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On Changing Tack

15 Dec 2015

I read a lot of Patrick O’Brien’s work as a kid. You may have seen Master & Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany; that film was based on two of O’Brien’s 20 novels (Master & Commander, and The Far Side of the World). O’Brien’s books influenced me a lot during my undergraduate years, too. I capitalized on every opportunity to write about the early-modern British navy. In retrospect, those papers always turned out to be a bit Whiggish and sensational, but they provided me with an excuse to write about explosive, dangerous histories (one particularly painful title read something like, “The Competitive Advantages of the Early-Nineteenth Century British Navy: Applying Resource-Theory to the Battle of Trafalgar.”)

After two degrees, and many more tortuously titled papers, I find myself turning to O’Brien’s tales again. In O’Brien’s novels, Jack Aubrey is constantly either in pursuit, or being pursued; the H.M.S. Surprise hardly laid down its anchor. As a result, Aubrey is constantly “changing tack.” “Changing tack,” for me, was a seafarer’s term, meaning to change the course of a masted vessel so as to cross the direction of the wind, years before it had any idiomatic meaning. Now, I am the one tacking, and as I adjust my course thinking of O’Brien’s novels provides me with some comfort.I was resolute in my ambition to continue learning and researching History at the Master’s level, and determined that a solid performance during my Master’s would lead to a fulfilling PhD, and more importantly, a fulfilling professional life in the academy.

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. I tried throughout my year at McGill to discourage myself from falling for the academy; I was smitten by the people, the exchange of ideas, the writing, the wine-and-cheeses, the pats on the back, and the stumbles. Nevertheless, over a number of difficult weeks during the late summer and early autumn of 2015, I decided to not pursue a PhD in History, opting for an alternative track into the academic community: librarianship. More on this later. In closing, the thing about tacking is that, whether to outrun (or pursue) a French corvette or to adjust professional aspirations, the objective often remains the same. My objective? Research, teaching, and academic service. Now, it’s just a matter of “keeping the course.”