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February 2011: Susan Pedersen

Susan Pedersen
Professor of History, Columbia University

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I have to confess that I really became a British historian in a serious way after I was hired to teach British history. My initial interest in British history was pretty instrumental: I was interested in social processes and social change, and stumbled into British history as a way to study those things. As an undergraduate woman at Harvard, I had become involved in the feminist movement on campus (being a woman student at Harvard in the late seventies – a time when the faculty was almost entirely male and the student body still about 2/3 male – was almost guaranteed to turn any thinking young woman into a feminist), and, just out of cussedness I think, decided one semester to take courses only with women professors. I ended up in an eclectic assortment of courses – Greek mythology with Emily Vermeule, biology with Ruth Hubbard, a seminar on American short stories with Heather McClave, a small seminar largely on the US women’s suffrage movement, and Molly Nolan’s European history survey course. (That’s Mary S. Nolan, now at NYU, who also offered the first women’s history course ever offered at Harvard, which I took the next semester – thank you, Molly!) In one of Molly’s courses, I wrote a long paper on the substitution of women for men in munitions industries in Britain in the First World War – not because I was interested in Britain in particular, but because I wanted to figure out what happened when women were placed into men’s jobs, and why, in essence, gendered skill definitions and pay rates largely held. I ended up taking my next year off and – this being an era before a lot of study-abroad-for-credit, but when students just packed their backpacks and went – ended up waitressing illegally to support myself in London while spending my days reading the minutes of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. I became a historian because I was doing history, and because I loved the world of the London Feminist History Group that I fell into. When I returned to Harvard, I wrote my senior thesis on this subject (“Explaining the Persistence of Gender Hierarchy at Work”) and then stayed at Harvard to do a PhD in history. I still wasn’t really a British historian, though: I was a “Europeanist” (a field that, in the US, includes Britain), and wrote my dissertation – which became my first book – on the way the French and British welfare states came to account for familial dependence. I was still really using history as, almost, a data set with which to test different theories, and that first book is quite social scientific in its conceptualization.

Something happened to me while writing that book, though, and still more when I began teaching as an Assistant Professor at Harvard: I fell in love with my field. I started out studying British history because the sources were readily available and easy to deal with, but I remained in the field because I became interested in it for its own sake. This happened, I think, because modern British history is just such a very good field, with lots of wonderful work, great scholarly traditions, high standards of evidence, literate writing, and plenty of interesting people and problems to study. People like Lloyd George were just fun to learn about, and I increasingly felt as if I knew them. Once I was hired as an Assistant Professor, Harvard was pretty indulgent with me, frankly: I just learned on the job.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

My dissertation was supervised by two people – Charles Maier and John Clive (a benevolent but rather ill-assorted pair!) – but truthfully I’d have to say that the people who most influenced me were Samuel Beer, Max Weber, and my husband, Tom Ertman. Samuel Beer was in his final year of teaching at Harvard when I arrived there as a freshman in 1977, and I enrolled that year in a famous course he taught, “Western Thought and Institutions.” This was a year-long exploration of six eclectic historical topics that interested Beer (a political scientist) for one reason or another; they ranged from the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman kingship, to Medici rule, to the fall of the Weimar Republic. Beer examined these historical events and had us read a pretty rich assortment of social theorists alongside – including Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Freud, and so forth – in the hope (I guess) that we’d learn to think analytically about historical change. I absolutely adored the course, stayed up late at night arguing about it with my friends, and majored in Social Studies (an interdisciplinary major organized around a social thought course) because of it. Because of Sam Beer, I always thought of history as an interpretative and analytical discipline, not a narrative form.

Beer also introduced me to Max Weber, on whom I developed a hopeless crush (hopeless because he was sixty years dead when I discovered him). Weber’s typology of authority was the first reading assignment in Beer’s course, and while I scarcely could understand what he was after (what was the “routinization of charisma”?), I knew that this was, in some strange way, how I thought. Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” with its clear distinction between politicians motivated by an “ethic of ultimate ends” and those holding an “ethic of responsibility,” is still an intensely useful framework for studying political action (and I referred to it mentally when writing Eleanor Rathbone’s life); his methodology essays still define for me what I think of as proper scholarly method.

Everything is related: I met my husband, Tom Ertman, when we were paired as graduate students to co-teach a section of the foundational undergraduate course in Social Studies – a course I myself had taken as a student, and which included (no kidding) five weeks devoted to reading Max Weber. My husband is a historical sociologist and, not coincidentally, another Weber fan; he’s also (as I am not) a serious Weber scholar, and is now editing a collection devoted to examining what is worth saving in Weber’s religious sociology. Tom reads everything I write and is an excellent critic, but I also just feel fortunate to be living with someone who can understand and accept the strange obsessions that historians tend to have.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I find that hard to answer. When I went to Harvard as an undergraduate I intended to become a marine biologist. (My parents were Lutheran missionaries to Japan, and I had spent some time in junior high school on an island south of Tokyo splashing around tidal pools and cutting up fish with an inspirational teacher.) The tedium of first-year biology at Harvard, a wretchedly-taught course with 500 students and no labs, cured me of that dream, and by then I was already curled up in the library with Max Weber. I did have fairly serious political commitments as a student and spent time working for a community-organizing operation and for a sexual harassment crisis-intervention group, but it was pretty clear to me that I was both more interested in and better at academics than anything else. When I chose to go to graduate school in history, then, I chose not to have a career in politics: I am not one of those scholars who think that their scholarship is serving humanity, or is a “change agent,” or any such thing. (My teaching may be that, but not my scholarship, which is read by other scholars.) I became a historian because it’s what I love to do: the fact that someone will actually pay me to do this, and that people sometimes like to read what I write, is an added bonus. But I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything: having been raised by missionaries, I have a strong allergy to proselytizing of any kind. My husband, of course, disagrees, and tells me that I – like every child of a minister – proselytize endlessly, even though I may only be trying to convert students from ignorance to learning.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

Even though the book has been read by frighteningly few people, I loved writing Eleanor Rathbone’s biography. I loved the detective work of finding out about her and tracking down sources no-one had found; I loved tackling so many critically important issues through the optic of an individual life. (Rathbone was involved in everything, from early women’s education, to settlement house work, to suffrage, to social policy movements, to anti-appeasement, to efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.) And I especially loved using imagination and empathy, and writing in a very different way. My first book had dozens of tables about wage rates and benefit levels; I wanted people to read the Rathbone book and feel they knew and cared about her. I included lots of things in the book that Rathbone probably would have preferred me to leave out, but nevertheless I feel that the book honors her.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

I just wrote a piece on the future of graduate education in this field in the United States for Twentieth Century British History, so can I possibly just refer you to that? Particularly in North America, I think the propensity to study Britain in the context of empire will be lasting. I hope, though, that there will continue to be a great deal of exchange between historians of Britain working in the UK and those working in North America. Those in Britain become less self-referential, and the Americans are forced to live up to British standards of knowledge and evidence. Beyond that, I don’t want to make any predictions about trends. I so dislike the tendency for particular scholarly waves to develop; nothing is more heartening than to find people pursuing odd by-ways or passions of their own. Who could possibly have said that reading Thomas Chalmers would be a rewarding thing to do? But there you have it:The Age of Atonement.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

I’m not sure how I feel about giving advice of this sort. I think so much happens because of lucky finds. A good number of the articles I published (including one on the controversy over clitoridectomy in colonial Kenya, which I think I may have written because I was up for tenure and couldn’t resist making my senior male colleagues read something of this sort) were the result of lucky archival finds. This isn’t really “advice,” then, because people work very differently, but I tend to think that it’s a good idea to see if you can spend some time just poking around in (say) the National Archives, tracking topics you’re just curious about, and seeing whether you stumble across something really interesting. What I really wouldn’t do is write on something that seems to be a hot topic in the field, especially not for strategic reasons. Your dissertation will take you at least six years, and you’ll probably spend a few more years turning it into a book. By the time you publish your book, there will be 20 other books on this subject, and the erstwhile hot topic will be thought of as mind-numbingly boring. Just pick something big enough, and interesting enough, to sustain you for ten years.

Read Susan Pedersen’s full bio here

British Studies at Columbia

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