he put me, that he would enable me to love my classmates who made me feel like a two-headed alien, and that I would not just pick up a degree but actually grow as a result of these four short years. And yet, in July I told my dad that "School drains the life out of me," and really believed it. I went into this year feeling discouraged, that despite my prayers I had complained my way through the past two years, squandering them.

So it's not like school had been a picnic so far, but on this day the tensions began to come to a head. I felt both a strong desire to be a good student, to pursue my assignments and readings not "because I have to" but to actually learn from them. I didn't just want to speak enough in class to get a good participation grade, but to listen to my professors because I respect them. And yet it felt like half of what we were doing was just pointless busywork. I also vacillated between wanting to please my professors and not make waves, and wanting to completely rebel against the ideologies and structures that they pound into the heads of education students as gospel truth (while simultaneously saying there is no truth...). Should I do my best in classes whether they're meaningful or not, or scorn the entire program? And to what extent is it good and healthy to examine the situation and release tension by talking about my feelings, before it becomes complaining?

Into that mix add the tension resulting from my own background colliding with the established education system, which would no doubt be taught in any university. Even schools that explore alternative education models to some degree are still highly systematized. You are told, again and again, that for children to learn, you must have a lesson plan. Any good lesson plan must have an objective. And any objective must have a way of measuring it (e.g. a test or other form of assessment). If you just do fun activities that are disconnected from assessments and objectives, your children will not learn. While in class, I could start to nod and think, That makes sense. Then I would leave class and it was like a veil was lifted from over my eyes: I would remember my own schooling and that of the children I grew up with. In my entire educational experience up until college, I am certain my mother never wrote out lesson plans and objectives, let alone conducted regular assessments. We did do fun activities like visiting an organ company when studying Bach, "just because." And yet somehow I managed to learn or at least retain just as much as my public-schooled classmates. So how could I accept the mantra that students will only learn when they have objectives and assessments?

On this particular afternoon, after viewing "a few clips" (15 minutes of video) my professor had sent out for the next morning's class, which overlapped and just repeated information from our previous discussions, I texted two of my dearest friends, "WHAT IS THE POINT. WHY AM I HERE. Switching to engineering looks pretty good". At this point, however, I didn't seriously think of another major as an option; "switching to engineering" had been a running joke in my household since I started down the education path and found it lacking. After venting about all my various conflicting feelings to the same friends, I wrote, "I don't know that I would choose education if I was a freshman today but I'm too far in to change majors."

Underscoring these tensions was the contrast between my classes. Since I started college I was a history minor. My one history class last fall was the best 150 minutes of the week. This created yet another tension, with my love for my history classes contrasting with my general resentment towards my university in general. Three weeks into school I was already mourning the end of this class. I had one class left for my minor and I decided that I would do whatever it took to make sure I was taking a class from the same professor the next semester. Because of student teaching, education students can't take any non-education classes their senior year, which meant I had to finish my last history class in the spring semester.

The morning after my day of tensions, the spring schedule came out. I was reading my Bible, a little after 6:00, when I remembered this. Like the good, focused Christian that I am, I couldn't contain my curiosity and set my Bible aside for a minute to pull up the class schedule. I quickly put my professor's name in the search bar. Only to discover that he wasn't teaching any classes. Well, folks, this is a good reason not to let distractions come into your devotional times. The rest of my quiet time I had a hard time focusing because I was just crushed. My history minor, the only thing that had ever meant anything to me at KU, was coming to an end. Not only that, but my last class would have to be something just squeezed into my schedule, not a joyful and wonderful experience.

So, feeling rather dejected, I went to my 8 am class. I had started to actually make some connections in my education classes. I don't remember if I told my acquaintances that day about being sad about having only one history class left, but I did spend most of the next four hours with them chatting. During these two classes, we had a lot of space for "working" or for discussion, which meant that most of the class time was not spent learning class materials and a lot of time could be spent doing whatever one wanted. Thus, I had a fun morning in laughing with my classmates, though I felt a niggling sense of guilt for not being a "good" student.

That afternoon, I met with a student who was interested in joining a campus organization in which I'm a leader. She was a pre-law student and told me about how she likes reading about cases and studies legal documents in her free time. And it struck me that I don't download articles about ESL methods to read for fun. When I'm researching for a history paper, however, I get distracted by non-relevant but interesting articles and download them to read in my spare time. And if it made so much sense for her to be studying the thing that got her blood pumping, might it be possible that I should study history?

I went back to campus for my last class, at 5:00. Some of my same classmates were in this class, but for whatever reason the people I had laughed and chatted with in the morning were no longer interested in talking. By the time we got out, I felt sad, tired, and lonely. At almost 7:00 pm, I stepped on a bus to go home. And then I saw Amy.

She was the TA in my wonderful history class and we'd ridden the bus together before and chatted a little. I didn't know her that well (this was only the fifth week of class, remember), but when she asked how I was and I said "Okay" and she said, "Really?" I let it all out. I told her that I was in education and it was frustrating and I was maybe kind of sort of considering changing my major to history, except that I was concerned that if I did history I would just be doing it to enjoy college and would regret it later because I wouldn't end up with a job. We rode the bus to the same stop and then stood outside her apartment (she lives across the street from me) talking for another twenty minutes. She listened and reassured me and gave me great advice and encouraged me to talk to my history professor for his perspective (which I had wanted to do but I didn't want to bother him). And when I left the conversation, I thought clearly, "This was a God-moment, a holy coincidence. Whether I change my major or not, that was the hand of God." At the end of a weird day, filled with all kinds of emotions, it was exactly the ending I needed.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A different kind of winter break

Tomorrow, I'll be back in school. It's rather a weird feeling; I always have so much I intend to get done, but usually I do get it done, and also read two or three novels and play the piano and see friends and drink buckets of tea. Winter break has always seemed too short to travel, yet can't really be said to go fast, because all the things I'm doing are of my own volition and thus aren't rushed.

This break has been unlike any other. I spent six days out of state at an international student ministry conference. I have been writing applications for scholarships for a summer study abroad program (!!). As with other breaks, I have done some mending and cooking, but honestly cooking isn't bringing me as much joy as it used, so I've been procrastinating on that.

I've also been doing various things that are unlike any other break because... I am no longer an education major. I am a blissfully happy and incredibly blessed history major. This has led to time spent scheduling a museum internship and brushing up on my French in preparation for studying it this semester.

What I have not been doing: sleeping in, exercising regularly, drinking tea, or reading novels. Until I got sick a few days ago, that is, in which time I slept 10 hours, took a nap, finished two books (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and Hi Hitler!) and drank several cups of tea to compensate for my relatively tea-less break. I also became so brain dead that I culled probably a hundred pins from my Pinterest and even considered watching Downton Abbey (reserved for the very sickest days when my brain is functioning at such a low level that a doctor would probably pronounce me dead). The couple days leading up to school have been less productive than I planned, but such is life. It is good to be reminded that the world can indeed go on functioning if I do none of the things on my planner.

And yet, it has been such a good break too, even if different or less productive than previous years. I am so incredibly blessed by the friends I have seen (each and every one of you, if you're reading this post), the time at the conference, and, even if I haven't been less busy, a change of pace from the school year.

I am also excited to go back to school, which is a completely new thing for me. This is directly related to the above, namely, the major change and Vision Conference. I intended to write a post about the process of changing my major months ago (it was official the second week of October) but the draft is currently about three million words long, and that's way too much to bother with if only I care two figs about it. So if you're reading this, let me know if you are curious about the long, multifaceted story that led to me changing my major (something I swore I'd never do yet accomplished only 10 days after I first considered it) and I will persevere and share it with you.

If not, the short story is that history is and always has been my passion but I didn't think that I could or should get a job if I majored in history. Then I learned that I could, so I did. Now I am going into a semester enrolled in Elementary French II and three history courses (one being an independent study with my favorite professor), as well as doing an internship at a tiny local museum. Does it get any better than that??

And now I need to finish mending some socks. Because whether I like a productive winter break or not, it needs to be done.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

An Inspector Calls: Movie Review

I used to review movies because I really liked them, or because I couldn't find any other reviews that touched on what I consider the important points (e.g. faithfulness to a book or era, level of "mature" content). I no longer have time to write reviews just because I like something; rather, there has to be something I feel the desire to talk about. And this movie definitely fulfills that.

To give a brief summary, An Inspector Calls is about the visit of an inspector (the one and only David Thewlis) to the home of a typical British upper middle class family in 1912, after the suicide of a young lower class woman. It is important to point out that this is not a murder mystery. He does not ask them "Where were you at 5:18 last Tuesday?" and the movie does not end (spoiler alert!) with hauling off a hardened criminal to prison. Rather, though this movie does not quote scripture, it explores the question "Am I my brother's keeper?"

All of the members of this family would be described as "good people" by their own set and seem like an ordinary bunch, but it is revealed throughout the movie that each of their lives intersected with that of Eva Smith, the dead girl, in some way.

Each of the characters had an opportunity to do good to this girl and each instead put their own interests first. Without wanting to give too much away, this includes doing direct harm as well as looking the other way when a fellow creature was in need. Once again, I would note that most of these characters would not be described as "criminal" or seen as some kind of aberrant monster. They simply chose to act out of fear, pride, spite, and selfishness instead of loving their neighbor.

I also think it's interesting that the play this movie was based on premiered in 1945, directly after the end of World War II. At this moment in history, the world was grappling with the question of complicity in regards the horrible genocide in Europe. How much were ordinary Germans (and Europeans generally) who never held a gun responsible for the destruction of their neighbors?

It's clear that the person releasing Zyklon B into the gas chambers is guilty of murder, but what about the manufactures of the poison? What about the guy driving the train filled with prisoners? What about the townspeople who lived close enough to concentration camps to hear what was going on but did nothing?

These aren't easy questions. History is messy and there are no cut and dried answers because people are messy. I mean, I can't always fully tell you my motivation for actions I took yesterday, even if I wanted to be honest and leave a clear historical record.

Which is why I appreciated this movie. It (and, I presume, the original play) doesn't wrap up in a nice and tidy ending. Half of the characters are concerned only about covering up their involvement in the life and death of Eva Smith. The other half are filled with guilt over the part they have played in driving her to her own destruction.

This is not to say that they "as good as murdered her" or to excuse her for any sin that she committed or to lay the blame for that at their door. Yet, the Bible does say that it is better to have a millstone tied around your neck than to lead another person into sin, which seems to me to say that we do have a weighty responsibility to our neighbors and can have an effect on whether or not they choose sin. And certainly we have the responsibility to pursue justice for the vulnerable — God even tells the Israelites that bringing him sacrifices and following ritual laws means nothing if we are participating in injustice.

It also struck me that so many of the situations in this movie were related to the fact that Miss Smith was a woman. Because she was a woman she was paid less. Because she was a woman she couldn't find a job. Because she was a woman she had little choice in becoming a man's mistress because she didn't have any other option. And further, because she was a lower class woman, she couldn't make a good marriage or live a life of idleness. In that time of the world — and in many parts of the world today — the powerlessness of her gender intersected with her class to create a no-win situation.

And then this speech:
"Eva Smith is gone. You can't do her any more harm. You can't do her any good either. You can't even say 'I'm sorry.' But just remember this: there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives and hopes and fears and suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone on this earth. We are responsible for each other."
It reminded me rather of A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge can't go back and marry his sweetheart. He can't change the past. But he can choose how he treats Bob Cratchit.

I cringe as I write this, lest I come across sounding more like a moralist than a Christian. To be clear, I don't think it's possible to live our lives putting the other at the center instead of ourselves. And I hope that no one reads this and finds themself in the position of going from selfish motivation to motivation of guilt, "ought to," or duty. We have the power to choose selflessness and love and humility and even our own death only when God is at the center of our lives, not ourselves or our neighbors (wow, a lot of italics in one sentence). Because we love him, we can obey him and love other people. And we get to love him because he first loved us.

What is the conclusion to this philosophical sketch? I'm not sure. What does it stir in you? Where in your life are you brushing past the other, are you leaving an unexamined impact?

One thing that comes to mind for me is my purchases. Friends, it's really expensive to be healthy. Yes, processed food costs more than bulk ingredients, but there are times when it is simply a lot more expensive to choose the zero-waste, organic, ethical choice. And it feels like, is it really worth it? Can I justify spending twice as much on this item because it feels somehow better?

To be clear, not everyone has the budget to go plastic free and organic. I don't have that budget. I guess all I'm saying is that yes, it is harder to choose the road less travelled. It is way easier to buy clothes made in a factory run by slave labor. It is always going to be cheaper to buy conventional produce. But the point is, "We don't live alone on this earth." My choice to buy jeans from a thrift store or Target affects someone else's life. And when I weigh the many factors that lead to that choice, I hope at least one of them is Eva Smith.