As appearing in the Rocky Mountain Collegian.
Editor’s note: Like Humans of New York’s “daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets,” Humans of CSU tells the stories of the people who populate our campus. Written by Collegian staff and told in first person from the subject’s point of view, this series aims to make each individual on campus relatable.
Intellectual off-roading with a punk rock heart
My first book was a study of ideas about family and gender as I saw them deployed amidst warfare among borderlands peoples — English, French and Native Americans — in colonial America. I was told by peers and senior scholars that I couldn’t write that book because it was over-determined. Everybody knew that war was already about gender, and it was so obvious that it was about masculinity that I should just shut up. But then they told me that I didn’t have any evidence to prove my point that it was about gender, so I should just shut up, and then they told me I was overlooking the fact that men love their wives, so I should just shut up. And I was like, “Yeah, this idea is very threatening to you for some reason, so I think I have to pursue it.” I’m a little perverse in that respect. If somebody tells me I can’t do something — well, you know.
I grew up in Sylvania, Ohio — suburban Toledo, Ohio. It was a little dull, which, when I was a young person, I didn’t appreciate. But as an older person, dull is just fine with me. At my age in life, a boring life is what you want. Excitement is not good news in your late 40s. Excitement in most people’s lives is that they’re experiencing a severe illness or they’re getting a divorce or they’re experiencing some sort of professional crisis. That’s why I’m really good with the totally boring life right now.
(When I was younger,) I thought my parents were horribly boring people and wanted to escape, so I listened to a lot of punk rock music and copped some bad attitudes, but also my escape was going to college, which I think was true for a lot of people. This might sound strange for somebody who went to grad school 25 years ago, but the older I get, the more and more pleasure I take in the life of the mind. I always enjoyed it, in reading and in writing and in thinking about ideas, thinking about people in the past and how they lived, how they dealt with challenges, and I just think it’s enormously satisfying. I like college so much I decided never to leave — and, in fact, I never have.
I’ve been either a student or a professor for almost 30 years. It never gets old, and I never feel like I’m making that much progress, but it’s still a lot of fun. I always knew that I wanted to study early American history, at least from the time I decided to become a historian. I was going to college and grad school in and around Philadelphia, so that part of the past seemed very present and very accessible. My interests have moved far beyond early Philadelphia, but I think that might have been key to my interest in that field in particular. As opposed to studying Russian or Chinese history or Argentinian history, I was in Philadelphia and it seemed like a very interesting thing to think about.
I think, as I get older, I’ve come to see working with young people is a privilege. You guys are the future. As I get older, the more and more I appreciate that. I appreciate the energy you have and I appreciate the ideas you bring to class, and I don’t see teaching as a one-way conversation. I want to hear what the students think. That helps me serve them better.
CSU students, I’ve always found to be open-minded, curious. I’ve been very lucky — my students all seem to be eager to hear what it is I have to say and eager to engage with the material that I present to them. You know, life really kicks you in the butt — I have some students who are really dealing with a lot of difficult issues right now. It just highlights for me what a privileged life I’ve led, never having to deal with some of these issues. I feel lucky, but I also feel very sad for some of my students right now who are dealing with some stuff.
I feel like I’ve made the opportunity to be more creative since publishing my first book. I mean, I think my first book was pretty creative — people told me I couldn’t write it, so I had to write it to prove them wrong. But I think as I’ve gotten older, won tenure and become established as a scholar in my field, I think you can take more chances and have a little bit more fun. Go off-roading a little bit, intellectually. You never know, you might end up on the regular path, but it might take you some interesting directions.
I think one of the hallmarks of an intellectual is that she is increasingly humble about everything she doesn’t know and will never know. I think anybody who thinks that they’ve got it all, and they know everything that they need to know, is really not thinking that deeply or that hard. I have made it a practice never to tell a student or a young colleague that she can’t write a book or write an article about something. I certainly ask questions, and I probe if I think that the young scholar might be overlooking evidentiary problems, but I never tell people that they can’t do something. I try to encourage them to make it better, whatever they’re going to do. But in the end, they’re the ones that have to convince themselves that it’s worth doing and pull it off. So I try to be supportive.
You have to believe in yourself. You’re the only person who cares enough about your intellectual work to see it through. Nobody’s going to give you the time or the money to do it unless you stand up and demand it.
There were a lot of people who were supportive of me. There wasn’t just a chorus of naysayers, but the naysayers did make me feel like, “Oh, this is really sticking in some people’s craws. I think I should stick it in there further.” I thought it was important. I know, I look like I’m a nice, middle-class mom, but I have this secret punk-rock heart, in my very boring way.