Saturday, October 27, 2012

Medieval Spain and Me

The Origin Story

I was looking through some of my old college papers the other day when I found this: One Nation Under God: Religious Co-Existence in Medieval Spain. Fall 2007
It’s the first scholarly historical essay that I ever wrote, and I wrote it before I had even realized what I wanted to do with my life.

After high school, I enrolled in community college as an Art major, taking courses that specialized in oil painting, watercolors, sketching, and pastels. I thought that I would one day spend my afternoons painting by the seashore, exhibit my work in galleries and museums, and grow a little goatee. I enjoyed community college, and I enjoyed creating art, and I was good at it.

But I wasn’t great. With every class that I signed up for, I met new people and became better acquainted with friends from the previous class. And as I watched them work I realized something; many of my classmates had this innate ability to look at a subject, pick out exactly what they wanted to express, and instantly determine how to do it. Seeing this process unfold was, frankly, amazing. In these capable hands, a vase of flowers on a table became splashes of paint on a canvas, but these splashes contained a life and vitality that I could only envy.

In short, I realized that my classmates all possessed an ability that I lacked; I was good but not great, technically proficient but not inspired. I could make a painting look like the object that was being painted, but I couldn’t make it look like the image I saw in my mind.  That ability to take a subject and shape it however I wanted was lacking in me. Surprisingly, this realization came with a lot less pain and aggravation than I would have expected; I received an Associate’s degree in Art with pleasure and only a mild irritation that I had not had this epiphany before enrolling.

In the Fall of 2004, I began classes at Eastern Michigan University, still not sure exactly what I was interested in. Looking over the course catalogue, I began first to sign up for my General Education requirements, getting them out of the way and buying myself more time to choose a degree.

The fall after that, one of my courses was entitled “History 327: Europe in the Early Middle Ages.” My professor was a Renaissance historian named Ronald Delph, and the main assignment of the semester was to pick a topic relating to Medieval Europe, research it, and answer the historical question that the topic asked.

My topic was the Spanish peninsula during the Muslim occupations of the eighth century and onwards. I read the material, formed a question, and developed my thesis, writing and re-writing arguments and presenting evidence as I did so. And as I worked at all of this, a funny thing happened. I realized that the ability I was missing in my art classes was emerging in the school archives, albeit in a different form. I could take my subject and shape it however I wanted. I could analyze a large number of books and manuscripts—primary and secondary sources—and I could extract information from them to support whatever argument I wanted to make in my writing.

Not only that, but while I was doing this work, I lost track of time. I had always been interested in history museums and reading, but when I started to think seriously about the possibility of doing these things as a career, I found myself getting more and more drawn into my work. I researched Moorish Spain for two months, and after the research was complete it took me a week to write the final draft. If f it hadn’t been the end of the semester, I would have been happy to continue developing and editing for weeks afterwards. As enthralled as I was, and as new to the field, I entertained fanciful notions of writing a book on the subject.

I registered as a History major, and I signed up for more classes. I received my Bachelors degree in 2007, and then went to graduate school and received my Masters. I wrote many papers during these years, and I learned many things, and it’s just as fulfilling now as it was six years ago.

That’s why I entered this field, and it’s why I write this blog. And sometimes it’s nice to think back on the things that I’ve done. It reminds me that there are more things to do.

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Do you have a similar story that you would like to share, so we can compare notes and a bibliography? Did you think that this post would have something about a radioactive spider or solar flares? Comments left below will be posted as submitted, without being formatted for MLA.