Historians, Sons, Daughters

Historians in the News

SAN DIEGO -- When Adam Davis was growing up and wanted paper to draw on, his parents gave him the blank back sides of the first typed drafts of the books that established his father, David Brion Davis, as one of the preeminent historians of slavery. Clearly Adam was exposed to history from a young age, and so it’s no surprise, perhaps, that he is now a historian as well. (The senior Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and Adam is associate professor of history at Denison University.)

That’s not to say that the younger Davis followed his father’s footsteps entirely. In what appeared to be a pattern on a panel of historian parents and their historian offspring at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, it turns out that the way you rebel against an American historian parent is to become a medievalist.

Stories like Adam’s were featured throughout the panel. This was a group where people grew up to earn doctorates because that’s what they thought everybody did, where one first learned a foreign language when taken on a parent's sabbatical, and where the normal guest list for a dinner party would include a bunch of Mom’s or Dad’s grad students. But the discussion here went well beyond such stories to explore such questions as how the profession has changed, and whether a next generation of historians will have the same opportunities as the senior generation on the panel or even the junior generation....

The presentations by Jennifer Brier and her father, Steve Brier, also focused on the potential lack of opportunity for those who most need higher education. Steve teaches labor history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Jennifer teaches the history of gender and sexuality at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Steve noted that both he and his daughter are the products of public education and have worked "only for public higher education." He said that by the 1970s, he was worried about whether a career in higher education was engaged enough with real social problems and he shifted "away from traditional academic history" toward more non-academic approaches to his work, such as documentary film.

Jennifer noted that her father "tried very hard to get me not to become a historian," in part, she joked, by taking her to academic conferences. By the time she fell in love with history, she said, she was attracted to its potential to "to make change" by analyzing inequality.

She noted that while her father found academe "stifling," in part because of the privilege he found there, she finds herself today teaching first generation college students like the first generation student her father once was.

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