By Natalie Fingerhut
I didn't see this career coming. It wasn't on my radar after completing my MA in History at the University of Toronto. It wasn't on my radar after I left the PhD program in Genocide Studies at Concordia University either. From there, I took all of my sharply-honed reading and writing skills and set off on a totally different career path. First, I became what was then called a Technical Writer. I wrote computer manuals to help people use complicated software programs. My background in communicating complicated events in Cambodian history to a less-knowledgeable audience was surprisingly helpful. From there, I moved into the area of Business Analysis where the interviewing skills I had learned during my MA evaluating settlement programs for newcomers to Toronto came in handy. Business analysts interview people on what they need to do their job and then communicate those needs to computer programmers who try to create useful tools to help these people. (It’s not so different from what I do now as an editor in Higher Education where I ask people what they need for their courses and then work with others to deliver useful materials.) From Business Analysis, I moved into Management Consulting where I helped senior-level professionals strategize on how to improve their hospitals, government ministries, and insurance companies. Here, I used my toolkit of reading, writing, and analysis: skills that I had learned through studying history. In this position, I improved my people skills, taught others how to give effective presentations, and learned how to project manage—all of which are necessary in my current position.
But something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t contributing. I wasn’t making the world a better place. Jews have a phrase for this: Tikkun Olam—the improvement of our world. As a Jewish child, the obligation of Tikkun Olam was central to my religious education. And here I was in my mid-30s not fulfilling my mandate.
After I had my first child, I decided that I needed to revisit that mandate. I went to a career counsellor who assessed my skills. I had originally considered teaching, public relations for not-for-profits, or human rights law. After three sessions, the counsellor wrote in big red letters on my file: Editor!
I went back to school to take courses in publishing. Not since graduate school had I been so focused and so engaged. I was privileged to be offered an internship at Random House Canada where I learned the ropes. I enjoyed trade publishing and became known as the intern who would read all the non-fiction manuscripts. Soon after, a dream job appeared: History Editor at Broadview Press, which later became the Higher Education Division at University of Toronto Press. The rest, as they say, is history. My job is the perfect marriage of my history background, my business skills, and my fulfillment of Tikkun Olam.
My first ever author meeting was with the late Jill N. Claster at NYU. We were discussing her upcoming book with us: Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East, 1095-1396. Jill impressed upon me my obligation to create materials that help undergraduates understand the past to create a better present. History is a teacher, she told me. And like all teachers, it isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean you don’t listen to it. Those words from a decade ago are a daily reminder to me of my obligation as a history editor.
Our recently published political history, The Assassination of Europe, 1918-1942 by Howard M. Sachar, shows students how the voice of extremism can silence those of moderation. Our upcoming reader, Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages edited by Jarbel Rodriguez, illustrates a history of conflict but also—and this may surprise students—a history of co-existence. I recently received a timely proposal for a microhistory about a businessman caught in the crosshairs of religious violence in France. Not last week, but in the sixteenth century. We need to read these books, learn the lessons that are contained in their pages, and communicate them to future generations. As educators, this is not just our job, but our responsibility.
Every morning, I look up at all the books I have published over the years (Jill Claster’s book sits front and centre) and I think about their dedicated authors, who are a constant source of inspiration. I also think about my colleagues, whose dedication, competence, and mutual love for our books transform “work” into “pleasure” and allow a moment of gratitude to pass before I open my inbox.