I’m going to file this in my Amateur Tips page.
I was going through my book review page and updating the links so the destinations would be on WordPress and not Blogger. I came across a couple of embarrassing errors on my part and decided this would be worth posting about to, hopefully, help other non-professionals. This post is applicable for fields other than history.
As an amateur there are a ton of things I don’t know. For the most part, I think I know I don’t know stuff, but sometimes I forget about my lack of knowledge and in a few cases this lack of knowledge makes me feel like an absolute idiot.
The motivation for this is Gillian Clark. A couple of months ago I posted some comments on Hagith Sivan’s Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. During that discussion I referred to Dr. Sivan as male and a commenter kindly told me that Dr. Sivan is female. As I was updating my book review links my Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World review included a discussion of an essay by Gillian Clark where I again mistakenly referred to Dr. Clark as male. Uh-oh. I probably shouldn’t admit this because I never used a personal pronoun for this review but I did a web search and discovered that Beate Dignas is also a woman.
Pretty embarrassing, right? I’m going to need to read through all my reviews and make sure I haven’t made this mistake elsewhere.
This is not the only embarrassing thing I’ve ever done related to history. Now I don’t get embarrassed about just not knowing stuff, usually. However there are specific examples which are a bit more glaring than others:
Personal Names of Professionals: Sometimes I don’t know how to pronounce them. I get to exactly one medieval conference each year. I am not involved in medieval history department meetings, conference calls about history projects, discussions about organizing programs or conferences or, beyond this blog, much of any medieval history discussion. I do not know how to pronounce people’s names. I can’t recall this being a problem too often but it has happened. Just from a quick scan of my book reviews, I do not know, for sure, how to pronounce the last names of Roger Bagnall, Stephen Pollington or Bernadette Filotas. I have a pronunciation in my brain which I would use if forced, but I do not know if it’s correct. A side bit of advice; when introducing speakers or a panel at a conference always ask them how to pronounce their names. I continue to be astonished how often this doesn’t happen.
Pronunciation of Contemporary Historical Figures: Several years ago at Kalamazoo I attended several sessions which prominently featured Augustine of Hippo. To that point I knew (see, there was no question of this – I knew it) that his name was pronounced “aw-gus-TEEN”, with the third syllable emphasized. Imagine my surprise when speaker after speaker pronounced it “aw-GUS-tin.” (Sorry – I’m using caps rather than accents as would be proper). Now Augustine’s sort of an important person in history, right? And I didn’t know how to pronounce his name. I will note that one speaker did use my prior pronunciation so apparently this isn’t quite a slam dunk but the majority of folks used the second.
Pronunciation of Terms: Every now and then a term will come up, generally one used in a specific historical context, where I’ll find out I’ve been pronouncing it incorrectly. Sometimes it will be a Latin term, sometimes just common usage. A nice example (two actually) is that for both Merovingian and Carolingian I was using a hard g, similar to how you’d pronounce “linguist,” rather than a soft g as in “fringe.” I spent my first Kalamazoo, for the most part, pronouncing this incorrectly. Nobody laughed at or made fun of me or, to the best of my knowledge, decided not to talk to me because of it. Though again, I’m not sure this pronunciation is quite a slam dunk.
What’s my advice for other amateurs about this?
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!
While you may suffer momentary embarrassment, most professionals a) won’t remember it ten minutes later and b) won’t make a big deal about it. The fact that you may not know something should not keep you from talking to people about this stuff.
There are a few historians who I suspect would make a big deal about it. A couple of years ago at Kalamazoo I was perusing some books (shocking, I know) and a well known Early Medieval Historian (EMH) and a colleague were near me. The colleague picked up a book and asked, “What about this?” The EMH responded dismissively, “That’s just some popular thing.”
I’ve run across this person before so it wasn’t just this overheard conversation but I know this individual does everything for his career based as if his entire professional existence is contained within his select field. He does not think educating the public at large is important and the only people whose opinion he cares about are other professional historians.
Peer review, respect, interaction, etc. is important in any field, academic or not. However any academic has a responsibility to the world at large. Or at least I hope we do – otherwise what the heck are we doing this for? Particularly if we’re getting paid and this is even more important if we’re at a publicly funded institution.
This individual might not be particularly forgiving over a slip-up. My guess is he’d think my blog is complete garbage. My advice is that if you run across someone with this mindset, don’t worry about it. At all.
In essence, if you go to a conference or have an opportunity to interact with a professional in some other way, don’t let this potentially embarrassing stuff limit you. It’s not a big deal, and the people whose opinions matter, by and large, won’t think it’s that important. There is a limit to this – being ignorant and trying to come across as knowledgeable will, rightfully, irritate people. And they’ll figure it out in a hurry. I think it’s important for non-professionals to understand how much time and effort a professional has put into his or her career. We’re talking, likely, over ten years of higher education, publishing a dissertation and all of the work that goes into remaining current in a field which changes fairly rapidly. That’s a big difference from myself, who’s interested in history and spends a fair amount of his spare time learning about it. History is important to me but it is far more important (I suspect) to someone whose career is based on it.
My preference is to be upfront to avoid misunderstandings. At Kalamazoo, whenever anyone asks me what my field is, I reply, “I’m very likely the least intelligent person here. I’m a complete amateur and this is what I do on vacation.” Feel free to use it. Some day I really want to answer, “Agronomy, Farm Management and Agrosecurity,” just to see what comes from that.
As an example of how I believe most professionals view the less knowledgeable, let me offer this as an example. I was at a National No-Till Farming Conference a few years ago and was seated next to a young lady who I later found out was a first-time attendee and was working one of the vendor booths. She didn’t know a lot but wanted to learn more, simply from the standpoint of being better able to communicate with people at future conferences. I ended up walking her through several basic concepts during the week. One in particular which I recall was related to no-till drills. She did not need to know specific settings for depth gauges, the types of press wheels to use in specific situations or whether to have wavy, fluted or smooth coulters (this all varies depending on manufacturer anyway). However she did need to know that you would set up and equip your no-till drill differently if you were planting in April in Minnesota on Clay soils vs in June in Tennessee on a sandy loam and, in general terms, why. I know I was able to help her out and it helped me out too.
In my experience most historians are no different. Keep in mind sometimes they’re busy, they may be in the middle of working on a project, at a conference they’ll attend a bookseller’s reception in hopes of getting published, not for free wine, etc. But they also have better things to do than worry about an embarrassing slip-up. Be up front about your inexperience, relax, and interact. I don’t know of a better way to learn.
NOTE: I posted an addendum to this in February, 2014 which you might find useful, or at least entertaining if you click on one of the links.