Whitney J. Oates Senior Research Scholar, the Council of the Humanities. Lecturer in History, Princeton University
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I suppose I was interested British history from an early age because I grew up in West Midlands in the 1950s. From one perspective, Birmingham was a city where there were still the architectural and industrial residues of the age of Joseph Chamberlain; from another, there was still the countryside of Worcestershire and beyond, parts of which were owned by aristocratic families, some of whom had been there a long time. I don’t know when I first realized that this was a vivid and resonant historical environment in which to grow up, but it no doubt helped that my parents bought me history books which I devoured with eager hunger, the volumes of the Penguin History of England being among those I especially and affectionately remember. So I soon got into the habit of reading the history of my own country in books, and of looking at the residue of some of that history in the city and the countryside that were around me. I think it was this combination of reading and looking that probably set me off.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
I was lucky enough to be trained in Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton so I encountered several mentors to whom I have always been very grateful. I trained as an economic historian under Peter Matthias and I was much influenced as an urban historian by H. J. Dyos at the University of Leicester. In some ways the two historians by whom I think I’ve been most influenced are Eric Hobsbawm and Asa Briggs. Neither confined themselves to the sub-disciplinary chauvinisms of being either economic or social or political historians, but instead they took a much broader view of their subject by approaching complicated problems from as wide a range of perspectives as possible. They also looked at England and at Britain in a broader continental and global context. The other mentor I want to mention is Lawrence Stone, with whom I worked at Princeton for a year when I was a graduate student. Again he approached complicated historical problems from a broad viewpoint, and again I found that a very stimulating and admirable approach – an approach which I have, in some ways, tried to emulate.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
I never gave serious thought to choosing any other career path so it’s a bit late in the day to try to answer that question. I suppose I always hoped that in becoming a historian I would not only be a scholar, teacher and writer, but also that by so doing, I would come into contact with a broader spectrum of society in terms of other professions and other occupations, and not just in Britain but in other parts of the world. I feel very lucky that in the course of my career I’ve been able to do that, and to do it many times over. So although I never really thought of any other career for myself I have hugely enjoyed meeting and working with lawyers and politicians and journalists and bankers and doctors and civil servants and many others across a whole variety of professions. I don’t think I would have been any good at those occupations, but it has been enormously enjoyable to see what other people in other professions actually do.
4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
I think at the time when I’m writing a particular book or essay or article or review or broadcast or lecture, then that’s always the most fulfilling thing while I’m doing it. I always find the project that I’m currently working on fairly enthralling and fairly fulfilling, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. I also hope it’s too early to have to reach a kind of lifetime’s balance sheet of what’s been more fulfilling and what’s been less, so I’d like to leave that part of the answer for now.
5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
It’s hard to know, and on the whole I think that’s good news rather than bad. I also think that the field of British history is in a very interesting state at the moment. Here’s one example: the way that British history is done in Britain and the way that British history is done in the United States and other parts of the world seem to me to be gradually diverging: the history of Britain outside Britain is becoming an ever more broad-ranging subject whereas I think the history of Britain inside Britain is in certain quarters becoming a more parochial subject. Precisely how that gap is going to be bridged, and whether indeed it can be bridged, is a significant challenge that faces practitioners of British history at the present time and will do so, I suspect, on into the future.
6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
I think that it is important to try to choose a good and exciting and original topic but it’s also important to be aware that one’s first research is merely the beginning of what should be a long career, so you shouldn’t expect to do everything and answer everything and change the world on the basis of a first book. So while I think it’s important to have high expectations when setting out, they should not be unrealistic. I also think it’s important to try to choose subjects that connect with a wide variety of history’s sub-disciplines so as not to be in thrall to one particular approach or methodology. Beyond that, I think it’s important to try to be part of a lively group of graduate students who feed off each other, and strike ideas off each other and, of course, the University of Texas at Austin provides that opportunity in abundance.