Sadness, and sacrifice: A reflection on PhD training, comprehensive exams, and the discipline of history

Reading None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, Pelee Island. Photo by author.

Krenare Recaj

In the third year of my undergrad, I was sitting beside my friend Jeremy in a lecture for the class America: Slavery to Civil War. The professor was going into explicit detail – showing photos and drawings – of the torture enslaved people in America were subjected to. The logic was that these details were necessary to properly appreciate the gravity of the suffering. Sitting in the same place I sat no matter the class – last row, closest to the exit – I could see the laptop screens in front of me. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. Online Shopping. Suddenly the professor’s alarm went off. He stopped mid gruesome detail, and told us it was time for the 20 minute break. I sat in the hallway with Jeremy and tried to hide my tears. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that while listening to the darkest depths of human suffering, the worst moments of real human lives, I too was scrolling Twitter. What does that say about our attention spans, I wondered? But more importantly, what does that say about our humanity? Jeremy is both kind and disciplined. He was one of a small handful of students in the entire class that was not scrolling the internet that day. He told me that I was being too hard on myself, and that maybe scrolling is how students coped with the heaviness of the class content. I told him that when I was in high school, I painted the words “apathy is the enemy” on my walls. I felt the weight of those words in that moment and promised both Jeremy and myself that I would never treat human suffering as dismissively as I had that day. After the break, I sat back down in the lecture hall, ready to take more notes on human suffering. My hand twitched. I kept nearly opening another tab.

Had callousness become a reflex?

I wish I could say that I haven’t opened Twitter in class since that day. But I can’t. However, that day has never left me. I have since spent a lot of time wondering what it means to be a historian. Not what it means for humanity, but what it means for the soul. I have tried to be intentional about how I study history and how I process the trauma experienced by others. I have tried to remind myself that human suffering is still suffering, whether it happened a millennium ago, a century ago, a decade ago, or yesterday. I have tried, and failed, but really really tried to center dignity even if it often feels like I am making a career out of the suffering of others. I work on histories of displacement involving the Kosovar Albanian diaspora, a history that I am bound up with. As I embarked on graduate studies I was determined not to sacrifice my humanity for a career… or that’s what I told myself at least.

But then comps happened.

For me comps –  short form for comprehensive exams – involved a year of reading dozens of books and articles in preparation for a written and oral exam in front of a committee. My major field was Migration History with a strong focus on histories of refuge, displacement, and forced migration. I will not argue here about whether comps should be abolished (it shouldn’t). Or whether comps is a useful process (it is). Comps was intense. Comps amplified all of the good and the bad aspects of being a historian. It felt like someone took the process of studying history, zoomed in, and played it at three times the speed. I was speed running history and didn’t know if I was cut out for it. I set up a reading schedule and tried to follow the mental health tips university grad departments write on stress balls and hand out at orientation (looking at you Uwaterloo!). Drink water. See friends. Shower. Exercise. Eat healthy. At first, I was doing great. I followed a meal plan, saw a personal trainer, carried around a Nalgene like my life depended on it, and spent quality time with friends and family. Then life happened, and comps happened, and people’s horror stories of late nights cramming became suddenly relatable. I started making sacrifices for comps. I kept telling myself those sacrifices were temporary, I just needed to get to December 5th and start back up. I ate more fast food. I forgot to wish friends happy birthday. I even broke my 189 day exercise streak on my apple watch. These sacrifices stung, but they were worth it… a big goal takes big sacrifices. Then I realized I was sacrificing more than a workout streak and some birthday celebrations.

I started catching myself sacrificing a bit of my humanity.

During the months I was reading for comps, I didn’t go anywhere without a book. I read on trains, planes, and automobiles. I read while holding my new born niece. I read while babysitting my nephew. I read in three provinces. I read in national parks, and I read at a dozen provincial parks. I read everywhere. I sat on a beautiful bench on Pelee Island and teared up while reading about Canada’s abandonment of Europe’s Jewish population. It felt wrong to read such cruelties in such a beautiful place. More often, I read in mundane places. That felt wrong as well.

What is the right setting to read about humanities failures?

For a while, I sat with these questions. Then, the pressure was on and I sacrificed this type of reflection. By doing so, I fear I sacrificed a little piece of my humanity. I found myself wishing a refugee would just get to the point already when reading an oral history excerpt found in one of the books. I found myself not only frustrated at authors for being long winded, but at survivors as well. I kept being advised to “just gut the books”, but how does one skim stories of forced displacement? How does one skim pages that contain the details of real human suffering that led to real human deaths?

It felt like I was getting whiplash from switching from one story of suffering to another.

Japanese internment one day. Chattel slavery the next. Soviet Mennonite Women being sexually assaulted in the morning. The genocide of Indigenous people in the afternoon. In an effort to follow advice to “make time for friends” I went to the beach and brought a book. While my friend read The People We Meet on Vacation, I read Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. One day, I sat in my supervisor’s office surrounded by books about migration and thought about the thousands of pages of human suffering that are in that office alone. The hundred of pages that I would read that week. The tens of thousands of pages that I would read in my career.

When I realized I was sacrificing my humanity for comps, I tried my best to go back to being intentional about how I handled history. But under this pressure and time crunch, I didn’t know how. I had a deadline. I was trying to not only pass comps, but to not humiliate myself in the process. I didn’t know why at the time, but I started taking pictures of the books and where I was when I was reading them. In a strange way, these photos helped me sacrifice less of myself and reminded me of the absurdity of it all. They also helped me focus on the humanity of the people I was reading about. 

Here are some of those pictures:

Reading The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism on a Via Rail train across from my nieces and out loud to my nephew.

Reading Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad in a hotel lobby, Ottawa.

Reading Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium while holding my week-old niece.

On Reflection 

That day in a third-year class has not just led to existential dread and questioning my own humanity, it has led me to believe in concrete needs for the discipline of History. Although I sympathize with what my third-year American history prof was trying to accomplish, I have vowed to never try to shock students into understanding. I think historians should reflect deeply on how we deal with the human suffering we encounter and proceed cautiously. This includes how we read it, write it, and teach it.

In their careers my sisters work with vulnerable populations who have often experienced trauma. They routinely attend workshops where they are forced to reflect on compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. I wonder if this type of mandated reflection wouldn’t benefit historian as well (if not more)? I wonder whether we may consider contact with despair an occupational hazard and what it would mean to proceed accordingly. These are questions to be discussed in future reflections perhaps, but they are questions I encourage historians, both students and profs alike, to ask themselves.

A final photo, Jeremy and Teagan dropping off goodies on the final days of my comp’s preparations.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Krenare Recaj is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Carleton University. Her doctoral research explores the history of the Kosovar Albanian diaspora with a focus on the entangled politics of migration and international diplomacy. 

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