Professor of History, Cal Poly Pomona
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I became interested in history as a child, principally through the movies. Most of these had to do with British history, including such classics as Gunga Din, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Captain Blood, the last two starring Errol Flynn. These and other great historical adventure films were made in the 1930s, but fortunately were re-released in the postwar period so that they became my main portal into the past. My interest in very recent history was sparked by the many films about World War II. Of course, when I started to read history as an adolescent, I began to discover that history was a vast and varied array of human activities, most of them unassociated with feats of arms. But the fascination with Britain remained.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
That would have to be my mentor, the late David Cresap Moore. I first encountered him while still an undergraduate at UCLA, when I enrolled in his nineteenth and twentieth century Britain courses. His narrative gifts, analytic skills, and dry wit offered me new levels of understanding of what the discipline could be. While I had enjoyed other gifted teachers in my chosen discipline, Moore inspired me like no other, and proved a most attentive and helpful guide through the dissertation process.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
Journalism and publishing both appeared attractive to me as an undergraduate, but I never took any concrete steps to enter those professions. There are three careers that were actually offered to me or that I pursued to a limited extent: Army officer, CIA analyst, and lawyer. Prior to starting college, I spent three years in the army at Fort Bliss, Texas, as an instructor on the Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missile system. Though I was an enlisted man, my students were NATO officers. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and at the end of my hitch, I was offered admission to West Point. While there are aspects of military life that I found attractive, it did not take me long to decline the offer. Being enmeshed in a huge bureaucratic hierarchy would not have suited me temperamentally or intellectually. The same thing holds for the CIA, which I applied to in my senior year in response to a vaguely worded ad in the Daily Bruin for a “government researcher.” Only when I showed up at an unmarked office in a nearly abandoned building did I discover it was with the CIA. I submitted to a grueling battery of tests, was offered a position as an agent trainee, and turned it down in favor of going to law school. (Two years later, after I had earned an MA in history, I received a repeat of the CIA offer, which began by congratulating me on my new degree – it is an odd and more than slightly disconcerting sensation to be tracked like that). As for my legal “career,” it required only a couple of months in law school to convince me that I was a fish out of water and to switch over to the doctoral program in history and prepare to do what I wanted to do all along, become a historian and history teacher.
4. What project are you currently working on?
A book-length study of the various forms of national identity that are discernible in the major historical epics (mostly but not entirely multi-volume works) written from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century by Britons about British history. I am working on this study jointly with Richard A. Cosgrove, with whom I have already published one book (see question 6 below). The tentative title of our new book, which is still in the research stage, is Albion’s Modern Chroniclers: The Historical Epic and National Identity from Hume to Churchill.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
I haven’t really thought much beyond my current project, but expect that if I do undertake anything afterwards, it will probably be in historiography. There will also almost certainly be a fifth edition (and who knows, perhaps a sixth) of my methodology textbook,Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing.
6. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
Without doubt it is the book that Richard Cosgrove and I published in 2007 – The Great Tradition: Constitutional History and National Identity in Britain and the United States 1870-1960. My own interest in historiography had grown out of my teaching. Early on in my teaching career at Cal Poly, I undertook to develop courses in History Methods and History and Historians as required classes for all history majors and as prerequisites to the mandatory senior thesis. Both of them proved demanding as well as rewarding, and certainly influenced my writing. I became increasingly interested in discovering why historians did what they did, and how their writings were affected by such matters as their culture, social class, and so on. While my interest was somewhat stronger at first concerning British historians, my teaching naturally led me to ask the same questions about historians elsewhere in the world, especially in the US. My teaching had also made me aware of the primacy of constitutional history from the late nineteenth century into the interwar period, and I became curious to explore the reasons for its ascendance and later decline. Richard Cosgrove of the University of Arizona had many of the same interests, and our work had converged to the point that we were frequently on the same panel at scholarly conferences. From there it was but a short step to collaboration.
We decided on a study of constitutional historians and national identity on both sides of the Atlantic, with chapters using such lenses as race, empire, gender, Anglo-American relations, and the eruption of “culture wars.” I opted for the American side of the study, and found myself for the first time doing research in manuscript collections at the Library of Congress and dozens of university libraries around the country, mainly the letters of historians and the papers of organizations like the AHA and the Carnegie Endowment. Richard was doing the same sort of thing in British archives, and we emailed each other frequently with our recent findings, as well as engaging in extended face-to-face discussions at conferences. The internet was obviously an invaluable asset during our collaboration, no more so than during the writing phase, when we could easily send chapter files to each other and quickly receive the other’s comments. While I have heard a few horror stories over the years about co-authoring, there was nothing negative about the process for us. On the contrary, our collaboration was deeply satisfying on both a personal and professional level, to the point that we have launched another project.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
We are in the midst of such dramatic challenges to the comfortable assumptions I had in graduate school about the nature of British history and to some extent about the very concept of Britain that I hesitate to venture a guess. During the last few decades, the rapid rise of social history, followed by the linguistic and cultural turns and the new imperial history has produced a wide array of specializations. Some work of considerable distinction has emerged from this ferment, but in the process the field of British history has lost much of its earlier coherence. As Aristophanes put it, “Whirl is king, having driven out Zeus.” This is no bad thing, but one hopes to see a little more communication and cross-fertilization among the various sub-fields. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
8. Do you think that British domestic history in the modern era gets overshadowed by the study of the British Empire? Can the two subjects be properly studied in isolation? What does the emerging field of Britain and the World offer to the study of British history?
I’m not sure I would call it overshadowing of domestic history. There has traditionally been a clear divide between the history of events in Britain and coverage of diplomatic, imperial, and military affairs. The new imperial history is an extremely active field, and it is probably true that it accounts for a larger percentage of the total than did the old imperial history, but at the same time a significant portion of work in the new history actually concerns domestic matters, in the form of studies of the metropole. Britain and the World is a most valuable concept for a field of study or indeed for a scholarly organization like British Scholar. As someone with a strong interest in Anglo-American relations (in their cultural, intellectual, and social as well as diplomatic aspects) I find it particularly useful.
9. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
I’m inclined to suggest that the best approach is to find a topic in which you have a deep and passionate interest. However, graduate students are fully aware that the kind of topic they choose is likely to be an important factor on which they will be judged when they enter the job market. Choosing a more or less traditional subject in fields such as political, diplomatic, or military history (assuming one could find a mentor willing to direct such a dissertation) might lengthen the odds against an applicant for many jobs, though on the other hand it might be a passport to a specific position. Beyond that lies a concern to make one’s work publishable, with the assumption that a book in a traditional field will be considered old hat and therefore less likely to make it into print, or that its worth will be discounted even if it is published. I don’t think the reality is quite so dire, but in such matters perception is all important, and it is quite understandable that younger scholars want their work to be considered cutting edge. It is crucial to point out that work of great value continues to be produced in traditional fields, though the best of it is often informed by some of the insights provided by newer fields. Quality work is quality work no matter how it is labeled, so on the question of topics for research and writing I recur to the advice given in the first sentence.
There is a final point to be noted, and it concerns teaching (including preparation and grading), which is the single most time-consuming activity for most academics. Viewing time in the classroom as a “teaching load,” that is, dreary labor that keeps you from your scholarly work, is a recipe for an unhappy career. Instead, take an early and active interest in your teaching. Think about developing some new courses, or stretching yourself to teach an important class in the curriculum that is going untaught. The rewards are many. While your impact on most students will no doubt range from light to indiscernible, you will touch some students more deeply, and a few profoundly. Moreover, your teaching and your scholarship should nourish each other. Introducing some of the fruits of your research into the classroom exposes students to new insights and information, as well as underscoring the lesson that scholarship on any aspect of the past is always a work in progress. Conversely, having to explain complex matters in an interesting and engaging manner makes you a better writer and can suggest new directions in your work.