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Can you reinvent yourself mid-career?

Hey, I’m a student again.

By ALAN MACEACHERN | December 4, 2013

It turns out that reinvention is hard. You’d think I would have known that, since I teach at Western. In 2012, “the University of Western Ontario” rebranded to “Western University.” It was a change that seemed destined to satisfy everyone. Teenage would-be students from around the world would find it sleeker and easier to Google. Sentimental centenarians would be impressed that we were reclaiming the name we had held until 1923. Everyone in-between would be fine.

But there have been some bumps. The discovery of an identically named school in Azerbaijan. The fact that the three research granting councils insist on calling us the University of Western Ontario, while the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, including University Affairs, insists on Western. The probably apocryphal news that some faculty members were submitting to journals under one name, some under the other, and our journal citation rankings were suffering as a result. The constant teasing from Western Canadians that we are not even in the West. (To them I say, “Yeah, but we’re not in Western Ontario either! And at our founding in 1878, southwestern Ontario was the West! Well, British Columbia and Manitoba were already provinces. Whatever. Shut up. Tar sands.”)

Which is all to say that my quest for professional reinvention has not been without hiccups either. For example, I have long wanted to be more tech-savvy, the kind of person who doesn’t use the phrase “tech-savvy.” Specifically, I have wanted to incorporate more digital tools and practices into my historical research. I am not an utter novice; I was co-author with friend and colleague William J. Turkel of an online textbook, The Programming Historian, that teaches just that. But I was a full participant only in the most generous sense of the term, like a baby in a carjacking. So this fall I have been auditing Bill’s graduate course on digital research methods.

It has been surprisingly unnerving. Within a couple of hours each Wednesday, I move from talking at the front of a room with 120 students to sitting quietly amid a class of 15.

Talking lots is an occupational hazard for professors – or else the profession attracts those who feel they have lots to say – but as a student, I turn shy and self-conscious. And sometimes I feel stupid. One week, I got trapped in an exercise and watched helplessly as the class moved on without me. (It was the Linux command line wget -r -H -nc -nd -np -nH –cut-dirs=2 -A .txt -e robots=off -l1 -i ../iafilelist-clean -B ‘’ that did me in.) Because my eyes are bad – did I mention I’m old? – I sit at the front, so my unchanging laptop screen, my silent keyboard seemed designed to broadcast my shame to all.

Even more disconcerting has been seeing how game the students are with even the most difficult material. And not because, as might be assumed, they are of a more digitally literate generation, but rather because they take for granted that there is plenty they don’t know – and that that is temporary. They are wonderfully open to unfamiliarity, experimentation and failure. That is, to education.

I don’t think I stopped learning when I stopped being a student many years ago, but it occurs to me now that it has been largely on my own terms. I chose the topics, the books, the software components I felt like studying, and moved on when I felt like it. This fall, I have taken ridiculous pride in working out problems in class – even problems that I had created in the first place. I shouldn’t have had to take a course to get a heightened respect for formal education, but I have.

I also have a heightened respect for students. They invest time, money and effort to transform, to move themselves from point A to point B. Of course, not all reinventions are successful or satisfying or even necessarily sensible. But all attempts at reinvention are to be respected, because they require more than the alternative.

Or, maybe, realizing that fact is simply a necessary step, or a necessary rationalization, when the reinvention turns difficult, as it will.

In 1921, The Canadian Magazine wrote that “A young university like Western can shake itself free from what George Meredith calls ‘the stupor of precedents.’ It need not be troubled by the burden of the past, in setting its face to the future that it will help to contrive.” As with universities, so with university students and perhaps even their professors.

Signing off for now, from the Western University of Western Ontario at Western.

Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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