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Path to the Podium: One Used Book Defines Professor Jacobs' Surprising History

Path to the Podium is a new series featuring Boston College professors' personal stories of how they arrived here, at the pinnacle of their fields and the front of the many classrooms on The Heights.

Gavel Media / Tori Fisher

Gavel Media / Tori Fisher

“Find someone you think is doing something valuable and ask them, when you were 22, did you know what it is you wanted to do with your life? 9 times out of 10 they didn’t know, or entirely changed. That is just unnecessary pressure that people put on themselves.” –Seth Jacobs

Flash back to elementary school, if only for a moment. Your teacher was the center of your school life, a semi-divine figure who you could never imagine was a real human being herself.

That is until, in a vertigo-inducing collision of universes, you ran into her in the grocery store! Suddenly you saw through it all; it turns out, this person who you thought lived at school and dined exclusively on Goldfish crackers did in fact venture into the real world, shop for groceries and have family, on top of it all. It was a hugely humanizing, albeit disorienting, experience.

In college, students no longer run into their professors at the grocery store. For the most part, professors exist exclusively in the front of a classroom or during office hours, and only as confident academics and authoritative lecturers.

It is easy enough to assume that these professors were all Ivy League prodigies who followed the straight-shoot path to the podium, knowing all along where their passions and goals lay.

As Professor Seth Jacobs tells it, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Recognized as one of the most spirited and skillful lecturers in the History Department, Jacobs draws hoards of students with his courses on American foreign policy and the Vietnam War; many of these students take the classes just to bear witness to Jacobs’ inspired performances.

And performances they are, chock full of evocative language, scarily accurate imitations and comical multimedia clips. In fact, long before he discovered his passion for history, Jacobs wanted nothing more than to perform for a living.

“I wanted to be an actor. That’s what my father was and I’d grown up seeing theater all the time,” reflects Jacobs. “I couldn’t be cool at anything else and this was something I could do.”

Because of his father’s unwillingness to finance a theater degree, Jacobs majored in philosophy with a psychology minor at Yale University, but describes himself as being a lackluster student; he thanks generous grade inflation for graduating cum laude.

Although it was not his major, theater still permeated Jacobs’ college experience and he chuckles, “When I go to reunions, people are entirely flabbergasted by what I do with my life.”

So if it wasn’t in his high school or college years that Jacobs discovered his calling for history, how did the now history-professor-extraordinaire first find his way into what is now the only career he could imagine himself having?

(When asked what career he would like to have should he theoretically need to switch, Jacobs pensively responded, “I honestly can’t think of anything else. Who knows, maybe this might not work out. Maybe I should think about another alternative…” Hard to imagine.)

Jacobs prefaces the history of how he stumbled into a career in academia by saying, “No one can ever believe this story because it sounds so contrived.” But, as a professional academic used to recounting hugely complicated histories, it’s safe to assume that his account of his own life’s story is factually sound.

A 28-year-old Jacobs was living in Chicago and performing in a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” when he stopped in at a used bookstore to pick up something to read on the train.

In a hurry, Jacobs grabbed a used copy of “A Documentary History of the United States,” because it cost only a little over a dollar (which turned out the be the exact amount of money he had in his wallet).

As he read through the book, Jacobs was struck with a feeling of guilt, “that [he] didn’t know anything about the history of [his] country.” He felt that as someone with a privileged upbringing, it was embarrassing not to have such basic knowledge of the nation that had permitted him to so flourish.

He promptly enrolled in a buffet of history classes at the University of Illinois and it was a course on the Vietnam War that most strongly compelled the young Jacobs. “There was such electricity in that room, such controversy,” he vividly recalls. “People were angry about this.”

To this day, Jacobs studies the history surrounding the Vietnam War primarily because of his tenet that history is about making arguments. “Vietnam virtually compels people to argue. You can’t be neutral or blasé about it.”

Throughout his lecture here at BC, America’s War in Vietnam, Jacobs scatters vignettes of historians at conferences getting into shouting matches, or fellow history students at the University of Illinois cursing each other out over that day’s lecture topic.

Gavel Media / Tori Fisher

Gavel Media / Tori Fisher

Jacobs positively beams whilst talking about the subject’s uncanny ability to rile people up. “I guess I’m just drawn to controversy,” he shrugs laughingly.

At the conclusion of the Vietnam History course that Jacobs was enrolled in at Illinois, the professor wrote on his final exam, Have you ever thought about looking into a career in academia? At this moment, Jacobs’ life made a monumental pivot.

Starting at the age of 30, Jacobs ambitiously completed a history Ph.D. at Northwestern University in just 5 years – a period of time in which he was simultaneously entering into married life and then fatherhood.

Despite a few uncomfortable moments as a new teacher, like when Jacobs unknowingly taught an entire class with his baby daughter’s throw-up on his jacket – “Just when you thought I couldn’t get any cooler,” – or when, after a typical sleepless night as a new dad he excused himself from class saying, “I have to go potty,” Jacobs feels entirely at home at the front of a classroom.

“Teaching is a blast,” he declares, “so when I finally got a chance to start doing that it became a lot of fun.” Regarding his job here at Boston College, Jacobs says, “BC pays me to attend faculty meetings and grade papers. I teach for free.”

Now that he’s at home in the BC History Department, thriving in his field and sending that once newborn baby girl off to college, it’s easy enough to forget that this confident, skillful lecturer and mentor was once just as confused as the undergraduates he teaches.

Yet, Jacobs actively acknowledges and celebrates the meandering route that has so far led him to an office on the fourth floor of Stokes Hall. “I don’t regret the fact that I’ve done something else,” Jacobs states resolutely. He’s undeniably proud of having “done something other than work in an ivory tower [his] whole life.”

Decades of experiences acting, contemplating philosophy and psychology, jumping into married life and fatherhood and one fatefully discounted book all led him, perhaps chaotically--certainly surprisingly--to where he is now.

“Find someone you think is doing something valuable and ask them, when you were 22, did you know what it is you wanted to do with your life? 9 times out of 10 they didn’t know, or entirely changed.” Considering his own story, Professor Jacob’s words ring especially true.

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