What I’m Reading: An Interview With Russianist Historian Katherine Antonova

tags: interviews, Russia, Russian history, Katherine Antonova

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Katherine Pickering Antonova is Associate Professor of History at the City University of New York, Queens College. She is the author of An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Essential Guide to Writing History for Students (Oxford University Press, 2019) as well as A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet (Amazon, 2016).


What books are you reading now?


Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia by Susan Smith-Peter, which I’m reviewing, and I’m also enjoying Naomi Novik’s new novel Spinning Silver


What is your favorite history book?


Books that had the biggest impact on me were Barbara Alpern Engel’s Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. There are so many others I’ve loved for other reasons: some that may not be familiar include Loren Graham’s Ghost of an Executed Engineer, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Stalin’s Peasants, and the new biography of Rasputin by Douglas Smith. Everyone should read the gutting new book by my colleague, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, and a very different but equally great new book by another colleague, Julia Sneeringer’s A Social History of Early Rock ‘n’ Roll in Germany: Hamburg from Burlesque to the Beatles, 1956-69.


Why did you choose history as your career?


I usually say it’s because I like to read other people’s diaries, and it’s true: I love reading primary sources, preferably the originals, in an archive where you can feel the texture of the paper and spot the occasional hundred-year-old dead bug still stuck to the page. As a kid I always read history and historical fiction for fun. About a year into college I realized that if I majored in history, my fun reading could also be my required reading. It was a couple of years after that before I really learned what a historian actually is. When I was growing up, people who liked history became k-12 teachers and the only other kinds of professionals people associated with history were archeologists, geneologists, or writers (I didn’t like science or family trees and writers starve or live off trust funds, as I was told at the time). I didn’t encounter any clear sense of what academic historical research looks like until late in college when the secondary sources we were reading were connected to stories of the archives told by my profs – most notably Sheila Fitzpatrick, who was one of the early western researchers in Soviet archives and has some very good stories to tell. 


What qualities do you need to be a historian?


This is such a great question because I think there’s a popular perception that all a historian really needs is a great memory for names and dates, which is of course not remotely true. Some might go a bit farther and wish that historians were also “good writers.” But scholarship that can be vetted and built on by other scholars can’t be written the same way as historical fiction or popular history intended for pleasure reading, though of course it should be well-written for its purpose. It’s difficult to articulate a historian’s qualities because I think we rarely try. A historian looks at the world as continuously changing, not as a separate “past” that to many people can feel as remote as fiction. A historian sees what happened in the past not as a set story, but as disparate bits of evidence that might or might not cohere enough to answer our questions. A historian sees each event or action or phenomenon as contingent: no outcome was inevitable, every factor depended on other related factors. Our important questions are not “what happened” – that’s just a means to an end -- but always “why” and “how”: why did things go this way and not that way, how do systems and processes and ideas work and do they vary depending on different contexts? Being a good historian is about being meticulous with details, like names and dates, sure, but also much more important details like the nuances of meaning in a text, the shifting perspectives of multiple narratives, the interactions of multiple causal forces, and the infinite ways that context affects people’s behavior and views. A good historian doesn’t just find, track, organize, and weigh all these many factors in a infinitely complex system with imperfect evidence. She also synthesizes all of it to figure how what it might mean: what questions it can answer, with what implications. And we have to do all that while vetting and citing every source and constantly checking ourselves for errors of logic or bias, so that our work can serve its purpose as the foundation of further research, as a reliable teaching tool, and as a reliable basis for all the other kinds of history that rest wholly or partly on scholarship: fiction, popular history, and public history.


Who was your favorite history teacher?


I was incredibly lucky to study with Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the great historians of the Soviet Union, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the mid-90s. I actually had no idea how important her work was until I was about to finish and a grad student clued me in. I only found out in retrospect that a lot of the readings she assigned were by people who virulently disagreed with her. She led her own discussion sections, where she walked us through making our own interpretations of primary sources. She modeled what historians do and helped us try it out, and that ultimately is what all the best history teachers do.


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


My university introduced a new general education program that added to the typical “freshman comp” introductory writing course a second semester of writing instruction that was explicitly disciplinary. I developed the version of the course for history at my college, taught many sections of it over several years, and ultimately brought this together with my grad school training in Composition Studies to write a manual for students on how to write history essays – not just the typical research essay (which is now often assigned only toward the end of an undergraduate program) but the other common kinds of history writing, from primary source close-readings to exam essays and imaginative projects like role-playing games and historical fiction. In many ways it’s the culmination of a journey I started as a grad student with a fellowship in the University Writing program -- I found ways to answer questions that have bothered me from the first baby steps of my career. Students led me to those answers because this course gave us the time to explore the meta questions like “why are we here?” “what is this for?” and “can this be better?”


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?


I’m very glad to see, and be a part of, efforts to get much better at articulating what historians do and why it matters. The American Historical Association has taken the lead with this through their Tuning Project, but we’re also seeing a new generation of historians who came through grad school at a time when training in pedagogy and composition studies were finally beginning to be recognized in places like history Ph.D. programs. I was trained in composition studies as part of a fellowship to teach a year of freshman comp, and it completely changed the way I approach teaching. At the same time my university instituted its first formal teaching training programs for grad students, which I took part in. Those experiences opened the door for me to a whole world of evidence-based problem-solving and purpose-driven teaching. Earlier generations were often left to either continue what was “traditional” or reinvent the wheel on their own. Now there are a lot more people who got at least some teaching training, and there’s much greater access to conversations about teaching via blogs and Twitter and so on, and all of that is gradually having a very positive impact on how history is taught, which in turn is helping historians be more articulate in general about what we do. I hope it is also the beginning of a substantive course correction in how the public understands what history is all about. But we’re doing all this in an environment of crippling austerity and short attention spans, so my hope is qualified by quite a bit of anxiety that things may just keep getting worse despite everyone’s efforts. 


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


Ha! I don’t get paid enough for that. I have some trinkets from having spent a lot of time in Russia on research trips, but nothing valuable. My favorite souvenir other than the deck of cards with the Romanovs on them is a pair of thick, felted mittens with tiny holes in the pad of the forefinger and thumb to make it just possible to hold a pen. I made them for working in the archive in Ivanovo where I spent 10 months researching my dissertation. Archivists keep the building chilly partly for preservation, partly from lack of funding, but after sitting still for hours day after day in the reading room the cold seeps into your bones. It’s worth it to read other people’s diaries, though. 


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


As one of the incredibly lucky few who got a tenure-track job (just before the 2008 crash obliterated the market), I’m very aware of the incredible privilege of being able to teach with the speech protections afforded by tenure, not to mention the steady salary even though it’s low and the workload is ridiculous – at least I don’t have to teach this many or more courses at several different campuses for a fraction of the money! This means I am able to mostly focus on my teaching, research, and professional service, which is what I’m good at and worked so hard for for so many years. This is fulfilling work, and though I work all the time, I can do it with a pretty extraordinary degree of flexibility and autonomy and I know how rare and valuable that is. 


The most frustrating thing is how few qualified, brilliant historians share my luck, and the unspeakable loss to society of so much knowledge and talent being thrown away by the adjunctification process that exploits people as long as possible until they leave the system. The stupidity and waste of it horrifies me. Similarly, the pervasive myths about what higher ed and the humanities are, how they work, and the value we bring to society are really frustrating, not least because these myths are deliberately perpetuated as a way of continuing this process of taking all the money out of public education and putting it in the pockets of private companies and their executives. It’s a looting process that’s happening throughout our society, though – not specific to public education, though we’re a relatively easy target because everyone has at least one teacher they’re still angry about, and it’s easy to exploit those feelings. At the same time, we’re a valuable target because we actually do have such a big impact on society that knocking us down a few pegs really disrupts the whole system. 


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


The whole climate of education has changed so much in my lifetime – the loss of funding and public support for education, particularly in the humanities, the rise of testing culture in k-12 schools, the adjunctification and commodification of higher ed, and the resulting crises in tuition/indebtedness and textbook costs, faculty security, workload, and pay, and the impact of all those crises on what anyone can do in a classroom – have been so huge that sometimes it’s hard to remember to look at the relatively smaller changes within my discipline or field. Historical research has been greatly enriched in the past few decades by increased diversity in who can do history and how we do it and the kinds of questions we ask. But all that progress is now at risk because of these outside pressures, and much of the great recent work historians have done doesn’t ever really reach the public thanks to the defunding and privatization of academic publishing alongside the limitations on everyone’s attention. 


In my own subfield of imperial Russia, I’ve seen tremendous new insights thanks to a generation of archive-based work in the wake of the Cold War. Most people are aware that the collapse of the Soviet Union opened archives and enriched the study of that period, but it has a huge impact on the study of Russia before 1917, also, and on our whole conceptualizion of the Russian empire as a continuous entity before and after that date. For example, our understanding of regional diversity and the importance of developments outside the capital cities is only just beginning to inform the broader narrative – that’s one of the contributions of the book by Susan Smith-Peter that I mentioned above.  



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


I love the Lamartine quote, “History teaches everything, including the future.”


What are you doing next?


This fall I’m hoping to finish the research for my second monograph, which centers on Russian police investigations of women mystics and sectarians in the 1820s and 30s. I’m also developing another book project about writing, with a different focus and working with a co-author. 

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