Thursday, November 22, 2012

Steinberg and Applebees

I left my doctoral program in modern British history many years ago.  My decision to leave this program was a long and painful one.  I had logical reasons to quit, but just as many logical reasons to stay.  On the one hand, I was unhappy, profoundly unhappy, with life in Urbana, Illinois.  I hated living in Central Illinois, and doubted whether I had the capacity to conduct substantive research over a long period of time.  On the other hand, I had a master's degree in history already, and was poised to pass my preliminary exams, get my thesis proposal excepted, and get on with the business of overcoming the last real hurdle to earning my doctorate.  What should I do?

In the end, a friend helped me to make the decision by using a peculiar argument:  once I had passed my preliminary exams and gotten my proposal accepted by my doctoral committee, why shouldn't I move to Chicago to begin the process of research?  After all, if moving to Chicago distracted me from my goal of writing my dissertation, then I wouldn't have ended up finishing my dissertation anyhow, not even if I had stayed in Urbana.  I accepted the argument.  Truly, I was living in an intolerable state of indecision and couldn't handle Urbana any longer.  I needed to clear my mind and get to civilization as quickly as possible.

I sometimes suspect that my dread of Central Illinois stems from my profound and therefore unsettling familiarity with the place.  Although I hated to admit the fact, living in Urbana felt like home on some primordial level.  I had lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Montreal, but as a young boy, I was taught to love the heartland by both of my parents, each of who had spent plenty of time among farmers.  As a boy, I remember hearing my mom extoll the virtues of the smell of cow manure whenever we drove through open farmlands.  My dad too loved, and still loves, the farmlands.  When I asked him whether he wouldn't have preferred to live someplace with mountains or at least hills, he said matter of factly:  "Not at all.  I've always felt that this is the way land out to be.  Flat."

The realization that I was home came to me once when a friend and I walked into an Urbana diner and some stranger, guttural greeting unconsciously escaped my lips, something akin to what "howdy" must be like in the South.  My California friend turned to me and said:  "You're one of them.  You belong here."  And so I did. My ability to blend in with my Central Illinois surroundings did nothing to make me want to stay in town.  Even now, well over a decade later, I find myself unsettled by my Indiana surroundings, and unsettled precisely because I feel that I know my neighbors too well.  If I don't prick myself to keep from lapsing into a Midwest stupor, I could be content to spend every Friday night for the next forty years hanging out at the local Applebees.  These are my people.

But let me return to the narrative of leaving my doctoral program.  In a sense, I made the right decision.  Although I may never be able to explain the fact that I don't have a doctorate, I know I needed to leave Urbana in 1999.  Life in graduate school was too enfantalizing, and I was probably right to fear that graduation might well lead me to take a job in Nebraska in order to keep my frail academic career afloat in a difficult job market.  What's strange about my decision to end six years of graduate study with no terminal degree, is that I've never, ever been able to finalize the decision.

The year after I left my doctoral program, I hadn't quite made up my mind that I wasn't about to write my dissertation.  Two years after that, I was still pretending to be on the verge of returning to the dissertation in order to secure jobs from employers who wanted to hear that from prospective adjunct professors.  But even ten years later I bump into employers who want to hear about the dissertation I never wrote.  "What was the dissertation about?  Do you think you can go back to finish it?  Will you go back to finish it?"

These questions pop up over and over again.  In my last interview, I answered truthfully that my dissertation was supposed to be about the connection between British politics and literature in the Interwar period, especially with respect to the way the two discourses understood the way time works.  When the audience expressed an interest in the topic, I quickly explained that if I had had a better grasp of the topic, or could it explain it more clearly, than certainly I would have finished the project.  The audience didn't seem to mind the self-defeating sarcasm:  I got the job.

I got the job, but getting the job by talking about a dissertation that was now ten or more years old, made me think about how traumatized I was by graduate school.  Like my mother, perhaps, my dissertation never dies.  It's everywhere, even in this blog, which is of course some kind of retroactive attempt to right a wrong and write something wonderful that would warrant a doctorate, though the distance between this blog and doctoral level thesis research may be apparent to all of my readers.

In recent months, I'm thinking about this undead dissertation more than ever.  I've actually gone on to University of Illinois' website to explore the possibility of returning to the scene of the crime to complete my doctorate.  The idea sounds good at first, inexpensive and imminently logical.  And then a sick feeling sets in, and I can't think of anything more ludicrous than trying, once more, to make the same bad decision I made so many years ago.  Yet still I ponder the return of the prodigal son, the historian manque redeemed.

I am watching Mark Steinberg's lectures about Russian history this week. I never met Professor Steinberg when I was in Urbana, where he continues to teach.  I think he arrived only shortly before I left, and in any event I wasn't then a student of Russian history.  His lectures are excellent, part of the Teaching Company's scholarly lecture series.  I'm hearing the professor's takes on World War I.  The crisis obviously made some radical solution to Russia's problems extremely likely:  misery has a breaking point, and after that, workers, soldiers, and peasants are likely to listen to brutal proposals such as those of Lenin and Trotsky.

Steinberg's take on the Revolution puts the emphasis on ordinary people, which is where it should be.  Yes, Lenin was a brilliant theoretician and tactician.  But it's ordinary Russians, not Bolshevik captains, who really made radical alternatives to autocracy plausible.  Soldiers hated officers;  workers hated capitalists;  peasants hated landlords.  Steinberg places the emphasis on ordinary people again when it comes to Stalin's triumph in the mid-1920s.  Rank and file communists came to distrust the arrogance of Trotsky while favoring the gentle style of Bukharin and the non-flashy competence of Stalin.  And, with the temporary excesses of NEP, rank and file communists eventually accepted Stalin's radical solutions for the economy, borrowed from the Left Opposition, including rapid industrialization and collectivization.

In the end, Steinberg helps us to notice that ordinary people got what they wanted out of both the Revolution and Stalinism.  Although many suffered and died as a result of Soviet brutality, common people had asked for a government of action, mobility, class solidarity, severity toward the "exploiting classes," and power.  Steinberg is at pains to mention that Party members and others had many important choices to make in the 1920s.  This was, after all, a time of social, cultural, economic, and political experimentation.  On the other hand, Steinberg's narrative reinforces the notion that nothing good could come out of the Bolshevik Party's failure to incorporate any of the tenants of liberalism into its ethos.  Neither Trotsky nor Lenin nor Stalin had any reservations about using coercion, power, dictatorship, militarism, discipline, and indeed the methodologies of the Great War as well as the Civil War, to bring Russian out of its perceived backwardness.

It's hard to say how I will ever be able to wrap up my unresolved grief over leaving graduate school.  I can't help but think about returning to write a dissertation, or applying to some similar program to do the whole experience all over again, only this time with more discipline.  But when I think this way, I soon realize that it was graduate school that killed my life-long love of history.  This blog may be a substitute for real historical research, but it's also a tribute to a real love of history, which is, for me at least, undermined by making history into a career.

I'm getting married in two days.  And I can't help by notice that irony that I'm marrying an academic, and one who slaves away each night on some new grant proposal or academic paper.  It's funny that I am not pursuing this career myself.  I have lived under the shadow of the University of Chicago's campus, and am marrying a professor, but somehow I resist the notion that I am as at home in academia as I am at Applebees.


  1. Congratulations on the marriage and heartfelt best wishes for the entire family. And even though you can be comfortable at one, I hope that the location for the wedding dinner was somewhere nicer than an Applebee's.


    1. Thanks! It was a wonderful mix of my bride's Fraco-Arab traditions (she denies this) and my American-kitsch preferences.