Historians, Sons, Daughters

A panel of parents and children in the same academic discipline consider their field and their generations.
January 12, 2010

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.

Some of the changes reflected on the panel -- most notably about opportunities for women -- were viewed by all as advances. The women on the panel who were from the parent generation spoke of facing overt sexism and of regularly being the only woman in the room during their graduate educations.

The one couple on the panel -- Elisabeth Perry and Lewis Perry, both of Saint Louis University -- noted that when they started their careers, not only were departments not engaged in helping dual career couples, but they were hostile to them. Nepotism rules were defined in ways that made it difficult for them to find work together. (David Perry, their son and a historian at Dominican University, quipped that watching their difficulty led him to adopt a rule in graduate school of never dating a fellow student.)

But the panelists weren’t sure about some of the other changes in higher education, with several worried about the future of public higher education, and some questioning recent trends in scholarship.

Jerrold Seigel of New York University talked a bit wistfully about his perspective as a member of what Carolyn Walker-Bynum called “the last Eurocentric generation” and how that influenced his approach to the field. His first political memory is Pearl Harbor, when he was 5, and his interest in current affairs led him to European history. That early life experience also gave him a sense that much of history was about “moral issues” and that he could take pride in the United States.

As a result, while he joined in the protests against the Vietnam War, he never could share the views entirely of the scholars for whom that war -- rather than World War II -- was the formative event. “I couldn’t believe that my country was an evil country,” he said. “I could believe that it did evil things, but couldn’t believe it was an evil country.”

Similarly, he said he has never entirely embraced the shift away from the nation-state as a key framing tool for history toward an emphasis on "identity."

When he was a graduate student, Seigel said, there was no such thing as ethnic studies or gender studies or cultural studies or Atlantic studies. But for a talented student, there were jobs. He said he worries about the impact of change on the current generation. “For us, the opportunities were more ample and the bibliography was more narrow.”

Micol Seigel, his daughter, has embraced the expanded bibliography. She is an assistant professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, where she teaches African American, diaspora and American studies.

She said she enjoys telephone debates with her father on their approaches, given that her work is in all of those fields and ideas that he noted didn’t exist when he started out. “I’m very interested in transnational methods and my father is completely committed to national historiographies,” she said.

Her father teases her, she noted, by calling Foucault “one of your friends.”

Changes in Scope and Style

Research by Adam Davis may also suggest a shift away from history focused on grand themes and politics and power and a willingness to take more of a micro approach. He is currently writing a book about the development of hospitals in 12th and 13th century northern France. “It would never occur to me to write a book like my father wrote in 1966 on slavery in Western culture.”

Shifts are also clear in teaching. David Brion Davis recalled lectures as the highlight of his college years as a student, relishing the new knowledge he gained, and he is proud of his lectures as a professor, but worries that students today may not be patient enough for lecture.

David Brion Davis and Adam Davis

In this case, father and son share values. Adam said that while he uses video clips and images in ways that wouldn’t have been the norm for his father’s generation, he is worried about “course evaluation culture,” which “I fear has made us worry too much about whether our students … find us sufficiently entertaining."

Audience members were most moved perhaps by the reminders from the senior women on the stage about how academe (however imperfect it remains on issues of gender equity) has moved dramatically in their generation.

Bonnie Ford, a retired history professor at Sacramento City College, described applying to a doctoral program in history at the University of California at Davis and being rejected with a note that referenced her status as a wife and mother (she'd had her daughter a year earlier). The note said: "Ph.D.'s are not for bored housewives." She didn't take no for an answer and eventually earned her Ph.D. from Davis (in a program with much changed attitudes) the year before her daughter graduated from high school.

In her career, Ford said, noting that this was typical of many women of her generation, "much of my work was on the ground, not in the academy." She helped create the women's studies program and the women's center at the college, mixing administrative responsibilities with teaching.

Bridget Ford, an assistant professor of history at California State University-East Bay, said that as a high school student "my mother's doctorate was a blessing and a curse," and that she was very conscious that "my family was very different from my friends' families." When she ended up enrolling in a Ph.D. program -- also at Davis -- eight years after her mother earned her doctorate, Bridget said that some suggested of the choice, "how unoriginal, how provincial." But Bridget said that if they had been father and son with Harvard doctorates "people wouldn't have questioned it." (Bridget's faculty biography on her department's Web site begins by saying: "Inspired by her mother....")

Bridget noted that she does not face constantly the overt sexism that her mother encountered. But today, as a mother to a small child, and "seeking tenure in a profession that is still deeply masculinized with the assumption that someone else will be taking care of" her child, she sees other challenges for women. While the teen Bridget saw her mother as "non-traditional," her mother, now in a more traditional role, provides the childcare support Bridget needs to advance her career.

Parental expectations also have changed over the years. While the women of the younger generation on the panel didn't say they were placed on a pre-historian track, they all were clearly encouraged to aim high academically.

Judith W. Leavitt, who was on the panel as a parent and is a professor of the history of medicine, history of science and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, described different messages she received as she went off to college. Her parents told her to "be sure you learn how to type and get your credentials as a teacher because if you don't get married, that's what you'll be."

Leavitt, who said of her graduate university that she "never took a seminar at the University of Chicago in which I was not the only woman in the room," also was quick to say that she didn't plot for her daughter to become a historian. She said that with her son and daughter, "my biggest worry was that they might not be feminists," not that they might not be historians. She didn't have to worry in either case. Sarah Leavitt, Judith's daughter, is a historian at the National Building Museum.

One audience question was about whether becoming a historian was inevitable for the children on the panel. And while many of them said that they did feel drawn to history, they noted that their siblings didn't necessarily agree. Adam Davis recalled talking about his tenure bid with his younger brother, who is in the business world, not academe. During the conversation, Adam said, he realized that his younger brother -- despite growing up in the same house, with the same discussions about history and faculty life -- had no clue that tenure was an "up or out" decision. Others on the panel as well said that their siblings didn't necessarily make the same choices.

The session was organized by Dan Horowitz, a professor of history at Smith College, and his daughter, Sarah Horowitz, an assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University. (Sarah's mother is also an academic: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, a professor of American studies at Smith.) Sarah was unable to attend due to a last-minute injury, but her father said that one of the things that most struck him was the changing nature of higher education for the two generations on the panel.

Horowitz said that for him and for his wife, undergraduate education was "powerfully transformative" in exposing them to intellectual possibilities. Their daughter (and many of the other younger generation of historians on the panel) went off to college with "much more cultural capital." So graduate education appeared to be a more powerful influence on the second generation than the first.

Several of the panelists considered whether academe generally, and the life of the mind in the humanities in particular, are as open to newcomers today as they were when the parent generation on the panel started. In introducing the session, Horowitz noted that while there are some multi-generational historian families who are from minority groups, their numbers are so small (given the limited opportunities available in his generation) that he wasn't able to find any who could attend.

Micol Seigel, who noted that her father's friends were "rocks" of support for her career, said that the panelists should be troubled by the question of whether they had advantages because of their parents -- and that others didn't have such doors opened. She said that perhaps her generation of historians should feel "a particularly acute responsibility to widen the field."

Vernon Burton, who is a professor of Southern history at Coastal Carolina University, recalled coming to graduate school at Princeton University, and the huge jump this was for someone whose parents didn't finish high school. He recalled being asked by a professor in a first seminar where he was from: "I said Furman University, and he said 'Where is that?' and I said 'Greenville' and he said 'Where is that?' and I said 'South Carolina' and he said 'Where is that?' "

Even if he was a curiosity for not having a blue-blooded background, Burton said he was able to make it there -- and his Furman professors encouraged him to go. While Beatrice Burton, his daughter, is going into history (she's in the fifth year of a doctoral program at the University of Georgia), she had the benefit of growing up in an academic environment. For those who don't have that benefit, Burton said, "Where are the opportunities?"

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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