Monday, November 19, 2012

Blog CXXXV (135): Colonial American History

Owen Stanwood is an associate professor at Boston College.  He earned a BA from Grinnell College and then went to Northwestern University where he earned the MA and PhD degrees.  He is a historian of early America and the British Atlantic world. He has a number of interests within this vast field, including the development of imperial politics, the diffusion of Christianity, intercultural contact and interaction, and the history of exploration. His first book, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution, examines how fears of Catholicism galvanized and transformed Anglo-American political culture during the last decades of the seventeenth century.  His article “Captives and Slaves: Indian Labor, Cultural Conversion, and the Plantation Revolution in Virginia,” that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography won the C. Coleman McGehee Award from the Virginia Historical Society. Another article “The Protestant Moment: Antipopery, the Revolution of 1688-89, and the Making of an Anglo-American Empire” appeared in the Journal of British Studies and won the Walter D. Love Prize in History from the North American Conference on British Studies.

His current research, tentatively titled "Dreams of Wine and Silk: Huguenot Refugees in the Atlantic World," follows the thousands of French Protestant refugees who traveled and settled on the peripheries of the British, Dutch, and French empires during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition, he is working on a smaller project, “Murder in Hadley,” a microhistory of a 1696 trial in western Massachusetts. His teaching ranges from colonial and revolutionary America to early modern Britain, including such topics as European-Indian relations, the settlement of New England, and the development of early modern British imperialism.  He has received a number grants and fellowships to facilitate that research, including the Kluge Fellowship from the Library of Congress, which is a full-year residential fellowship for the 2007-2008 academic year.  He also received the Eccles Visiting Professorship in North American Studies from the British Library and the Newberry Library/British Academy Fellowship for Study in Great Britain, which he used in the 2011-2012 academic year.      

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Colonial American history is a great field because it is diverse and vibrant – and always changing. In the old days (say before the 1980s) early Americanists tended to study a few places and topics: New England Puritans; Virginia planters; the origins of the American Revolution. Since that time the field has exploded in terms of geography and methodology. Today at a conference of colonial historians you will find papers on Quebec, Cuba, and New Mexico. Some of us stress Atlantic approaches while others look at connections to Latin America or the Far West. All of this makes colonial history great for those, like me, with short attention spans. Depending on the day I could be reading about early modern France, Puritan Massachusetts, or the Indian Oceanand it's all relevant!

The history profession as a whole has experienced a similar transformation that makes it great to be a historian these days. I think that as a field we have become much more imaginative about how we situate our projects. Many scholars are experimenting with new sources, methodologies, and perspectivesand the digitization of sources is making research easier.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
There are a number of issues facing the field, and the profession in general. For colonial historians, one of the key issues is maintaining a coherent story in the face of the massive expansion of the field that I already described. We have brought in so many different people and perspectives that we sometimes have trouble explaining to students and the general public why it matters. We need to do a better job at telling stories that are factually correct and interpretively interesting but also provide narratives that people can remember.

Of course the biggest issue facing the profession as a whole is the fact that many of us can not find jobs. Colonial history is somewhat better than other fields in this regard. For instance, early modern European historians have seen a catastrophic loss of positions, while nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americanists have more jobs but far too many applicants. We have a bit better of a balancebut at the same time, there is no doubt that the short and long-term employment situation is bleak.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The most interesting work in my field is being done by people who are pushing into new linguistic territory. Since the field has traditionally been defined around British America, we have not usually worked in other languagesbut now many of the greatest untapped sources are in other languages, especially Spanish, French, German, and Dutch. For instance, over the last decade a number of scholars have begun working in the archives of the Moravian ChurchGerman missionaries who operated Indian missions in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania and Ohio. Others have started to work in native languages as well. In his new study of Indian slavery in New France (Bonds of Alliance), for example, Brett Rushforth not only uses French sources, but also French-Algonquian dictionaries to understand how Indians talked about enslavement. I think this kind of work is the future of the field. I encourage all undergraduates interested in colonial America to start learning languages.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is a vital part of being a historian for two reasons. First of all, by designing broad classes we can figure out how our own research mattershow it fits into the overall narrative of American or world history. If there is no place for the work we are doing in our classes, then perhaps we should not be doing it. Also, teaching is the way that we take the insights of our (and other scholars') research and send them out into the world. Few of our books reach wide audiences, and that is okay, as long as we all read each other's work and share it with our students. Then hopefully our new interpretations will gradually make an impact, as our students internalize them. In my large core lecture class at BC I make a point of introducing a number of obscure but important historical characters to my students to illustrate broad topics. Few things give me more satisfaction than knowing that through my teaching hundreds more people now know the stories of these men and women from the past whose lives have taught me so much.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
This depends on his or her ambitions. I have always taught at research universities that expect a published monograph at a leading university press. The good news is that this is still somewhat easier in colonial history than in other fields, as there is a small readership beyond the academy for many of our books. There are perhaps a dozen good presses that publish in the field. Journal articles are helpful because they allow young scholars to get feedback on their work and get their names out there, but the book is still the thing that makes or breaks careers.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
All of these things have an impact, but the main factor as I see it is finding a good research topic early in graduate school. I have served on several search committees, and while the reputation of the grad school (or advisor) does sometimes sway us, the main thing we look for is an interesting and innovative project. That said, you can not get a job unless there are jobs available. Anyone interested in graduate school should spend some time on H-Net looking at job listings to see what fields have jobs. For instance, I would not advise anyone to go to grad school in early modern European history right now. It's a fascinating field and lots of great work is being done in it, but there are just no jobs. Choose colonial American (or Latin American) history instead.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
When students ask me about grad school in history I always say two things: First, only get a Ph.D. if you can not imagine doing anything else. Its a wonderful career if you succeed, but can be a difficult path to employment, and it's an unusual professional life that is certainly not for everyone. Second, do not go to a graduate program that does not give you a stipend. No one should go into debt to get a degree that may not lead to a job. But if you truly love history and can get a good financial package, go for it. Just be realistic about the possible difficulties finding employment.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
This is more difficult for me to say, as it is not a situation I have faced myself. I know in our department we try to make students aware of opportunities for employment beyond teachingin museums, archives, etc.but to be honest there are not huge quantities of jobs in these fields either. The main thing I would say to young Ph.D.s is that there is no shame in doing something else, and it does not mean that you have failed as a historian. I have friends who have left the profession and found satisfying careers elsewhere, but still feel proud of the skills and knowledge they gained in graduate school.

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