The Benefits of Perspective.

I had a few good drinks (and some bad ones) with a handful of doctoral students from the Department last night; it was a good chance to see how young the current community of nearly-there scholars in Edinburgh actually is. To some extent, it threw me for a surprise, but of course there is a range of ages. Once that planned academic track starts, it rarely stops, and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to jump-start it again after a pause. If the passion and interest is there, as it has been for myself, it’s not so rough, but according to the myriad of younger students there in their third and fourth years of the PhD, the program and ensuing research have been the most wonderful and most stultifying things they’ve ever done.

The wonder, of course, comes from the honied Veil of Academia: new, exciting things learned and discovered, and a chance to spend one’s life discussing ideas and negotiating opinions and likelihoods. But in creating your own truth (and that is exactly what historical scholarship is about), there’s certainly an isolation and oversaturation of repetitive information to be drowned in, and that is surely the horror of it. Thankfully I haven’t fallen out of the boat yet, but after three more years at this, it’s entirely possible. That is precisely why my own academic career has been measured so methodically, with pauses in between degrees to allow me to chase other dreams and plans – while in the background my passions for study continue to seethe. It may take me quite a bit longer to walk away with a research fellowship or lecture position, but it may be the only way I can do it well, and to not regret having missed the opportunities to accomplish the other things in my life which I hold so dear. There’s always time…

Interestingly enough, and absolutely unique and perfectly appropriate to the night, one of the students there had in her possession – and I kid you not – TWO unpublished, original letters from Robert Burns. It’s hard to convey how huge of a deal this is to many people, but they’re easily right up there with new findings of Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. They could fetch *serious* money on the market, but more importantly – they’re hand-me-downs from her family. Amazing. So she’s off tomorrow to compare them to the present catalogue of known Burns works and collected letters, and we shall hope for the best.

I came in a bit too late to actually read them, but the letters were there in the pub, and the rest of the gang got a chance to earlier scrutinize his hand…to see his signature. And up on the wall, as in many Scottish pubs, overwatched a picture of the man himself, undoubtedly quite pleased that over two-hundred years later, a handful of his countrymen (and assorted interested and deferential foreigners) might focus just one more conversation around his genius, fervent nationalism, and ability to captivate imaginations and make grown folk cry.

Of course, the whisky surely helped.

4 Responses to “The Benefits of Perspective.”

  1. Anonymous Says:
    December 18th, 2003 at 12:42 am

    Hi Darren,
    Wow!! That bit about the woman with the family letters from Burns…shivers down the spine! Do let me know if you hear anything further about that.
    Amazing synchronicity here: I just completed (last Sunday) the second of two annual Christmas performances with a Daly City bagpipe band. I sang two songs and then read an introduction for the tenor (also a piper!) who was going to sing Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss". I had never heard before how the song came about. According to his (the singer's) information, a Mrs. MacLehose was leaving Burns to "obey the summons of her husband to rejoin him in Jamaica". They never met again, but after her death a memorandum was found in which she had remembered the date of their parting 30 years later, expressing a wish that she and Burns would "meet in Heaven". Pretty amazing, but I was never told where this story came from and have no idea if it is true.
    And I'm still trying to find out how to pronounce
    "MacLehose" correctly! 🙂
    BTW, Happy Christmas!! Do they play "Silver Bells" incessantly in Scottish department stores? 🙂

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    December 20th, 2003 at 10:09 am

    Re: Burns
    Sounds great, Kirsty!
    A Happy X-mas to you, as well. I have heard few holiday songs, because I haven't done much shopping over here…student, ya know.

  3. fragiletender Says:
    December 18th, 2003 at 4:49 pm

    The Burns letters sound really neat, it's so great when stuff like this shows up.
    I'm glad that you're not bored with academia yet. I think there's a lot to be said for taking academic breaks. A lot of people just do what they think is expected of them, but to get the most from a course you really have to want to do it. Just drifting into college is never a good idea (btdt – got thrown out!) I used to see so many people on my BA who hated it and didn't work and it just seemed like such a waste of everyone's time for them to be there.
    Also, just ploughing through courses doesn't leave people enough time to reflect and digest what they've learnt. But then our culture is not big on the idea of taking time to reflect on things. It's been 18 months since my BA and I'm still assimilating those three years. I'm currently debating if I want to do an MA – it would be useful for my career but what I am currently doing is bearing fruit already and I don't feel ready to stop and go back to those old ivory towers yet. So I'm leaving it until I want it really badly.

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    December 20th, 2003 at 10:14 am

    That truly sounds like the best plan, as I completely agree that you have to want it and know that you're entirely ready for it in order to do well.
    And also it's kind of dependent on what you think that MA will do for you, right? If your fruit is already abundant, will the orchards be overtaxed with needlessly fertile sod?
    The view from the towers is rather nice, but the company here is a bit stuffy, if I might say so. 🙂

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