The Road Not Taken

I’m comfortable identifying myself as a Jacksonian historian, even a Jacksonian political historian. But there are times when I think about the other fields of history I considered pursuing.*

The first field would have been religious history. Two research areas in particular interested me. One is the history of the LDS Church, or Mormonism, as it is commonly referred to. I’m fascinated by the development of the 19th-century religious movement that identifies itself as Christian, yet is commonly viewed as a cult by other Christians. The second is fundamentalist Christianity, specifically the independent fundamental Baptist tradition that I grew up in. I think these two topics appeal to me because of my religious background, and not pursuing them probably helped my sanity, as I’m prone to enough internal psychoanalysis as is.

The second field would have been the 1960s, specifically the decade’s pop culture. I enjoy teaching the 1960s more than any other topic in the modern U.S. survey. The music, the TV shows, the fashion, the counterculture movements–all interest me.

If you had it to do over again, what different field(s) would you have studied?

* By the way, I also considered English and sociology as majors. And if I had not chosen to pursue academia, my other interest was becoming a radio DJ. I’m pretty sure we all know I made the right choice.

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21 Replies to “The Road Not Taken”

  1. European History. The nationalist revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries are still very interesting to me. (Yes, I read Palmer in grad school, that’s what sparked it).

  2. My undergrad was history/medieval studies/Asian studies. My masters was C18th/19th Pacific, my PhD (which became my first book), C20th East Asia. Current academic book, I’m stumbled into being an early modernist! (well, the book spans C16th-C19th, in the Americas, Pacific and Southeast Asia).

  3. Thanks for sharing – fascinating to read! For me:

    I originally thought I would do early 20th century European history. Then a fascination with historical memory and dictatorship led me to 20th century Latin America. Then that same fascination with historical memory led me to one summer of research on legends of the Battle of the Alamo, then a job there as a guide the next summer. This led me to public history as a career path, then an M.A. in museum studies, with a Peace Corps stint in there (until 10 months, 30 lost pounds, and many rounds of antibiotics persuaded me that international development wasn’t my path!). That led me to beginning in digital history, which I’m now pursuing at Ph.D. level – after a several year hiatus, with a job at an exhibit firm, and still at a local historical society. Academically, that Alamo job led me to a combination of US and Mexican history, which I’m now also pursuing at Ph.D. level. Also considered journalism and law in there. And 18th/19th century France. So yeah, lots of paths not taken! But each path not taken has contributed to the path I eventually did take – a path I love.

      1. Yup! Around two years in total (3 stints – 1 undergrad summer, after undergrad, after Peace Corps) as a guide there. Formative experience, both for my academic and public history careers. If you’re there sometime you should meet the curator – great historian.

        Out of curiosity, what path led you to where you are?

  4. Interesting that you mention Mormon history–I’m reading Richard Lyman Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith right now.

    Technically I guess I’m already on my alternate path of studies, since I originally wanted to be a paleontologist. I’d always liked museums, though, so I actually came at American history via public history, even though I didn’t take any formal public history or museum studies courses, just an internship as an undergrad.

    Too bad I didn’t find about the history of science as a field of study until I’d already gotten an MA on the American Revolution. At least I got to write my undergrad research project on nineteenth-century American fossil hunting. Old habits die hard.

    –ML

    1. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of someone moving from public to traditional U.S. history.

      Rough Stone Rolling is a great biography. I just finished Under the Banner of Heaven, which is about LDS fundamentalism.

      1. I did that. Did an MA in public history and worked as a curator at a state history museum and as an education curator in historic sites. I started the Ph.D with the idea that I’d continue in that field, but the lure of the “academic life” (sucka) took over.

  5. I was going to start out in some sort of medieval studies but John Contreni talked me out of it saying the job market was very bleak so I picked 19th-century American history with a focus on guerrilla warfare in the Civil War. Yeap, there’s some real job demands there…..

      1. True, and I lucked into the Air Force historian job when I was at an Organization of American Historians conference. Up to that point I was a graphic designer for a purebred swine magazine. I was really using the graduate degree to its fullest!

  6. Before graduate school, I was going to teach & coach (basketball) in high school. Having gone to college on a basketball scholarship, I was more interested in the coaching. In grad school I loved the research and writing and dropped the whole high school thing. Was first interested in late 19th cent. German history (Bismarck, unification, etc.), then became fascinated with the Civil War in Grady McWhiney’s classes. However, my research & writing is mostly on Mexican War, again because it was an interest of McWhiney’s who guided me in that direction.

  7. I’m working on your alternate interests – religion in the early American republic, especially missionary societies among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. But, if I had it to do over again, I would have started on languages in high school, and worked in the Reformation period. Still religious history, but in a very different era.

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