Turning 'Plan B' Into a 'Plan A' Life

Historians in the News

Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA. This column is adapted from a talk she gave in March at Temple University.

"Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA. Her list includes academic and trade titles on topics ranging from ancient history to contemporary history, many first books as well as works by senior scholars. Books she has edited have won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize, and five have become national best sellers. She also teaches at the book workshop of the Columbia Publishing Course."

That brief bio is the public record of my life. But it's a polished narrative, like my CV, and it strikes me that the true value in the continuing discussion about alternate career paths for historians lies in talking about what usually gets erased from such documents: the detours, wrong turns, time spent stuck in traffic, even the metaphorical car crashes.

To have that conversation involves telling the stories of our professional careers. So here's an excerpt from mine since it feels as though this is a fitting time for a confession: My entire career—to borrow from Jim Grossman and Tony Grafton's much-discussed article (published in Perspectives and in The Chronicle)—is a Plan B. Or, if I am really honest, it's a letter much further down the alphabet....

Without detailing what I really wanted, I will just say that I've come to appreciate that being No. 2 or lower on the hierarchy has made me who I am. That person is surely more resilient as a result, and there is extra sweetness in achieving what I have had to work hard to get. If one believes that larger forces are at work, my experiences could be a sign that someone or something knew me better than I knew myself, and that my Plan B should have been my Plan A all along, if only I had been perceptive enough to recognize it....

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