Undergraduates as Historians

Recently, I came across a blog post by an undergraduate who remarked that she would only consider herself a historian once she received her diploma. To be a historian, in her mind, was a position that had to be earned. This is a very common mentality among undergrads. Compared to their professors, undergraduates have limited expertise in any given field and are still learning how to think like historians. After only two or three years of study, who are we to claim that title?

There are several professors in the Messiah College History Department who refer to their undergraduate students as “historians.” Up until several months ago, I, like many others, inwardly balked at this. How can we be historians already? I would think to myself. Even though I knew we were doing the same things as our professors – engaging with primary texts and thinking critically about what those texts reveal about the past – I was reluctant to call myself a historian.

However, last semester I studied at Oxford, where undergraduates would introduce themselves as “third-year theologians” or “second-year philosophers.” And indeed, it seemed like Oxford students had a right to identify with their respective disciplines in such a manner. After all, at Oxford, rather than attend classes, students meet with professors (called tutors) once a week to discuss and debate the ideas that the students present in their essays. It is very rewarding to have a world-class academic engage with one’s ideas and say, “I never thought of it that way before.” The student is a scholar, but so is the tutor. Both engage with and learn about the past; they are merely at different points in their academic journey.

However, one does not have to attend Oxford to be a scholar who is able to make valuable academic contributions. Now that I am back at Messiah, I am no longer uncomfortable when I hear a professor say, “You be the historian.” Reinterpreting my status as an undergraduate scholar has encouraged me to take my studies more seriously, have confidence in the value of my ideas, and to embrace (rather than be self-conscious of) my position in the wider scholarly community. Now I can proudly state, “I am a third-year historian.”

Kathryn Kaslow is a junior history major with a concentration in public history.  She is a research assistant, student diplomat for the History Department, History Club officer, and a contributor for History on the Bridge.

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