A Reflection

Ali A. Olomi, Ph.D. Candidate in History
June 2019

Doing a Ph.D is an experiment in madness—or so I was told by a colleague before applying for  programs. He was right. To be a Ph.D student means allowing an intellectual curiosity evolve into an obsession, one that will drive you for years. At least this was my experience as I started my foray into the world of academia.

I came to UCI from its sister campus, UCLA where I first developed and refined my interest in history. I applied to graduate school to, in essence, start a career as a professional life-long student. I knew I wanted an opportunity to dig deeper into readings, build a research outline, and start to answer some of the questions that had sparked my curiosity. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to research, but not much direction.

The first year of course work was hectic—we had to read two or three books every couple of days and prepare enough to discuss them in-depth for seminar. Suffice to say, we quickly had to develop strategic reading skills. Though the workload was intense and at times it felt like I was barely treading water, the experience paid off in the long run. Fortunately, the trial built strong bonds of friendship in my cohort and we commiserated together.

I eventually found my stride in the History and Theory course. Marx, Adorno, Foucault, Spivak, and Stoler—I was hooked. Theory would go on to be an important part of my dissertation and research. It stirred questions that in turn led me to the mentors who would shape me as a scholar.

The two first two years of the Ph.D. program were challenging but rewarding. The readings were interesting, the pace bracing, and the friendships enduring. By the time the third year rolled around with its comprehensive exams, I had developed the strategic reading skills I would need for devouring the hundreds of books assigned.

As much as I enjoyed the readings and course work, it was teaching that helped to refine my focus as a scholar. I found much of my time TA-ing for courses meant translating for a non-expert general audience concepts, theories, and information. Together, my students and I experienced firsthand the dialogical nature of learning. Teaching led to me to rethink my role as a scholar; to be a historian was to be a communicator. Whether I was researching and writing, or teaching, my role was fundamentally to take ideas, concepts, facts, and stories and convey them in meaningful and accessible ways.

The realization encouraged me to develop a profile as a public-facing scholar, a reality which brought me back to the very reason I originally began my foray into history. In the post-9/11 moment I found myself playing the role of cultural ambassador between both parts of my hybrid identity. Suddenly America was at war with Afghanistan, my parents’ country, and I was caught in the middle. Every time someone asked me where I was from, I’d obnoxiously answer, the state of my birth, knowing full well they expected a different response. I spent a lot of time culturally translating between the two communities, making legible the experiences of ordinary people who are marked “other.”

In my opinion that is what good history does; make legible lives and perspectives that don’t always get a voice, translating what is deemed foreign, and communicating accessibly.

My experience in the classroom sparked newfound interest in public engagement. Soon, I was composing long twitter threads explaining a bit of historical fact, writing op-eds using history to analyze and contextual Middle Eastern politics and US foreign policy, and even diving into the world of podcasting, launching Head On History.

The History Department offered me the space to grow as a scholar, develop my interests, and the trust to experiment outside the conventional path of graduate school. It wasn’t long before the strategic reading strategies I had learned became part of my preparation work for podcasting, or how bits of theory made its way into twitter threads, and topics discussed in class turned into op-eds.

As my time at UCI draws to a close, I look ahead to commencement and my new job as a tenure-track assistant professor but I look back fondly at all I’ve learned, my experiences, and the friendships I’ve made. There are some wistful moments too, but if I had a chance, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I guess that is a sure a sign of madness too.