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Interview with AHA President-elect Anthony Grafton

Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.  The majority of his research lies within the fields of the Renaissance and Reformation and Historiography.  He earned his Ph.D. in History in 1975 from the University of Chicago and has been a professor at Princeton since that time.  Professor Grafton has written ten books, such as Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation and Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West.  This interview was conducted by e-mail.

What made you interested in the field of historiography?

Reading the work of Arnaldo Momigliano when I was an undergraduate.

You are currently researching the science of chronology in 16th and 17th century Europe.  What has been some of you most exciting finds in this research so far?

Chiefly learning about how Christian scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began using Jewish evidence—particularly evidence about Passover—to try to understand the chronology of the life of Jesus and the origins of Easter. This was a very sophisticated and ambitious kind of comparative study of religion.

In February of 2008, you wrote an article in the Daily Princetonian, “Anybody thinking of graduate school?” which informed students of the hardships that potentially awaited them if they wanted to become graduate students.  Have you recently seen more students regretting their decision to pursue Ph.D.s?  Do you see lots of undergraduate students grappling with the issue of whether or not to attend graduate school?

Undergraduates that I talk to and work with seem, in some cases, determined to have a shot at studying for a doctorate. But those I know listen—at least to the extent of going on only if they receive fellowship support that will enable them to get through without borrowing much money.

Despite the obstacles that students face when earning their Ph.D.s, there must be some rewarding aspects to earning a Ph.D. as you are an accomplished professor and historian!  What have been some of the more rewarding aspects of your career so far?

Teaching has been the most rewarding part of my career: I love working with undergraduates and graduate students and seeing them use methods I would never have thought of and ask imaginative questions that would never have occurred to me. After that, I have greatly enjoyed the chance to work on a single project for several years, deepening my knowledge and spending each summer in Europe doing primary research.

In addition to the precautionary note you gave to potential graduate students, what would be your most valuable piece of advice to students who are considering earning their Ph.D.s and becoming historians?

Learn languages: as many as you can, as well as you can, and as early as you can.

What are some of the most difficult issues you face as a professor of history? Have you found an increased or decreased interest among undergraduates in your history classes?

It’s hard to know what comprises a basic historical education for undergraduates nowadays: what facts, what methods, what approaches a young historian should know. Next fall I have to teach our introduction to the West, and the task is more challenging than ever.

Do you feel it is possible to reintroduce history in a more engaging manner through the online world with blogs and websites such the History News Network in a method which could reinvigorate students’ interest in history?

Possibly. But I still like the university to be counter-cultural: the one place that emphasizes reading solid pieces of prose and primary sources and listening to complex lectures and discussions. So I use new technology when it encourages students to engage with readings—BlackBoard, for example, so they can post on readings and get a discussion going before class meetings—but haven’t yet used a blog in teaching, because I don’t want to distract them from the bigger tasks.

As president-elect of the American Historical Association, you are clearly an involved member in the academic and historical arena.  It seems that the AHA holds meetings and conferences with the hope of fostering collaboration among historians.  Do you believe that collaboration could be as crucial to history as it has been to other academic areas?  How do you see historians dealing with each other; is their network positive and supportive? Do you feel that this idea of collaboration among historians has developed at all with the burgeoning role of historical websites and blogs?

Great question. I have written several books and articles in collaboration with other scholars, and believe that collaboration is incredibly interesting and rewarding. You get to places you wouldn’t reach on your own and you have more fun while you’re doing it. This is something scientists and social scientists discovered a long time ago. Digital work is almost always collaborative, and as historians move more into digital projects, we will have to learn to collaborate, to assign responsibility and credit, as practitioners of other disciplines have.