An Interview with MacArthur Genius Award Winner Pamela O. Long

tags: MacArthur Genius Award, Pamela O. Long

Ethan Feinstein is an HNN intern. This interview was conducted by email and has been edited for publication.

Pamela O. Long is an independent historian, receiving her B.A, M.A, and Ph.D, from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1965, 1969, and 1979 respectively. Along with her recent publication of Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences 1400-1600, she has authored the Morris D. Forkosch Prize winning Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. She is currently researching the cultural history of engineering in Rome between 1557 and 1590 for future publication.

When Did Your Passion for History Start and What Drove You to Pursue it as a Career?

I got interested in history as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, which had a great history department and some wonderful teachers. I really decided to pursue history as a career after working as a social worker for some years and realizing this wasn't the field for me, practical though it was. I decided, since I wasn't going to do something practical, I might as well do exactly what I wanted to do.

Do You Have any Early Ideas or Plans for Your MacArthur Research?

I plan to continue the research that I have been working on for some time—a study of engineering in the city of Rome in the late sixteenth century. The MacArthur Award will be very helpful for this research because, I need to be working from time to time in the archives in Rome. The archives of course are free but living in Rome costs something.

How Does this Award Compare to Your Earlier Accomplishments?

It's hard to answer this question. I am very honored by this award, as I have been honored by previous grants that I have received. For me, having a secure income for five years is not only unprecedented, but relieves me from having to constantly apply for grants.

Can You Anticipate any Challenges for your Research?

My research is full of challenges, which range from deciphering almost unreadable sixteenth-century hand-written notarial documents to trying to write elegantly and concisely when dealing with a huge, at times unwieldy, subject. But then, that's probably why I like it so much.

Do You Have Any Long-Term Research Goals Beyond the MacArthur Grant? 

Yes, after I finish my book on Roman engineering and knowledge in late sixteenth-century Rome, I plan to write other books and articles. My next book after this one will possibly be called "The Lure of Machines" and will be based on the many illustrated machine books that were produced in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

What Made You Interested in European Scientific and Intellectual History?

Actually I am interested in all kinds of history. But I do think knowledge of the natural world, engineering and technology, and ideas and writings are very much part of history more generally.  And I am especially interested in pre-modern history because you are studying a culture that in some fundamental ways is different from your own. Figuring out how that culture works is just very interesting to me. I think I just happened upon Europe as a location.  But to actually do historical research you have to have mastered some languages, and it happens that I can read Latin, French, German, and Italian but not Russian or Chinese. Well, I have struggled to learn some of the languages that I do know, but there are just so many languages any one person can learn and I think I am at my limit. This is why I am not doing research on Ming China!

Which European Country did You Enjoy Traveling to Most?

I think I would have to say Italy. I love Italy and especially Rome, and I speak Italian better than other European languages, which always makes life easier.

What Advice Would You Give any Recent Graduate in History Attempting to Enter the Field?

I would say that it is perfectly understandable to be obsessed with finding a job, particularly an academic job, especially given the culture of our discipline and the need to make a living. But if you actually want to be a practicing historian, it is just as important to find ways of continuing to do your research and writing, and this is true, whether you have an academic job or not. It is also important to adopt some flexibility in terms of what you think you might do (as I think the American Historical Association has also been recently stressing).

Applying for grants is important, and the way to respond to a rejection is to evaluate the causes, get advice from friends and other helpful people on the proposal, and apply again.  All successful grant applicants have gotten rejections. The way to guarantee that you won't get a grant is to not apply.

Also, I do think teaching experience is important, and doing adjunct teaching to get that experience might be an excellent idea. But I would think very carefully before letting adjunct teaching become a long-range solution for support. Universities throughout the US are filling more and more faculty positions with adjuncts while hiring more and more well-paid deans. Adjunct teaching is totally time-consuming (as time-consuming as tenure-track teaching), with very low pay, no benefits, and relatively low status. For some it works out okay, but I would carefully think of alternatives, rather than thinking of it as inevitable. The way to advance in the field of history is to do excellent research and writing and then get it published. This takes lots of time and the more experience you have, the easier it gets. But it is never easy. So I would say, figure out how best to do this. Think outside the box. Everyone is different and in a different situation, so everyone's solution will be different. The important thing is, if you have found something you love to do, be flexible in figuring out the best way for you to do it.

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