Top Young Historians Archive
Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 00:26
Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, Tufts University (2010-present)
My father was a history teacher at the Long Island public high school I attended. At home, our bookshelves groaned with history books covering every conceivable time and place. My father perfected the art of deferring household errands until he finished the chapter he was reading. I acquired the reading habit early, but I mostly left the weighty history tomes alone.
When I arrived at college, though, I was wary of majoring in history. First, I had an adolescent’s anticipatory resentment of the “like father, like son” clichés that were sure to follow. Second, the mandatory senior thesis requirement seemed impossibly daunting. And finally, I didn’t want to be tied down to one discipline—I wanted to be free to explore.
It turned out that all these three of these fears were entirely misplaced.
In the fall of my sophomore year, our colonial American history professor threw us into the deep end of the court records of Essex County, Massachusetts, and told us to swim. I eventually thrilled at the idea of building history from primary sources. By the end of sophomore year, almost everything else in the course bulletin melted away, and history became the clear choice for a major.
Later I came to appreciate the ways that history could encompass all the other disciplines that tempted me during my freshman year. Historians can raid another discipline, strip it for parts, and apply the useful bits to the study of the past. Or, if they prefer, they can stick to the archives and interpret the records as they find them. I remain an archive rat, and I’m still intrigued by scholarly work that inhabits the borderlands between history and other fields. This field of study, I realized, would be my chance to explore the world fully and freely.
Once I embraced the study of college-level history, the notion of writing a senior thesis lost some of its intimidating power. A small sentence in an old William and Mary Quarterly article led me to ask: “What did it mean to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era?” My attempt to answer this question, at first, produced a disappointing and scattershot junior seminar paper. Determined to get the answer right, I gave it another try for my senior thesis, and I got even closer to the result I wanted.
I also learned to be grateful that I had a father who loved history. Though he remained historically omnivorous, he started reading more deeply in early American history—partly so that we could share our findings and partly so that he could give a poor graduate student his copies when he was done. He read my dissertation and my second book manuscript, offering useful comments. He and I even collaborated to devise a teaching assignment that captured the spirit of the Essex County Court Records project—he used it in his AP U.S. History class, while I use it in one of my introductory surveys. He shared tips about pedagogy that came from long experience. He even once accompanied me on an eleventh-hour research trip.
When my father announced his retirement in 2009, we collected testimonials from his former students. I was overwhelmed at how many people responded to his history lessons, his open generosity, his professionalism, his quirks, his sense of humor, and even his occasional rebukes. He inspired people to be curious and critical, to be passionate, to be responsible, and to reexamine their own assumptions. It made me even more grateful to have joined the history profession—not only could I indulge my own interest in the subject, but I could do my part to help spread the interest around.
My father passed away in April 2010, less than a year after he retired. But he didn’t merely pass into history—he passed it on.
Quotes About Benjamin Carp