Erin’s Contingent Story

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This, from editor Erin Bartram, is the second post in a series of reflections from our staff on why they were drawn to the mission of Contingent Magazine. You can read the first post, by Bill Black, you can read it here.

There’s a particularly bittersweet moment in a history class when a student says to you, with tentative hopefulness in their voice: “I didn’t realize this was for me.”

They don’t just mean the class you’re teaching, of course. They mean the discipline of history itself.

For some, it’s because they hadn’t known that history could really be about people like them, or about the things that are interesting and important to them.

For others, it’s because they hadn’t known that people like them got to do history, or that the people who got to do history cared about the stories of people like them.

For many, it’s because they hadn’t previously encountered history as a process, as something that is done, as something they could do.

And for most students, whether they realize it consciously or not, it’s because they’d heard over and over that history isn’t “useful” to them (because it doesn’t make them “useful” to others).

Now, many of my undergraduates have come in already knowing that history is for them, largely as the result of the hard work done by previous teachers. But even with that hard work, if we’re fortunate enough to encounter it as students, we’re all still living in a culture that tells us history isn’t for most of us. After all, history is about Important Things and Important People, so is it any wonder that many of the popular history books that climb the charts, get reviews in mainstream publications, and pile up on the Father’s Day table at Barnes & Noble often recycle and reinforce existing ideas of importance?

I understand my students’ reaction because I know what it’s like to feel like history isn’t for me. I still feel it, all the time, even though I’ve spent over a decade in academia, making the study of history my profession. Everything has a history, we say, but is that history important enough for the main page of the textbook, or does it only merit a sidebar? If we only have 14 weeks to teach a course, is that history important enough to get a spot in The Narrative? Is it relevant to “regular” people? Does it make them uncomfortable? Will it sell to the people who publishers and department chairs and university administrators think have the money to spend and fill classes and donate? Everything has a history, sure, but what is that history worth?

I think it’s worth a lot more than this limited understanding, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working on Contingent Magazine.

Seeing people like you do history and seeing the history of people like you being done can be one important reminder that you, your life, and your experiences have value. That can mean people of your race or ethnic background, people who share your gender identity or sexuality, people from the region you call home, people with your class background or occupation, or people who share your particular interests and concerns, even if they share them in a place and a time and a way you never imagined. My hope is that Contingent will be a site where everyone can see that history is for them and that they themselves have value—as readers of history, certainly, but also as subjects and practitioners.

That’s actually why the first principle we settled on for the magazine was that the contributors would be paid for their work. Whether we like it or not, giving people money is one of the important ways our culture shows people that their work is valuable. It’s also why all of our contributors will talk about the work that went into their piece—the time, money, and expertise involved in doing history—as a way to make the full value of that work more legible to new audiences.

Our magazine will publish work that other paying outlets probably wouldn’t publish, sometimes for legitimate reasons having to do with fit and audience, but often because of limited views of what kinds of history are valuable. Those decisions reinforce ideas about who and what we value.

At Contingent, we’re starting from the basic principle that history is for everyone. We’re going to value it accordingly.

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