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History is a Verb, Something You Do: An Interview with Mark Doyle

Mark Doyle is a historian of Ireland and the British Empire and Professor in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University.

What books are you reading now?

Because it’s summer, I’m being a bit self-indulgent in my reading. I just finished Ulysses, which, to my shame as an Irish historian, I had never read before. It was a harrowing but ultimately very rewarding experience - knowing the historical background was a help, but I wouldn’t have survived without online guides like Shmoop and joyceproject.com to guide me through the murky bits. I feel nothing but admiration for people who read and appreciated it upon its initial publication in the early 1920s without the assistance of our modern Joyce Industrial Complex.

I always try to keep at least one novel going – not just because it makes a nice break from my academic reading, but also because it helps me be a better writer. After Ulysses I started The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a science-fiction novel about two worlds with contrasting social and political systems, one capitalist/individualist and the other anarchist/collectivist. I don’t read much sci-fi, but I am drawn to books that take an abstract idea or ideology and follow it to its logical conclusions. George Orwell, HG Wells, Jose Saramago, Margaret Atwood, and George Saunders are other writers in this vein – in addition, I’m sure, to many sci-fi writers whose work I’ve yet to read. I’m quite enjoying The Dispossessed and rather wish I’d read it twenty years ago, when I first began thinking about the theory and practice of these different social systems.

I’m also reading At Freedom’s Door by Malcolm Lyall Darling. Darling was a member of the Indian Civil Service from 1904 and 1940, mostly in Punjab, and in 1946-7 he took a tour around northern India to gauge the state of the country on the eve of independence. While it is somewhat colored by Darling’s cultural assumptions and blind spots, it’s an invaluable source about the social and economic conditions in (primarily) rural India just before Partition. I’m particularly interested in the communal relations that Darling describes and am thinking about how his experiences in northwest and northern India might compare with conditions further east. I’m supervising a PhD student who is working on partition in Bengal (northeastern India), and the nature of Hindu-Muslim relations on the ground will be a crucial component of his research.

Finally, I’ve just started Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm. I’ve been thinking (and fretting) quite a lot about the role of the historian in the face of catastrophic climate change, and I’m hoping this book, about the roots of the fossil fuel economy, can suggest one way forward. Sometimes our work seems so trivial in comparison with the existential threats we’re faced with – more than once I’ve considered chucking it all in and just chaining myself to a tree in the Amazon – but I also know that our work is necessary for helping humanity survive whatever lies ahead. Malm’s book seems like one promising way forward, an effort to understand how we got into our current predicament and a suggestion about how to find our way out, but there are other approaches that may be just as important. I’ll say more about this below.

What is your favorite history book?

It’s impossible to choose just one, but I think the one that has had the biggest impact on me as a scholar (and a human) is Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It’s a study of a Nazi police battalion who rounded up and killed Jews during the Holocaust, but it’s also much more than that, a multilayered accounting of the social, political, and cultural forces that can lead people to commit extraordinary violence against other people. Browning’s conclusion, that any group of people placed in similar circumstances would act as these German policemen did, is a masterpiece of complex historical argument that made me feel personally implicated. It forced me to ask myself whether I would have the courage to stand up for what I knew was right even when everyone else was doing wrong, whether I would be the one in a hundred who refused to shoot or purposely misfired or actually tried to intervene to save lives, and it’s a question that I still ask myself all the time. When I read the book in graduate school I was still figuring out what the purpose of history was, what role it could play in contemporary society, and here was a powerful answer that continues to resonate in much of my work. History can help us understand the structural forces that foster suspicion, prejudice, resentment, and violence, and once we understand those forces we can begin to make better choices not just about how we live our own lives, but how we order our societies.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I never really chose to become a historian. It was more an accumulation of smaller decisions that led me in this direction: the decision to add a history major to my philosophy major as an undergrad, the decision to study abroad in Dublin my junior year, the decision to apply directly to PhD programs rather than getting a Master’s first, and so on. At a certain point I was so far along the road that I was incapable of imagining what else I would do with my life, and I also found that I was pretty good at it and mostly enjoyed it, and so here I am. It sounds trite to say “I didn’t choose history. History chose me,” but I suppose it’s sort of true. At a more fundamental level, though, I suppose I gravitated toward history because I liked hearing stories about people and places beyond my own experience, and that remains my primary motivation today. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Curiosity, empathy, and a commitment to evidence-based, rational argument. It helps to have a bit of imagination, too. In a way, being a historian is like being a novelist: you have to imagine your way into lives that are very different than yours in order to come up with plausible explanations for why things happen the way they do. Unlike novelists, however, we’re required to root our imaginings in the available evidence: the art of history is essentially trying to get that equation right.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

It’s difficult to name a single teacher. The best teachers I’ve had, whether in history or something else, have all been good storytellers. I’m a frequent practitioner of abstract thought and advocate for big ideas, but the most effective entry point into any topic – before you get to the abstractions and ideas – is a good story that’s capable of eliciting an emotional response. As an undergrad at Tulane University I had a professor, Sam Ramer, who would tell the most outlandish (but true!) stories about Russian history, and I can remember laughing and shaking my head in wonder that such things ever really happened. It was almost enough to get me to adopt a Russian studies major, until Dr. Ramer persuaded me that my ignorance of the Russian language and impending departure for a year in Dublin might make it hard to fulfill the requirements. Fortunately, as it turned out, outlandish true stories aren’t confined to Russian history: Dr. Ramer was just unusually good at telling them.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Many of my students, particularly at the survey level, come to history with a negative preconception about the discipline. In their high school experience history was mostly about memorizing dry facts (names, dates, etc.) in preparation for a standardized test, and they often don’t think of it as a subject devoted to argumentation, one in which the questions are as important as the answers. My most rewarding teaching moments come when a student tells me – or, better, inadvertently shows me – that my class has changed the way they think about history. I don’t need to convert all of my students into history majors, but I do want all of my students to develop certain habits of mind that they can apply to all realms of their lives: critically assessing information, considering multiple points of view, grasping the provisional nature of historical (and many other kinds of) knowledge, finding ways to articulate their ideas with clarity and precision. These habits might show up in their coursework, but I also see it when a student has a revelation in class (one student realized, in the midst of a discussion about 20th-century fundamentalism, that she had been raised by fundamentalists), when students cluster in the hallway to further debate something we were talking about in class, or when a previously reticent student begins to find her voice. These are the moments that make the job worthwhile.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

As I hinted earlier, I think historians have an important role to play in confronting the various crises we face at the moment. The chief crisis is climate change, and so we obviously need to be doing lots of environmental and climate-related history, but this is a problem whose impacts go well beyond weather, ecology, or the natural world. Migration (and attendant racism and xenophobia), resource scarcity, traumatic economic restructuring, public health crises, civil wars, interstate violence – the knock-on social effects of climate change will be massive, and many are already getting underway. All of these processes have their own history, and my hope is that historians will use their expertise in these matters to help our societies respond in humane, nuanced, and evidence-based ways to the crises that are coming.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I don’t deliberately collect old books or objects, but in this job it’s hard to avoid accumulating large quantities of both. Most of my recent acquisitions relate to a book I’ve just written about the English rock band the Kinks. Without really intending to, I’ve ended up with quite a few magazine clippings, records, and ephemera related to the band. My favorite is a small doll of Ray Davies, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, that my wife gave me a couple of years ago. He’s smirking at me from a bookcase as I type this, in fact, probably wondering why I haven’t corrected the page proofs yet.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

The most rewarding aspects are related to teaching, although the opportunities for travel have also been invaluable. The most frustrating aspects are the things that most humanities academics complain about, I suppose: a devaluing of our work in the public discourse, lack of government support for our work, the casualization of the professoriate and disappearance of good tenure-track jobs, expanding administrative duties that keep us from performing our core functions. On the whole, however, I feel tremendously fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to indulge my curiosity and share my enthusiasms with captive audiences.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

I think we’ve become much more aware of how our work impacts the public. For all sorts of reasons – economic, political, demographic – we’re under growing pressure to justify our existence, and this has given rise to more public history programs, more outreach via websites and social media, more interventions in political debates, more efforts to communicate our research to people beyond the academy. On the whole I think this is a good thing, although too much emphasis on the impact or utility of historical scholarship can leave little space for the exploration of esoteric topics for their own sake, and I would like there to be continued space for that. I don’t want historians to be judged simply by their “outputs” or history departments to be valued simply for their ability to get their students jobs, and this tends to be the default position of university administrators and legislatures. The challenge is to define for ourselves the value of our discipline and then communicate that to the wider public, and on the whole I think we’re better at that now than when I started down this path twenty years ago.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I’ll go with Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

In my research methods class I tell my students to think of history not as something that you learn but as something that you do. That section of the class is called “History is a verb,” so I’ll claim that as my own history aphorism.

What are you doing next?

This summer I’m writing an article about several tours of Ireland by the African-American choral group the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. This is an offshoot of a larger project, which may become a book or may become something else, about African and Asian migrants/immigrants to Ireland in the nineteenth century. They were there, but very few historians have thought to look for them. As Ireland becomes ever more multicultural, it’s important to know more about the history of migration into the country, particularly by people of color, and of the ways mainstream Irish society regarded outsiders in their midst.