Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Blog CXL (140): Eight Questions: African History

The next entry in the Eight Question series comes from Ruramisai Charumbira who is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She was previously an assistant professor at Denison University. Her teaching and research interests include: pre-1800 history of (Southern) Africa, Africa's colonial histories, particularly its impact on women's lives. She also does research and teaches on comparative women's and gender history; historical memory; ethno-archaeology; and Africa's 20th century intellectual life. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale University. Charumbira is the author of the forthcoming book: Strangled by the Ancestors: Memory in the Making of Zimbabwe. She has had articles and chapters appear in History in Africa, History Compass and the anthology Wither National Myths?. She is also a published poet and short story author.

What is the greatest strength of your field?  In the history profession? 
When students can say within two weeks of reading course material that they have learned more about Africa than their entire lives, I always think it is a win for the history profession. One of the greatest strengths of African history within the history profession is its default multidisciplinary sources and research methods – a practice, I am happy to say is now almost default in the profession in general.
What is the biggest issue facing your field?  The history profession?
The fact that students come to college/university with barely any African history background is very disturbing. It would be a huge improvement if high school teachers had some basic African history background that they could teach their students so transition to college is not so basic as to take up a third or so of the semester debunking infomercials about Africa’s poverty, etc., stories.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field?  Why?
The most interesting work that is currently being done in African history is through archaeology, I think. A former professor of mine, Roderick McIntosh at Yale University, is one of those that has changed the ways we think about African, if not international ancient urban history. People like him are historians at heart, and they involve local communities who participate in the reconstruction of their local areas’ pasts. By working through disciplinary boundaries, the new historiography is less interested in just insider talk, but engagement with a wider audience who in turn become invested in history for its own sake.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is invaluable because it feeds research questions that in turn produce scholarship to move the field and the profession forward – including pedagogy itself. More importantly, it is a terrific forum for reminding professional historians that historical knowledge is not just for other professional historians, but for a wider audience. Nothing takes the veil off the ivory tower better than teaching, especially undergraduate

What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
I would advise a student to ask themselves what she/he wants to do with that Ph.D., because that dictates the type of publishing they should pursue for their careers. In a word, it depends.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma mater, etc.?
I would say all and none of the above. I say that as an immigrant who has had some and not all of the above; one who has also learned that the culture of the place where one works maybe a more determining factor than any other issue. Most importantly, personal integrity and “keeping one’s eyes on the prize” – to borrow a phrase – is what will carry one’s career successfully.

What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I would have to know the particularities of the student, but the most important would be passion for the subject she/he wants to study. There is no substitute for passion.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
I planted seeds in my garden once, thinking they were orange trees, and out came lemons. Make lemonade, as the saying goes. Remember some of most important ways people consume history is not through departments of history, but through public history at museums, or through historical fiction, and film, to name a few. You have a Ph.D. and most do not; the world is much smaller (so to speak) than it used to be by way of aviation and the internet. Step over the comfort zone and see what’s beyond the grove of lemon trees.

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